23 Nov 2008

The Spinoza - Blyenbergh Correspondences, Letters XVIII to XXIV, summarized

by Corry Shores
[Search Blog Here. Index-tags are found on the bottom of the left column.]

[Central Entry Directory]
[Spinoza Entry Directory]
[Below is summary. At the end I present the original texts.]

Letter XVIII, Blyenbergh to Spinoza:

Bylenbergh has questions regarding Spinoza's Principles of Cartesian Philosophy. Spinoza claims here that creation and preservation are the same thing, and that God both creates substances along with the motions within it; that is to say, God "not only preserves substances in their state by a continuous creation but also their motion and their striving" (129cd). Thus specifically, God not only creates the substance of the mind, but also its striving or motion, which is our will. But, Bylenbergh concludes, either God is responsible for causing our wills to choose evil, or there is no evil at all, given that God is responsible for the creation and motion of the will. Therefore, Bylenbergh continues, when Adam willed to eat the apple, God was responsible, because he created Adam's will and directs how Adam uses his will. Also, God knows everything from eternity, so he must have decreed in advance the causes that lead us to will evil.

Letter XIX, Spinoza to Blyenbergh:

Spinoza writes that Blyenbergh does not clarify what he means by "evil," but from his Adam example it seems he means evil to mean "the will itself in so far as it is conceived as determined in a particular way, or in so far as it is in opposition to God's command" (132-133). Thus from this definition, we come to the absurd conclusion that either "God himself brings to pass what is contrary to his will, or else that what is opposed to God's will can nevertheless be good" (133a). Spinoza's contention is that sin is not positive, and that we are not speaking properly when we say that we sin against God.

Everything possesses a degree of perfection that is co-extensive with its essence. So Adam's determinate will to eat the apple, when considered by itself, does not lack in perfection, because such a lack is only ascertained when compared with something more perfect. And in fact, this act is also more perfect than things like stones and logs. And because sin expresses imperfection, then Adam's eating the apple cannot be a sin, for this act expresses reality.

Also, nothing can be against God's will, because God's will is his intellect, and when something is against God's intellect, it is an impossibility, like a round square. Thus God was the cause of Adam's disobedience; yet, God is not the cause of the evil of that act, because the evil came about afterward through the punishment which subtracted from Adam's more perfect state.

We consider something to have a privation if it lacks the properties we ascribe to its genus in the definition, but so long as we do not refer the individual to the genus, we cannot say it lacks anything.

Now God does not know things in abstraction, nor does he formulate general definitions of that sort, and things possess no more reality than that with which God's intellect and potency have endowed them, and which he has assigned to them in actual fact. From this it clearly follows that the privation in question is a term applicable in respect of our intellect only, and not of God's.

Scripture says that men must turn from their evil ways, because it must communicate in a simpler way so that is understood by common people.

God commanded Adam not to eat the apple, because it would bring his demise, just as poison would. God tells him this to make his knowledge more perfect.

Also, even though the wicked carry out God's will (by not being contrary to his will, since nothing can be), that does not make their actions good; "for the more perfection a thing has, the more it participates in Deity, and the more it expresses God's perfection" (135d). So because "the good have incomparably more perfection than the wicked, their virtue cannot be compared with the virtue of the wicked" (136a).

Letter XX, Blyenbergh to Spinoza:

Blyenbergh explains that when his mind comes to conclude something contrary to the Bible, then he chooses to reconsider his reasoning because he believes God's Word to be truth.

Blyenbergh points to Spinoza's claims that sins are not positive, that we cannot sin against God, and that there is no absolute evil, and Blyenbergh concludes that Spinoza must mean that "sins, inasmuch as they denote nothing but imperfections, cannot consist in anything that expresses essence" (138c). But, he wonders, "if nothing comes to pass contrary to God's will, and if what comes to pass is governed by the amount of essence granted, in what conceivable way can there be evil, which you call privation of a better state?" (139a). Then he asks specifically whether someone is evil whose follies decrease his perfection.

Blyenbergh notes that for Spinoza, an action is evil only in our own intellect; and he proceeds to analyze Spinoza's notion of evil.

