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Spinoza on Death, ‘Our Present Life’ & the Imagination (06.24.

15)

Yitzhak Y. Melamed and Oded Schechter

“Death as the resolution of


illusion is itself illusory”1

The fourth part of Spinoza’s Ethics – titled “On Human

Bondage, or on the Power of the Affects” – is dedicated primarily to

the elucidation of Spinoza’s ethical views. At the very end of this part

appear seven propositions which describe the behavioral patterns of

the “Free Man [homo liber],” i.e., a man who is led by reason and not

by the affects (E4p66s). 2 The first of these propositions reads: “A

1 Hallett, F.H., Aeternitas, 131.

2 Unless otherwise marked, all references to the Ethics, the early works of

Spinoza, and Letters 1-29 are to Curley's translation: The Collected Works of

Spinoza. Vol. 1. Edited and translated by Edwin Curley. (Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1985). References to Spinoza’s Theological

Political Treatise and his Political Treatise are to Curley’s forthcoming

translation in volume II of Spinoza’s Collected Works. We would like to than

Ed Curley for granting us permission to use a drafts of his translation. In

references to the other letters of Spinoza we have used Shirley's translation:

Spinoza, Complete Works, translated by Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis:

Hackett, 2002). We have relied on Gebhardt’s critical edition (Spinoza Opera,

4 volumes (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Verlag, 1925)) for the Latin text of

Spinoza. We use the following standard abbreviations for Spinoza’s works:

TIE - Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect [Tractatus de Intellectus

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freeman thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a

meditation on life, not on death” (E4p67). This striking

announcement has perplexed many, if not most, of Spinoza’s readers.

Why does Spinoza claim that a free and rational man does not even

think of death? Is it not the case that death is one of the essential

horizons of human existence? Should a rational person not try to

avoid death? And, if so, can she try to avoid death without thinking

of it?

Emendatione], DPP – Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy [Renati des Cartes

Principiorum Philosophiae Pars I & II], CM – Metaphysical Thoughts [Cogitata

Metaphysica], KV – Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being [Korte

Verhandeling van God de Mensch en deszelfs Welstand], TTP –Theological-Political

Treatise [Tractatus Theologico-Politicus], TP –Political Treatise [Tractatus Politicus],

Ep. – Letters. Passages in the Ethics will be referred to by means of the

following abbreviations: a(-xiom), c(-orollary), p(-roposition), s(-cholium)

and app(-endix); ‘d’ stands for either ‘definition’ (when it appears

immediately to the right of the part of the book), or ‘demonstration’ (in all

other cases). Hence, E1d3 is the third definition of part 1 and E1p16d is the

demonstration of proposition 16 of part 1. We are indebted to Clare

Carlisle, Zach Gartenberg, Warren Zev Harvey and Jason Yonover for their

helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.

2
Spinoza’s typically bold views about the nature of death have

been subjected to several important studies by excellent scholars. 3

Still, we argue, these views have been improperly understood,

primarily because of the natural inclination to explicate them in terms

of more familiar theories about mind eternity and the afterlife. To put

things bluntly, if we understand Spinoza correctly, his view is that

death – and not just the various theories about the afterlife – is

essentially a myth; more importantly, Spinoza employs a penetrating

analysis and a set of powerful arguments to substantiate this

audacious claim.

In their excellent introduction to the recent (2013) Oxford

Handbook of the Philosophy of Death, the volume’s editors note: “most

non-philosophers seem to believe that each person has a nonphysical

soul that continues to exist after the death of the body…But this

view is not widely held by philosophers.”4 Strikingly, Spinoza seems

to embrace a view diametrically opposed to the one just stated (while

still rejecting any theory of afterlife). For Spinoza, the fear of death is

3 Three valuable studies are Wallace Matson, “Death and Destruction in

Spinoza’s Ethics,” Charles Jarrett, “The Development of Spinoza’s

Conception of Immortality”, and Daniel Garber, “ ‘A Free Man thinks of

Nothing less than of Death’: Spinoza on the Eternity of the Mind.”

4 Bradley, Ben, Feldman, Fred, and Johansson, Jens (eds.), Oxford Handbook

of the Philosophy of Death, 2

3
the essential litmus test that distinguishes between the philosopher

and the commoner. It is strictly impossible – claims Spinoza in the

preface to the Theological Political Treatise (1670) - to free the common

people from fear (of death).5 The more a person is guided by reason

the less she would think of death. The concept of death, for Spinoza,

is part of a certain natural conceptual scheme that dominates our

behavior and that Spinoza calls “imagination [imaginatio].” The

imagination, for Spinoza, is the lowest and least adequate kind of

cognition. The more we are able to rationalize our pattern of

thinking, the less we are governed by the imagination, and therefore,

the less we have room for the notion of death.

In explicating our reconstruction of Spinoza’s views, we will

proceed in the following order. In the first part of this paper we will

discuss Spinoza’s definitions of destruction and of the death of the

body. In the second part, we will address Spinoza’s views on the

relation between rationality and the employment of the concept of

death. We will begin this section by clarifying Spinoza’s interpretation

of the Biblical story of the Fall. In the third part we will attempt to

explain the patterns of behavior and thought of Spinoza’s Free Man

(or Woman). Specifically, we will explain how the free human being

5 TTP Preface| III/12. This point is also nicely stressed by Garber, “Free

Man,” 110-112. Only in his late and incomplete Political Treatise does

Spinoza entertain the idea of a “free multitude” that is mostly not guided by

the fear of death (TP Ch. 5| III/296).

