Jessse Olsavsky

Spinoza was known by his contemporaries as the “virtuous atheist.” Novalis, however, called him “the god intoxicated man.” In one sense, the former description correctly points out that Spinoza rejected the notion of a transcendent God external to the universe, yet in another sense, Novalis’s much later description best typified Spinoza. Spinoza’s God was one that was immanent in nature; it was nature, in fact. We as humans are a part of this order of nature, but more specifically, we are modes of God itself, not as embodied minds, but as modes that can be conceived through different attributes. Spinoza’s philosophy is intriguing, but we should not dwell on it for too long. His wonderful elucidation of his ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology can be found in his posthumous work the Ethics. It is a short work well worth reading. His system is basically one that employs much of the Cartesian vocabulary, but does so in a way that rejects a transcendent God and dismantles the Cartesian dualism. Essentially Spinoza argues that God is nature (infinite substance). This “substance” is infinite, but has finite “modes” within it. These modes are conceived through attributes, and there are possibly an infinite number of them. Humans, however, only know of two, namely, thought and extension. Hence thought and extension are not different; they are just two aspects of the same thing.

Spinozism—then and ever since—has been an alluring force in philosophy, yet it is interesting that it survived the era of the Critical philosophy which had put all dogmatic metaphysics under intense scrutiny. More specifically, Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” rejected the very possibility that the mind could reach metaphysical truths as far reaching as Spinozism. Kant’s philosophy was probed the limits of human understanding, and sought to outline the conditions for its possibility. Kant began with spontaneity. We are the law makers; we impose are concepts upon the world of representations in order to know it. This implies that we have no 3rd level “intuitive knowledge” that enables us to understand the rational structures of the universe. Instead claims that these rational structures do not correspond to the universe, but only to the human understanding.

Most post Kantian idealists remained faithful to these Kantian claims which essentially kill the possibility of Spinozistic determinism and rationalism, yet somehow Spinozism had a major resurgence amongst idealists, a resurgence that at first glance seems completely antithetical to the Kantian project itself. It is important to understand how this happened. I will mainly discuss the “Pantheismusstreit” (the ‘Pantheism Controversy’, or ‘quarrel’), but I will also talk about The influence of Spinozism on Schelling. The prevalence of spinozism is much broader than this, but these are two focus points.

The Pantheismusstreit began in 1785 when Jacobi published his Letters to Moses Mendelssohn Concerning the doctrine of Spinoza. The letters revolve around an earlier conversation between Jacobi and the prominent writer and dramatist Lessing. Jacobi purportedly showed Lessing an unpublished poem by the young romantic poet, Goethe. Here is the poem:

Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus,
Mit Wolkendunst
Und übe, dem Knaben gleich,
Der Disteln köpft,
An Eichen dich und Bergeshöhn;
Mußt mir meine Erde
Doch lassen stehn
Und meine Hütte, die du nicht gebaut,
Und meinen Herd,
Um dessen Glut
Du mich beneidest.
Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres
Unter der Sonn als euch, Götter!
Ihr nähret kümmerlich
Von Opfersteuern
Und Gebetshauch
Eure Majestät
Und darbtet, wären
Nicht Kinder und Bettler
Hoffnungsvolle Toren.
Da ich ein Kind war,
Nicht wußte, wo aus noch ein,
Kehrt ich mein verirrtes Auge
Zur Sonne, als wenn drüber wär
Ein Ohr, zu hören meine Klage,
Ein Herz wie meins,
Sich des Bedrängten zu erbarmen.
Wer half mir
Wider der Titanen Übermut?
Wer rettete vom Tode mich,
Von Sklaverei?
Hast du nicht alles selbst vollendet,
Heilig glühend Herz?
Und glühtest jung und gut,
Betrogen, Rettungsdank
Dem Schlafenden da droben?
Ich dich ehren? Wofür?
Hast du die Schmerzen gelindert
Je des Beladenen?
Hast du die Tränen gestillet
Je des Geängsteten?
Hat nicht mich zum Manne geschmiedet
Die allmächtige Zeit
Und das ewige Schicksal,
Meine Herrn und deine?
Wähntest du etwa,
Ich sollte das Leben hassen,
In Wüsten fliehen,
Weil nicht alle
Blütenträume reiften?
Hier sitz ich, forme Menschen
Nach meinem Bilde,
Ein Geschlecht, das mir gleich sei,
Zu leiden, zu weinen,
Zu genießen und zu freuen sich,
Und dein nich zu achten,
Wie ich!
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1773

