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A discussion on Spinoza's account of freedom

One of the cornerstones of the philosophy of Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) is his account of freedom, concerning both freedom of in general and in particular human freedom.. In his most famous work, the 'Ethics', Spinoza even devotes an entire section to attempt to formulate an answer to this conundrum. An analysis of Spinoza's thought on this subject leads to a distinction between what is considered to be freedom, and freedom of the will, a distinction between the freedom of the divine and the freedom, if any, of man, in doing so challenging the conclusions of medieval philosophers regarding such a question and setting a precedent for the future of rationalist thought.

Spinoza's account of freedom rests in his account of God as 'not only universal, efficient, essential and first, but also a principal and free cause' [1]. His views on the question of freedom can be treated, according to H.A. Wolfson, under three headings: the definition of the terms 'free' and 'necessary'; how God is considered to be free; how man is considered to be not free [2]. Spinoza states and defines clearly his own understanding of the terms 'free' and 'necessary' with the following: "That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of it's own nature alone and is determined to action by itself alone. That thing, on the other hand, is called necessary, or rather compelled, which by another is determined to existence and action in a fixed and prescribed manner" [3]. But how did Spinoza come to arrive at this statement? A question raised by him in the chapter on 'Divine Predestination' in the 'Short Treatise' gives an answer to this. The question of freedom was discussed by some medieval philosophers as a problem of possibility, which leads to stating the question whether anything is absolutely free as a question whether anything is absolutely possible [4]. Spinoza asks 'whether there are in nature any accidental things, that is to say, whether there are any things which may happen and may not also happen'. This can be seen as a reflection of Aristotelian definitions of the accidental and the possible. Spinoza goes on to simplify Aristotelian terminology regarding necessity in his definition of freedom in the 'Ethics', calling that which is necessary by its own nature 'free', and to call that which is necessary by its cause 'necessary' or 'compelled'. "True freedom," says Spinoza, "is only or no other than (the status of being) the first cause." On the whole this can be seen to correspond with the medieval definition of freedom. Spinoza follows this by applying this definition of freedom to God, with the statement that God's action flows from His own motive and is without compulsion. He further explains that the compulsion comes neither from without nor from within God, that is to say, 'God is what is generally known as a principal cause' [5]. However, this notion of freedom does not involve any notion of will; Spinoza denies that God has a 'will' or that he makes choices. To attribute will and choice to God, for Spinoza, is anthropomorphic, and as a result limiting. Spinoza maintains that there is nothing more to will than individual acts of volition, therefore will is not a 'faculty' of God [6].

Since God is a primary cause, a cause in the sense that what exists follows God's essence, God can be said to be a free cause. Here freedom is understood in relation to a lack of external constraint. God is considered free by Spinoza because 'there is nothing to interfere with the unfolding of the divine essence' [7]. However, in contrast to this is Spinoza's doctrine of the denial of human freedom. Freedom of will, as usually conceived, is 'no less inconsistent with a necessary order governed by universal laws', according to R.A. Duff, 'for such freedom is supposed to mean the power of acting without motive, or contrary to the strongest motive; the power of obeying or disobeying reason' [8]. Against this conception Spinoza is seen to argue repeatedly. Firstly, he holds this conception to be an impossible one; it seems possible only because we imagine man as 'a thing apart', separate and independent from nature and the world around us. According to Spinoza, if we understood man we could not have such a conception, for to understand man we need to correlate his actions and volitions with the other parts of the whole system of nature to which he belongs [9]. "In no mind is there absolute or free will," Spinoza states specifically, "but the mind is determined to this or that volition by a cause, which has also been determined by another, and this again by another, and so on in infinitum." In his words, men think themselves free because they are conscious of their actions but ignorant of the causes of these actions [10]. It follows from this that while men always do what they will, what they will does not depend simply upon themselves and themselves along, but on 'the relation between their own power and the power of external causes' [11]. Without realising it, men always act in accordance with the laws of nature, and as a result think themselves to be free, whilst they fail to recognise that they are bound to the laws of their nature, that what determines their volition, their drive, is out of their hands. Spinoza contends, then, that whatever freedom man enjoys, it cannot be freedom of the kind enjoyed by God [12]. But this doctrine of the denial of freedom of the will is susceptible to misunderstanding. Spinoza does not deny the existence of the phenomena of human life that fall generally under the term 'will'. Humans indeed formulate plans, make choices among alternatives, and in making decisions exhibit and follow the laws of nature in accordance with which all of nature exists and acts [13]. Spinoza's doctrine denies the weight humans lay upon planning, choosing, deciding, etc., when they think of those activities as signs of the separateness of man from other creatures of nature and of his ontological uniqueness [14].