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attempts to continue her existence and avoid death while not fearing

it. In the fourth and final part of the paper we will explain Spinoza’s

views on the “death” of the mind and the nature of the imaginary

existence Spinoza calls “our present life.”

Part I: Spinoza’s Definitions of Destruction and Death

Spinoza’s definition of destruction [destructio/verderf] has

escaped the attention of scholars because it does not appear in one of

his major works, and is not designated separately as a definition. Still,

the wording of Spinoza’s claim in his June 1666 (probable date) letter

to John Hudde seems to indicate that he considered the sentence as

such:

To destroy a thing is to resolve it into such parts that none of

them express the nature of the whole [rem destruere est illam in

ejusmodi partes resolvere, ut nulla earum omnium naturam

totius exprimat].6

Notably, Spinoza does not define destruction as the annihilation of a

thing, i.e., turning an existing thing into nothing, but rather as a new

reorganization of the parts of a thing (though, as we will shortly see,

not every reorganization of the parts constitutes a destruction). This,

6 Ep. 36| IV/184/22-29. Spinoza seems to assume this definition of

destruction in a crucial step in E1p12d. Without this definition, the reducio ad

absurdum of the second horn in E1p12d would fail. See Melamed,

“Spinoza’s Mereology.”

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however, should not at all surprise us since Spinoza relentlessly

affirms that nothing comes from nothing and nothing turns into

nothing.7 For Spinoza, annihilation is just as impossible as creation ex

nihilo. An elephant cannot suddenly appear in the middle of the room,

and if there were an elephant in the middle of the room, it cannot

suddenly disappear. Along the same lines, Spinoza would argue,

nothing can emerge out of nothing (whether it is in the middle of

room or anywhere else in space), and nothing can be annihilated.

With this brief clarification of the nature of destruction at

hand let us turn now to Spinoza’s explanation of the death, or

destruction, of the body. The passage below appears in the fourth

part of the Ethics in the context of Spinoza’s discussion of good and

evil.

E4p39: Those things are good which bring about the

preservation of the proportion of motion and rest the human

Body's parts have to one another; on the other hand, those

things are evil which bring it about that the parts of the human

Body have a different proportion of motion and rest to one

another.

Dem.: To be preserved, the human Body requires a

great many other bodies (by IIPost. 4). But what

constitutes the form of the human Body consists in

7 See, for example, E2p13L3c, Ep. 4 (IV14/12), TTP Ch. 6 (III/86),

DPP1a7, DPP1p4s (I/154), and KV I 2 (I/21/13).

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this, that its Parts communicate their motions to one

another in a certain fixed proportion (by the

Definition [at II/99-100]). Therefore, things which

bring it about that the Parts of the human Body

preserve the same proportion of motion and rest to

one another, preserve the human Body’s form.

Hence, they bring it about that the human Body can

be affected in many ways, and that it can affect

external bodies in many ways (by IIPost. 3 and Post.

6). So they are good (by P38).

Next, things which bring it about that the human Body’s parts

acquire a different proportion of motion and rest to one another

bring it about (by the same Definition [at II/99-100]) that

the human Body takes on another form, i.e. (as is known

through itself, and as I pointed out at the end of the

preface of this Part), that the human Body is destroyed, and

hence rendered completely incapable of being

affected in many ways. So (by P38), they are evil,

q.e.d.8

8 Italics added. In his early Short Treatise Spinoza’s account of the mind-body

union is different from the Ethics. Still his conception of the death of the

body (and mind) is quite similar to the Ethics: “But if other bodies act on

ours with such force that the proportion of motion [to rest] cannot remain

1 to 3, that is death, and a destruction of the soul, insofar as it is only an

7
We quote E4p39d in extenso, since it provides a brief summary of

Spinoza’s theory of the individuation and diachronic identity of

bodies and applies it to the case of the human body. 9 In a section

commonly referred to as “the Physical Digression,” in Part 2 of the

Ethics, Spinoza provides the following criterion for the identity over

time of an individual body:

When a number of bodies, whether of the same or of

different size, are so constrained by other bodies that

they lie upon one another, or if they so move,

whether with the same degree or different degrees of

speed, that 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,

which is distinguished from the others by this union

of bodies.10

Each body has a typical pattern of motion (or formula) which

governs its movements and dispositions (the movements of its parts

under various conditions). For Spinoza, an individual body can lose

Idea, knowledge, etc. of a body having this proportion of motion and rest.”

KV II, Pref|I/53/25-29.

9 This theory is developed in greater detail in the “Physical Digression”

following E2p13.

10 E2p13def| II/99/27-100/5.

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or gain parts yet still remain the same individual as long as the parts

are still governed by the same pattern of movement (E2p13LL4-5).