It cannot be that one is created evil, because we cannot expect God to have created us more perfectly. So if one is evil, one brings it upon oneself. But how can God both at the same time determine our perfection through creation while at the same time giving our will the freedom to determine its own perfection? And if God gives us the power to obey his orders, then why would we not do so? Also, if God gives me enough essence so that I do not avoid evil, then how could I have the freedom to choose evil? And how can we depend on God for the state of our perfection while also through that dependence we commit an act that decreases our perfection? Thus evil cannot be a negation of God, because then he would be self-negating. When I cheat on my wife, God must have known that it was wrong to do, and likewise with murder. So how can these actions not be evil? If they are not evil, then what is evil?

And both the wicked man and the good man were given essences with degrees of perfection, so neither can be blamed or credited for their actions. And also, God gives us so much perfection, so how can it be that we gain perfection when we do good, because would we not have needed already that extra perfection in order to have done good in the first place?

Also, if our perfections are predetermined and unchangeable, then we have no need for religion, whose purpose is to help us increase our perfection. And if God does not have knowledge of evil, then he cannot punish us for evil, so we would then be free to use terrible ways to enrich ourselves, like killing others.

Blyenbergh disagrees with Spinoza's claim that our intellect has the power to control our will and judgment, for there is no one who has ever exercised such perfect control. He also cannot agree that it is better to take up a confused idea than remain indifferent, because making decisions exercises our power and will. Blyenbergh objects that being indifferent is how God created us, and making decisions using confused ideas can lead to error.

Blyenbergh sticks with Scripture, because God must speak the truth, and he surely is capable of transmitting it accurately to the prophets. So Blyenbergh is inclined to doubt Spinoza when he contradicts Scripture, as for example in his claim that God tells Adam not to eat the fruit because it causes death, like a poison would. Blyenbergh is uplifted by scripture, so he should contemplate it instead of philosophical argument. He wants his certainty to come from God, and not from abstract thinking.

Letter XXI, Spinoza to Blyenbergh:

Spinoza says that if Scripture speaks more luminously to him than the light of reason, then stick with Scripture and not argue these points. Spinoza does not understand Scripture, which is why he uses reason to understand.

Spinoza takes issue with certain points that Blyenbergh attributed to him, for example, that our works are displeasing to God, because Spinoza holds that worshiping God leads to an increase in our perfection.

Their disagreement lies in this point alone:

are there perfections received by the good imparted to them by God in his capacity as God, that is, by God taken absolutely without ascribing any human attributes to him -- this is the view I hold -- or by God in his capacity to judge? The latter is what you maintain, and for this reason you take the line that the wicked, because they do whatever they can in accordance with God's decree, serve God no less than the good serve him.

Spinoza does not take God to be a judge, so our actions depends on their intrinsic quality of the deeds and not on the potency of the doer. And thus the reward for doing good follows by causal necessity just as does it follow from the nature of a triangle that its angles equal two right angles.

Spinoza then elaborates the notions of privation and negation.

privation is not an act of depriving; it is nothing more than simply a state of want, which in itself is nothing. It is only a construct of the mind or a mode of thinking which we form from comparing things with one another.

For example, the blind man is deprived of sight only when we compare him to those who can see. But God did not deprive him of sight any more than he deprived the stone of sight. The man has a privation of sight, because we judge that he should have it, but the blindness of the stone is a negation, because we do not judge stones to have sight.

Thus Adam's desire for earthly things was evil only to our intellect, and not to God's intellect, because God did not think Adam should be otherwise than he was.

Also, Spinoza says that neither he nor Descartes holds that it is in our nature for our intellects to restrain our will; rather he claims that God has given us a determinate intellect and an indeterminate will, and we do not know what purpose should guide our actions.

And freedom for Descartes does not result from contingency or indifference, but from a "mode of affirmation and denial, so that the less indifference there is in our affirmation or denial, the more we are free" (155). We are not free when we affirm that a triangle's angles equal two right angles, because that follows from its nature (definition). God decrees this necessity. But when we assert something which we do not perceive clearly and distinctly (an inadequate idea), then our wills go beyond our intellects, and then we cannot perceive the necessity that God decrees for such ideas. However, making such an affirmation demonstrates the freedom of our wills. If we are always trying to be free while also affirming only God's decreed necessities (adequate ideas), we will fail, because God's creation is continuous, and hence we do not perceive things in their full entirety; and also our intellects are finite modes, so they do not frequently have adequate ideas.

Spinoza differs slightly with Descartes.

Spinoza says that things' dependence on God attests to their perfection, so the fact that humans depend on God for their existence does not reduce them to the level of rocks and plants.

And just because God does not punish our actions does not mean we do not have a deterrent from doing wrong, because we can choose good out of our love and knowledge of God.

