By Maurice Nicoll

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They are all expressions of God, specifying and differentiating His unity in a panoply of ways. They are as real as God is, but not self-sufficient. Their existence is dependent. They are attributes and adverbs—modifications, as Spinoza puts it. Yet attributes are of the essence. They are the reality of a thing. Spinoza’s realism fits well within the Mosaic orbit: It too is innocent of the idealist thrust that philosophers have long used to discipline recalcitrant nature and secure divine hegemony.

Maimonides had long before tied matter and form to God by treating both as expressions of the divine. His rejection of the Neoplatonic exclusion of matter from the power and ken of God led directly to Spinoza’s inclusion of extension, along with thought, among God’s attributes. Strictly speaking, Maimonides argues, God’s unity and uniqueness preclude all real attributes (Guide I 60). But in seeing nature as God’s work and sphere of governance, we naturally project anthropomorphic traits: We see order and credit divine wisdom; events that seem incomprehensible, we ascribe to chance, or, in biblical parlance, to God’s will.

46 But they are never found by themselves. Only by a wrenching act of abstraction are they wrested from their contexts. For reality need not serve our mental convenience: the givenness of things requires their thick embeddedness in their causal milieu. Their adequate conception, then, is achieved only in the measure that this milieu is conceptually preserved. Spinoza’s holism is rooted in monotheism and monism. It fuses themes broached in the Presocratic physis and the Noahian exegesis of the rainbow.

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