Here is the Full text of Baruch Spinoza’s letter about freedom addressed to G. H. Schuller.
This complete text of the letter is followed by a text commentary, which is a possible correction if you are asked to do it in a philosophy test.
These corrections will allow you to better understand the text and explain what to read behind the lines. Nevertheless, it is important to read the original letter before reading the correction – text commentary.
Full Text of Baruch Spinoza’s Letter on Freedom
I call free, as far as I am concerned, a thing which is and acts by the mere necessity of its nature; constrained, that which is determined by another to exist and act in a certain determinate way.
God, for example, exists freely, though necessarily because he exists by the mere necessity of his nature. In the same way, God knows himself freely because he exists by the sole necessity of his nature. In the same way God knows himself and all things freely, because it follows from the sole necessity of his nature that God knows all things. As you can see, I do not consider freedom as a free decree but as a free necessity.
But let us go down to the created things which are all determined by external causes to exist and to act in a certain determined way. To make this clear and intelligible, let us conceive a very simple thing: a stone, for example, receives from an external cause which pushes it, a certain amount of movement and, the impulse of the external cause ceasing, it will necessarily continue to move. This persistence of the stone in movement is a constraint, not because it is necessary, but because it must be defined by the impulse of an external cause. And what is true of the stone must be understood of any singular thing, however complex you may like to attribute to it, however numerous its abilities may be, because any singular thing is necessarily determined by an external cause to exist and to act in a certain determinate manner.
Conceive now, if you will, that the stone, while it continues to move, thinks and knows that it is making an effort, as far as it can, to move. This stone will certainly, since it is conscious of its effort only and is in no way indifferent, believe that it is very free and that it perseveres in its movement only because it wants to.
Such is the human freedom which all boast of possessing, and which consists in this alone, that men are conscious of their appetites and ignorant of the causes which determine them. A child believes that he is free to eat milk, an irritated young boy to want to take revenge and, if he is a coward, to want to run away. A drunkard believes that he is said by a free decree of his soul what he would have liked to keep silent afterwards once he had become sober. Likewise, a delirious person, a talkative person, and many others of the same flower, believe they are acting by a free decree of the soul and not being forced.
This prejudice being natural, congenital among all men, they do not easily free themselves from it. Although experience teaches more than enough that, if there is one thing of which men are a little capable, it is to regulate their appetites, and although they find that, divided between two contrary affections, they often see the best and do the worst, they nevertheless believe that they are free, and this because there are certain things that excite in them only a light appetite, easily controlled by the frequently recalled memory of some other thing.
Baruch Spinoza, letter to Schuller, Letter LVIII, in Works
Text commentary: Explanations on Baruch Spinoza’s letter about freedom
[Theme]In his correspondence, some of which takes place after the publication of the Ethics, Baruch Spinoza has many opportunities to address the theme of freedom. It is here again discussed.
[Author’s presentation]Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher of the 17th century, whose writings earned him an excommunication from the Jewish community. If his works are scandalous, it is not so much because of a refusal of religion, but because of his reinterpretation or interpretation of religious and philosophical concepts, among which freedom must be counted.
[This letter is therefore written at a time when freedom understood as free will wants to be preserved, in particular to account for sin as a deliberate act and against the Protestant reform which a century earlier in Europe also opens the way to the notion of predestination.
[Thus, theproblem Baruch Spinoza addresses in his letter to G. H. Schuller is that of the “right” or “wrong” way of thinking. H. Schuller is that of understanding how the prejudice of free will can be pierced and elucidated by human beings. How can freedom be conceived for what it is, namely a free necessity rather than a free decree, the latter being only an illusion?
[Thesis]Baruch Spinoza stresses the importance of getting rid of superstitions, among which free will belongs, and which resides in the fact that man thinks he knows he is living according to his own decision, whereas he is only following necessity.
[To arrive at this thesis, it is possible to identify three movements in the text, according to its three paragraphs: first, Baruch Spinoza recalls the conclusions of the Ethics, specifying what he calls freedom. Then he shows the developments and consequences of these conclusions, insisting on the fact that everything is determined if it is singular. Finally, he strikes a blow at the illusion of mastery of men by revealing by several examples that man is not this “empire within an empire” (Ethics) that he thinks he is.
[This discovery, that freedom as free will is only an illusion, is fundamental in the history of philosophy, since the authors to come will only situate themselves in relation to Baruch Spinoza on this question; hence Hegel’s sentence: “The alternative is: Baruch Spinoza or no philosophy”.
part, Baruch Spinoza intends to recall the conclusions of the Ethics.
