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Spinoza's Neoplatonism: The Metaphysics of the Unitive Knowledge and Love of God



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Wagner, Johannes 


Spinoza’s philosophy engages a vast array of topics and influences, which has resulted in a great diversity of interpretations. Among historically informed readings, there is a great amount of scholarship today on how the different sources of Spinoza shaped various aspects of his philosophy. Excellent work has been done, for instance, on the Cartesian elements in Spinoza’s metaphysics, the Stoic tropes in his ethics, the Hobbesianism in his political philosophy, or his reception of Christian and Jewish thought. One key influence that has not yet been adequately recognised, however, is Neoplatonism, a tradition originating in the 3rd century AD with the philosopher and rational mystic Plotinus. This neglect is partly due to the mediated and indirect nature of Neoplatonism’s impact on Spinoza. Yet Plotinus and his successors deeply influenced mediaeval and renaissance philosophy on the topics most cognate to Spinoza’s interests, and several of Spinoza’s sources are infused with Neoplatonic materials. Bringing together existing commentary and scholarship on Spinoza’s sources within a systematic discussion, my thesis presents the first comprehensive treatment of Spinoza’s Neoplatonism.

I propose that Neoplatonic ideas shape Spinoza’s most distinctive metaphysical, epistemological and ethical tenets as well as their integration. I aim to show that Spinoza endorses a metaphysics in which all things emanate from, express, and remain connected with a divine source, thereby committing himself to a monism and emanative panentheism that is essentially Neoplatonic. Further, for both Neoplatonism and Spinoza, this monism and panentheism grounds a conception of the good life where the human soul attains a unitive knowledge and love of God. This union is considered directly constitutive of truly ethical living, supreme happiness, eternal life, and salvation.

I argue that a characteristically Neoplatonic notion of union with God connects Spinoza’s epistemology, ethics, and soteriology, and does so within a Neoplatonic panentheism. I thus propose that there is a Neoplatonic core to Spinoza’s philosophy. Acknowledging this traditional ancestry sheds light on some of the least understood areas of Spinoza’s work and suggests a panentheistic reading of Spinoza which recognises an irreducibly religious dimension of his philosophy. My argument provides a historically informed counterpoint to reductively naturalistic or rationalistic interpretations of Spinoza which populate modern commentary. While Spinoza attempted to accommodate the science of his day, he did so within the context of his joyful experience that all of reality is an expression of God. This is the insight at the heart of Neoplatonic philosophy that echoes through Spinoza’s sources, and which Spinoza’s philosophy formulates in a logically distilled way. In adapting this understanding to modernity without diluting its essence, Spinoza offers a Neoplatonism that can still speak to us today.





Borcherding, Julia


Knowledge of God, Love of God, Neoplatonism, Philosophy of Religious Life, Spinoza, Union with God


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
This thesis was generously funded through a Gulbenkian-Yuval Studentship by the Cambridge Trust and Churchill College Cambridge, and a Jacobsen Bursary by the Royal Institute of Philosophy.