Regarding Spinoza's contradictions with Scripture, he notes that most theologians realize that Scripture speaks in parables and depicts God as though he were a human. But this does not make them false, because we can tell truth through parables. But these truths that Scripture teach are not of the highest sophistication of speculative thought, so Spinoza does not turn to them for philosophical answers.

Letter XXII, Blyenbergh to Spinoza:

Blyenbergh writes that because we cannot judge the perfection of an essence based on the way it was or will be, then "nothing else pertains to an essence than that which it possesses at the moment it is perceived" (160). But because God governs how much perfection our essence has at any moment, he must then desire we do wrong those times we err; while at the same time, he wills that others have greater perfection, which leads to the absurdity that God both wills villainy and virtue at the same time.

Also, piety is serving God, which is carrying out the actions God wills us to have, but also, when we act impiously, we are still carrying out the actions God wills us to commit.

Blyenbergh is confused by what Spinoza means when he says that the pious continually become more perfect by acting in God's service. What does Spinoza mean by "becoming more perfect" and "continually becoming more perfect?"

For the impious and the pious both receive their essence, and likewise their preservation or continual creation of their essence, from God as God, not as judge, and both fulfill God's will in the same way, that is, in accordance with God's decree.

So then, Blyenbergh asks, what is the difference between acting piously and impiously if both actions are in accordance with God's will?

For the "continually becoming more perfect" derives not from their actions but from the will of God. So if the impious through their actions become more imperfect, this derives not from their actions but only from the will of God; and both only carry out God's will.

Blyenbergh also wonders that if an action's wrongness is merely the judgment made by our intellects and not by God's intellect, then how can we say that murdering is truly wrong? Thus also, how can Spinoza say that we do good out of virtue, when there is no real virtue outside our intellect's assessments. Spinoza's writings indicate that we shun and call things wicked because they are opposed to our particular natures, and not because they are wrong in themselves. "You avoid them just as we avoid food that we find disgusting. Surely he who avoids evil things just because they are repugnant to his nature can take little pride in his virtue" (163a). It is also unclear what Spinoza means when he writes that certain actions lead us astray from the love of God; for, we are supposedly dependent on God, who would not lead things astray from himself.

Blyenbergh finally has three questions:
1) Do intelligent substances depend on God in a way different from lifeless substances?
2) If the soul is not free in the way Descartes claims it, then what is the difference between the dependence of intelligent substances and that of soulless substances?
3) If our soul does not have this freedom, would our actions not then be God's actions, and our will God's will?

Letter XXIII, Spinoza to Blyenbergh:

When God causes something to be, he causes it to have an essence. Evil and error do not express essence, so God is not their cause. For example, both Nero and Orestes had the intentions to commit matricide and successfully did so. Nero is blamed more, because he was devoid of gratitude, compassion, and obedience. So God caused Nero to have the intention to commit the act and to actually do it, but God did not cause his lack of gratitude, compassion, and obedience.

Theology often speaks of God as a man, and so it describes Him as desiring this or that. But philosophy conceives God more abstractly, and thus does not ascribe human attributes to God.

The actions of the pious (who have a clear idea of God which guides their actions), the actions of impious (who have no idea of God but rather only confused ideas of earthly things that guide their actions), and the actions of all existing things whatever, all follow necessarily from God's eternal laws and decrees, and constantly depend on God. However, all actions differ from each other "not only in degree but in essence" (167a).

When someone does actions we deem good, we cannot know why God moved him to do so. For one reason or another, God chooses to cause some men to do actions we deem good, and this is beyond our power of understanding.

Letter XXIV, Blyenbergh to Spinoza:

In this letter, Blyenbergh returns to many of his questions, for example, "is there in reality such a thing as error, and wherein does it consist?" and "in what way do you maintain that the will is not free?" Spinoza does not reply to this letter, so the details are inconsequential.