The human body too can undergo many changes and still

remain the very same individual. Yet, some changes in the

functioning of the parts of our body are too drastic.11 We can, for

example, lose some organs and still retain, more or less, the same

patterns of behavior. Consider, however, the gruesome situation of

Louis the XVI shortly after his execution. Louis-sans-his-head is a

body that is still unified by a certain proportion of motion and rest.

Yet, having been guillotined, the body’s pattern of motion and rest

changes dramatically. For Spinoza, the death of the body is just such a

change, i.e., it is an acquisition of a radically new formula which

governs the patterns of motion of the parts of the body.12

11 We are not aware of any attempt by Spinoza to designate a threshold for

changes in the proportion of motion and rest of an individual, such that

changes that are more radical than this threshold would constitute the death

of the individual.

12 Some contemporary scholars define death as the irreversible loss of the

body’s capacity to function as an integrated whole (See, for example,

DeGrazia, “Nature of Human Death”). Unlike this view, the Spinozist

would consider a human corpse as an integrated whole (at least shortly after

death), though the formula governing the corpse as whole would be

different from that governing the body before death.

9
Interestingly, Spinoza seems to hold that death occurs even

when the new pattern of behavior of the body is more complex and

elaborate than the old one. Thus, at the end of the preface to Part 4

of the Ethics Spinoza notes “a horse is destroyed as much if it is

changed into a man as if it is changed into an insect.” 13 Human

beings have much more capable and complex minds (and bodies)

than horses. Still, Spinoza argues, were a horse (per impossible)

transformed into a human being - i.e., into a much more complex

and excellent organism14 - the horse would die just as much as if it

would turn into a cluster of worms. Thus, for Spinoza, a body dies

whenever it acquires a radically new pattern of behavior and motion.

What would happen then were a human being to acquire a pattern of

motion (and the accompanying pattern of thought) that is radically

different and superior to the pattern of behavior (and thought) typical

of most people?

13 II/208/27-8. Spinoza’s bracketed note in E4p39d – “and as I pointed out

at the end of the preface of this Part” – refers to this passage.

14 See E2p13s (II/II/97/4-10): “And so to determine what is the difference

between the human Mind and the others, and how it surpasses them, it is necessary

for us, as we have said, to know the nature of its object, i.e., of the human

Body… I say this in general, that in proportion as a Body is more capable

than others of doing many things at once, or being acted on in many ways

at once, so its Mind is more capable than others of perceiving many things

at once.” Italics added.

10
We will put this question on hold for the time being, and turn

first to examine Spinoza’s own striking example of what constitutes a

human death. The following excerpt is taken from the scholium to

E4p39.

In Part V I shall explain how much these things can

be harmful to or beneficial to the Mind. But here it

should be noted that I understand the Body to die when its

parts are so disposed that they acquire a different proportion of

motion and rest to one another. For I dare not deny that—

even though the circulation of the blood is

maintained, as well as the other [signs] on account of

which the Body is thought to be alive—the human

Body can nevertheless be changed into another nature

entirely different from its own. For no reason

compels me to maintain that the Body does not die

unless it is changed into a corpse.

And, indeed, experience seems to urge a different

conclusion. Sometimes a man undergoes such

changes that I should hardly have said he was the

same man. I have heard stories, for example, of a

Spanish Poet who suffered an illness; though he

recovered, he was left so oblivious to his past life that

he did not believe the tales and tragedies he had

written were his own. He could surely have been

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taken for a grown-up infant if he had also forgotten

his native language (E4p39s|II/240/14-28. Italics

added.).

Some scholars have taken this passage to indicate that Spinoza adopts

a memory criterion of personal identity. 15 It should be noted,

however, that at the beginning of this passage, Spinoza asserts a

different criterion of personal identity: maintaining the body’s typical

proportion of motion and rest among its parts (or what we called the

body’s typical pattern of movement). Spinoza’s striking example of

the Spanish Poet is not supposed to suggest an alternative to the

definition of bodily death we find at the beginning of E4p39s, but

rather to illustrate this very definition. For Spinoza, the Spanish Poet

indeed died since the parts of his body acquired a different pattern of

movement and different dispositions, namely, his body would no

longer behave according to its typical patterns before the illness.

The amnesia of the Spanish Poet is just one example of how

the body can die (i.e., adopt a new governing pattern of motion)

while not turning into a corpse. Consider, however, the case of José,

a non-poetic Spaniard who - due to a certain head injury - lost the

capacity to forget anything. José did not at all lose the memory of his

15 See Matson, “Death and Destruction,” 405: “The importance of 4p39s

lies not so much in its eccentric notion of death as in its laying down of

memory and the criterion of personal identity.”

12
pre-injury experience. Still, his body seems to acquire a radically new

pattern of movement, and thus, according to the Spinozist, die.16

Spinoza’s definition of the death of the body may strike many

as pretty odd, since it would label as genuine death the destruction of

entities we would call “inanimate.” Thus, were I to disassemble an

Ikea table into four legs and a square board, the Spinozist would

describe this change as “the death of the table” insofar as it acquired

a new pattern of motion and rest. Similarly, were the table devoured

by a hungry camel (with extremely strong and sharp teeth), the

Spinozist would describe this event too as the death of the table.

