What Was Baruch Spinoza’s Concept of Freedom?

Baruch Spinoza’s idea of freedom has been widely discussed in philosophy. To what extent are human beings free? Can we increase our freedom?

Apr 19, 2024By Andres Felipe Barrero, MA Philosophy, MSc Philosophy, Ph.D. Candidate

what was baruch spinoza concept freedom


The philosopher Baruch Spinoza presents a thought-provoking concept of freedom that challenges our intuitions. According to him, while God alone possesses absolute freedom in metaphysical terms, human beings are only relatively free. Spinoza suggests that true freedom is attained by acknowledging the inevitability of events and our position within the larger causal narrative of Nature. By embracing this perspective, he contends that we can gain control over our own emotions.


Spinoza: Helping Other See

baruch spinoza portait
Baruch Spinoza 1665, Source: Herzog August Library


Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam on November 24, 1632. He was raised in a Jewish community but was influenced at a young age by a wide range of philosophical traditions, including the work of Descartes. Eventually, the development of his own ideas would be a source of controversy within the community and would lead to his excommunication by the Amsterdam Synagogue in 1656.


At some point, a fanatic even tried to assassinate him. Gilles Deleuze comments: “While it sometimes happens that a philosopher ends up on trial, rarely does a philosopher begin with an excommunication and an attempt on his life” (1988, p. 6).


Spinoza learned to grind lenses for optical instruments, which became his primary income source; he lived with few things, and his only luxury was books. He even rejected donations from his wealthy friends (Reale & Antiseri, 2008, p. 23).

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Spinoza was contented by practically and metaphorically grinding lenses – he was interested in viewing reality more precisely and helping others see better. He wanted to think freely; at some point, he denied a position to lecture in Heidelberg, fearing it could constrain his intellectual freedom. As Deleuze points out, he did not want to “command or even to convince, but only to shape the glass or polish the lens for this inspired free vision” (1988, p. 14). So, we can begin with a simple but intriguing idea: his notion of freedom relates to seeing clearly.


Spinoza’s Metaphysical Groundwork 

Portrait of René Descartes by Frans Hals, 1649-1700, Source: Louvre Museum


Before tackling the notion of freedom, it is necessary to quickly outline Spinoza’s metaphysical interpretation of the universe as expressed in his Ethics. Three concepts are required: substance, attributes, and modes.


Substance refers to a self-existent and independent entity (i.e., substance) that does not involve anything else besides itself for its existence (Spinoza, 1996, op. P1D3). The substance is the underlying essence of everything, and therefore, it is infinite and eternal. Spinoza will refer to this substance as God or Nature, and it is causa sui. Attributes are qualities of substance. Attributes are infinite expressions of the Substance. Spinoza argues that humans only know two attributes: thought and extension (Reale & Antiseri, 2008, p. 31).  Descartes enthusiasts may recall his Res cogitans (thought) and Res extensa (extension). But different from Descartes, these attributes are expressions of one substance; therefore, Spinoza does not need to bridge them.


Finally, modes are particular and finite ways in which substance expresses itself. Modes are like the ripples of the ocean. A tree, a human being, a building, and a chair are all the substance’s modes.


Following these ideas, modes are always in relationship with other modes; they depend on them. This is because, by definition, substance refers to a self-existing entity. However, you and I did not choose to exist. We are the consequence of causes outside ourselves; we depend on many others to live. Spinoza argues that free will is thus an illusion; sometimes, we instantly think that a desire, for example, to eat a chocolate cake, is a product of our volition. In reality, it simply means that we ignore the causes (that relate us to other modes) that lead to that desire, like biological impulses or advertising—”an infant believes that of its own free will it desires milk” (Spinoza, 1996, op. P3Prop2). The illusion of free will relates then to the inability to see that we are modes of the substance of God.


Some have interpreted Spinoza’s notion of God as related to pantheism. Indeed, God is not beyond reality (a transcendental being). God is reality; God is the Universe.


God’s Absolute Freedom

Christ Pantokrator Cathedral Cefalù Sicily
Christ Pantocrator Mosaic from the Cefalù Cathedral, Sicily, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The definition of freedom in the first part of the Ethics is intriguing. Spinoza writes: “That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone” (1996, op. P1D7). This definition is already at odds with our common and intuitive characterization of freedom.


For example, one can define freedom as the power to do something without being stopped or the status of not being imprisoned or enslaved. In contrast, freedom for Spinoza has to do with being self-determined. This is the sole cause of one’s actions and existence (Kisner, 2013, p. 18).


If this is true, then God is the only entity that can be free. The philosopher Mattew Kisner calls this “absolute freedom” (2013, p. 32). Although human beings can never attain absolute freedom, they can aim at relative freedom or “degrees of freedom.”


Here, the idea is again connected to self-determination. Kisner explains, “If I choose to buy a new car largely through the influence of persistent salespeople, then we might say that I am less self-determined than if I made the choice as the result of my own preferences and reasoning” (2013, p. 33).


