Was Spinoza a Kabbalist? The Influence of Jewish Mysticism in Book I of Ethics

By Rocco A. Astore
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11 | pg. 1/2 |

Throughout philosophy’s history, some of its most prominent thinkers have drawn inspiration from sources outside of its canon. It is of my opinion that one of these philosophers, Spinoza, in the first book of his Ethics, borrowed elements of the Kabbalah, to portray his image of God. The first purpose of this piece is to explicate Spinoza’s understanding of God, or Nature so that the reader can assess and become familiarized with his views. Next, by using Daniel C. Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah, the Heart of Jewish Mysticism, I will hope to convey a general idea of the Kabbalist conception of God, and afterward, how it relates to Spinoza’s. Lastly, I will suggest that though Spinoza’s ideas agree with aspects of the Kabbalah, there are still major differences between the two, and thus, one should refrain from believing that Spinoza’s understanding of God is purely mystical.

I. Spinoza’s View of God, or Nature

The first book of Spinoza’s Ethics primarily focuses on the existence of God, and how he/she is the only substance in the natural order.1 By substance, Spinoza understands that which causes itself, or that which neither derives nor requires another being or concept for its existence and conceivability.2 Furthermore, to him, there can only be one substance since the existence of two or more substances would not logically pan out.3 One reason for this is that only a substance can cause itself, and thus if there were many substances it would imply that they would have had to come into being from causes other than themselves.4 The problem with this conclusion is that since only a substance causes itself, only it is distinct, and because that means that it is ontologically unique, it cannot be the case that it can cause another substance to come to be.5 Spinoza makes this claim because something that causes itself cannot derive from anything else, and if a substance were to cause another substance that new substance would be an effect and not a cause of itself.6 Another reason why Spinoza adheres to the view, that only one substance can exist, is that only things of the same kind are compatible, or it is not the case that things that have different natures can affect one another.7 Hence, as the only cause of itself, a substance’s uniqueness would render it unable to mesh with another substance; let alone cause it to come into being.8 Lastly, since it is impossible for more than one cause-of-itself, or substance to exists, and because only God is exempt from needing a cause for his/her being or concept for his/her conceivability, it follows that only he/she is a substance.9

Furthermore, God is an indivisible whole who is singular in nature because if he/she were to split, there would exist two or more substances that would be distinct yet compatible.10 In other words, only God is a substance because the existence of a multiplicity of substances would be contradictory since it would mean that they are unique while also of the same nature, and thus, compatible.11 But, since a substance is unique, it cannot be compatible with anything other than itself because it does not bear any similarities to anything else.12 Consequently, there can only be one substance, God, since a plethora of substances cannot logically exist.13 Another reason why God is an indivisible substance is that nothing can affect him/her, and thus nothing has the power to divide him/her.14 That is, since God is ontologically unique, and because that means that nothing is of the same nature as him/her, nothing can affect him/her, and thus, he/she is not subject to division by another.15 From this, it not only follows that nothing can cause God to separate, but it is also the case that nothing can limit him/her, rendering only him/her to be limitless, or infinite.16

Moreover, Spinoza claims that God is an infinite substance, who possesses an infinite number of attributes each expressing a facet of his/her nature.17 One reason why he believes God is infinite is that, as the only substance, he/she is limitless since nothing is of the same category of existence as him/her.18 In other words, nothing can limit God because only he/she is the cause of himself/herself, and since that renders all other things to be determinate, nothing can affect him/her, since nothing is of the same limitless nature as him/her.19 Consequently, because nothing can affect God, nothing can limit him/her, and thus, only he/she can express his/her attributes eternally.20 Furthermore, Spinoza claims that God’s attributes are also infinite due to only things of the same kind being compatible, and since he/she is limitless, it follows that his/her attributes must be as well.21 Also, God’s attributes are incompatible, or it is not the case that they can interact with one another since they each express only one aspect of him/her.22 Thus, because no attribute can affect another attribute, it follows that they are limitless because nothing can ever interfere with their existence.23 Finally, because God and his/her attributes do not feature limitations, one may also argue that they are eternal.24