Spinozist tables may die because for Spinoza there are no

inanimate bodies. All individual bodies, claims Spinoza, are animated,

though in different degrees (E2p13s|II/96/27). Spinoza’s key

doctrine of mind-body parallelism (E2p7s) commits him to the view

that all bodies have corresponding minds. After asserting that all

bodies are animated, though in different degrees, Spinoza turns to

16 Of course, one may object that there is still some continuity between

José’s patterns of movement before and after the accident, but then it is just

a matter of presenting a somewhat more radical scenario in which José

gains additional rare cognitive capacities (paralleled by radically new

patterns of movement) while maintaining his memory before the accident,

in order to show that for the Spinozist, loss of memory is not a necessary

condition for acquiring a new pattern of motion and rest.

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explain the difference between the degrees of animation of bodies17

as reflecting their degree of complexity (E2p13s|II/97). Thus, both

the cat and the table are animated. Yet, the cat is more animated than

the table, since the body of the cat is much more complex than the

body of the table, and given parallelism, the mind of the cat should

be much more complex than the mind of the table.

Providing a complete defense of Spinoza’s panpsychism is

beyond the scope of this paper. 18 Still, we would like to note that

Spinoza’s reasons for accepting panpsychism have much in common

with the arguments of recent defenders of this view. For both

Spinoza and more recent adherents of panpsychism, such as Thomas

Nagel, the emergence of mental properties from non-animated

matter appear as a simple violation of “ex nihilo, nihil fit.” 19 The

Spinozist could further argue that if one is willing to accept the

emergence of mental qualities from non-animated matter, one should

be equally content with traditional creationist theories of the origin of

the physical universe, in which physical properties emerged from

17 Namely, what Spinoza calls “the excellence of the minds” of these

bodies.

18 For a helpful defense of Spinoza’s panpsychism, see Bennett, Study, 135-

8.

19 See Nagel, “Panpsychism,” 182-3. For a helpful discussion of the

panpsychism of Nagel and Galen Strawson, see Seager and Allen-

Harmanson, “Panpsychism,” §§4-5.

14
non-physical spirits (divine will etc.). Thus, for Spinoza, panpsychism

seems to be just a corollary of his uncompromising naturalism.20

Part II: Evil, Fear of Death, and the Fall

Spinoza’s understanding of the death of the body as a radical

transition from one pattern of motion and rest to another might, at

first, seem to us quite odd. For one thing, we may wonder: If death is

just a radical reorganization of our pattern of motion and rest (and

not an annihilation), why are we so afraid of death and why do we

strive to avoid it? Spinoza seems to have interesting answers to both

questions. Let us begin with the second question.

One of the most important propositions of the second half of

the Ethics is the conatus doctrine:

E3p6: Each thing, as far as it can by its own power,

strives to persevere in its being.21

Like all finite things human beings try to persevere in their being. For

that reason we try to avoid death, try to avoid the acquisition of a

20 Given his panpsychism we should not be surprised by Spinoza’s

definition of life [vita] in his early Cogitata Metahysica as “the force through

which things persevere in their being” (CM II 5|I/260/16). In this contexts

Spinoza explicitly states that this definition pertains to all bodies

(I/260/13).

21 For an illuminating discussion of the conatus doctrine, see Garrett,

“Spinoza’s conatus Argument.”

15
new pattern of motion and rest. As we have already noted, even if the

new pattern of motion and rest is superior to our current state, we

would just as well try to avoid it. For Spinoza, a finite thing always

desires to retain its identity. For this reason Spinoza thinks that

suicide can only result from external influences on our minds and

bodies since the essence of our mind and body always affirms and

does not deny our existence (E3p4d). Thus, responding to the Stoic

legitimation of suicide, Spinoza writes:

But that a man should, from the necessity of his own

nature, strive not to exist, or to be changed into

another form, is as impossible as that something

should come from nothing. Anyone who gives this a

little thought will see it (E4p20s).

For Spinoza, a horse cannot strive to become a human being, and

man cannot strive to become an Übermensch. Striving to persevere in

existence is built into the essence of every finite being: stones, human

beings and porcupines. Like other things we strive and desire to

continue the form of life that is what we are. Does this mean that we

should fear death? Oddly enough Spinoza answers the last question

in the negative. Immediately after demonstrating that the Free Man

does not think at all of death, Spinoza turns to provide his own

interpretation of the Biblical narrative of the Fall.

E4p68s: This, and the other things I have now

demonstrated seem to have been indicated by Moses

16
in that story of the first man. For in it the only power

of God conceived is that by which he created man,

i.e., the power by which he consulted only man's

advantage. And so we are told that God prohibited a free

man from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil

[arbore cognitionis boni, et mali], and that as soon as he ate of

it, he immediately feared death, rather than desiring to live;

and then, that, the man having found a wife who

agreed completely with his nature, he knew that there

could be nothing in nature more useful to him than

she was; but that after he believed the lower animals

to be like himself, he immediately began to imitate

their affects (see IIIP27) and to lose his freedom; and

that afterwards this freedom was recovered by the

Patriarchs, guided by the Spirit of Christ, i.e., by the

idea of God, on which alone it depends that man

should be free, and desire for other men the good he

desires for himself (as we have demonstrated above,

by P37).

