Spinoza’s Evil

For Spinoza, Beauty is a human-relative concept.

“I do not attribute to Nature:  Beauty, Ugliness, Order, or Confusion,” Spinoza writes Oldenburg.  It is only “with respect to our Imagination” that things can be said to be so.

And to Hugo Boxel in September 1674, Spinoza writes that Beauty “is not so much a quality in the perceived object as an effect in him who perceives it.”  […]  “If we were more long-sighted or short-sighted, or if we were differently constituted, the things which we now think beautiful would appear ugly, and the ugly, beautiful.”  Even “the most beautiful hand viewed through a microscope would appear repulsive.”

Spinoza believes that if the world appears beautiful to us, it is either because God fashioned the world so that it would appeal to our sight and judgment, or else He made our eyes and judgment such that the look of the world would please us.

When it comes to Evil or Sin, Spinoza again feels that –often– this is merely a misjudgment from the skewed human perspective.

Spinoza tells Blynenbergh in January 1665 that Sin “indicates an imperfection.”  Yet humans, not having much of a perspective upon the Universe as a whole, are not good judges when it comes to what is perfect or imperfect.  For example, many people would contend that someone afflicted with blindness suffers an Evil.  But this is not necessarily so, objects Spinoza.  Objectively speaking, a blind man is no more deprived of sight than a stone can be said to be deprived of the same faculty.  We incorrectly assign imperfections to things by “comparing things with one another.”

My interpretation of Spinozan thought when it comes to Creation is that Imperfection could only occur where the outcome did not match God’s will– but since there can be no discrepancy between what God wills and what comes to pass, according to Spinoza, then there seems to me no room for Imperfection in the Universe, and thus, no room for Evil.  But Spinoza resists letting go entirely of the idea of Evil.

In the Letters (Shirley et al), I find it perplexing that Spinoza does not approach the problem of Evil by citing his own contention that “all things follow with inevitable necessity from God’s will” (to Oldenburg, December 1675).  Spinoza could easily say here that there is no Evil in an objective, or God’s-eye sense, for all is happening precisely according to God’s will.  Instead, Spinoza is like a cat playing with a mouse when it comes to Evil– he keeps worrying it, but refuses to kill it.

Spinoza argues that Adam’s choice to break God’s commandment in Eden was NOT sinful since Sin is an Imperfection, and Spinoza can find no imperfection in Adam’s desire to break the commandment, nor from its actual breaking.  Spinoza believes that both Adam’s action and his intention stem from God.

Spinoza attempts– and I think failingly– to describe Evil as that which possesses insufficient Reality.  The first problem I have with this is that I’m far from convinced that there exist different degrees of Reality.  Secondly, I doubt we humans are great judges of these subtle distinctions between levels of Reality if they do exist.  Thirdly, this makes Evil a relative concept, not an objective truth… So something is Evil if it is less real than other things?  How much less real does it need to be?.

It very much sounds to me as if, for Spinoza, “Reality” and “Essence” are synonymous, or nearly so.  Therefore, for Spinoza, Evil is the absence of Essence.  If so, then would something completely Evil possess Existence without Essence?  And what the hell is that supposed to mean anyhow?  I’ve never had much truck with the Existence vs Essence approach to Reality.  Spinoza’s in the weeds here, as far as I’m concerned.

Spinoza tries to say that God is the cause of only those things which have Essence and since Evil does not have Essence, God cannot be the author of it.

Again:  my feeling is that a seeker of Truth can get more good philosophy from reading the comics than wasting time listening to a discussion once a philosopher has brought so-called “Essence” into it.

Spinoza leads himself into an intricate maze wherein many of his hard-earned notions meet– but do not mix:

God wills, and His will is the cause of everything…and yet he is not the author of Evil?…

Evil is the lack of “Essence”…  and yet this idea of “lack” is merely a human-relative and erroneous judgment?…

Virtuous people and Wicked people both exist… however, they have no Free Will when it comes to the choices they make?…

I think many a philosopher out there confuses high-phrased contradiction with deep thought, and thus they give certain philosophers too much credit for profundity whereas all they have really done is make a muddle.

I learn best by example.  Thankfully, Spinoza gives us an example of what he considers a Wicked person doing an Evil act, also known as, committing a Sin:

The Sin:  Nero kills his mother.  Why is it Evil?  Because Nero exhibited LACKNESS [my word]:  Nero was UN-grateful to his mother,  DE-void of compassion, and DIS-obedient…  Spinoza does not outright say, in the Letters, that Gratefulness, Compassion, and Obedience are Virtues– yet he evidently assigns some positive value to them, and he calls this positive value… what else?… “Essence.”  Thus, he contends that Nero sinned by performing acts lacking in Essence.

I will only mention briefly that Nero’s acts did not lack Brutality or Cunning…  Isn’t there some arbitrariness associated with choosing which characteristics will be highlighted as conspicuous by their absence?

Spinoza also tries to hang on to the notion that Wicked people DO exist (in spite of the contention that we live in a world designed and built and maintained in every instant by God).  He tells Blyenbergh that what makes a man wicked is that he lacks “the love of God that flows from the knowledge of God,” whereas “the Good serve consciously and in serving becoming more Perfect.”  Spinoza describes the Wicked man as someone who is “but an instrument in the hands of the Maker, serving unconsciously, and being used-up.”

Spinoza claims that a person’s good act is no less Virtuous simply because, in a Universe completely controlled by God, he had no choice but to perform it.  At the same time, he says that person who refrains from crime due only to a fear of punishment is NOT Virtuous– though his action be identical to that of a “virtuous” person.  There’s a contradiction here:  in the first case, the cause of the choice (there is only God’s) is irrelevant to Virtue; in the second case, the cause of the choice (not the outcome) is the deciding factor as to whether there is Virtue in the act or not.

I feel like Spinoza more or less acknowledges TWO kinds of Evil:  1) Natural Evil (some things are lacking or less real than others), and 2) Human-Caused Evil, which is Sin.  Spinoza never makes this distinction outright.

Concerning Human-Caused Evil (Sin)… Spinoza makes it clear to Blyenbergh that God does NOT judge us.  He is neither pleased by a Virtuous man’s actions, nor displeased by those of a Wicked man.

Because God does not sit in judgment over us, Spinoza sees no reason why a man who would be happier doing Evil should not do so.  Any person, he says, “who saw clearly that he would in fact enjoy a more perfect and better life or Essence by engaging in villainy than by pursuing Virtue would also be a fool if he did not do just that.  For in relation to such a perverted human nature, villainy would be a Virtue.”

Spinoza is perhaps most famous of all for his anti-orthodox views on God, and I haven’t even got to most of that stuff yet.  I hope to do so in the next post.

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Other Posts on SPINOZA from Hammering Shield:

On Walking The Path Of Truth With Spinoza

Some Of Spinoza’s More Heretical Notions

Spinoza’s God (Don’t Worry, He’s Not Angry)

Free Will And The Art Of The Spinozan Spin

How Reading Spinoza Is Like An Acid Trip

The Modes, Attributes, and Imagination Of Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza’s Eternal Substance

So Did Spinoza Not KNOW He Was An Atheist?

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