Wednesday, September 6, 2017
Ethics by Baruch Spinoza
The toughest book you’ll ever love
Ethics by Baruch Spinoza (a.k.a. Benedict de Spinoza) was originally published in 1677 under the Latin title of Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata. Though the title highlights Spinoza’s ethical philosophy, the scope of the book is much broader. Before he ever gets around to discussing how people should conduct themselves, he first examines in great detail the nature of God, the substance of matter, and the processes of human thought and emotion. One thing that separates Ethics from just about any other philosophical text you’re likely to come across is that Spinoza makes his argument in the form of a mathematical proof, similar to the style of Euclid’s The Elements. He begins each of the book’s five parts by defining terms. He then postulates several fundamental axioms. From these axioms, he proceeds to make a series of propositions, each of which builds upon the material that came before. He supports each proposition with explanatory commentary, corollaries, and notes.
The result of this approach is a very comprehensive and coherent one-volume philosophical system of how the universe works. By coherent I mean that its pieces cohere firmly and logically together; I definitely don’t mean easy to read. Never has a book been so orderly structured yet so confusing. Each sentence Spinoza writes is crafted in a circuitous syntax that is quite frustrating to decipher. He pens each statement with such precision that at times its like reading computer code. Yet when kernels of wisdom do emerge from this fog of verbiage the reader reaps the rewards of pure genius. It’s not always a fun read, but it is a work that deserves deep concentration and contemplation. Though the Euclidean structure of the book makes for labor intensive reading, you’ll end up wishing more philosophers would have adopted this logical structure and stated their ideas so systematically.
Spinoza begins by discussing the substance of which the universe is comprised. While dualists like Plato and Descartes posited that the universe consists of two substances, matter and spirit, Spinoza proposes a monism by which matter and mind are one and the same substance. Since only one substance exists, God is also comprised of it, and since God is infinite, the universe (or Nature) is God. Thus, from the philosophy of monism springs the religion of pantheism. In Spinoza’s view, everything is divine. His deity is not an anthropomorphic god, nor does he believe in ideal definitions of good and evil. Spinoza maintains a strictly deterministic view of the universe in which every action leads back to the ultimate cause, the eternal God. Fate is predetermined and free will is an illusion. Spinoza goes to great lengths to explain how human thoughts and emotions are the result of natural processes, even so far as to define a tedious laundry list of human emotions and their causes. His ethics are very similar to those of the ancient Stoics. Man has no control over what befalls him, but he can manage his emotions with rational thought and cultivate happiness by contemplating God and resigning himself to his natural destiny. Despite his continual use of the G-word, Spinoza’s pantheism is about as near as you can get to atheism without calling it as such. The Ethics may be the closest thing to a bible for freethinkers that has ever been produced. Thanks to its Euclidean structure, you can even quote it chapter and verse.
The Wordsworth Classics series has a beautifully typeset paperback edition of the Ethics, with a revised version of the 1883 translation by W. H. White. However, the translation by R. H. M. Elwes (also 1883), found in the free ebook edition from Project Gutenberg, is a little easier to understand. For difficult passages, I found myself going back and forth between the two.
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