Cover your heaven, Zeus,
With cloudy vapors
And like a boy
beheading thistles
Practice on oaks and mountain peaks
Still you must leave
My earth intact
And my small hovel, which you did not build,
And this my hearth
Whose glowing heat
You envy me.
I know of nothing more wretched
Under the sun than you gods!
Meagerly you nourish
Your majesty
On dues of sacrifice
And breath of prayer
And would suffer want
But for children and beggars,
Poor hopeful fools.
Once too, a child,
Not knowing where to turn,
I raised bewildered eyes
Up to the sun, as if above there were
An ear to hear my complaint,
A heart like mine
To take pity on the oppressed.
Who helped me
Against the Titans' arrogance?
Who rescued me from death,
From slavery?
Did not my holy and glowing heart,
Unaided, accomplish all?
And did it not, young and good,
Cheated, glow thankfulness
For its safety to him, to the sleeper above?
I pay homage to you? For what?
Have you ever relieved
The burdened man's anguish?
Have you ever assuaged
The frightened man's tears?
Was it not omnipotent Time
That forged me into manhood,
And eternal Fate,
My masters and yours?
Or did you think perhaps
That I should hate this life,
Flee into deserts
Because not all
The blossoms of dream grew ripe?
Here I sit, forming men
In my image,
A race to resemble me:
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad

And never to heed you,
Like me!

The poem is about Prometheus’s rebellion against the Gods. It was Prometheus who created mankind and gave them fire. It was part of a broader Romantic fascination with Prometheus which culminated in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (the book’s subtitle is “the Modern Prometheus”). Clearly, even though the poem is heretical, it is by no means Spinozistic. Nevertheless, after reading the poem (so Jacobi claimed), Lessing unexpectedly exclaimed that he was a Spinozist. Through rest of the Letters to Moses Mendelssohn Concerning the doctrine of Spinoza, Jacobi elaborated upon his own rejection of Spinozism and Kantianism, backing instead a theory of belief. Philosophical reasoning, he believed either led to absolute Spinozism, or absolute idealism. On the one hand, thought Jacobi, philosophizing brings one to absolute atheism and mechanical determinism, and on the other, philosophizing leaves one with nothing more than subjective egoism, where God cannot be known and where the divide between phenomenal and noumenal is insurmountable.

Despite Jacobi’s warnings, he, like Kant, had done little to make Spinoza a dead letter. In fact, Jacobi had further publicized Spinoza and re-injected him into popular philosophical discussion. Many now began to see that the solution to some of the philosophical problems lay in making Spinozism and idealism compatible. The divide between subject and object had to be surmounted through Spinozism, while simultaneously retaining the idealist fidelity to freedom. In short, a “Spinozism of freedom” was needed. Schelling was one who immediately took up this project.

Schelling originally started out as a Fichtean. However, Schelling—at a very young age—began to see the inherent problems with Fichte’s work that focused on the structure of self-consciousness. “I” and “not I” as normative posits made no philosophical contribution towards an understanding of the independent reality of the world. It was simply too subjective. Moreover, it did nothing to show the unity of mind and matter.“I” and “not-I” did erase the “thing-in-itself” problem, yet it was not much of a solution. Now the divide existed solely within self-consciousness itself.

Schelling accepted Fichte’s claim that philosophy either started with subject or with object. Schelling, however, believed that there was an inherent unity between both starting points, because both represented a single absolute. Hence, the subject/object dichotomy which had been taken for granted by previous philosophers was just coeval viewpoints of the same thing, namely, what Schelling called the “absolute I.” We spontaneously created the demarcation between subject and object, but in doing so we must intuit the fact that we were already on both sides of the divider. A distinction was freely created by us, a distinction which originally did not exist until we began to philosophize. The goal now was to spontaneously reunite idea with object, mind with matter. This goal of merging thought and extension into one was essentially a Spinozistic goal, and naturally, it Spinoza himself, assumed Schelling, who first realized the need for philosophy to do this.

Schelling, however, saw many problems with Spinozism (even though he was essentially a Spinozist during the 1790s). Schelling believed that the emergence of the two worlds of ideas and objects was a dichotomy freely made in self-consciousness through philosophizing. Spinoza, however did not try to solve this problem within self-consciousness, but instead elucidated upon the nature God, or Nature. Moreover, Schelling also attacked Spinoza for what he believed to be Spinoza’s mechanistic conception of the universe.

In his Naturphilosophie, Schelling opted for an organic conception of the universe where self-subsistent organisms were free from mechanical laws of causality. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, at first glance, appears to be an exposition of the natural science of his day, yet as can be seen, it was actually much more. Naturphilosophie actually was an idea of nature that attempted to solve the dualism between us and the “thing-in-itself.” Substance was organic, and once we see it in this way, we will begin see ourselves differently than before, and the gap between us and nature will be bridged. These ideas of Schelling’s were indeed new and unique but they obviously took cue from Spinoza.

Further reading

Spinoza. Ethics. London: Penguin, 1996.

Schelling. Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Vallee, Gerard. The Spinoza Conversations Between Lessing and Jacobi: Text with Excerpts
from the Ensuing Controversy. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1988.

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