Religion and Power in Spinoza

Essays on the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

by Jörg Rudolf Zimmer (Volume editor) Josep Olesti (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 154 Pages


The Tractatus Theologico-politicus was published anonimously in 1670, thereby challenging a moderately tolerant Dutch Republic (Pierre Bayle’s great arch of the refugees). The defence of libertas philosophandi (freedom of speech and thought) put forward by Spinoza, along with the underlying analysis of the fundamentals of religion and political power, were received as a radical proposal in Modern Europe, though despite prompting severe criticism and considerable amount of refutations, it circulated profusely and was translated into French, English and Dutch before the end of the century.
This volume analyzes into detail Spinoza’s line of reasoning, identifies its allies and its enimies, explores its more or less obvious connections with the Ethica, in order to shed light and reasess the value of this indispensable classic of theological and political thought for our time.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • Preface
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Divine decrees as eternal truths in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
  • Prophecy in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in light of Averroes’ Epitome of the Parva Naturalia
  • Imperium in imperio: Theme and Variations
  • The palace and the ramparts: Spinoza’s stratagems to defend sovereignty from the seditious opinion of the clergy
  • A virtual dialogue between Baruch Spinoza, Yehuda (Yehuda) Halevi, Moses Mendelssohn and Shlomo Mimon on the ideas of History and Tolerance
  • Spinoza in the ‘Vormärz’ Period: On the Reception of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in the Work of Feuerbach and Marx

Miquel Beltrán

Divine decrees as eternal truths in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

Translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations

1. The dog that is a heavenly constellation and the dog that is a barking animal←12 | 13→

In 2014, a young Spinoza scholar named Oberto Marrama published a piece in The Leibniz Review under the title ‘Alexandre Koyré: The dog that is a heavenly constellation and the dog that is a barking animal (1950): Introduction and Translation’.1 The piece was a translation of the famous paper by the Russian philosopher Alexandre Koyré, which first appeared in French in Revue de métaphysique et de morale in 1950 and that examines the scholium to proposition 17 in part I of the Ethica. Here, Spinoza reiterates his argument that, should God possess will and intellect, these qualities must be in Him of a completely different nature to those possessed by mankind. In his brief introduction to the English translation of Koyré’s text, Marrama states that this new translation is necessary as scholars have been unable to reach agreement over Koyré’s interpretation of the scholium and, by extension, have failed to bring clarity to the question of Spinoza’s conception of divine will and intellect. Nonetheless, Marrama manages to succinctly set out the paradoxical conclusion to which a literal reading of the scholium appears to lead, given that in book II of the Ethica we are told that:

the human Mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God. Therefore, when we say that the human Mind perceives this or that, we are saying nothing but that God, not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he is explained through the nature of the human Mind, or insofar as he constitutes the essence of the human Mind, has this or that idea.2

Marrama also reminds us that in the final part of the Ethica, this argument leads us to the crucial question of human salvation. He writes:

Since the human intellect is part of the divine intellect, when we truly know God and we are therefore affected by love towards God, then that knowledge can be correctly regarded as a finite part of God’s infinite self-knowledge by which God ←13 | 14→‘contemplates itself, with the accompanying idea of himself,’3 and our love towards God is understood as ‘part of the infinite love by which God loves himself’.4

So, these passages, together with another from Spinoza’s masterpiece, more crucial still, apprehend God’s infinite mode of thought as a whole of which our human intellects form part. The scholium in question is attached to proposition 40 in part V of the Ethica. Having demonstrated his proposition on the soul and its relation to the essence of the body (with one part enduring, more perfect than the rest because the soul’s eternal dimension is the intellect, the only impetus for human action), Spinoza writes:

These are the things I have decided to show concerning the Mind, insofar as it is considered without relation to the Body’s existence. From them – and at the same time from IP21 and other things – it is clear that our Mind, insofar as it understands, is an eternal mode of thinking, which is determined by another eternal mode of thinking, and this again by another, and so on, to infinity; so that together, they all constitute God’s eternal and infinite intellect.5

As Marrama astutely observes, on the question of divine decrees as conceived in the TTP, ‘the same identification of the human mind with a part of the divine intellect is seriously challenged by a long and complicated scholium in the first part of the Ethics’.6 This point has great relevance to the subject we will shortly be discussing. The scholium in question is the same one examined by Koyré (E, I, 17 sc.), and Marrama quotes it as follows:

God’s intellect, insofar as it is conceived to constitute God’s essence, is really the cause both of the essence and of the existence of things […]. Therefore it must necessarily differ from them both as to its essence and as to its existence […]. But God’s intellect is the cause both of the essence and of the existence of our intellect. Therefore, God’s intellect, insofar as it is conceived to constitute the divine essence, differs from our intellect both as to its essence and as to its existence, and cannot agree with it in anything except in name’ – as in fact do the dog that is a heavenly constellation and the dog that is a barking animal.7

As these two conceptions of God’s intellect are antithetical, the main purpose of Koyré’s paper is to argue that this scholium should be understood in such a way as to render it compatible with the idea that the human intellect is a part of God’s infinite intellect. This infinite intellect corresponds to the natura naturata, which must be (as Spinoza does not shrink from pointing out, for example in letter 64 to Schuller) an infinite mode of thought. ←14 | 15→However, an intellect like the one described in the scholium to proposition 17, said to constitute the very essence of God, cannot be natura naturata, unless we hold that God’s essence is created (natura naturata) by God in himself – a possibility that, ultimately, should not be dismissed out of hand.8