To Spinoza, God and his/her attributes are eternal since it is not the case that anything has the power to limit them.25 That is, nothing in the natural order can stop God from expressing his/her attributes because nothing is in the same classification of being as him/her.26 Another reason why God and his/her attributes are eternal is that it is not the case that anything can exist outside of him/her since no other being beside him/her caused themselves.27 In other words, because God is first in the chain of being that composes the natural order, it follows that all things are ultimately derivatives of him/her, and since that indicates that nothing can precede him/her, it follows that nothing can act upon him/her.28 Since nothing can act upon God, it is the case that he/she is eternal because nothing can stop him/her from existing due to him/her not having to rely on the will of another being for his/her continuity.29 Lastly, Spinoza continues to address how God follows only his/her nature and is not under the compulsion of any other being beside himself/herself.30

Because God is limitless and ontologically unique, Spinoza claims that he/she does not act from the will of any other being, and thus, he/she is not determinate.31 That is, all things aside from God exist in limited ways, and since only his/her existence is distinct, only he/she is limitless, and thus, free to express himself/herself without any interference.32 Furthermore, Spinoza believes that only God can be the free cause of all things, due to nothing being able to exist outside of him/her.33 In other words, one may claim that only God is free because nothing precedes him/her, and since that renders all things to ultimately be derivatives of him/her, it follows that his/her nature sets the laws for them to come to be.34 One reason why Spinoza supports this notion is that God disseminates his/her nature throughout all existence, and since that makes him/her immanent, all things are of him/her.35 Consequently, because God is innately in all things, and since nothing can exist outside of him/her, it follows that nothing is free to defy the laws of his/her nature.36 Finally, though Spinoza claims that God is the free cause of existence, it is more precise to understand him/her as uncompelled.37

Although Spinoza believes that God is the free cause of all life, he also maintains that he/she only follows the laws of his/her nature, and thus, he/she is not free as customarily believed but rather uncompelled.38 One reason why Spinoza makes this claim is that God has a fixed, or set nature that he/she unfolds by, and since nothing is outside of him/her it follows that he/she is the sole entity that is equivalent to Nature.39 Consequently, God is to the highest degree of reality, and by being equivalent to the natural order, it follows that the laws and processes of Nature are the flow of his/her being.40 From this, it follows that God cannot defy his/her nature because it is not in his/her ability to do so since he/she is unchanging.41 That is, God is immutable, and since all other beings can trace their origins ultimately to him/her, it is the case that because there are certain permanent aspects of them, there necessarily is unchanging aspects of him/her.42 Hence, God’s nature which spreads throughout all existence is everlasting since there are facets of the natural order, and ultimately, people, that bear his/her permanency.43 Lastly, one may claim that God cannot change his/her nature since he/she is continuously active.44

Spinoza believes that it is of the essence of God to be ceaselessly active, since Nature, which he/she is equivalent to, is in constant activity.45 That is, God is always active since the continuity of the natural order can only rely on a being of that ability, since it too is constantly active.46 Moreover, because God is equivalent to Nature, it follows that Nature’s constant activity necessarily matches God’s eternal actuality because he/she is coherent with himself/herself as a conceptual and corporeal being.47 Furthermore, God is completely active because nothing has the power to stop him/her from existing since all things are less powerful than him/her due to them being determinate.48 In other words, nothing can interrupt God’s eternal actuality because nothing is at the same level of existence as him/her, and this lack of being prevents anything from disrupting him/her.49 Finally, Spinoza continues his work by addressing how thought and extension are attributes of God.