Warren Zev Harvey has convincingly shown that Spinoza’s

interpretation of the Fall is strongly indebted to Maimonides’ bold

reading of the same narrative. 22 For both philosophers, Adam was

22 See Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, I 2. Cf. Harvey, “Portrait of

Spinoza,” 159-161, and 171. For an insightful reading which stresses the

17
fully rational (or almost fully rational23) before eating from the tree of

knowledge (or rather, cognition) of good and evil, and for both

philosophers, acquiring the cognition of good and evil just is the

major cognitive degradation which constitutes the fall. Just like

Maimonides, Spinoza asserts “If men were born free, they would

form no concept of good and evil so long as they remained free”

(E4p68).24 Spinoza’s reference, at the end of the passage, to “Spiritu

Christi” (i.e., the idea of God) seems to be his own Christian twist of

Maimonides’ claim that the first human beings knew the genuine

God, but that after several generations this knowledge was lost as

humanity declined into the cult of idolatry, and that true religion was

finally recovered and renewed only by Abraham and the other

Patriarchs.25

surprising gender equality in E4p68s, see Hasana Sharp, “Eve’s Perfection,”

569-573.

23 Spinoza discusses the Fall also in the second chapter of his late and

incomplete Political Treatise. Spinoza’s main point in this brief discussion is

that Adam could not have been fully rational, since otherwise “how could it

have happened that, knowingly, with eyes open, he would have fallen.”

24 For a helpful elucidation of Maimonides’ view of our notion of evil as

resulting from anthropocentrism and egoism, see Harvey, “La Mort,” 48-

49.

25 See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Science, Laws of Idolatry, I 1-3.

18
For Spinoza, the rational core of the Fall narrative is the

recognition that a person who knows God adequately has no place

for cognitions of good and evil. This important insight is presented in

the Biblical narrative as a divine commandment or prohibition,

though obviously, for Spinoza, acquisition of the notions of good

and evil is a natural and necessary result of the loss of one’s ability to

act solely according to the adequate idea of God. Even more

important for our purpose is Spinoza’s claim that it is only by virtue

his degradation and acquisition of the notion of good and evil that

Adam “immediately feared death, rather than desiring to live.” Before

the Fall Adam desired to live; after the Fall he feared death. Are not these

two affects tantamount to each other? Not for Spinoza.

Part III: Why does the Free Man not Think of Death?

In order to better understand Spinoza’s claim that the Free

Man desires life, but does not fear death, we have to revisit E4p67

with which we began our inquiry. Here is the proposition and its

demonstration:

E4p67: A free man thinks of nothing less than of

death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on

death [Homo liber de nulla re minus, quam de morte cogitat, et

ejus sapientia non mortis, sed vitae meditatio est].

Dem.: A free man, i.e., one who lives according to the

dictate of reason alone, is not led by Fear (by P63),

19
but desires the good directly (by P63C), i.e. (by P24),

acts, lives, and preserves his being from the

foundation of seeking his own advantage. And so he

thinks of nothing less than of death. Instead his

wisdom is a meditation on life, q.e.d.

The target of this proposition seems to be the famous dictum that

“to philosophize is to learn how to die.” 26 In E4p67d Spinoza

explicitly states that the Free Man “acts, lives, and preserves his

being.” Indeed, in E4p69d Spinoza further asserts “a free man avoids

dangers by the same virtue of the mind by which he tries to

overcome them.” Thus, the Free Man clearly attempts to avoid death.

But how can he avoid death, if he does not think at all of death?

In E4p67d Spinoza demonstrates that the Free Man does not

fear death (or anything else), but what justifies the transition in the

last sentence of E4p67d: “and so [atque adeo] he thinks of nothing less

than of death”? Why does Spinoza think that having no fear of death

implies not thinking of it at all?

Arguably, for Spinoza, death is a description of an event

which is constituted by our attitude toward it, i.e., fear. Fear is not an

attitude which we may or may not have toward death. Strictly

26 This is the title of the twentieth chapter of the first book of Montaigne’s

Essays. Montaigne ascribes this saying to Cicero (Montaigne, Essays, p. 56).

For other sources of this dictum, see Curley’s editorial note in Spinoza,

Collected Works, vol. 1, 584, n. 34.

20
speaking, we cannot avoid fearing death just as we cannot avoid

conceiving a square as having two equal diagonals. What makes death

what it is is primarily our attitude toward it.

Spinoza’s Free Man does not think of death for the simple

reason that he is not governed by the passion of fear. Spinoza defines

fear [metus] as “inconstant sadness which has arisen from the image of

a doubtful thing [inconstans Tristitia, ex rei dubiae imagine etiam orta].”27

Notice the essential role of the imagination in Spinoza’s

understanding of fear (and eo epso in his understanding death). We will

shortly turn to address this issue. For now, let us point out that

Spinoza’s Free Man is guided by reason. Therefore, all of his ideas are

adequate, and he is not subject to the passions which result from

inadequate ideas (E3p3). 28 Thus, the Free Man is specifically not

subject to the passion of fear (E4p63). The Free Man is not afraid of

dogs. He is not afraid of ghosts (even if there were any), and he is not

afraid even of death.29 Insofar as the Free Man is fully rational, he is

27 E3p18s2. Italics added. Cf. E3DA13: “Fear is an inconstant Sadness,

born of the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent

doubt.”

