Letter to Schuller – Baruch Spinoza

You will find here the briefly commented passages of Spinoza’s letter to Schuller, shedding light on his vision of freedom.

→ Find here our much more detailed corrected commentary on this same letter to Schuller written by Spinoza.

I call free, as for me, a thing that 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.

Spinoza posits a double definition: what is free, and what is constrained. What is free is that which is not oppressed by anything, which exists according to its own necessity. On the contrary, what is constrained is that which is determined by another thing, by another thing that modifies its being.

God, for example, exists freely although necessarily because he exists by the sole 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 to be a free decree but a free necessity.

God is himself free. For he is and acts by the sole necessity of his nature.

But let us go down to the created things which are all determined by external causes to exist and act in a certain determinate way. To make this clear and intelligible, let us conceive of something very simple: 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 is to 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 act in a certain determinate way.

Spinoza uses the comparison with a stone. The stone is constrained when something pushes it.

Conceive now, if you will, that the stone, while it continues to move, thinks and knows that it makes an effort, as much as it can, to move. This stone will certainly, since it is aware 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.

Spinoza makes the connection with consciousness. We are all conscious of our movements. We are conscious of our actions. But are we free?

Such is the human freedom that everyone boasts of possessing, and which consists only in that men are conscious of their appetites and ignore the causes that 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 saying by a free decree of his soul what he would have liked to keep silent afterwards, once he had become sober. Similarly, a delirious person, a talkative person, and many others of the same flour, believe they are acting by a free decree of the soul and not allowing themselves to be constrained.

We must not see our freedom as a free will. We do not have free will. We are simply aware of our actions, but these actions are somehow destined. We can’t do anything about it. We can only follow what God makes of us, necessarily, and without being able to change it.