Reasoning Towards Relative Freedom

under milky way jurvetson
Under the Milky Way, Steve Jurvetson, 2007, via Wikimedia Commons


Reasoning can help to increase one’s relative freedom. Understanding the lines of causality, the way modes are related and affect each other, can contribute to grasping what influences us and the external forces continuously shaping us. Having clarity about those causal connections means having adequate ideas about reality.


Therefore, although metaphysically human beings are not free, we can achieve relative freedom by understanding why things are the way they are. In this second connotation, we can be free in a way that increases our power to be active instead of the passive effect of other modes. According to Gatens: “the more we understand God (…) the more we understand that of which we are a part and such understanding assists us to avoid harm and pursue what is good for us” (2021, p. 395).


In this, Spinoza is similar to the Stoics; he is convinced that accepting necessity is the path to freedom and virtue (Lloyd, 1996, p. 73). It is hard for us in the twenty-first century to imagine how determination and freedom can coexist.


Spinoza might face the question: If everything is governed by necessity, how can the freedom to pursue one’s well-being be expanded? There are no easy answers to this dilemma, and many scholarly papers have been published on it. However, we can try a tentative approximation. Understanding the factors influencing our behavior allows us to make choices that align with our nature and lead to good outcomes. This self-awareness and alignment with causal factors enable individuals to increase their conatus (our desires, goals, and efforts to preserve and enhance our existence), allowing them to be more active and strive towards a better life.


Freedom as Mastery of Emotions

desperate man portait Gustave Courbet
Self Portrait (The Desperate Man), Gustave Courbet, 1843–1845 Source: Wikimedia Commons


There is another definition of freedom in Spinoza: mastery of emotions.


Through knowledge and reason, we can understand our passions. When we understand our passions, we stop being enslaved by them (Reale & Antiseri, 2008, p. 44). People with an addiction, for instance, are not free “because their addiction generates emotions and actions that oppose reason” (Kisner, 2013, p. 55).


As a rationalist, Spinoza believed in the mastery of emotions through rational understanding. By gaining insights into our emotions’ causes and mechanisms, we can grasp why emotions emerge and influence our actions. There is something “therapeutic” about this notion of freedom; it is related to self-awareness. In the case of an addiction, it could help to recognize what are the sources of that addiction, for example, a lack of meaning, a sensation of loneliness, and a physiological dimension related to abstinence; furthermore, one could start to recognize what are the triggers that lead to that behavior.


In sum, through reason, one can form adequate ideas about the external causal forces that lead us to a reduction of our conatus, our power, and ultimately to a sad life. In opposition, freedom cements the way for a joyful life. The absence of freedom is bondage. Spinoza writes: “When a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune” (1996, op. P4pref).


A nuance must be added: mastery of emotions does not consist of suppressing or eliminating emotions but guiding them through reason. Maybe it is due to this fact that this connotation of freedom is therapeutic. This also implies, as noted by Kisner, that bondage “is not bondage to the emotions per se, but rather the bondage of being led by irrational emotions” (2013, p. 24).


Concluding Remarks

spinoza Portrait Barend Graat
Portrait of Spinoza, Barend Graat, 1666, via Wikimedia Commons


When discussing Spinoza’s life, I emphasized his occupation of grinding lenses as a metaphorical way of summarizing his goal of seeing more clearly. Now, I can add that the ability to reason – to obtain adequate ideas about our causal connections – could represent the lenses. Only then can we see that freedom is not doing what we desire (the illusion of free will) but understanding our place in the lines and planes of existence. To understand is to be free.


Of course, claiming that I have clarified Spinoza’s concept would be presumptuous. The richness and complexity of his work continue to attract the curious. More than an overview, this article is an encouragement to read Spinoza. Perhaps for this reason, in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel wrote, “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.”




Deleuze, G. (1988). Spinoza, practical philosophy. City Lights Books.

Gatens, M. (2021). Spinoza’s Notion of Freedom. In Y. Y. Melamed (Ed.), A Companion to Spinoza (1st ed., pp. 394–401). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119538349.ch36

Kisner, M. J. (2013). Spinoza on human freedom: Reason, autonomy and the good life. Cambridge University Press.

Lloyd, G. (1996). Routledge philosophy guidebook to Spinoza and The ethics. Routledge.

Reale, G., & Antiseri, Darío. (2008). Historia de la filosofía. 4, De Spinoza a Kant (1a ed). Universidad Pedagógica Nacional : San Pablo.

Spinoza, B. de. (1996). Ethics (E. M. Curley, Trans.; New edition). Penguin Books.

Author Image

By Andres Felipe BarreroMA Philosophy, MSc Philosophy, Ph.D. CandidateAndrés has a background in philosophy from Universidad de la Salle in Bogotá, Colombia, where he finished his undergraduate and master`s studies. He completed a second master's at Universität Hamburg, Germany, where he wrote about philosophical theories of Modernity and Secularization. Currently, he is a Ph.D. Candidate at Universität Bremen. His fields of interest include the Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Science, Social Theory, Discourse Studies, Corpus Linguistics, and Natural Language Processing.