Friday, April 14, 2017

Essential Thinkers #21 Benedict de Spinoza: Mystical, Rational and Theistic

Dutch philosopher of Jewish origin, Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) remain one of the most compelling if not the difficult philosophers of the Rationalist school. Greatly influenced by Rene Descartes and Euclid, he takes rationalism to its logical extremes, determining to set out the principles of an ethical system in axiomatic format, mush as Euclid proved his theorems of geometry. Spinoza’s ambitious project is perhaps one of the greatest ever undertaken in philosophy and it is a mark of his greatness that, to a considerable extent, he was remarkably successful in this undertaking.

In the posthumously published Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrate (Ethics demonstrated in geometrical order), Spinoza sets out the axioms which he takes to be self-evident and then proceeds, step by step, to deduce ethical conclusions. Like Descartes, he is concerned to set knowledge on logical foundations: his ethical conclusions must therefore first be founded on a number of ontological, metaphysical and epistemic beliefs. Each of these is, in turn, demonstrated in geometric fashion.

Central to Spinoza’s philosophy is the idea, similar to that of Parmenides of Elea, that everything in the universe is One. There is only one substance and that substance we can conceive as of either Nature or God. This substance has infinitely many attributes but human beings, being finite, can only perceive two of them, extension and thought. Unlike Descartes, who thought mind and body were two separate kinds of thing, Spinoza argues that mind and body are just different ways of conceiving the same reality.

This reality, Nature of God, is wholly self-contained, self-causing and self-sufficient. Everything in the universe is part of God, and everything that happens is a necessary part of expression of the divine nature. The upshot of this pantheistic view is to remove free will from the realm of human actions. After all, if human beings are part of the divine reality there is no room for independent causal actions. Spinoza is more than happy with this conclusion, he is a thorough-going determinist: “Experience tells us clearly that men believe themselves to be free simply because they are conscious of their actions and unconscious of the causes whereby these actions are determined; further, it is plain that the dictates of the mind are simply another name for the appetites that vary according to the varying state of the body.”

Nevertheless, Spinoza does find a way of making room for a kind of freedom, though it is not of the sort that philosophers are used to. Each individual, says Spinoza, is a localised concentration of the attributes of reality, really a quasi-individual, since the only true individual is the universe in totality. Insofar as the quasi-individual is ruled by his emotions, he is unfree and at the mercy of finite understanding. To become free, the individual must, by means of rational reflection, understand the extended causal chain that links everything as one. To become aware of the totality of the universe is to be freed, not from causal determinism, but from an ignorance of one’s true nature.

What then, of wickedness, sin and evil?

Since everything is part of one reality there is no such thing as evil from the viewpoint of the whole – “sub specie aeternitis” (from the aspect of eternity). That which appears evil does so only because we lack the understanding to see the bigger picture, the chain of causes that make all events a necessary part of divine reality. Though many were shocked by this in Spinoza’s day, it reflects the same sentiment expressed by some Christians who persevere in the face of adversity by claiming that “God moves in mysterious ways” and “ours is not to reason why.” Of course, for Spinoza, to reason why is exactly what we must do to attain freedom.

Interestingly, Spinoza’s philosophy is both mystical, rational and theistic. Yet he was excommunicated from the Jewish community for his views, denounced as an atheist by Christians and declared so wicked that at one time his books were publicly burnt. Despite the rigour and integrity of his work, Spinoza remains one of the lesser studied and least regarded of all the rationalist philosophers.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.]

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