Spinoza on God and Nature

Author: Dino Jakušić (DAAD Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Tübingen; Sessional Tutor, University of Warwick.)

What does Spinoza mean by “God or Nature”? The Latin word sive (or sometimes seu) Spinoza employs here and throughout his Ethics is used to identify the two terms under consideration, rather than separate them. Hence for Spinoza God is Nature and Nature is God. But there is an ambiguity here. Which part of the two should we emphasise? Is Spinoza here reducing God to Nature, or is he elevating nature to a divine status? In other words, is Spinoza naturalising God or is he deifying Nature? The history of the reception of Spinoza shows us how important this choice of emphasis can be.

The most immediate reception of Spinoza’s philosophy aligned itself with the naturalising reading, long before the formula was explicitly stated. In the Autumn of 1675, Spinoza writes to his close friend Henry Oldenburg, that he intended to publish the Ethics, but decided not to do so since “certain Theologians” have spread a rumour “that a certain book of mine about God was in the press, and that in it I tried to show that there is no God.” Long before the appearance of the aforementioned phrase in the Ethics, Spinoza has been considered theologically suspicious and often accused of atheism. In a letter to Oldenburg from October 1665 Spinoza states that one of the reasons he is writing the book, which will be titled Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and published in 1670, is because: “common people… never stop accusing me of atheism, and I am forced to rebut this accusation as well as I can.” Oldenburg’s suggestion was that Spinoza clarifies “especially those passages in the work which seem to speak ambiguously about God and Nature. A great many people think you confuse these two things.”

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