Spinoza is the Dutch philosopher who is the founder of the Spinozistic or Naturalistic School of philosophy. He is, as Bertrand Russell described him, "the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers."
Spinoza was born in Holland of Jewish parents. He was to receive from his parents a "fine education," with a thorough grounding in such subjects as Latin and physics; further, he studied the philosophies of Descartes and Bruno. As a young man, Spinoza renounced his allegiance to his Jewish ancestry. Spinoza supported himself by grinding and polishing lenses, an occupation which eventually led to his early demise (glass dust in his lungs).
As a pantheistic monist, Spinoza was of the belief that there is no dualism between God and the world; we need not go beyond the immediate present experience to seek for a being outside of it. God moves and lives in nature; the whole of it, the entire universe is God. Nature, or God is Its own cause and is self-sufficient. (Because of his view of God, Spinoza, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, was known as a man of appalling wickedness.) Man, in his egotistical way has imagined God to be like him; to be anthropomorphic in character; and, further, man imagines that this God (created in the imagination of man) has a special interest in, and concern for man. The Spinozistic God does not love nor hate. The totality of existence, Nature, God, is far above us, and is indifferent to our desires and aspirations, - gone is the notion of a personal God. As for the notions of good and evil, they exist, but only to the extent that they fit our own personal inclinations. "Such things as please us, we denominate good, those which displease us, evil."
Spinoza's most important work was entitled Ethics, published about a year after his death. To Spinoza, the guiding goal of man is self-preservation, it is an instinct which we feel in the emotion of desire. To satisfy desire is conducive to self-preservation, it brings joy or pleasure; anything to the contrary brings sorrow or pain. All of this, however, is overlaid with reason which we might use to override our passions, it is what distinguishes us from the "lower" brutes. (Virtue may, thus, be defined as acting according to reason.)
The mental capacity to reason is naturally available to all. Reason is a powerful instrument by which one is able to guide one's life. Each of us has a capacity to reason, and, so, therefore, Spinoza was of the belief that each of us might, on our own, conclude that life in a governed community, - the state - might be helpful to curb anti-social passions: Spinoza picked up on Hobbes' contract theory, though he was not as sure as Hobbes was that it was unnatural for man to put himself under the control of a government; on this point he seem to side with Plato and Aristotle, in that it was natural for man to do so.
While Descartes had declared earlier that man possessed "freewill," a necessary position for any religionist to take, Spinoza "ridiculed" this notion1 and declared that the notion of freewill "is due to the fact that people are conscious of their actions, but not of the causes of their actions." In this regard Spinoza was a determinist.
As we have seen, it was not Spinoza's view that there existed outside forces known as "good" and "evil." Like Socrates, Spinoza claimed that the act of a person might be labeled by another, or by society as good or as evil, but when a person acts outside the accepted norm, does an "evil" thing, he does it because he knew no better and "that the only remedy for that is to teach him or to punish him."
1 Henry Alphern, An Outline History of Philosophy (Forum House, 1969) p. 54.