Original text of the public domain Elwes translation of some of these Letters, presented with deepest gratitude to sacred-texts.com, and with all due credit, and highest recommendations:



Unknown Friend and Sir,—I have already read several times with attention your treatise and its appendix recently published. I should narrate to others more becomingly than to yourself the extreme solidity I found in it, and the pleasure with which I perused it. But I am unable to conceal my feelings from you, because the more frequently I study the work with attention, the more it pleases me, and I am constantly observing something which I had not before remarked. However, I will not too loudly extol its author, lest I should seem in this letter to be a flatterer. I am aware that the gods grant all things to labour. Not to detain you too long with wondering who I ay be, and how it comes to pass that one unknown to you takes the great liberty of writing to you, I will tell you that he is a man who is impelled by his longing for pure and unadulterated truth, and desires during this brief and frail life to fix his feet in the ways of science, so far as our human faculties will allow; one who in the pursuit of truth has no goal before his eyes save truth herself; one who by his science seeks to obtain as the result of truth neither honour nor riches, but simple truth and tranquillity; one who, out of the whole circle of truths and sciences, takes delight in none more than in metaphysics, if not in all branches at any rate in some; one who places the whole delight of his life in the fact, that he can pass in the study of them his hours of ease and leisure. But no one, I rest assured, is so blessed as yourself, no one has carried his studies so far, and therefore no one has arrived at the pitch of perfection which, as I see from your work, you have attained. To add a last word, the present writer is one with whom you may gain a closer acquaintance, if you choose to attach him to you by enlightening and interpenetrating, as it were, his halting meditations.

But I return to your treatise. While I found in it many things which tickled my palate vastly, some of them proved difficult to digest. Perhaps a stranger ought not to report to you his objections, the more so as I know not whether they will meet with your approval. This is the reason for my making these prefatory remarks, and asking you, if you can find leisure in the winter evenings, and, at the same time, will be willing to answer the difficulties which I still find in your book, and to forward me the result, always under the condition that it does not interrupt any occupation of greater importance or pleasure; for I desire nothing more earnestly than to see the promise made in your book fulfilled by a more detailed exposition of your opinions. I should have communicated to you by word of mouth what I now commit to paper; but my ignorance of your address, the infectious disease, 1 and my duties here, prevented me. I must defer the pleasure for the present.

However, in order that this letter may not be quite empty, and in the hope that it will not be displeasing to you, I will ask you one question. You say in various passages in the "Principia," and in the "Metaphysical Reflections," either as your own opinion, or as explaining the philosophy of Descartes, that creation and preservation are identical (which is, indeed, so evident to those who have considered the question as to be a primary notion); secondly, that God has not only created substances, but also motions in substances—in other words, that God, by a continuous act of creation preserves, not only substances in their normal state, but also the motion and the endeavours of substances. God, for instance, not only brings about by His immediate will and working (whatever be the term employed), that the soul should last and continue in its normal state; but He is also the cause of His will determining, in some way, the movement of the soul—in other words, as God, by a continuous act of creation, brings about that things should remain in existence, so is He also the cause of the movements and endeavours existing in things. In fact, save God, there is no cause of motion. It therefore follows that God is not only the cause of the substance of mind, but also of every endeavour or motion of mind, which we call volition, as you frequently say. From this statement it seems to follow necessarily, either that there is no evil in the motion or volition of the mind, or else that God directly brings about that evil. For that which we call evil comes to pass through the soul, and, consequently, through the immediate influence and concurrence of God. For instance, the soul of Adam wishes to eat of the forbidden fruit. It follows from what has been said above, not only that Adam forms his wish through the influence of God, but also, as will presently be shown, that through that influence he forms it in that particular manner. Hence, either the act forbidden to Adam is not evil, inasmuch as God Himself not only caused the wish, but also the manner of it, or else God directly brought about at which we call evil. Neither you nor Descartes seem have solved this difficulty by saying that evil is a negative conception, and that, as such, God cannot bring it about. Whence, we may ask, came the wish to eat the forbidden fruit, or the wish of devils to be equal with God? For since (as you justly observe) the will is not something different from the mind, but is only an endeavour or movement of the mind, the concurrence of God is as necessary to it as to the mind itself. Now the concurrence of God, as I gather from your writings, is merely the determining of a thing in a particular manner through the will of God. It follows that God concurs no less in an evil wish, in so far as it is evil, than in a good wish in so far as it is good, in other words, He determines it. For the will of God being the absolute cause of all that exists, either in substance or in effort, seems to be also the primary cause of an evil wish, in so far as it is evil. Again, no exercise of volition takes place in us, that God has not known from all eternity. If we say that God does not know of a particular exercise of volition, we attribute to Him imperfection. But how could God gain knowledge of it except from His decrees? Therefore His decrees are the cause of our volitions, and hence it seems also to follow that either an evil wish is not evil, or else that God is the direct cause of the evil, and brings it about. There is no room here for the theological distinction between an act and the evil inherent in that act. For God decrees the mode of the act, no less than the act, that is, God not only decreed that Adam should eat, but also that he should necessarily eat contrary to the command given. Thus it seems on all sides to follow, either that Adam's eating contrary to the command was not an evil, or else that God Himself brought it to pass.