28 E3p3: “The actions of the Mind arise from adequate ideas alone; the

passions depend on inadequate ideas alone.”

29 Spinoza considers the fear of death an extremely strong passion, though

normally we are able to distract our attention away from it. Yet, at our death

21
incapable of the passion of fear, and insofar as he incapable of fear,

he has no place for the notion of death in his mind. Thus, the Free

Man would strive to extend his life indefinitely without thinking of

death, since death, like any other notion constructed through our

passive and inadequate thinking is not part of his mental world.

Part IV: Death, Presence, and the Imagination

So far we have examined and scrutinized two complimentary

strands in Spinoza’s account of death. On the one hand, we saw that

Spinoza defines the death of the body as the acquisition of a new

pattern of motion and rest. This understanding of bodily death –

which is mostly, if not completely, one which should not incite fear –

is, for Spinoza, the genuine reality of the event we call “death.” On

the other hand, we have the conception of the same event as

determined and constituted by our fears, and that is what we

normally refer to as “death,” and consider to be the ultimate evil. To

complete our inquiry into Spinoza’s understanding of death, we will

turn now to the delicate issue of the death of the human mind.

Spinoza’s views on this issue are grounded in his original

understanding of temporality, the reality of time, and the role of the

imagination in the constitution of tense, and, specifically, the present.

We cannot provide here a thorough discussion of Spinoza’s

bed, when such distraction is almost impossible, the fear of death

overcomes all the other affects (TP Ch. 1| III/275).

22
understanding of temporality. Instead, we will concentrate on those

aspects of Spinoza’s understanding of time that are directly relevant

to the issue of the mind’s manners of existence, and its death.30

Spinoza unfolds his view of the death of the mind in E3p11s.

This scholium relies primarily on two sources: the doctrine of the

conatus (E3p6), and Spinoza’s explanation of the nature of the

human mind in the second half of Part Two. Since the scholium

summarizes nicely the second source, we will quote it extensively:

E3p11s: In IIP17S we have shown that the idea

which constitutes the essence of the Mind involves

the existence of the Body so long as the Body itself

exists. Next from what we have shown in IIP8C and

its scholium, it follows that the present existence of our

Mind [praesentem nostrae Mentis existentiam] depends only

on this, that the Mind involves the actual existence of

the Body. Finally, we have shown that the power of

the Mind by which it imagines things and recollects them

also depends on this (see IIP17, P18, P18S), that it involves

the actual existence of the Body.

Spinoza’s claims in this passage are quite intriguing so let’s

reconstruct them step by step. For Spinoza, the mind is

30 For a detailed discussion of Spinoza’s understanding of temporality and

its relation to the imagination, see Schechter, Existence and Temporality, Ch. 1,

and Schechter, “Temporalities and Kinds of Cognition.”

23
nothing but the idea of the body (my mind is the idea of my

body, Fido’s mind is the idea of Fido’s body, etc.). In E2p8c

Spinoza argues that ideas may exist in two manners, either as

having duration or not. Relying on the parallelism of E2p7,

Spinoza argues in E2p8 that ideas have duration if, and only

if, their objects have duration.31 So far, so good. In the above

passage from E3p11s Spinoza goes one step beyond what he

claimed in E2p8 and speaks not only about the durational

existence of the mind, but also of its present existence. What

does Spinoza mean by “present existence”? Let’s return to

the next paragraph of E3p11s:

From these things it follows that the present existence of

the Mind [Mentis praesentem existentiam] and its power of

imagining are taken away as soon as [simulatque] the Mind

ceases to affirm the present existence of the Body.

Spinoza does not explain here what he means by “present existence.”

Still, we should take notice of two crucial claims in the last passage.

31 See E2p8c: “[S]o long as singular things do not exist, except insofar as

they are comprehended in God's attributes, their objective being, or ideas,

do not exist except insofar as God's infinite idea exists. And when singular

things are said to exist, not only insofar as they are comprehended in God's

attributes, but insofar also as they are said to have duration, their ideas also

involve the existence through which they are said to have duration.” For a

discussion of E2p8, see Melamed, Spinoza’s Metaphysics, 180-181.

24
First, Spinoza seems to draw a tight connection between the mind’s
32
“present existence” and “the power of imagining.” Second,

developing the claim of E2p8, Spinoza argues that the mind is going

to be in “present existence,” if and only if, the body’s (i.e., the object

of the mind) present existence is affirmed. We have thus at least a

partial answer to the question of what constitutes the death of the

mind for Spinoza: the mind ceases to exist in the present when, and

only when, it ceases to affirm the present existence of the body.

In the remaining part of E3p11s, Spinoza explains what can

bring about the end of the present existence of the mind. Here,

Spinoza notes that the cause of the mind ceasing to exist in the

present cannot lie in the mind itself, due to the conatus doctrine

(E3p4). Nor can this cause be the body’s “ceasing to exist,” since

such an explanation of mental properties through physical properties

would violate the causal and conceptual barrier between the attributes

(see E1p10 and E2p6). Thus, Spinoza concludes, the only possible

reason for the “death of the mind” (i.e., the mind ceasing to affirm

the present existence of the body) must be “another idea which

excludes the present existence of our body, and consequently of our Mind,

and which is thus contrary to the idea that constitutes our Mind’s

essence (E3p11s).33

32 Cf. E5p21: “The Mind can neither imagine anything, nor recollect past

things, except while the Body endures.”

