Someone once told me that the persona someone tries to project is the exact opposite of what is going on within them. We all know the friendly salesperson who works extremely hard to hide the drooling wolf within. In Spinoza’s case, we see what appears to be a mild-mannered man who, when we get to know him better, is ruthless, and even brutal in the way he pursues truth. He was after all expelled from the Amsterdam Jewish community while still in his twenties. Quite an achievement.
Spinoza was born in 1632 and died at the age of 45 in 1677 from a lung condition. He lived a simple life, grinding lenses to support himself, and rejecting academic positions, so his philosophy developed without compromise. His works were always controversial, and some were unpublished until after his death. For some two hundred years after his death, it was still considered risky to own Spinoza’s works or to be a follower of his ideas.
His master work was The Ethics, although he also produced works that dealt with religion and politics. And the mild mannered man was just as ruthless in dealing with these topics as he was with everything else that came under his gaze. The Ethics is notorious for its difficulty, and Spinoza wrote it in what he called a geometrical style. He was trying to emulate the way mathematicians wrote – axioms, definitions, and propositions. In one way it doesn’t work, although it does add a strange flavor. No one on planet Earth understands everything in The Ethics, but we shall do our best to extract the essential meaning in this Walk in the Park with Spinoza.
So what are Spinoza’s main ideas? First of all, you should know there is widespread disagreement over whether Spinoza was an atheist. He uses the word God a great deal, but this is not the anthropomorphic God that dominates western religious thought. In fact, Spinoza said strange things about God. He said the essence of God is existence. If that means absolutely nothing to you join the human race, or at least that part of it that has struggled with Spinoza.
So Spinoza’s God does not conform to the old man in the sky image. In fact, Einstein proclaimed that his God was the God of Spinoza. As such it is probably worth investigating.
Spinoza also has some fascinating things to say about our minds. First of all, he claims that human beings occupy two quite distinct realities. We live in a physical world, and for Spinoza, we also live in a world of thought that is quite separate. And we need to state here that the word “thought” includes everything of which we are conscious. Sensory impressions, emotions, mental images, and language are all included. This world of thought includes thought objects, in the same way, the physical world includes physical objects. These thought objects are ideas.
You might ask why this is at all important. Well, Spinoza claims that most of our ideas are confused and messed up, and this is one of the reasons we suffer. For example, if we believe that diseases are caused by demons, and not by bacteria, then we are unlikely to have an effective treatment for various diseases for a long time to come. At a more personal level, we might believe that someone we know ignored us on the street deliberately, while in reality they were lost in thought and hadn’t seen us. As a result, we feel hurt and maybe a little angry – for no good reason.
Spinoza then moves on to our emotional nature, stating that nearly all of our emotions are various shades of pleasure and pain. These, in turn, manifest according to whether our survival prospects are enhanced or diminished. It’s a bit more subtle than this, but our efforts to persist in our being (survive), as Spinoza expresses it, are central to our emotional state. He famously said that the essence of man is desire. Like many of Spinoza’s statements, this is a rabbit hole, and we can go as far down it as we want – which could be quite a way. This observation echoes the work of Schopenhauer, who lived two centuries later, and developed the ideas of will and desire extensively. So Spinoza is telling us what it is that brings us into being. The essence of something is that which causes it to exist.
Candor verging on brutality is how Spinoza analyzes our emotions. No stone is left unturned – envy, hatred, love, derision, pride, fear, regret, compassion, pity, and a hundred others all spelled out with embarrassing clarity.
Having revealed the implications of being driven by desire, pleasure, and pain, Spinoza then moves on to consider our possible savior – reason. He doesn’t use the term in the limited sense of logic and calculation. For Spinoza reason is simply the ability to consider the best course of action and then act upon it. But there is a problem. He states over and over again; reason has no power of its own. We can reason that we should not eat those chocolate cookies, and then immediately start devouring them. Desire is much stronger than reason unless reason can find an ally – a desire opposite to the cookie desire. Without such an ally reason just produces good intentions that result in despicable acts.
We are laying out some groundwork here, and in this line of work those who don’t work won’t eat. Meaning that the effort to understand Spinoza will be paid back a thousand fold in ways that should become clearer later.
Finally, Spinoza offers us various practices we can adopt. Without an understanding of his ideas however these practices will be meaningless. He then goes on to justify his belief that the human mind can share in eternity. Statements of this nature annoy academics intensely. Strict atheistic dogma is de rigueur in academia, and so Spinoza’s claims that there is something in the mind that exists outside of time and can share in eternity is one of the reasons he has been unfashionable – although that is changing quite rapidly.
Note: I run a small Spinoza study group on Monday evenings (7.45 UK time). It’s free to participate. All that is required is the willingness to question. It will run as long as I and others are getting something out of it. If you want to participate just email me (Martin) at firstname.lastname@example.org.