God possesses the attribute of thought because if he/she did not, all his/her derivatives would be unable to perceive or conceive the ideational aspects of the natural order.50 Moreover, because God and his/her attributes are limitless, it follows that thought is necessarily his/her since nothing aside from him/her can handle it.51 That is, nothing is as powerful as God, since only he/she is infinite, and because only things of the same nature are compatible, it is the case that nothing finite can possess the attribute of thought.52 Consequently, because God alone is infinite, only he/she has the power to possess thought since only he/she is of the same nature as that attribute.53 Furthermore, God must possess the attribute of thought, since as a concept, he/she is innately in the minds of all his/her thinking derivatives.54 That is, thinking things, express thought because the idea of God is in them, and knowingly or not they rely on that idea for their conceivability.55 Thus, because thinking things would cease to be conceivable without the idea of God, and due to that idea being immanently within them, it is the case that he/she must possess thought since they would be unable to conceive him/her, or be conceivable if he/she did not.56

Furthermore, Spinoza claims that extension is an attribute of God, since if it were not, then there would be no room or space for extended beings to exists.57 That is, God must possess the attribute of extension because extended beings do inhabit Nature and since he/she is equivalent to Nature as well as infinite, it follows that his/her attribute of extension provides the amplest room for all beings to exists.58 Moreover, because the attribute of extension is infinite, Spinoza believes that only God has the power to possess it because only he/she too is infinite.59 Also, though God possesses the attribute of extension, it is not the case that he/she has an anthropomorphic body.60 Rather, Spinoza believes that the body of God is the totality of the natural order since he/she, as understood through the attribute of extension, is Nature.61 In other words, everything found in Nature exists in God, and since all things reside in him/her, it follows that they are part of the natural order that he/she equals.62

II. God, as Understood by Kabbalists

According to Daniel C. Matt, God, as understood by Kabbalists, emanates being and is immanently within all that exists.63 That is, Kabbalist theology conveys that God is within all forms of life, while simultaneously being transcendent of the natural order.64 Furthermore, Matt states that this belief rest on the idea that Being can come from Nothingness, and thus, God is a demiurge.65 In other words, God is the creator as well as the cause of all that derives from him/her, and as understood through the lens of Kabbalist thought, he/she is under no compulsion.66 Consequently, Kabbalists believe that God’s freedom ultimately caused all things to come into being, and follow the laws of his/her nature.67 Moreover, one may question how is it possible that God could create, as well as cause all things to flow according to him/her.68 The Kabbalist answer to this is that neither pure Nothingness nor untainted Being entirely exists, and rather each is present in the other, and thus, it is the case that Being develops out of Nothingness since it is compatible with it.69 That is, Being exists in Nothingness, and Nothingness in Being and their compatibility ultimately allowed Being to disseminate throughout Nothingness, and in turn, put in motion the conditions needed to facilitate the universe to come into existence.70 Consequently, by Being and Nothingness meshing, God’s development, or progression began, which one may understand as the unfolding, or evolution of the natural order.71 Finally, the Kabbalist view of God’s attributes, or Sefirot, are important to analyze, since they are features of his/her being that are ultimately present in all forms of life.72

Kabbalists believe that God’s attributes, or Sefirot, are all aspects of his/her being, that he/she radiates through, and animates, which, in turn, caused the rational, emotional, material, volitional, and intuitional aspects of the natural order to arise.73 Also, although these qualities represent different facets of God’s nature, it is still the case that he/she is a unity.74 That is, despite God’s Sefirot being distinct from one another, one must remember that they are unique only insofar as they express a particular aspect of the one Deity.75 Furthermore, God’s Sefirot form an endless web of existence, or it is the case that they interconnect in infinitely many ways, allowing for a variety of things to exists.76 One reason for this is that God is infinite, and by being boundless it follows that the endless variations of creation and causation in the natural order matches the power of his/her productive abilities.77 Also, because all Sefirot possess being, they match one another, and thus they have the ability, and in fact do, form an intertwined net of life. To better understand the Sefirot, one may claim that together they form the intelligible cosmos, which acts as the lifeline to the physical universe since it guides the energy of the Divine to disseminate throughout existence.78 Lastly, Matt continues his exploration into the Kabbalah’s understanding of God by claiming that he/she is immutable, while at the same time ever-evolving.79

