ISSN 1211-0442






(The problem of death in Spinoza's philosophy)


by Martin Hemelík




      Death   and   dying   -   these   are   very  important philosophical problems. Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza who ranks among  the rationalists of the  XVIIth century, solves the  problem of  death in  the framework  of his ontological schedule.  The  author  summarizes  the  basic  elements  of Spinoza's solution: Death can play the role of evil only for such kind  of people which  is not able  of higher forms  of understanding, i.e. only for  people who are called "homines carnales"  by  Spinoza;  for   people  whom  Spinoza  called "homines  sapientes", death  cannot play  this role.  On the contrary, homo sapiens is able  to overcome death because he understands himself and the necessity of things and God.


   Keywords:  Spinoza -  death - dying -  good - evil -  "homo carnalis" - "homo sapiens"




      At  first  sight,  the  motive  of  death  in Spinoza's philosophy  does   not  seem  to   be  very  important   and interesting;  Spinoza  does  not  deal  explicitly with this motive.   In  his   main  work   "Ethica  ordine  geometrico demonstrata", the motive of death is only marginal. Why then this theme?

     Nevertheless, the reasons for  an inquiry of this theme can be found very easily. First of all, Spinoza's philosophy is an  ethical doctrine of  the right human  way to liberty, happiness  and  bliss  (beatitudo).  (In  Spinoza,  liberty, happiness and bliss are three dimensions of the ultimate end of  human life.)  With respect  to this  end, death would be considered as a very  serious or even insuperable hindrance. In  our everyday  experience, dying  and death  are given in a very pressing way and this  concerns all living beings and primarily ourselves.  Spinoza as a  philosopher who examines the  human  way  to  liberty,  happiness  and  bliss  cannot therefore leave out of these problems.

     Moreover,  the  question  of  dying  and  death is also connected very closely with the  ethical problem of good and evil. In  his Ethica, Spinoza  looks into this  problem very carefully and this  is why I think that  in the framework of these  considerations  it  is  possible  to  grasp the basic features of Spinoza's treatment of the question of death.



      Max Scheler  called Spinoza (as well  as G. W. Leibniz) "the   philosopher   of   metaphysical   optimism"   because - according to Schelerøs opinion - he denied the ontological validity of suffering to such  an extent that his philosophy can be held for a  metaphysical justification of evil in the world.(1)  In my  view, this  opinion seems  to be doubtful. Letøs examine this "justification of evil" in Spinozism.

     As early as in his Short Treatise that originated about 1660 Spinoza  expresses an unequivocal  judgement concerning the above  mentioned problem: "Daraus folgt  also - wie oben - dass gut  und schlecht keine  Dinge oder Handlungen  sind, die  in   der  Natur  sich  finden."(2)   In  Ethica  ordine geometrico demonstrata it is  formulated in a more explicite way:  "With regard  to good  and evil  these terms  indicate nothing positive in things considered in themselves, nor are they anything  else than modes of  thought, or notions which we form from  the comparison of one thing  with another. For one and the same thing may at the same time be both good and evil or  indifferent."(3) In the  definitions of Part  IV of Ethica  there can  be found  an exact  specification of  the terms of good and evil: "By good, I understand that which we certainly know  is useful to  us. By evil,  on the contrary, I understand that  which we certainly  know hinders us  from possesing anything that is good."(4)

     From  Spinozaøs point  of view,  good and  evil are not important from  the ontological point of  view. They have no relevance   to   the   ontological   order   of  all  being. Accordingly, their importance can  be found only in relation to our human  nature. It must be so  because the ontological basis for all - God (Deus)  - has no such characterizations. God (the Absolute) is neither  good nor bad. Inasmuch as all is in God and God is  the immanent cause of all, no existing thing is good or bad in itself. Thus, there is no reason for speaking  about "justifying  of evil"  in Schelerian  sense. In Spinoza, nobody and nothing is guilty.

     However, the  problem of the justification  of evil can be treated  in another way.  If Spinoza understands  evil as what hinders  us from possesing anything  that is good, then it is  obvious that the very  fact of the existence  of this hindrance can  be understood as  evil. Anything (any  being) arises necessarily  from the essence  of God. The  fact that something  is  evil  for  us,  must  result somehow from the general order of nature or have its reason and cause in God. In this way,  the existence of evil would  be based upon the entire ontological schedule of being.

     This consideration  seems to oscillate  between clarity and confusedness. To avoid  this confusedness, we should try to understand  again Spinoza's approach  to human condition. Good  and evil  cannot be  found in  things as considered in themselves. Good  and evil are constituted  in the relations between  our  nature  and  these  things.  Nevertheless, our existence,  the existence  of things  and, consequently, our contacts with things, in  which things' goodness and badness are constituted,  this all belongs  to the general  order of nature and has an objective  and even the absolute basis. In Spinoza, human  evaluation of things  as good and  bad takes place   also  in   "the   empire   of  necessity".   A  full understanding of things and their characters (good and evil) is not derived solely from  things themselves, but also from our  and  their  position  within  the  general  order.  For Spinoza, the idea of the  justification of evil in the world would be the  same as if the triangle  were justified by the fact that the  sum of its three angles  is two right angles. In  accordance  with  Spinoza,  this  world  is not the best world, but it  is the only possible world  because it is the necessary world. Only in this  meaning we can understand the problem  of Spinoza's  justification of  evil in  the world. There is no other possibility.