33 Italics added. Cf. Matson, “Death and Destruction,” 404.

25
All this seems pretty enigmatic, if not obscure. If we are to

have a reasonable sense of what Spinoza has in mind here, we must

first clarify what he understands by “the present existence” of the

mind and body, and how this notion of present existence relates to

the imagination. We turn now to this task.

The terminology of presence (praesens, praesentem, praesentes,

praesenti, praesentia, praesentis) is ubiquitous in the Ethics. Gueret’s

concordance to the Ethics lists more than a hundred occurrences of

these terms.34 Almost all of these occurrences appear in the context

of the discussion of the imagination.35 To begin our exploration of

the tight connection Spinoza draws between the imagination and

presence, we turn, first, to Spinoza’s official definition of the

imagination in E2p17s:

[T]he affections of the human Body whose ideas

present 36 external bodies as present to us [Corporis

humani affectiones, quarum ideae Corpora externa, velut nobis

praesentia repraesentant], we shall call images of things,

even if they do not reproduce the [NS: external]

figures of things. And when the Mind regards bodies

34 Gueret, Spinoza Ethica: Concordances, 272-273.

35 To the best of our knowledge, Oded Schechter was the first to observe

this important connection in the first chapter of his Existence and Temporality.

36 “Represent” seems to be a more precise and less misleading translation

here.

26
in this way, we shall say that it imagines (II/106/7-

10).

For Spinoza, the imagination is not a faculty, but rather the rawest

cognitive registering of – and subsequently ability to navigate – the

world. Since our mind is nothing but the idea of our body (E2p13),

Spinoza holds that my ideas of external bodies are truly ideas of the

interaction between external bodies and my body (E2p16). My body

mediates any perception I have of external bodies, and therefore,

Spinoza notes: “the ideas which we have of external bodies indicate

the condition of our body more than the nature of the external

bodies” (E2p16c2). For this reason Spinoza notes in E2p17s that

images of things do not always “reproduce the external figures of

things.” We conceive something as “present” whenever we have an

idea of the interaction of that thing with our body.

It is in this context that Spinoza turns to explain the source of

our errors. We err as long as we perceive the world merely through what

is present to us. We have seen that when we conceive external things

as present, the images we have do not match adequately the nature of

external bodies, since these images are strongly influenced by the

condition of our body (E2p16c2). A specific and crucial variant of

such an error is when we imagine non-existent things as present. This

may happen when an external body causes a change in my body. The

external body may cease to exist shortly after the causal interaction,

but I will keep considering the external body as present, as long as

27
the effect it brought about in my body is still intact (E2p17d&s).

Thus, our raw perceptions of what is or is not present to us (or now

existing) are completely unreliable. The result is that our entire

system of tenses is infected with severe errors, since, Spinoza argues,

our memory and recollection of the past also follows “the order and

connections of the human body” (E2p18s), our distorted perceptions

of what is and is not present to us.37

We have stressed that the imagination, or conception of

things as present, is a rather raw registering, and hence confused

understanding, of the world, since Spinoza thinks that the very same

images may not lead to error, if we are careful to rationally reprocess

and reorder these images. 38 Spinoza provides a helpful example of

such reprocessing in E4p1s:

[A]n imagination is an idea which indicates the present

constitution of the human Body more than the nature

of an external body—not distinctly, of course, but

37 Our perceptions of past and future tenses supervene on our perception

of the present, through the association of a present image with images we

ascribe to the past or future. See E2p44s and E3p18s1.

38 “I should like you to note that the imaginations of the Mind, considered

in themselves contain no error, or that the Mind does not err from the fact

that it imagines, but only insofar as it is considered to lack an idea that

excludes the existence of those things that it imagines to be present to it”

(E2p17s| II/106/11-13).

28
confusedly. This is how it happens that the Mind is

said to err.

For example, when we look at the sun, we imagine it

to be about 200 feet away from us. In this we are

deceived so long as we are ignorant of its true

distance; but when its distance is known, the error is

removed, not the imagination, i.e., the idea of the sun,

which explains its nature only so far as the Body is

affected by it. And so, although we come to know

[noscamus] the true distance, we shall nevertheless

imagine it as near us. (Italics added.)

Our image of the sun is to a large extent the result of the structure

and functioning of the human eye, and as such, it is not an adequate

representation of the sun. When we employ scientific knowledge

(roughly, what Spinoza calls “common notions”), we will still have

the very same image (“yellow ball 200 feet away”); yet, we will adopt

a different attitude toward that image.

For Spinoza, what we perceive as present is just like the

image of the sun: as long as we do not scrutinize our temporal

perception through the second and third kinds of cognition, we are

just like the child who thinks that the sun is a yellow ball at a distance

of 200 feet. Unlike the case of the sun, our perception of the present

(and of tense in general) is far more essential in constituting the way

we live and exist. Thus, the imagination is not only a kind of

29
cognition, but also, thereby, a genuine manner of existence, or life, in

the world.