These, illustrious Sir, are the questions in your treatise, which I am unable, at present, to elucidate. Either alternative seems to me difficult of acceptance. However, I await a satisfactory answer from your keen judgment and learning, hoping to show you hereafter how deeply indebted I shall be to you. Be assured, illustrious Sir, that I put these questions from no other motive than the desire for truth. I am a man of leisure, not tied to any profession, gaining my living by honest trade, and devoting my spare time to questions of this sort. I humbly hope that my difficulties will not be displeasing to you. If you are minded to send an answer, as I most ardently hope, write to, &c.


Dordrecht, 12 Dec., 1664.


327:1 See Introduction, p. xvi. The correspondence with Blyenbergh as originally conducted in Dutch.

328:1 The plague, which had prevailed on the Continent during 1664, was introduced into London in the very month in which this letter was written, perhaps from Holland.



(Spinoza answers with his usual courtesy the question propounded by Blyenbergh.)

Unknown Friend,—I received, at Schiedam, on the 26th of December, your letter dated the 12th of December, enclosed in another written on the 24th of the same month. I gather from it your fervent love of truth, and your making it the aim of all your studies. This compelled me, though by no means otherwise unwilling, not only to grant your petition by answering all the questions you have sent, or may in future send, to the best of my ability, but also to impart to you everything in my power, which can conduce to further knowledge and sincere friendship. So far as in me lies, I value, above all other things out of my own control, the joining hands of friendship with men who are sincere lovers of truth. I believe that nothing in the world, of things outside our own control, brings more peace than the possibility of affectionate intercourse with such men; it is just as impossible that the love we bear them can be disturbed (inasmuch as it is founded on the desire each feels for the knowledge of truth), as that truth once perceived should not be assented to. It is, moreover, the highest and most pleasing source of happiness derivable from things not under our own control. Nothing save truth has power closely to unite different feelings and dispositions. I say nothing of the very great advantages which it brings, lest I should detain you too long on a subject which, doubtless, you know already. I have said thus much, in order to show you better how gladly I shall embrace this and any future opportunity of serving you.

In order to make the best of the present opportunity, I will at once proceed to answer your question. This seems to turn on the point "that it seems to be clear, not only from God's providence, which is identical with His will, but also from God's co-operation and continuous creation of things, either that there are no such things as sin or evil, or that God directly brings sin and evil to pass." You do not, however, explain what you mean by evil. As far as one may judge from the example you give in the predetermined act of volition of Adam, you seem to mean by evil the actual exercise of volition, in so far as it is conceived as predetermined in a particular way, or in so far as it is repugnant to the command of God. Hence you conclude (and I agree with you if this be what you mean) that it is absurd to adopt either alternative, either that God brings to pass anything contrary to His own will, or that what is contrary to God's will can be good.

For my own part, I cannot admit that sin and evil have any positive existence, far less that anything can exist, or come to pass, contrary to the will of God. On the contrary, not only do I assert that sin has no positive existence, I also maintain that only in speaking improperly, or humanly, can we say that we sin against God, as in the expression that men offend God.

As to the first point, we know that whatsoever is, when considered in itself without regard to anything else, possesses perfection, extending in each thing as far as the limits of that thing's essence: for essence is nothing else. I take for an illustration the design or determined will of Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. This design or determined will, considered in itself alone, includes perfection in so far as it expresses reality; hence it may be inferred that we can only conceive imperfection in things, when they are viewed in relation to other things possessing more reality: thus in Adam's decision, so long as we view it by itself -and do not compare it with other things more perfect or exhibiting a more perfect state, we can find no imperfection: nay it may be compared with an infinity of other things far less perfect in this respect than itself, such as stones, stocks, &c. This, as a matter of fact, everyone grants. For we all admire in animals qualities which we regard with dislike and aversion in men, such as the pugnacity of bees, the jealousy of doves, &c.; these in human beings are despised, but are nevertheless considered to enhance the value of animals. This being so, it follows that sin, which indicates nothing save imperfection, cannot consist in anything that expresses reality, as we see in the case of Adam's decision and its execution.