     Since good  and evil are notions  which are constituted in the relations  of things to our human  nature, we are not able to aim  at the elimination of evil.  We cannot deny our nature. The general order of  nature is incorrigible. We can "humiliate" the evil in such  a way that the suffering which results from  the existence of  evil is compensated  for our ability to understand evil and for our actions which are led by this  understanding. This is  the hard core  of Spinozaøs ethical  doctrine  as  well  as  the  basic framework of our considerations about the question of the death in Spinozism.



      Death and dying - these are the examples of evil in the world.  This   is  a  common  opinion.(5)   Death  is  often considered  as  the  absolute  or  supreme  evil.  Is it the supreme evil also for Spinoza?

     Spinoza's  doctrine implies  a positive  answer to this question  even  though  we  cannot  find  it  in his work in explicit form. Let's start  a reconstruction of this answer in terms  of the considerations which  are contained in Part III, IV  and V of  Ethica ordine geometrico  demonstrata. We can use  the following formulation of  Spinoza: "Nothing can be evil through  that which it possesses in  common with our nature,  but in  so far  as a   thing is  evil to  us is  it contrary to us."(6) Our nature  (to say nothing of our basic determination  which consists  in our  being a  mode of  the attribute of extensity as well as a mode of the attribute of thinking) is constituted by "the effort to perservere in its being"(7)  and on  the other  hand "the  effort by  which we endeavour  to  achieve  the  life  of  wise  man" , i.e. the possibility to become the "homo sapiens" really.(8)

     Has death anything common with our nature? Of course it has not. Since death is at variance with our nature, it must be evil for us. If death is  evil for us, it hinders us from possesing anything  that is good.  But death belongs  to the "general  order of  nature", i.e.  it is  necesary. How does Spinoza come to terms with this situation?

     In Spinoza's philosophy, it  is possible to discern two attempts to this problem,  which are connected very closely. The  first  attempt  has  led  to  the  fact  that Spinoza's philosophy  is sometimes  characterized as  a kind  of Stoic ethical doctrine. 67. proposition of  Part IV says: " A free man thinks of nothing less than  of death, and his wisdom is not a meditation upon death  but upon life."(9) The scholion of 39.proposition of Part V  says: "Inasmuch as human bodies are  fit many  things, we  cannot doubt  the possibility  of their possessing such  a nature that they may  be related to minds which have a large  knowledge of themselves and of God and  whose greatest  or principal  part is  eternal, so that they scarcely for death."(10)

     These  ideas are  very similar  to the  ideas of  Stoic philosopher  Epicurus. Like  the Stoic  philosopher, Spinoza seems to endeavour at avoiding  human anxiety in a similarly simple and  clever way: 'If we  are here, death is  not here and,  on the  contrary, when  death is  here, so  we are not here.' Such ideas can be found also in other Greek and Roman philosophers.

     It  is  necessary  to  become  aware  of  the following important  circumstance: Spinoza  derives the  main parts of his ethical doctrine from the  theory of "conatu", i.e. from the idea that the human "essentia actualis" is the conscious instinct   of   self-preservation.   Spinoza's   refusal  of "thinking upon death" and  his emphasizing of "thinking upon life" is adequate to  the human "essentia actualis". Spinoza does not imitate the Stoic philosophy, he is original.

     The  essence of  man is   related first  of all  to the perservation of  existence. It is not  "being to death". The need  of "thinking  upon life"   as well  as the  refusal of "thinking  upon death"  can be  regarded as  the evidence of man's ontological constitution.

      In the second attempt which  can be found in Spinoza's philosophy,  the  problem  of  death  is  treated in another context. Namely,  the question of death  is always connected with the  idea of the  immortality of soul.  Spinoza says in his Short  Treatise: "Dabei haben wir  nun bemerkt, dass die Seele entweder  mit dem K”rper, dessen  Vorstellung sie ist, oder  mit  Gott,  ohne   welchen  sie  weder  bestehen  noch begriffen  werden  kann,  vereinigt  werden  mag, woraus man leicht sehen kann,

     1. dass,  wenn sie mit dem  K”rper allein vereinigt ist und dieser vergeht, sie dann auch untergehen muss, denn wenn sie  den  K”rper,  welcher  die  Grundlage  ihrer Liebe ist, entbehrt, muss sie damit auch zunichte gehen;

