Deus, sive Nirvāna

Betreft de filosofie van Benedictus de Spinoza


In this essay I will address some new perspectives on Spinoza’s Ethics[1]; I will argue that his philosophical system is very much a like with the Buddhist teachings[2]. Both Spinoza and Buddhism aim for the best possible way of living, for Spinoza it means a realization of your interconnectedness with God or Nature, and for the Buddhist it means reaching Nirvāna, which also comprehend a realization of the interconnectedness. Both systems speak of the wise man as someone who has gained this insight and of the fool as who is ignorant of this aspect of life (e.g. VP42s for Spinoza and Dhammapada verses 60-89 for Buddhist literature). Yes, it turns out that Nietzsche did not fully grasped Spinoza’s system when he warned us for a European form of Buddhism in his Genealogy of Morality, for Spinoza already presented a European form of Buddhism about 200 years before Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality.

Monism, or anattā

The clear distinction between a subjective and objective aspect in experience, is like Descartes also used by Indian philosophers whom argue for the existence of an intrinsic independent self. They argue that a certain perspective, the subjective aspect, is like an ownership of the experience, and if there are perspectives or ownership, there must be something whose perceiving or owning (Garfield, 2015). Buddhists, however, do acknowledge a self on some pragmatic level, based on convention, but on a more fundamental level - metaphysically - Buddhist argue that one might imagine some ‘me’ having a mind and perceiving, but this in itself already shows that the subject is not identical with the mind, but rather a possessor of this mind. There is nothing to grasp from our constituents as person as the basis of our identity, but neither is there anything beyond those constituents. In fact, according to Buddhism, the self is composed of what is called the five aggregates: form, feelings, perceptions, thought formations and consciousness. All Buddhist schools accept these aggregates as elements of the self and since the self is therefore a compound, it lacks intrinsic nature, therefore there is no self (anattā). Nagarjuna, a Buddhist philosopher of the Mahayana school argued that even these aggregates can not exist by themselves, and therefore all phenomena are empty of self-existence (Mitilal, 2011).

Spinoza argues for a single substance, which embraces the existence of everything (IP1-14) - he calls this God or Nature. We experience this substance through the attribute of thought, or the attribute of extension (IIP1-2). Attributes, however, are not actual things in a ordinary sense; they are only a way of perceiving. The individual things (e.g. bodies and ideas) are called modes (ID5). The human body is therefore a mode. But the human body is made of different bodies (e.g. heart, lungs, eyes). Therefore a mode consists of other modes (IIP13Postulates), or, a Buddhist way of saying, the human body has no self, since it depends on other bodies to exist. So what about the human mind? The mind, as defined by Spinoza, is a thinking thing composed by ideas (IID3). So here again we see a mode consisting of other modes. And besides, according to IIP7s: ‘a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways’ (IIP7s). This means that every idea in the mind has a parallel connection with bodily events, and vice versa. From this follows that ‘the mind does not know itself, except insofar as it perceives the ideas of the affections of the body’ (IIP23). Therefore the mind, who is experienced as a separate entity, is in fact depending on the existence and affections of the body.

The doctrine of anattā entails interconnectedness and a notion of flux (Coseru, 2012), therefore to speak of a thing as a thing can only be due to other isolated moments in this flux, therefore the thing can not exist independently, but since a thing (as isolated entity) taken out of flux is already absurd, it only exists based on convention. Spinoza is also very aware of this feature, as is shown in IIP13Def: ‘When a number of bodies, whether […] they communicate their motions to each other in a certain fixed manner, we shall say that those bodies are united with one another and that they all together compose one body or individual.’ Notice the phrase we shall say, which implies that also Spinoza acknowledges the conventional notion of our body.

Nirvāna, or blessedness

Nirvāna can be explained as a state of being in which human suffering has no negative impact anymore on the individual, because of the realization that in fact there is no individual (besides on a conventional level). Nirvāna can be explained as ‘a direct apprehension and engagement with reality - including both our objects and ourselves as subjects - as impermanent, interdependent and lacking any intrinsic reality’ (Garfield, 2015, p.11). It follows that the main reason for this suffering is a primal confusion towards reality; human suffering is caused by not understanding how everything is interconnected and -depended, and therefore have no true selves. Once nirvāna has (almost) been reached, the individual is not confused anymore and has direct awareness of the interconnectedness and -dependency of all things (when concerned as things).

However Spinoza argues for a determined world (since everything is part of a single substance), blessedness is in fact direct understanding of the interrelations between all modes as part of Nature. Spinoza distinguishes three kinds of knowledge (IIP40s2). The first kind is knowledge by imagination, which is gained by the mind insofar it contains expressions in thought of the body being affected by other bodies. Imagination however does not lead to adequate ideas, since the affections noticed by the mind are experienced from a single perspective at a specific moment in time and are therefore random experiences - and the more random experiences, the more confused the mind becomes. Reason, however, which is the second kind of knowledge, leads to adequate ideas, based on common properties that these random experiences share. It is an understanding of the essence of modes gained through reasoning, which involves understanding the causal connections which are involved. Intuitive knowledge, the third kind of knowledge, proceeds from reason and gives immediately insight in how a mode is interconnected to all modes and therefore is part of the eternal infinite substance. It is this intuitive knowledge which in turn lead to the direct insight of how al phenomena are necessary interconnected as parts of Nature and are in fact interdependent of each others existence (when concerned as things). Love for this understanding of Nature, is what Spinoza calls blessedness, which will lead to a better life, for ‘the wise man […] is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possesses true peace of mind’ (VP42Dem-s)


Until now I have only focused on the non-existence of a self in Spinoza’s system. However Spinoza himself writes a lot in terms of human nature, which suggest an intrinsic self after all. In IIIP7 he writes: ‘the striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing’. However, IIIP7 follows from IIIP6 and in turn from IIIP4, which can be summarized as follows: since every mode is a part of Nature, which exists necessarily, each mode also exists necessarily; therefore a mode destroying itself would be absurd, it follows that a mode can only be destroyed by an external cause of a contrary nature. Striving to persevere in its being (conatus) is therefore a logical aspect of all existence and therefore not something exclusive to certain entities. In fact, the conatus in itself is no different per individual, since the striving for existence is some sort of power which everything possess (since self destruction is absurd because of IIIP4: ‘no thing can be destroyed except through an external cause). This striving, or conatus could therefore not explain different personalities, or different selves.


  1. I use the standard Curley translation (De Spinoza, 1667/1996) and make references like ‘IIP7s’, which refers to second chapter, proposition seven, scholium.
  2. Commonly shared core beliefs among all Buddhist schools; if I refer to a specific school, than I will mention it explicitly.


Coseru, C. (2017). Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy. In. E.N. Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017). Accessed at

Garfield, J.L. (2015). Engaging Buddhism. Why it matters to philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Matilal, B. (2011). Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198239765.001.0001

Spinoza, B. de (1996). Ethics (trans. E. Curley). London: Penguin Books. (Original: Ethica, published in 1667).

Essay voor het vak Geschiedenis van de Filosofie: Vroeg Moderne Tijd (2019)

Foto door Enrico Webers