Again, we cannot say that Adam's will is at variance with the law of God, and that it is evil because it is displeasing to God; for besides the fact that grave imperfection would be imputed to God, if we say that anything happens contrary to His will, or that He desires anything which He does not obtain, or that His nature resembled that of His creatures in having sympathy with some things more than others; such an occurrence would be at complete variance with the nature of the divine will.

The will of God is identical with His intellect, hence the former can no more be contravened than the latter; in other words, anything which should come to pass against His will must be of a nature to be contrary to His intellect, such, for instance, as a round square. Hence the will or decision of Adam regarded in itself was neither evil nor, properly speaking, against the will of God: it follows that God may—or rather, for the reason you call attention to, must—be its cause; not in so far as it was evil, for the evil in it consisted in the loss of the previous state of being which it entailed on Adam, and it is certain that loss has no positive existence, and is only so spoken of in respect to our and not God's understanding. The difficulty arises from the fact, that we give one and the same definition to all the individuals of a genus, as for instance all who have the outward appearance of men: we accordingly assume all things which are expressed by the same definition to be equally capable of attaining the highest perfection possible for the genus; when we find an individual whose actions are at variance with such perfection, we suppose him to be deprived of it, and to fall short of his nature. We should hardly act in this way, if we did not hark back to the definition and ascribe to the individual a nature in accordance with it. But as God does not know things through abstraction, or form general definitions of the kind above mentioned, and as things have no more reality than the divine understanding and power have put into them and actually endowed them with, it clearly follows that a state of privation can only be spoken of in relation to our intellect, not in relation to God.

Thus, as it seems to me, the difficulty is completely solved. However, in order to make the way still plainer, and remove every doubt, I deem it necessary to answer the two following difficulties:—First, why Holy Scripture says that God wishes for the conversion of the wicked, and also why God forbade Adam to eat of the fruit when He had ordained the contrary? Secondly, that it seems to follow from what I have said, that the wicked by their pride, avarice, and deeds of desperation, worship God in no less degree than the good do by their nobleness, patience, love, &c., inasmuch as both execute God's will.

In answer to the first question, I observe that Scripture, being chiefly fitted for and beneficial to the multitude, speaks popularly after the fashion of men. For the multitude are incapable of grasping sublime conceptions. Hence I am persuaded that all matters, which God revealed to the prophets as necessary to salvation, are set down in the form of laws. With this understanding, the prophets invented whole parables, and represented God as a king and a law-giver, because He had revealed the means of salvation and perdition, and was their cause; the means which were simply causes they styled laws and wrote them down as such; salvation and perdition, which are simply effects necessarily resulting from the aforesaid means, they described as reward and punishment; framing their doctrines more in accordance with such parables than with actual truth. They constantly speak of God as resembling a man, as sometimes angry, sometimes merciful, now desiring what is future, now jealous and suspicious, even as deceived by the devil; so that philosophers and all who are above the law, that is, who follow after virtue, not in obedience to law, but through love, because it is the most excellent of all things, must not be hindered by such expressions.

Thus the command given to Adam consisted solely in this, that God revealed to Adam, that eating of the fruit brought about death; as He reveals to us, through our natural faculties, that poison is deadly. If you ask, for what object did He make this revelation, I answer, in order to render Adam to that extent more perfect in knowledge. Hence, to ask God why He had not bestowed on Adam a more perfect will, is just as absurd as to ask, why the circle has not been endowed with all the properties of a sphere. This follows clearly from what has been said, and I have also proved it in my Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, I. 15.

As to the second difficulty, it is true that the wicked execute after their manner the will of God: but they cannot, therefore, be in any respect compared with the good. The more perfection a thing has, the more does it participate in the deity, and the more does it express perfection. Thus, as the good have incomparably more perfection than the bad, their virtue cannot be likened to the virtue of the wicked, inasmuch as the wicked lack the love of God, which proceeds from the knowledge of God, and by which alone we are, according to our human understanding, called the servants of God. The wicked, knowing not God, are but as instruments in the hand of the workman, serving unconsciously, and perishing in the using; the good, on the other hand, serve consciously, and in serving become more perfect.

1This, Sir, is all I can now contribute to answering your question, and I have no higher wish than that it may satisfy you. But in case you still find any difficulty, I beg you to let me know of that also, to see if I may be able to remove it. You have nothing to fear on your side, but so long as you are not satisfied, I like nothing better than to be informed of your reasons, so that finally the truth may appear. I could have wished to write in the tongue in which I have been brought up. I should, perhaps, have been able to express my thoughts better. But be pleased to take it as it is, amend the mistakes yourself, and believe me,

Your sincere friend and servant.