As understood by Kabbalists, God is a being who is eternally active, or it is the case that he/she is in an immutable state of becoming.80 That is, God is a permanent feature of the natural order since his/her essence is within every aspect of it, but at the same time, he/she is constantly progressing, which, in turn, explains the phenomena of change.81 One reason why Kabbalist adhere to this view is that they believe in teleology, or the theory that states that all things work toward some goal or end.82 Consequently, because Kabbalists adhere to the view that God began the processes of the universe, it is the case that the natural order will ultimately fade back into Nothingness, once he/she achieves his/her goal of obtaining self-awareness.83 At the same time, one should remember that, ultimately, there will always be existence, in one form or another, because God’s self-realization derives from beings spiritually uplifting themselves, to join in union with him/her.84 Hence, when the natural order merges with the ideational cosmos, and God develops into his/her most mature stage of existence, it is still the case that Being exists even after the passing away of the universe, as understood by creation.85 Finally, Matt continues to describe the role of creation in God’s development, and how it is requisite for him/her to achieve self-consciousness.86

Matt goes onto to describe the role of creation, specifically people, in the evolution of God.87 To him, Kabbalist believes that people are beings who can assist God in his/her journey toward self-awareness.88 That is, people have the potential to perfect themselves, and if all individuals do this, it ultimately affects God to desire to perfect himself/herself, or become totally self-conscious too.89 One reason why Kabbalist ascribe to this view is that God’s essence is the lifeline of the immaterial universe, which manifests as the natural order, and since all existence derives from him/her, it is the case that everything plays a part in God’s quest to know himself/herself.90 Consequently, people, by being able to interpret, perceive, and conceive the intelligible facets of the natural order, are self-conscious, and by being such, it is their role, as a species, to move God toward becoming the same.91 Moreover, the natural order, which houses people, is the culmination of God’s energy as crystallized through all his/her Sefirot, and since all those energies are present in the cosmos, it is the case that there are many paths that humanity can take to perfect him/her.92 In other words, because the energy of God animates all his/her attributes, which radiate into the natural order, it is the case that people can take in those energies and project them back onto him/her.93 Because of this, Kabbalist believes people will ultimately cause God to understand himself/herself, or fulfill his/her goal of self-realization.94

Also, to Kabbalists, it is impossible for anything to exist outside of God, since as their cause, he/she precedes and thus houses them all.95 In other words, because God is the first cause of existence, it follows that nothing can come before him/her since all things are derivatives of him/her, which, in turn, renders them only to be able to reside in him/her.96 One reason for this is that logically speaking it is impossible for an effect of a cause to precede that cause since it would no longer be definable as its effect.97 Consequently, because God is the cause of all things, all things are effects of him/her, and thus everything exists after him/her.98 Due to this, it is necessarily the case that all things reside in God, because as their cause, he/she precedes them, and thus nothing can exist outside of him/her since nothing can come before him/her.99 Moreover, since all existence resides in God, it is the case that his/her progression is an internal growth that manifests as the continual development of the natural order.100 That is, nothing externally acts upon God, and thus, his/her immutability remains unscathed, but at the same time, he/she evolves due to the development of the forms of life in him/her.101 Therefore, though God is ultimately stable, it is still the case that activity occurs in him/her, allowing one to claim that he/she is growing into a new stage of awareness because his/her development happens internally.102