     2. wenn sie aber  mit etwas anderem, das unver„nderlich ist und  bleibt, sich vereinigt, wird  sie dann im Gegenteil auch  mit  demselben  unver„nderlich  bleiben  mssen.  Denn wodurch sollte  es m”glich sein, dass  sie vernichtet werden k”nnte? Nicht durch  sich selbst; denn so wenig  als sie aus sich  selbst zu  sein damals  anfangen konnte,  als sie noch nicht war, ebensowenig kann sie auch, wenn sie nun ist, sich entweder ver„ndern oder vergehen. So dass dasjenige, welches allein die  Ursache ihres Sein,  ist, darum auch,  wenn dies vergeht, die Ursache ihres Nichtsein sein muss, weil es sich selbst  ver„ndert oder  vergeht."(11) Similar  ideas can  be read in Part  V of Ethica, 23. proposition:  "The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed  with the body, but something of   it   remains   which    is   eternal."(12)   And   also 39. proposition:  "He  who  possesses  a  body  fit for many things  possesses  a  mind  of  which  the  greatest part is eternal".(13)

     What does it  mean? Is Spinoza an adherent  of the idea of  immortal  soul?  Does  he  think  that  only our body is mortal? Let's inquire this difficult problem.

     It is necessary to have in mind that in Spinoza, man is the  exceptional   being  whose  existence   occurs  in  two connections. Man  functions as a whole  in relation to other beings and, simultaneously, he is  a part of a higher whole, i.e. a part  of the Universe. This view  is very significant for Spinoza's philosophy.

     From this point of view  it is not surprising that only man's  body is  mortal; it  should be  added that also those modes of mind, which are connected to body (i.e. imaginatio) are  mortal.  On  the  contrary,  the  part  of  mind called intellect (intellectus  or ratio) as well  as the one called "scientia intuitiva" are eternal  because they are the parts of  "the  infinite  intellect   of  God".(14)  According  to Spinoza,  the genuine  knowledge, i.e.  the understanding of the  Universe  and  of  the  basic  ontological  schedule is generated just in these parts;  this is also the place where the  boundary  between  man  and  God  disappears. Thus, the intellectus  and scientia  intuitiva  are  the forms  of our participation  in  the  eternal  and absolute God-substance. Spinoza  uses  here  the  famous  concept  of  the "amor Dei intellectualis",  which  expresses  a  kind  of  the partial identification of man and God. As Spinoza puts it, "hence it follows that God, in so far  as He loves Himself, loves man, and consequently  that the love  of God towards  man and the intellectual love  of the mind  towards God are  one and the same thing."(15)

     Therefore it  is not possible  to say that  the idea of immortal  soul  plays  an  important  role  in  Spinoza. The eternality of  the intellectual and intuitive  parts of mind consists  in  the  fact  that  they  are  able  to  identify themselves with the intellect of God-substance.



      Let's  try to  sum up.  From Spinoza's  point of  view, death is only a relative evil, namely in the relation to our nature; it  hinders or can  hinder the achievement  of right life as controlled by our  intellect. When does death become this evil?

     Death can play  the role of evil only  for men who lack the higher forms of understanding, i.e. only for men who are called  "homines  carnales"  in  Spinoza.  Homo  carnalis is a sensuous man who is dragged by his passions and (confused) imaginations. He  is a passive being  and this is why  he is not able  of really acting  (in the sense  of Spinoza's term agere).  For such  a man,  death is  the absolute evil. Homo carnalis  understands   neither  his  own   nature  nor  the necessity of things nor God. Therefore he is afraid of death and is unable to save himself from dealing continuously with the painful idea of death. Instead of living his life in its fulness, he steadily suffers.

     For such kind of man,  which is called in Spinoza "homo sapiens", death  cannot play the  role of evil  because this man  "is  scarcely  ever  moved  in  his  mind,  but,  being conscious by a certain eternal necessity of himself, of God, and of  things, never ceases  to be, and  always enjoys true peace  of  soul."(16)  He  lives   the  right  life,  he  is controlled  by intellect  and the  main part  of his mind is becoming eternal.  Homo sapiens is  able to overcome  death. This is the way in which Spinoza solves the problem of death in his philosophy.




  1)  M. Scheler:  Rad   lasky  (Ordo  amoris   -  in  Czech), Praha 1971, p. 123.

  2)  B. Spinoza: Kurzgefasste Abhandlung vom Gott, dem Mensch und dessen Glck, Leipzig 1874, p. 40.

3)      B. Spinoza:  Ethics,  transl.  by  W.  H. White, Chicago 1952, p. 423.

4)      Ibid., p.424.

5)      See for example C.  Tresmontant: Teodicea, in: Host (The Guest - in Czech, a journal published in Brno), 7/91.

6)      B. Spinoza: Ethics, Chicago 1952, p. 432

7)      Ibid., p. 399.

8)      Ibid., p. 463.

9)      Ibid., p. 444.

10)  Ibid., p. 462.

11)  B. Spinoza:  Kurzgefasste Abhandlung..., p. 99.

12)  B. Spinoza: Ethics, Chicago 1952, p. 458.

13)  Ibid., p. 462.

14)  Ibid., p. 377.

15)  Ibid., p. 461.



(c) Martin Hemelik

Dept. Philosophy

The University of Economics

W. Churchilla 4,

Prague 3, 130 00,

Czech Republic