Long Orchard, near Amsterdam,

Jan. 5, 1665.


335:1 The last paragraph (not found in the Latin version) is reprinted by kind permission from Mr. Pollock's translation from the Dutch original, Pollock's "Spinoza," Appendix C. On page 332 a misprint of "perfectioribus" for "imperfectioribus" is corrected from the original.



(A summary only of this letter is here given.—Tr.)

I have two rules in my philosophic inquiries: i. Conformity to reason; ii. Conformity to scripture. I consider the second the most important. Examining your letter by the first, I observe that your identification of God's creative power with His preservative power seems to involve, either that evil does not exist, or else that God brings about evil. If evil be only a term relative to our imperfect knowledge, how do you explain the state of a man who falls from a state of grace into sin? If evil be a negation, how can we have the power to sin? If God causes an evil act, he must cause the evil as well as the act. You say that every man can only act, as he, in fact, does act. This removes all distinction between the good and the wicked. Both, according to you, are perfect. You remove all the sanctions of virtue and reduce us to automata. Your doctrine, that strictly speaking we cannot sin against God, is a hard saying.

[The rest of the letter is taken up with an examination of Spinoza's arguments in respect to their conformity to Scripture.]

Dordrecht, 16 Jan., 1665.



[Spinoza replies, that there is a difference between the theological and the philosophical way of speaking of God and things divine. He proceeds to discuss Blyenbergh's questions. (Voorburg, 13th March, 1665)]

Friend and Sir,—I have received two letters from you this week; the second, dated 9th March, only served to inform me of the first written on February 19th, and sent to me at Schiedam. In the former I see that you complain of my saying, that "demonstration carried no weight with you," as though I had spoken of my own arguments, which had failed to convince you. Such was far from my intention. I was referring to your own words, which rant as follows:—"And if after long investigation it comes to pass, that my natural knowledge appears either to be at variance with the word (of Scripture), or not sufficiently well, &c.; the word has so great authority with me, that I would rather doubt of the conceptions, which I think I clearly perceive," &c. You see I merely repeat in brief your own phrase, so that I cannot think you have any cause for anger against me, especially as I merely quoted in. order to show the great difference between our standpoints.

Again, as you wrote at the end of your letter that your only hope and wish is to continue in faith and hope, and that all else, which we may become convinced of through our natural faculties, is indifferent to you; I reflected, as I still continue to do, that my letters could be of no use to you, and that I should best consult my own interests by ceasing to neglect my pursuits (which I am compelled while writing to you to interrupt) for the sake of things which could bring no possible benefit. Nor is this contrary to the spirit of my former letter, for in that I looked upon you as simply a philosopher, who (like not a few who call themselves Christians) possesses no touchstone of truth save his natural understanding, and not as a theologian. However, you have taught me to know better, and have also shown me that the foundation, on which I was minded to build up our friendship, has not, as I imagined, been laid.

As for the rest, such are the general accompaniments of controversy, so that I would not on that account transgress the limits of courtesy: I will, therefore, pass over in your second letter, and in this, these and similar expressions, as though they had never been observed. So much for your taking offence; to show you that I have given you no just cause, and, also, that I am quite willing to brook contradiction. I now turn a second time to answering your objections.

I maintain, in the first place, that God is absolutely and really the cause of all things which have essence, whatsoever they may be. If you can demonstrate that evil, error, crime, &c., have any positive existence, which expresses essence, I will fully grant you that God is the cause of crime, evil, error, &c. I believe myself to have sufficiently shown, that that which constitutes the reality of evil, error, crime, &c., does not consist in anything, which expresses essence, and therefore we cannot say that God is its cause. For instance, Nero's matricide, in so far as it comprehended anything positive, was not a crime; the same outward act was perpetrated, and the same matricidal intention was entertained by Orestes; who, nevertheless, is not blamed—at any rate, not so much as Nero. Wherein, then, did Nero's crime consist? In nothing else, but that by his deed he showed himself to be ungrateful, unmerciful, and disobedient. Certainly none of these qualities express aught of essence, therefore God was not the cause of them, though He was the cause of Nero's act and intention.