III. Similarities Between Spinoza’s and the Kabbalah’s Understanding of God

One common thread that runs through Spinoza’s ontology and the Kabbalistic conception of the Divine is that both claim that there was no another cause or being that existed before God.103 That is, both ascribe to the view that all things derive from causes, and thus, there had to be a first cause that began the causal chain of being since infinite regress is not logically possible.104 Furthermore, Spinoza, as well as Kabbalists believe that due to God existing before all that derived from him/her; it is the case that nothing can exist outside of him/her, and thus, he/she determines the laws of nature that all forms of life follow.105 Therefore, one may claim that Spinoza and Kabbalists agree that God is not an open system, since nothing can ever exist outside of him/her, and thus, no forms of life are free to defy or determine their natures.106 One reason for this is that Spinoza and Kabbalists concur that a cause determines the conditions of being that its effect will come into, and since God is the cause of all existence, those conditions, ultimately trace back to him/her.107 In other words, Spinoza and Kabbalists adhere to the view that God’s nature, is immanently within the natural order, and causes all forms of life to have fixed beings since his/hers is permanent too.108 Hence, because God has an immutable being, it follows that all his/her derivatives feature fixed natures as well, or it is impossible for anything to be unlike itself, which is a standpoint that a Kabbalist and Spinozist would both support.109

Another similarity between Spinoza and the Kabbalah’s view of God is that both believe that he/she is under no form of compulsion.110 That is, both traditions of thought claim that it is not in the power of anything to direct God’s actions.111 One reason for this belief is that Spinozists and Kabbalists adhere to the view that God, who precedes all life forms, is not subject to the will of another being.112 This Spinozist and Kabbalist position concerning the nature of God and existence derives from their shared beliefs that nothing can compare to his/her boundless nature, and thus, nothing has the power to direct his/her course.113 In other words, because everything aside from God features negations to their beings, they, in turn, cannot exceed his/her abilities since his/her being is absent of any limits.114 Consequently, since nothing can compete with God’s power, it is not the case that anything can cause him/her to change, or be ungodly.115 That is, if anything were to change God, Kabbalists and Spinozists would claim that that would make him/her no longer God, since he/she would be going against that which defines him/her.116 But this cannot be the case for God, who is eternal and immutable, is unchanging and because nothing can offshoot his/her being, it follows that he/she cannot fade out of existence or be unlike himself/herself.117 Lastly, it is also the case that both Spinozists and Kabbalists would agree that all existence follows the flow of God’s being.118

To Spinozists and Kabbalists, God’s being determines all existence to follow the flow of his/her laws of nature.119 One reason for why they adhere to this view is that nothing can exist outside of God, and thus, his/her nature necessarily directs the flow of life that comes to be in the natural order.120 That is, one may understand God as exuding the laws of his/her nature within the natural order, and since all beings reside in him/her it is the case that they are born into conditions that are neither of their makings nor in their powers to manipulate.121 From this, it follows that God, who is the only uncompelled being, whose nature sets the conditions for all existence to emerge, has the sole ability to guide the flow of natural order since his/her nature is equivalent to it.122 In other words, both Kabbalists and Spinozists regard the natural order as the physical body of God, and thus, the laws that guide that order is aspects of God’s essence manifested corporeally.123 Finally, Spinozists and Kabbalists alike, agree that God, as understood as a physical being, is nowhere akin to any one form of life, but is rather the corporeal entirety of the universe, and all that arises within it.124

Moreover, it is the case that Spinoza and the Kabbalah have parallel views concerning God as a corporeal being.125 One way in which they have aligned beliefs is that both view the body of God as being the entirety of the natural order.126 That is, to Kabbalists and adherents of Spinoza, God as a physical being is equivalent to all of Nature.127 From this, one may claim that God, as understood by Spinozists and Kabbalists, cannot be a physical being that is akin to the bodies of any form of existence, since his/her corporeal existence is the totality of them.128 Furthermore, it is important to note that Spinozists and Kabbalists would agree that God’s body is not anthropomorphic since that view derives from people’s lack of understanding Nature.129 In other words, if people claim that God’s body resembles the human form, they are imposing limitations on him/her, which is impossible because he/she is limitless.130 Also, those who believe that God is anthropomorphic, would not find support for their views in Spinoza’s Ethics or Kabbalist literature since both convey that God by being limitless, is necessarily infinite.131 Consequently, because God is infinite and the human body finite, it is not the case that his/her physical being matches that of humankind, and thus, it is justifiable to believe that it is impossible for his/her body to resemble people’s.132

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