Intellectual Love of God


According to the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), the intellectual love of God (amor dei intellectualis) is the highest blessedness to which humans can aspire. This deeply satisfying love arises from an immediate and intuitive knowledge of God—whom Spinoza identifies with Nature—and of oneself as a part and product of God/Nature. Spinoza’s conception of the intellectual love of God resonates with the long tradition of philosophical thinkers in the West, going back at least to Plato and the Neoplatonists, who celebrate the emotional satisfaction to be derived from reflective contemplation of what is ontologically ultimate—sometimes called “the God of the philosophers.” It also suggests to some the ecstatic love that is said to characterize the mystical union with the divine. Spinoza’s concept derives from the specifics of his metaphysical psychology and theory of the emotions. A sublime conception that conjoins affective religiosity with rational understanding, the intellectual love of God has been an inspiration both to such romantic poets as Novalis and to hardheaded scientific rationalists such as Einstein and Bertrand Russell.

Spinoza was born into Amsterdam’s Jewish community, but when still young began to develop heterodox theological views that were unacceptable in the synagogue. Banned from the community at age twenty-four, he left Amsterdam. During his lifetime he was best known for his controversial critique of revealed religion and of traditional interpretations of scripture. His systematic philosophical views, including the doctrine of the intellectual love of God, are presented in The Ethics—first published after his death in the two-volume Opera Posthuma (1678).

The doctrine of the intellectual love of God has affinities with the soaring flights of certain mystical thinkers, and there is reason to think that it was influenced by the ideas of Leone Ebreo, a Jewish Neoplatonist and kabbalist in the tradition of the Florentine Renaissance. Spinoza presents the doctrine as a theorem derived strictly from his elaborate metaphysical and psychological system. The exposition of his belief that the intellectual love of God is the peak of human blessedness marks the culmination of Spinoza’s five-part Ethics.

In Part One of The Ethics, Spinoza asserts that God is the first cause of all things, God is ultimately the only reality, and all things are in God and are part of God.

Equating God with Nature in its dynamic and active aspect, Spinoza sees all things, including humans, as following from the power of Nature—acting with predictable regularity in accordance with what are called the laws of Nature. Each human is a finite embodiment in which the structured power of God/Nature is expressed.

Part Two develops Spinoza’s theory of the individual human being as a complex entity whose body is composed of smaller bodies and is in constant interaction with the surrounding physical environment.

Part Three of The Ethics begins by noting that each individual has a natural tendency toward self-preservation—Spinoza calls this an “endeavor (conatus) to persevere in being.” Whenever anything occurs that enhances an individual’s activity level or power to persevere in being, the individual will experience that increase—that transition—as joy. If anything decreases an individual’s level of activity or power, that decrease—the downward transition —will be experienced as sadness. On the basis of these three basic affects—endeavor, joy, and sadness—Spinoza constructs an elaborate psychology of the emotions.

Part Four of The Ethics explains the place of the emotions in the life of a virtuous and free person. Spinoza emphasizes the role of reason in providing guidance for such a life, and in Part Five he investigates ways in which reason can exert direct influence over the emotions. Negative and painful emotions are most effectively addressed by being countered by positive emotions. Spinoza shows that among the most powerful of these positive emotions is love, and he demonstrates, in his logical/ geometrical manner, that the most potent and liberating form of love is the love of God. In outline, the argument goes as follows.

When an individual experiences joy upon interacting with something or someone, the individual comes to love that thing or person. Indeed, Spinoza defines love in just these terms: “Love is joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause [of that joy]” (Ethics, Part 3, Prop. 13, scholium). Hatred, then, is “Sadness, accompanied by the idea of an external cause” (ibid).

One additional premise provides Spinoza with all he needs to derive the doctrine of the intellectual love of God. Like many philosophers before him—for example, Aristotle, Ger-sonides, Crescas—Spinoza holds that knowing and understanding are inherently pleasurable activities—to understand is to be active and this heightening of one’s level of activity is, by definition, joyful.

Spinoza distinguishes between a step-by-step deductive rational understanding and a more immediate intuitive kind of knowledge that partakes of the very timelessness associated with logic and mathematics. This most powerful intuitive knowledge, which Spinoza calls “the highest, or third kind of knowledge,” proceeds directly from an understanding of the essence of God to an understanding of the essence of things (Ethics, Part 2, Prop. 40, scholium 2).

In coming to know God and in knowing things as they follow from the divine nature, individuals engage in the highest possible level of active cognition. To the extent that individuals come to know God in this way, they experience powerfully the heightened level of activity that is joy—and that joy is accompanied by the idea of God as the cause of that joy. Because the joy that constitutes God’s love is a result of insight and understanding—rather than sensual gratification—the love can rightly be called an intellectual love.

Spinoza holds that things follow from God/ Nature with the kind of necessity and timeless-ness recognized in mathematics and geometry. He is famous for the claim that insofar as things are understood as they truly are, they will be seen “under a certain form of eternity” (sub quadam specie aeternitatis)—to come to know the self as one follows God is to know the self under such a form of eternity. Spinoza concludes, “The intellectual love of God, which arises from the third kind of knowledge, is eternal” (Ethics, Part 5, Prop. 33)

Spinoza is aware that there is a problem in the claim that the intellectual love of God is eternal, for there can be no change in what is eternal. Change requires time, and eternity is timelessness. But if there is no change, there can be no transition from a lower level to a higher level of activity. Joy was defined precisely in terms of such a transition. Without transition there can be no joy; without joy there can be no love.

Addressing the problem of whether eternal love exists, Spinoza replies that the pure and perfect eternal activity that characterizes the mind in its intuitive knowledge of God, and of itself as following from God, is a source of something even finer than joy. Precisely because this intuitive knowledge is eternal, it can have no beginning. Spinoza says (in the scholium to proposition 33 of Part 5) “If joy . . . consists in the passage to a greater perfection, blessedness must surely consist in the fact that the mind is endowed with perfection itself.” So the intellectual love of God is a potentiated form of love based not on the joy produced by a transition to a higher level, but by the blessedness characteristic of timeless perfection itself.

Spinoza goes one final step further in his powerful claims in favor of this remarkable love. Because God/Nature possesses infinite power and perfection, and because that power and perfection are accompanied, in the mind of God, with the idea of God, one can say that God loves himself with an infinite intellectual love: “The mind’s intellectual love of God is the very love of God by which God loves himself. . . .” (Ethics, Part 5, Prop. 36) To the extent that humans achieve and enjoy that love, they participate directly and intimately in the eternal perfection and blessedness of the divine.

Despite the reference to God’s love, Spinoza rejects all attribution of human-like emotions to his naturalistic God. Nature is purely and perfectly active, and it has an idea of itself. That is enough to warrant Spinoza’s use of the term love, given his definition, but not the erroneous and anthropomorphic view that God is a person.

Spinoza’s vision is a vision of a nonpersonal God that individuals can come to love through understanding Nature and understanding the way that things follow in accordance with natural laws. The account of rapturous participation in the divine—knowing the self in God and God in the self—led the German Romantic poet Novalis to dub Spinoza a “God-intoxicated man.” The pleasurably contented peace of mind (acquiescentia animi) that accompanies a naturalistic understanding of oneself and the world has led many natural scientists—among them Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein—to endorse and identify with Spinoza’s vision of the intellectual love of God.

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