Page images
PDF
EPUB

rect, very justly, imagined that the order of knowledge must be the same as the order of existence. What is first in reality must, he thought, be first in science. So he began with God, the first, the self-existent Being. This, however, cannot but be a stumbling-block to all who believe that the inductive process is that of philosophy, or even that philosophy has to take account of the results of the inductive sciences. In all inductive science, principles which are first in the order of nature are last in the order of intelligence. It is only in mathematical science that first principles are first in the order both of nature and intelligence. All, therefore, who cannot admit that philosophy is mathematical or demonstrative science—who acknowledge that unity is her goal or aim, but deny that it is her starting-point—will feel that Spinoza has begun at the wrong end, however natural it may have been for him to begin at that end.

His doctrine of the Divine nature is unfolded in a series of thirty-seven propositions, all professedly demonstrated, and many of them having corollaries and scholia. This series of propositions is prefaced by eight definitions and seven axioms. Most of the axioms look very innocent, but they are not as innocent as they look. There seems to be no danger in assenting to such an affirmation as “All that is, is either in itself, or in some thing other than itself,” which is axiom first; but danger there is; and you will find this axiom used under proposition sixth to prove that there is nothing in the universe but substance and the affections of substance; under proposition fifteenth, to prove that thought and extension are either attributes of God, or modes of His attributes; and so in many other places, precisely as if there was only one way of being in a thing, or as if in denoted a particular kind of inherence. It seems quite safe to assent to a statement like this, “ Whatever can be thought of as non-existing does not in its essence involve existence,” but no; it is true only if it is the truism, Whatever can be thought of as non-existing need not be thought of as existing; whereas it is not so understood, but in application is made to do duty for the very different affirmation, What can be conceived of as existing in its essence involves existence, so as to conceal in some measure one great failure of the system, its inability to establish that the notions it deals with answer to what really exists.

The definitions, unlike the axioms, present difficulties which almost every one who reads them in some measure feels. Spinoza had given them many an altering touch to bring them into the form which they bear in the Ethics, as he always found that, although they seemed to him the simplest and most self-evident truths, his friends felt it difficult to accept, or even to understand them. I have no time to examine these definitions of “cause of itself,” “the finite in its kind,” “substance," "attribute," “mode,” “God,” “ free and necessary,” “ eternity;" but I must enter my decided protest against the opinion expressed by Mr Lewes and others, that no criticism of them is needed, since they are definitions of terms. “They need not,” says Mr Lewes, “long be dwelt on, although frequently referred to by Spinoza; above all, no objection ought to be raised against them as unusual or untrue, for they are the meanings of various terms in constant use with Spinoza, and he has a right to use them as he pleases, provided he does not afterwards depart from this use, which he is careful not to do.” Well, no doubt Spinoza had so far a right to define the terms he intended to use as he pleased, on condition of keeping strictly to his definitions, but he may also have abused his right. Euclid might have called the circle a square and the square a circle, might have interchanged the names of line and surface and solid, yet defined them all correctly, and reasoned on them all correctly; but it would have been a very unwise thing in him to have thus severed and opposed the popular and scientific use of these terms, and would have led to much confusion even in mathematics. Now Spinoza has done something not very different from this in his definitions of “substance,” “mode," "free and necessary,” and “eternity.” Further, if we may not object to a man's definitions of terms as unusual or untrue, we certainly may object to them if obscure, if ambiguous, if self-contradictory, if definitions of the inherently absurd. If Euclid's definition of a circle, for example, had been difficult to understand, or if it had been as true of a square as of a circle, or if he had offered us a definition of a square circle, or of parallel lines that meet, we should have had abundance of reason to object. And obscurity, ambiguity, self-contradiction, are just the charges which will be brought against such definitions as those which Spinoza gives of “cause of itself” and “substance.” As to the statement that he was careful not to depart from that use of his terms which he prescribed to himself by his definitions, I have no doubt that he was careful—that he did his best-being thoroughly honest and sincere, anxious to deceive no one, anxious not to deceive himself; but I have as little doubt that with all his care he was not successful, and that his use of terms was often inconsistent with his definitions, or consistent only through the ambiguity of the definitions. Nor could he help himself. A man who reasoned in geometry from definitions of square circles and parallel lines that meet, would find it impossible to be consistent in his use of terms; scarcely more possible was a consistent use of them to one who started, like Spinoza, with definitions of “cause of itself” and “substance in itself.”

His central definition is that of God: “God is a being absolutely infinite; in other words, God is substance, constituted by an infinity of attributes, each of which expresses an eternal and infinite essence.” This is presented to us as an intuitive truth, clear and certain in its own self-evidence, as a principle on which we may safely reason to any length, with the conviction of knowing as thoroughly what it means as we know what Euclid means by isosceles, or scalene, or right-angled triangle. In reality, it is far more mysterious than any proposition contained in the creeds of the Church respecting the Trinity or the Incarnation. It is difficult to understand how Spinoza could expect that men would receive as self-evident, on the bare statement of it, such an assertion as that "God is substance constituted by an infinity of attributes;” or how he could overlook that if substance is constituted by attributes it cannot be what he himself defines it to be, “ that which is in itself, and is conceived by itself, or that the conception of which does not involve the conception of anything else as that from which it is formed.” The definition of God I have called Spinoza's central definition, because it includes, takes up into itself, the other definitions. There occur in it, you will have observed, the words substance, attribute, infinite,

« PreviousContinue »