Chapter 19. "Human Beings are Determined" by Baruch Spinoza

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from The Ethics
The Reading Selection from The Ethics
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

Spinoza, Thoemmes

About the author…

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was born in Amsterdam to parents who had fled from the Spanish Inquisition and sought refuge in the Netherlands. His study of Descartes and Hobbes led his philosophical views away from orthodox Jewish philosophy; subsequently, he was excommunicated from the Jewish community. In the years thereafter, he skillfully crafted optical lenses for a living while dedicating his life to render clearly his philosophy by the geometrical method of proof. Unfortunately, his strict deductive writing style, although perhaps the clearest method of logical exposition at the time, remains to us somewhat stiff and formal. When Spinoza was offered a teaching position at Heidelberg, he wrote, "I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace." Spinoza is best read only one sentence at a time; otherwise, the depth of this thought can easily be overlooked. Somewhat dismissively, Novalis once characterized Spinoza as "a God-intoxicated man."

About the work…

Sometime after his sentence of excommunication Spinoza began working of the ideas which would eventually be published as The Ethics,[1] a book published posthumously from the fear of persecution from the charge of the blasphemy of pantheism.[2] Pantheism should be distinguished from "panentheism" which is the view that gods are in all things. Spinoza believed, much as Socrates believed, the excellent life is the life of reason in the service of one's own being. The soul seeks knowledge as a good; indeed, the soul's highest good is knowledge of God. Spinoza argues that the mind and the body are, in reality, only one thing but can be thought of in two different ways. The person who understands how the soul is part of the system of nature also understands, at the same time, how the soul is part of God. In sum, Spinoza's monism[3] is the deductive exposition of existence as the complete unity of God and nature. According to this view, human beings have no free will, and the world cannot be evil.

Ideas of Interest from The Ethics

  1. Explain as clearly as possible Spinoza's two objections to the belief that human behavior is the result of the free will of the mind.

  2. What counter-objection does Spinoza raise against his view that mental and physical states are merely coincidental and the mind neither controls the body nor controls events in the physical world?

  3. How does Spinoza define "decision" from the standpoint of thought, and how does he define it from the standpoint of extension?[4]

  4. According to Spinoza, why do many persons believe human beings have free will? How can we become conscious or discover the causes of our decisions and the unconscious "appetites" upon which they depend?



Baruch Spinoza. The Ethics: Demonstrated in Geometric Order. Translated by R.H.M. Elwes. 1883. Part III: On the Origin and the Nature of the Emotions—Note to Proposition 2.


Pantheism is the doctrine that God is identical with all existing things. Often the view derives from spiritual motives, but a monist could be a strict materialist or a strict idealist.


Monism is the doctrine that reality can only be the modifications deriving from one kind of subsistent entity. Often the view derives from spiritual motives, but a monist could be a strict materialist or a strict idealist. For Spinoza, everything that exists is both God and the system of nature, and the implicit pantheism (and the consequent threat of blasphemy) of this view provide one reason why his works were published posthumously.


"Extension" can be thought of as the essence of matter. The most important quality of bodies or physical or material substances are that they are extended, i.e., materially or physically existent things take up space. Height, width, and depth are essential to physical existence.