So far it is clear to see how Spinoza makes a distinction between the freedom enjoyed by God, the 'primary cause', and that, if any, enjoyed by man. At this point Spinoza elaborates upon the position of man in the big scheme of things. furthering his analysis of our limitations as evident by our bondage to the laws of nature by outlining our bondage, our union, with God and the divine. In Spinoza's view, what man thinks, feels and desires, he thinks, feels, and desires not in virtue of his independence of the world (for man is not truly independent) but solely through his place and function in it, as an integral part of it [15]. The only 'free cause' is reality itself, of nature and the world around us. Man can make no claim to this, for 'the force by which he perseveres in his existence is limited and is infinitely exceeded by the power of outward causes'. Thus, whatever power he has cannot be that of self-determination, but that of a part within a complete system. Spinoza's conception of man as an integral and essential part of the universal order of existence seemed to promise for many the solution to al the difficulties in which the popular dualisms between God and nature, and between nature and man, had been so fruitless [16]. Spinoza goes to elaborate further upon this, stating that whatever power a man has comes from his union with God, and the more unity there is the more power he enjoys. To weaken this bond in any way is to render the individual helpless. If man has distinct qualities, these cannot be of such a nature as to lift him out of the world of necessary determination to which all other things in the world belong. If freedom is one of his virtues, it cannot be 'the freedom not to exist. or not to make use of reason', since this is obviously self-contradictory. If thought is free, this cannot mean that we are free to think absolutely as we please, since, to speak properly, 'we ourselves never affirm of deny anything of a thing ... it is the thing itself which affirms or denies something of itself in us'. This notion is similarly adopted in the 'Ethics': "In the mind there is no volition, or affirmation, and negation, save that which an idea, in so far as it is an idea, involves" [17].

In conclusion, Spinoza indeed arrives at an interesting resolution to the conundrum of freedom, displaying a debt to the medieval philosophy that came before him, and even as far back as to Aristotle, while also challenging this philosophy with his own departures, in particular regarding the types of freedom believed to be held by God and by man. He recognises that human freedom must be limited as opposed to divine freedom, since to award both the same would put man as high as the divine in the hierarchy of existence, and this can obviously never be the case. Not only this, but Spinoza also recognises that we cannot analyse divine freedom in terms of human freedom, as this would impose man's limitations, his bondage to nature and his existence in general, onto God - this being, of course, contradictory. In all, Spinoza appears to have struck a balance with a reasoned, rational and convincing argument to account for and to solve the problem of freedom.


1. Wolfson, H.A. "The Philosophy of Spinoza"
(Schocken Books, New York, 1969) p.308

2. Wolfson "The Philosophy of Spinoza" p.309

3. ibid.

4. ibid.

5. ibid.

6. Philosophy 22 Lecture Notes: Spinoza
( - accessed 24/1/2001)

7. ibid.

8. Duff, R.A. "Spinoza's Political and Ethical Philosophy"
(James Maclehose and Sons, Glasgow, 1903) p.38

9. ibid.

10. ibid.

11. ibid.

12. Duff "Spinoza's Political and Ethical Philosophy" p.39

13. ed. Shahan, R.W., Biro, J.I. "Spinoza: New Perspectives"
(University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1978) p.226

14. Shahan/Biro "Spinoza: New Perspectives" p.227

15. Duff "Spinoza's Political and Ethical Philosophy" p.40

16. Duff "Spinoza's Political and Ethical Philosophy" p.41

17. Duff "Spinoza's Political and Ethical Philosophy" p.43