Introducing his own English translation of Koyré’s paper, Marrama goes on to summarize the interpretation on which it is based. Given that God causes, and so precedes, all things, if intellect were part of God’s essence it would have to be, Marrama suggests, a creative intellect that conceived of these things independently of and prior to their creation. Such an intellect, he argues, would have nothing in common with human intellect except its name, because human intellect clearly succeeds the things it understands, or is at the very least synchronous with those things. In other words, Marrama continues:

we understand the nature of our own intellect as inherently intentional, that is, as being always and necessarily intellection of something given. Hence, our intellect must be completely different from an intellect which exists before its objects in such a way that it can create them at will (Maramma, 2014, p. 96).

I would agree with this last observation, and I believe that it is possible to demonstrate that God’s intellect, which corresponds with his essence, is clearly non-intentional, as I will do shortly. Among other reasons, this is because God’s will cannot be conceived as operating in the same way as human will (since God cannot understand, nor love, anything in such a way that subordinates him to the object of his understanding or love). However, I would argue that Marrama, like Koyré before him, is mistaken in attributing a creative quality to God’s unique intellect, in the sense that Spinoza’s God would have had knowledge of the things he created before or independently of their creation. There is a crucial passage in the TTP which, as well as allowing us to resolve the apparent incongruity between the scholium to proposition 17 in Part I of the Ethica and the assertion that God’s intellect is an amalgam of each of our human intellects (as stated in the scholium to proposition 40 in Part V, discussed above), will also demonstrate that God’s intellect does not create things that he understands as intelligible, but rather, as long as God is the source of all things, we must conclude that his understanding and creation are simultaneous. God does not form the ideas of the things he creates before he creates them; this would subordinate God’s perfection to the ideas of which he conceives (contradicting his ←15 | 16→primary causality). The idea that God could create things that he did not understand is simply inconcevaible, and so the only possibility is that God’s understanding and his creation are one and the same.

In any event, Marrama seems to be correct in his view that an English translation of Koyré’s text would be helpful, given that the literature that grew up around this problematic scholium has not succeeded in shedding light on this crucial passage, which Koyré himself regards as essentially rhetorical, with little to contribute to our grasp of Spinoza’s ontology. This chapter aims to demonstrate how far Koyré is mistaken in that seminal paper. It does so by examining the vital notions of eternal truths and divine decrees we eventually arrive at if we take seriously the idea that God’s intellect and will are not faculties that he possesses, but instead expressions of the divine essence itself.

In Marrama’s words, the general conclusion Koyré draws is that: ‘Spinoza’s text is not affirmative, but polemical. It is not an exposition of Spinoza’s own theory, but a reductio ad absurdum of the theologians’ traditional theories.’9 Koyré believes that this is something that has escaped historians up until this point, leading them to approach the text, erroneously, as something fundamentally different to what it really is. He also ascribes a tacit conditionality to the scholium, which Spinoza wrote in the present tense. Through this reductio ad absurdum, he maintains, what Spinoza actually achieves is a demonstration that there is no such thing as a divine intellect that is one and the same as God’s essence, nor can the divine will be understood in this way. He quotes Spinoza once again:

if intellect pertains [pertained] to the divine nature, it will [would] not be able to be (like our intellect) by nature either posterior to (as most would have it), or else simultaneous with, the things understood, since God is prior in causality to all the things […]. On the contrary, the truth and formal essence of things is [would be] what it is because it exists [would exist] objectively in that way in God’s intellect. So God’s intellect, insofar as it is conceived to constitute God’s essence, is [would be] really the cause both of the essence and of the existence of things. This seems also to have been noticed by those who asserted that God’s intellect, will and power are one and the same.10

The conditional tense contained in square brackets is Koyré’s way of transposing and converting Spinoza’s scholium into a hypothetical argument, thus undermining its assertive force. More important, however, is the fact that elsewhere when Spinoza states that the essence, the intellect and the will ←16 | 17→are one and the same, he expresses a clear admiration for those among his predecessors who anticipated his argument that:

a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways. Some of the Hebrews seem to have seen this, as if through a cloud, when they maintained that God, God’s intellect, and the things understood by him are one and the same.11

The statement that God and his intellect are one and the same does not appear to be a mere rhetorical device in the Ethica, and the same can be said of God’s will. We will be able to demonstrate this by examining a key passage of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

2. The intellect and the will, both human and divine


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Philosophy of Religion Political Philosophy History of Modern Philosophy Theology
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 154 pp.

Biographical notes

Jörg Rudolf Zimmer (Volume editor) Josep Olesti (Volume editor)

Josep Olesti is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Girona since 1992 and full member of the Institute of Catalan Studies. He paid attention mostly to the Early Modern Philosophy, mainly 17th century, and published papers on, among others, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bayle and Kant. He translated into Catalan the Leibniz’ Nouveaux Essais sur l’enttendement humain (1997), Discours de métaphysique/Monadologie (2018) and Spinoza’s Ethica (2013) Jörg Zimmer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Girona since 1993. His main research fields are aesthetics, theory and history of dialectics and Classical German philosophy.


Title: Religion and Power in Spinoza
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156 pages