Spinoza is a dangerous man to paraphrase. For someone who spent so much time writing, Spinoza has a reluctance to communicate with words. He seems to take a perverse joy in taking terms of common usage and re-defining them– clipping them here, shaving them there– to fit into the wall of philosophy he is constructing.
I’ve recently read a collection of his letters, SPINOZA: The Letters (translated by Samuel Shirley, with notes from Steven Barbone, Lee Rice, and Jacob Adler), and found that therein, when approaching a question put to him by a correspondent, Spinoza hems and haws and wriggles away from any sentence which might pin down too tightly his self-made vocabulary and take away from his personal glossary the ill-defined edges in which he retains wiggle room and deniability.
Spinoza will not say outright that he does not believe in a personal god, that he does not believe in the text of the Bible, that he does not believe in Christian doctrine, and so on.
I don’t know whether he was psychologically afraid to follow the interplays of his ideas to their more explicit and concrete conclusions, or if he was trying to protect himself from those who would persecute him for his anti-doctrinal beliefs. But whatever the reason for his reluctance to commit himself to the outcomes of his reasoning, Spinoza’s terms, so painstakingly and specifically defined in one letter, will shift slightly their definition in another letter when the subject is approached from a different tack. In the end, this means that even experts on Spinozan thought will always have something to debate.
Sometimes, attempting to grapple Spinoza’s special vocabulary is like trying to squeeze tightly a gel-worm. Spinoza is so good at this avoidance of finalizing his logical proofs when it comes to God and the other ultimately fuzzy fundamental concepts he explores– that one can splice-off his comments out of context and put them together and build the Spinoza one wishes: 1) a Spinoza who believes in the Judeo-Christian God, 2) a Spinoza who does not.
One thing I noticed that Spinoza was really, really good at was shuffling sideways around a conclusion drawn from one of his correspondents about what Spinoza was ultimately saying. Spinoza would start from the conclusion surmised by his correspondent (often a conclusion hurled at Spinoza in the form of an accusation), then shade away from it by restating the conclusion in a different form… then Spinoza –responding NOT to the original accusation but to the one he had worded himself– would state, with undisguised irritation, how, on the contrary my dear friend, I stand in outright and obvious opposition to the accusation against me that you have made.
When this side-stepping tactic did not suit him, he would opt to let loose a bullying bluster, claiming the conclusion drawn was not only erroneous but– he would imply– ignorant and stupid and not worth his time to contend with. Or else he would simply write that he had already clearly stated his views upon this matter elsewhere in a form that any idiot could understand.
Spinoza claims several times in his letters that what he is searching for is Truth– yet, what he appears really preoccupied with is the relationship between man and Spinoza’s own, idiosyncratic version of “God.”
Practically speaking, it would be a suicide mission to attempt to fill-in the blanks between the different pronouncements of Spinoza or to clarify his definitions. Nevertheless, these are the tasks I have assigned myself in the next few posts.
Nice not knowing you…
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