For my (finally) last post on Spinoza, I want to talk briefly about Spinoza in a more general fashion. Baruch Spinoza (aka Benedict de Spinoza) lived in the Netherlands in the 1600s, dying in 1677 at the age of 44. He died of tuberculosis, also known as consumption. He was a working man, earning his living by grinding lenses during the day and working on philosophy at night.
As a day-job man, myself, who struggles to find the energy at the end of the workday to write and study, I greatly respect, and sympathize with, Spinoza’s attempt to do something so monumental with his free hours. When a fella has little choice but to work, and yet cannot let go of his Art, I know from experience that he has to let go of a lot other things– important things, painfully missed things– in order to have some time and energy– never enough!– for his Art after his long, energy-sucking workday is finally over. Relationships are often the things that suffer most.
When it became obvious to Spinoza that he was dying, he was quite stoic about it in his letters (SPINOZA: The Letters, edited by Shirley et al). He barely mentioned his sickness except, toward the end, to condition talk of his future plans upon the presumption that he would still be alive. This was stated very matter-of-factly, with no design on inducing pity.
Reading his letters nearly four hundred years after they were written, I found Spinoza impatient and prickly with men who disagreed with him. He comes across as overly sure of the genius of his own proofs, and he assumes that any man who does not agree with him must not understand him. He reminds me in this way of my least favorite philosopher, Wittgenstein.
But in actuality, Spinoza was often obscure in his demonstrations and explanations, and he several times strongly resisted the rational conclusions that his correspondents were drawing from his broad statements upon God, religion, and reality. When his ideas were questioned, he most often reacted defensively. Sometimes he would imply that his correspondent was stupid. Other times he would brush off the counter-argument or question by stating that he’d already answered that question and would not waste his time doing so again at the present moment.
As I [rehd] his letters, I jotted down a few of the remarks Spinoza made concerning his oh-so-perfect proofs:
“I have demonstrated clearly…”
“With this, your friend’s objections are readily answered…”
“I think I have made this quite clear…”
“As I have demonstrated on another occasion…”
“This I believe is a complete answer to the question…”
“As clearly follows from what I have said above…”
“I have more than adequately shown…”
On the other hand, Spinoza greatly impressed me with how he was able to keep most of his philosophical system internally consistent. This is no small achievement for a man constructing a philosophy to embrace ALL of the important questions.
Upon reading Spinoza’s letters, I found that he must have, directly or indirectly, influenced Kant, for Spinoza pre-dates Kant in remarking upon the extreme relativity of all things due to the filter of human perceptions. Spinoza also speaks, a hundred years before Kant, of the Thing Itself –the underlying reality of the Universe which is hidden behind the veil of our limited human senses. Spinoza believed that only our Intellect (which he seems to have viewed as something akin to Pure Reason) can grasp the Thing Itself– that this was not something which we could perceive. Of course, such ideas are not original to Spinoza either. For instance, Meister Eckhart was saying similar things three hundred years before Spinoza! And Eckhart, himself, was part of an even more ancient mystic tradition.
One of Spinoza’s precepts struck me as most fundamental to his philosophy…
Like only interacts with Like.
His foundational belief that Like only interacts with Like drove much of his reasoning. For example, he insisted to Oldenburg (October 1661) that “of things which have nothing in common with one another, one cannot be the cause of another.” The Effect must share characteristics with the Cause, or else the Cause could not participate in, or precipitate, the Effect… It would be as if the Effect had been born of nothing.
This leads him further: “The knowledge of the Effect depends on, and involves, the knowledge of the Cause.” This is the reasoning behind his view, expressed to von Tschirnhaus in January 1675, that a philosophical definition we give of an Effect, must also express its Cause… We should be able to deduce, from a good definition, all the properties of the thing defined, including its “efficient Cause.”
I think Spinoza’s firm belief that Like only interacts with Like is why Boyle’s chemistry experiments seemed to trouble him so much. Boyle was combining substances to produce very different resultants than the original reactants. I think this shook Spinoza to his core. That Like only interacts with Like was nearly a religious precept to him, and at the center of his thought.
About God, Spinoza was infuriatingly evasive at times. He seemed to want his anti-Judeo-Christian cake without having to eat it, too. When correspondents would call him out on his heretical notions, he would jump into spin mode and try to show why his quite non-orthodox notions were not heretical at all… ahh, if only you truly understood me…
Spinoza felt that “the principal thing” which makes a man a man is the “knowledge of God and of himself.” This knowledge he sought to expand all his life.
One thing I leave Spinoza feeling sad about is that I don’t think he was all that successful in obtaining bosom buddies, though he seems, like most people, to have craved such comradeship. “What I most value,” he told Blyenbergh in January 1665, “is to enter into a bond of friendship with sincere lovers of Truth.” He believed that the love of Truth makes for good ground upon which to establish friendship since, “Truth more than anything else has the power to effect a close union between different sentiments and dispositions.”
Spinoza –due to his job and his studies– must have spent most of his life in isolation… Nevertheless, he knew his fellow man. He told Boxel in September 1674 that when it comes to first principles, men are not likely to concede an argument. Instead, they will “narrate things not as they are but as they would like them to be.” This wisdom — easily learned but all too easily forgotten in the moment– vies, I think, for the most important observation concerning human nature and society.
Just as astutely, Spinoza remarked to Jarig Jelles in June 1674 that “the ignorant are usually the most venturesome and most ready” to publish their thoughts. As a blogger, I take no offense to this, but admit it so.
Spinoza, himself, was a Seeker Of Truth. He did not wish to tell others how to live, nor have them telling him. Writing to Oldenburg in 1665, Spinoza states that he is content to “let everyone go his own way. Those who wish can by all means die for their own Good, as long as I am allowed to live for Truth.”
He hoped to show “sensible” people (the others were hopeless) where they were behaving by mere habit or tradition and not by reason. “I apply myself to exposing such prejudices and removing them from the minds of sensible people,” he told Oldenburg.
“Devote the better part of your life to the cultivation of your intellect and your soul,” he instructs. “Now, I say, while there is yet time and before you complain that time, and indeed yourself, have slipped by.”
Breaking free of ingrained modes of thought is not easy, as Spinoza admitted without hesitation. Writing to Bouwmeester in June 1666, he said that in pursuing enlightenment, “there is needed constant meditation and most steadfast mind and purpose.” He advises the young Bouwmeester to “establish a fixed way and manner of life, and to have a definite aim in view.”
“Even if I were once to find untrue the fruits which I have gathered from my natural understanding,” he wrote Blyenbergh in January 1665, “they would still make me happy… for I enjoy them, and seek to pass my life not in sorrowing and sighing, but in peace, joy, and cheerfulness.”
Adios, Spinoza. It was an enlightening walk with you.
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