Philosophy. Religion & Spirituality. Nonfiction. HTML: Ethics is a philosophical book written by Benedictus de Spinoza. Although published after Spinoza's death, in 1677, it is considered his greatest and most famous work. In it, Spinoza tries to set out a "fully cohesive philosophical system that strives to provide a coherent picture of reality and to comprehend the meaning of an ethical life. Following a logical step-by-step format, it defines in turn the nature of God, the mind, human bondage to the emotions, and the power of understanding -- moving from a consideration of the eternal, to speculate upon humanity's place in the natural order, freedom, and the path to attainable happiness.".
As an additional benefit, such a system is comptible with some of the recent materialist neurological discoveries of modern science, stating that the mind can be inlfuenced by the body, and taht we must understand physical causes in order to make progress with the mentl/abstract. We must cultivate our gardens.
Spinoza is the foundations of philosophy and even mysticism and religion for even the most doubtful and venomous of skeptics, offering up the Universe and the Mathematical Laws of Nature instead of the dusty antiquated God of Bronzze Age massacres who demands foreskins for marriage. Perhaps a few others with benefit s of additional centuries of thought might yet construct a more applicable or cogent system but he is the base of it. He has the foundation, our Rock upon which the new Church is to be founded.
(Written in sleep-deprived haze on a trans-Pacific flight. Typos and other mistakes preserved. May write a better review later, but this will serve for now.)
At one point Spinoza, by his relentless geometrical method, derives the conclusion that it is perfectly ok for humans to cause serious suffering to animals, because we are somehow, in curious Spinozistic fashion, special. Perhaps, all other things being equal, everything in the Ethics is true even, or can be reconstructed to be truthful. But all other things are never equal and reading this book might a good exercise in understanding that. From high-flown abstract principles to the justification of extremely cruel treatment of animals is a harsh inference.
At the higher level, his idea of body and thought as being just two of limitless modes of what he calls God, and the only two accessible to us (though Spinoza believes he can infer there are more), is very interesting. Einstein said the God he believed in was the Spinozist God. This is a major influence on enlightenment philosophy and a classic statement of the non-existence of free will, a book you should read if you really want to, and pass by without guilt if you don't. I did enjoy it.
The first part, “Concerning God” consists of a proof of God’s existence. It’s one of those ontological arguments, which I find among the most unconvincing of any attempts at a case for God. One of those that thinks the very definition of God is itself proof of existence. There’s a peculiar consequence though of how Spinoza defines God. He believes that a consequence of God’s very perfection is that “neither intellect nor will appertain to God’s nature.” After all, how can a perfect being wish to change any aspect of the universe? If God is infinite, how can he be outside Nature? Thus all is set, God does not and cannot intervene in the universe; there is no room for the supernatural. So Spinoza’s own definition and “proof” of God reduces him to triviality. God is just another word for all that exists--in which case, I don’t get why bother with the concept. (On the other hand, I understand it was precisely this line of argument which helped develop arguments for religious freedom and allowed free thinking, deism, and atheism to come out from hiding.) Part Two, “Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind” was the thorniest to read and understand. The best I can make out, contra Descartes, Spinoza denies any dichotomy between mind and body--both are expressions of an individual.
Part Three, Four, and Five are all closely connected. Part Three “On the Origin and Nature of Emotions” argues that “all emotions are attributed to desire, pleasure or pain” according to “each man’s nature,” recognizing individual differences in tastes and values. At the end he defines various emotions according to this system. Spinoza seems to argue for this being very deterministic, which makes me wonder, why bother with an ethical system at all, if humans are unable to conform to it? This is clarified somewhat in the next two parts, “Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of Emotions” and “Of Human Freedom”--which doesn’t deal with politics as you might think, but with Freedom from those pesky emotions, by “framing a system of right conduct” and developing a habit of conforming to reason. Politics was touched on more in Part Four, where the influence of Hobbes idea of the social contract was obvious.
It was from Section Four that I felt I took away something valuable. Much of the heart of Spinoza’s ethics is very reminiscent to me of Aristotle’s ethics, which established the whole line of “rational ethical egoism” which I find so much more appealing than appeals to disinterested altruism such as Kant’s rule-based “categorical imperative” that calls for conforming to ethical rules without caring about consequences--to yourself or others--or utilitarianism which asks you to calculate the greatest good for the greatest number without caring about tramping on individuals with hobnailed boots. Spinoza, like Aristotle, emphasizes that ethics is about human flourishing and happiness. But what I like about Spinoza, that I don’t remember from Aristotle (who admittedly I haven’t reread in years) is his emphasis on reciprocity and empathy--in other words, the Golden Rule that has been a near universal in moral thinking from Confucius to Jesus: “Every man should desire for others the good which he seeks for himself.” Spinoza recognizing humans flourish best with other humans argues it’s in a person’s self-interest, and makes a person happiest, when consequently people “are just, faithful, and honourable in their conduct.” I like that squaring of the circle of selfishness and altruism.
Mind you, this was difficult, dry reading. Philosophy doesn’t have to be. I found Plato, with his dialogue format and use of metaphor and story quite fun, and Aristotle quite lucid. In comparison to Spinoza's Ethics, Descartes Discourse on Method is easy. Spinoza writes as if he’s setting out a geometry text. His arguments are set out as definitions, axioms, corollaries, postulates, and especially propositions and their proofs. There are, mercifully, notes where he does set out his arguments in a more conventional narrative form, but especially in Part Two, when dealing with such concepts as the relationship between body and mind, and how we know what we know--well, this isn’t for the faint of heart. Plato and Aristotle write as if their audience are ordinary people--Spinoza as if his audience consists of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers. So no, I’m not saying that in giving this a rating Goodreads equates with “Really Liked It” I’m saying this was a fun read, and I can’t even say on first read on my own I felt I fully comprehended and got out of this all that I could. I possibly should have read more about Spinoza by popularizers before tackling this--it was hard going. But Spinoza is definitely a thinker worth encountering.
First off, this book might look like a quick read due to it's page numbers, but it's actually a difficult read. Not only is it not
Religion is a key part of Spinoza's philosophy. There is also a debate to exactly what he was religiously. At times this book isn't clear. We do know that he didn't like organized religion. He wasn't religiously Jewish or Christian (he was ethnically Jewish though). There is some question whether or not his God is what most people think of God or if it's a whole other type of God. George Eliot was the first person to translate this book into English. I haven't read her translation, so I can't compare, but I have read her views on Spinoza. She was evangelical, maybe too much, before reading him. After, she realized that she wasn't Christian. She questioned the religion and church too much. She eventually turned skeptic and atheist. She also became a better writer, but that's another story.
I, on the other hand, am an atheist, now. For a while I was struggling with not agreeing with religion (as a whole, not just Christianity) and the church (mostly the Catholic Church which I wasn't part of, but it's important to some people around me). Reading the Bible last year didn't help me either. I though, or I was told, I'd find peace and meditation reading passages. The Bible only seemed to cause me to have more anxiety. Too much genealogical boasting and contradicting ideas in the Bible for me to agree with. I liked it for the poetry and literary background, but that about all I can say respectfully. As I've mentioned before with Nietzsche and other philosophers, I give them credit for helping me with anxiety and seeing I feel more free and relaxed without religion and divine rules to follow.
Will this book turn you into a skeptic, atheist, or pantheists? Maybe or maybe not. Depends how much literature influences you. I hope this will make you more open to skepticism though. I believe we have a right to question the world around us, that's why we have science. One thing I know, Spinoza was a fan of science, logic, and reason.