Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

13

SPINOZA'S SYSTEM

Spinoza's prime contribution to the evolution of early modern Naturalism, fatalism, and irreligion, as Bayle—and many who followed Bayle in this—stressed, was his ability to integrate within a single coherent or ostensibly coherent system, the chief elements of ancient, modern, and oriental 'atheism'.1 No one else in early modern times did this, or anything comparable, and it is primarily the unity, cohesion, and compelling power of his system, his ability to connect major elements of previous 'atheistic' thought into an unbroken chain of reasoning, rather than the novelty or force of any of his constituent concepts which explains his centrality in the evolution of the whole Radical Enlightenment. It should not be overlooked, though, that some of his other contributions, notably his Bible criticism and revolutionary doctrine of substance, were highly innovative and, in themselves, exerted a vast international impact.

With his system Spinoza imparted shape, order, and unity to the entire tradition of radical thought, both retrospectively and in its subsequent development, qualities it had lacked previously and were henceforth perhaps its strongest weapons in challenging prevailing structures of authority and received learning and combating the advancing moderate Enlightenment. It was a system which reached its fullest and most mature expression only with the completion of his Ethics in 1675, but which, as we have seen, was in essentials extant as early as 1660.

Spinoza's starting-point in the Ethics is a set of propositions about the nature of reality or substance, including the contention that 'every substance is necessarily infinite' (I Prop. VIII) which proceed in seemingly logical progression to his famous tenet, the 'foundation of his whole impious doctrine', as Spinelli calls it,2 that 'Except God, no substance can exist or be conceived' (I Prop. XIV). Where Descartes' unassailable first step is his 'cogito, ergo sum', Spinoza's is his assertion that our idea of the totality of what is, of an infinite and eternal being—God (or Nature)—is clear, consistent, selfcontained, and undeniable.3 Since everything that exists, he contends, exists in God (or

1 Charles-Daubert and Moreau, Pierre Bayle, Écrits, 29; Spinoza, says Capasso, 'omnium primus atheis-
mum nova methodo et systemate docuit'; Capasso, Historiae Philosophiae Synopsis, 394; see also Wagner,
Johan Christian Edelmanns verblendete Anblicke, ii, 408.

2 'Praeter Deum nulla dari, neque concipi potest substantia', Spinoza, Opera, ii, 56; see also Spinelli,
Riflessioni, 446; Wolff, De Differentia nexus, 53–3.

3Collected Works of Spinoza, 1, 408–88; Hubbeling, Spinoza, 58–82; Harris, Spinoza's Philosophy, 19–94;
Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method, 12–28.

-230-

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