Further, I would have you observe, that, while we speak philosophically, we ought not to employ theological phrases. For, since theology frequently, and not unwisely, represents God as a perfect man, it is often expedient in theology to say, that God desires a given thing, that He is angry at the actions of the wicked, and delights in those of the good. But in philosophy, when we clearly perceive that the attributes which make men perfect can as ill be ascribed and assigned to God, as the attributes which go to make perfect the elephant and the ass can be ascribed to man; here I say these and similar phrases have no place, nor can we employ them without causing extreme confusion in our conceptions. Hence, in the language of philosophy, it cannot be said that God desires anything of any man, or that anything is displeasing or pleasing to Him: all these are human qualities and have no place in God.

I would have it observed, that although the actions of the good (that is of those who have a clear idea of God, whereby all their actions and their thoughts are determined) and of the wicked (that is of those who do not possess the idea of God, but only the ideas of earthly things, whereby their actions and thoughts are determined), and, in fact, of all things that are, necessarily flow from God's eternal laws and decrees; yet they do not differ from one another in degree only, but also in essence. A mouse no less than an angel, and sorrow no less than joy depend on God; yet a mouse is not a kind of angel, neither is sorrow a kind of joy. I think I have thus answered your objections, if I rightly understand them, for I sometimes doubt, whether the conclusions which you deduce are not foreign to the proposition you are undertaking to prove.

However, this will appear more clearly, if I answer the questions you proposed on these principles. First, Whether murder is as acceptable to God as alms-giving? Secondly, Whether stealing is as good in relation to God as honesty? Thirdly and lastly, Whether if there be a mind so framed, that it would agree with, rather than be repugnant to its proper nature, to give way to lust, and to commit crimes, whether, I repeat, there can be any reason given, why such a mind should do good and eschew evil?

To your first question, I answer, that I do not know, speaking as a philosopher, what you mean by the words "acceptable to God." If you ask, whether God does not hate the wicked, and love the good? whether God does not regard the former with dislike, and the latter with favour? I answer, No. If the meaning of your question is: Are murderers and almsgivers equally good and perfect? my answer is again in the negative. To your second question, I reply: If, by " good in relation to God," you mean that the honest man confers a favour on God, and the thief does Him an injury, I answer that neither the honest man nor the thief can cause God any pleasure or displeasure. If you mean to ask, whether the actions of each, in so far as they possess reality, and are caused by God, are equally perfect? I reply that, if we merely regard the actions and the manner of their execution, both may be equally perfect. If you, therefore, inquire whether the thief and the honest man are equally perfect and blessed? I answer, No. For, by an honest man, I mean one who always desires, that everyone should possess that which is his. This desire, as I prove in my Ethics (as yet unpublished), necessarily derives its origin in the pious from the clear knowledge which they possess, of God and of themselves. As a thief has no desire of the kind, he is necessarily without the knowledge of God and of himself—in other words, without the chief element of our blessedness. If you further ask, What causes you to perform a given action, which I call virtuous, rather than another? I reply, that I cannot know which method, out of the infinite methods at His disposal, God employs to determine you to the said action. It may be, that God has impressed you with a clear idea of Himself, so that you forget the world for love of Him, and love your fellow-men as yourself; it is plain that such a disposition is at variance with those dispositions which are called bad, and, therefore, could not co-exist with them in the same man.

However, this is not the place to expound all the foundations of my Ethics, or to prove all that I have advanced; I am now only concerned in answering your questions, and defending myself against them.

Lastly, as to your third question, it assumes a contradiction, and seems to me to be, as though one asked: If it agreed better with a man's nature that he should hang himself, could any reasons be given for his not hanging himself? Can such a nature possibly exist? If so, I maintain (whether I do or do not grant free will), that such an one, if he sees that he can live more conveniently on the gallows than sitting at his own table, would act most foolishly, if he did not hang himself. So anyone who clearly saw that, by committing crimes, he would enjoy a really more perfect and better life and existence, than he could attain by the practice of virtue, would be foolish if he did not act on his convictions. For, with such a perverse human nature as his, crime would become virtue.

As to the other question, which you add in your postscript, seeing that one might ask a hundred such in an hour, without arriving at a conclusion about any, and seeing that you yourself do not press for an answer, I will send none.

I will now only subscribe myself, &c.

[Site Topic Directory]

The summary is based on:
Spinoza. The Letters. Transl Samuel Shirley. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995.

The above reproductions of the Letters are taken from the Elwes translation at:

No comments:

Post a Comment