Baruch Spinoza begins by making a distinction between what is free and what is constrained. A thing is free if it is and acts by the mere necessity of its nature. For Baruch Spinoza, necessity consists in what cannot not be, which in the Ethics applies to God himself and thus to the world. If everything is not free, everything is necessary for Baruch Spinoza. The contingent is not a characteristic of the possible world. It is therefore more important to insist on the words “the sole necessity of its nature” in the sense that nothing external intervenes, and this is what gives the free character. On the contrary, what is constrained is “determined by another to exist”. It is indeed the external agent which founds the distinction, because all is necessary.
Hence it is possible to say of God that he is free. For if he himself is necessary, that is to say that he could not have not been or been different, for all that nothing pushed him to exist or to persevere in his being in a causal way and by an external agent. God, too, “knows all things freely” as is evident from the Ethics, since God consists of the whole world, he is unlimited and infinite, these attributes being derived from his nature by definition. Since he is all things, he “knows” all things.
This is why Baruch Spinoza rectifies against the possibility of misuse of terms the idea that freedom for him would amount to “free decree” a notion synonymous with “free will” as posited by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, “decree” insisting on decisional power. Freedom for Baruch Spinoza thus consists in following one’s own nature, and nothing else.
part of this text, Baruch Spinoza uses the example of a singular thing to show that it is determined by an external cause and therefore constrained.
In order to understand the example Baruch Spinoza takes, it is necessary to see that he is preparing a comparison with the human being. But at this point, Baruch Spinoza simply “goes down” to a singular thing, which no one asserts or has asserted could be free: in this case a stone. Thus a stone thrown by someone, or dragged by something else, will set in motion and be in motion. No one would then suspect that this stone is free. While this reflection will serve for the third part, in the present part Baruch Spinoza defines a constrained thing in this way, and generalizes from a stone to any singular thing, that is, any thing that is unique and very present, material. It is important to say that Baruch Spinoza includes the living beings, animals as well as human, aimed in particular by formula “something the complexity that you like to attribute to him”. Thus there is no radical difference between a stone, an animal and a human being, except by complexity, which are all singular things. Now every singular thing, therefore a man u included, exists by a cause and in a certain determined way, just as the stone was thrown. The only exception is of course God, who is not caused or generated by any external cause or determined to act in any way.
Baruch Spinoza in Part Three shows by example how to understand the prejudice of free will.
His demonstration by example goes through the idea of granting thought and consciousness to the stone, which, for the record, nobody suspects of being free. Of course the parallel with man is intended and important. It is a question for Baruch Spinoza of showing that man is simply conscious and knows that he is moving and that he “perseveres in his movement” without being master of his actions, without being this “empire within an empire”, an allusion already denounced in the Ethics. As the stone is not endowed with freedom but is constrained, so man is determined. The illusion is thus only due to the fact that men are conscious of their conatus, a Spinozist term describing the effort to persevere in one’s being. But since men are not aware of all the causes that impel them to act, just as the stone does not drive itself, they believe that they are free. It would be possible to add that this disillusionment is a humiliation for man as denoted by the use of the term “boasts”, because this illusion participated for man to believe himself all powerful on himself. Baruch Spinoza in this sense lists a series of examples to reinforce his argument and thus in passing to mark the fact that there is no radical difference between “a child”, “an irritated young boy”, “a drunkard”, “a delusional person” or “a talkative person”, but above all with an adult who has none of these or similar conditions. They are certainly different in their awareness and thinking about themselves, but not at all in the fact that they are entirely determined.
The human being, whatever his condition or his proximity to “normal” standards, is therefore not free in the sense of a free will. In mitigation of this error, Baruch Spinoza explains that this illusion is natural, that is, it comes to mind spontaneously. But the Ethics is indeed the work that calls for a break with this opinion, and this letter concludes to make us understand what freedom really is for Baruch Spinoza.
[Conclusion] In conclusion, this letter to G. H. Schuller is not only to remind us of the results of the Ethics concerning freedom, but above all to definitively refute the illusory character of free will, by revealing for example what freedom really is and what it is not.
[The human being, from whom all free will must be excluded, is thus put in his place in the immensity of the world that God is. This is why, on the one hand, it would be necessary to reflect on this humiliation, or “narcissistic wound” according to the terms of Sigmund Freud, the latter not having included it in his Introduction to psychoanalysis as one of the wounds, whereas it could be noticed a connection with the criticism of the unconscious, which pushes to say that the man is not his own master. On the other hand, it would be interesting to see how for Baruch Spinoza the destruction of the illusion of free will leads to a better knowledge of God, and consequently to get closer to bliss.
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