Let us now return to the question of the death of the mind.

Having the image of the sun and experiencing the presence of other

bodies requires the mediation of our own body. When the body is

destroyed, we can have no images or imagination, and no perception

of things as present.39 With the death of the body, the mind can no

longer live in the present. It is precisely this point that Spinoza

affirms in the midst of Part V of the Ethics, before he turns to discuss

the eternity of the mind: “With this I have completed everything

which concerns this present life [Atque his omnia, quae praesentem hanc

vitam spectant, absolvi]” (E5p20s| II/294/17. Italics Added).

The death of the body is also the end of the “present life” of

the mind which functions and exists in the realm of the imagination.

For those who believe that there is no life but this “present life” of

the imagination, death is a terrifying event. But for those who are

able to ascend beyond the existence in the registered by the

imagination, things should look quite different. Here is how Spinoza

39 “An imagination is an idea by which the Mind considers a thing as

present (see its Def. in IIP17S), which nevertheless indicates the present

constitution of the human Body more than the nature of the external thing

(by IIP16C2). An imagination, then, is an affect (by the gen. Def. Aff.),

insofar as it indicates the present constitution of the Body” (E5p34d).

30
describes the person who is able to rationally reorder the raw images

that are present to our mind:

E5p39d: [H]e has a power of ordering and connecting

the affections of his Body according to the order of

the intellect, and consequently (by P14), of bringing it

about that all the affections of the Body are related to

the idea of God. The result (by P15) is that it is

affected with a Love of God, which (by P16) must

occupy, or constitute the greatest part of the Mind.

Therefore (by P33), he has a Mind whose greatest part

is eternal, q.e.d.

Schol.: Because human Bodies are capable of a great

many things, there is no doubt but what they can be of

such a nature that they are related to Minds which

have a great knowledge of themselves and of God, and

of which the greatest, or chief, part is eternal. So they

hardly fear death.

Conclusion:

In this paper we have attempted to explain the various

aspects of Spinoza’s understanding of death. In its first part we

clarified Spinoza’s definition of the death of the body as the body’s

acquisition of a significantly new pattern of motion and rest. In the

second and third parts we explained Spinoza’s view that what we

31
normally call “death” is constituted by our fear. For this reason,

Spinoza’s fully free and rational human being would have no concept

of death since he is not affected by fear or any other passion. Spinoza

applies this claim in his original (or almost original) interpretation of

the biblical story of the Fall. In the fourth and final part of this paper

we explained the tight connection Spinoza draws between the

imagination and the manner of living in the present. We have seen

that with the death of the body, our mind would no longer conceive

things as present (or past or future), but the loss of our imaginary life

should be taken by the Spinozist as an event with a limited value,40

since imaginary life may or may not lead us to error, and may or may

not bring us pleasure.

As Spinoza makes clear at the end of the Ethics, 41 we all

function in all three cognitive registers: imagination, reason, and

scientia intuitiva. We have seen that the modus operandi of the

imagination is life in the present. In contrast, Spinoza’s second and

40 We argue that the death of the mind is of limited value, rather than no

value at all, since like all finite beings we strive to persevere in our being.

Insofar as we are always acting also in the register of the imagination, we

strive to persevere in this imaginary life as well.

41 See E5p38s. For discussion of Spinoza’s three kinds of cognition see

Schechter, “Temporalities and Kinds of Cognition,” and Melamed, “

‘Scientia intuitiva’.”

32
third kinds of cognition operate sub specie aetenitatis.42 The reason for

this sharp dichotomy is simple: Spinozistic ideas share the same

register of temporality as their objects.43 Thus, ideas whose objects

are eternal (i.e., common notions or essences) share the eternity of

their objects. The eternity of our minds is therefore a completely

natural phenomenon, and not a reward. Furthermore, the fact that

part of my mind lives and exist in the present, is completely

consistent, for Spinoza, with the fact that I also have adequate eternal

ideas, as (other) parts of my mind.44

We do not presume to have clarified here all aspects of

Spinoza’s understanding of death. A particularly important and

possibly relevant issue we have not discussed is Spinoza’s notion of

duratio, its reality and its relation to the three kinds of cognition. Still,

we hope that our discussion has broken new ground in clarifying

some of the most enigmatic yet important parts of Spinoza’s

philosophy.

42 For the second kind of cognition (i.e., ratio), see E2p44c2. For the third

kind of cognition (i.e., scientia intuitiva), see E5p22, E5p30, and E5p31.

43 See E2p8.

44 See E2p47. For a detailed and elegant clarification of Spinoza’s claim that

“We feel and know by experience that we are eternal,” see Schechter,

Existence and Temporality, 55-56.

33
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ADDITIONS:
- AT8A: “ I call a perception CLEAR when it is PRESENT and

accessibilie to the attentive mind” (For Spinoza:

Presence=imagination=inadequacy).

- Comments by John Morrison and Daniel Dragicevic.

- Leibniz’s criticism (and misunderstanding) of Spinoza’s mind

eternity (use Mogens’ book).

36