Baruch Spinoza: Plunging into the Cosmos
Seeing clearly and comprehending reality correctly is critical for ensuring one’s actions are appropriate. A humorous Sears Optical commercial demonstrated this point by showing a woman letting a racoon into her home, thinking it was her cat. The implication was that her eyesight was so poor, she could not distinguish a wild racoon from her pet cat! (“Sears Optical Racoon Spot”). Spinoza was not only a lens crafter who helped people physically see correct reality, but he also was a philosopher who endeavored to help people comprehend an accurate understanding of God or nature. Spinoza was a contemporary to Descartes – noted for his cogito ergo sum - however Spinoza did not stop at acknowledging individual existence but strived to grasp “philosophical truth” from the view of an eternal, “rational observer” and not so much from a petty, egotistic perspective (Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy : From Descartes to Wittgenstein, 48).
Born on November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, Spinoza lived in an epoch of not only enlightenment, but one of challenges where people were vindictive and egocentric. One specific example of the degree to which people went to hold such strong beliefs was that of Uriel Da Costa; whose beliefs over which Spinoza “probably meditated long and hard” (Nadler, Spinoza : A Life, 66). Da Costa’s family and Spinoza’s family were connected as far back as when they lived in Portugal, before many of the Jews fled to Amsterdam (66). As for Uriel, his father was a Christian and his mother was a “Judaizer” (66). Having been raised Christian, he greatly feared for his salvation to the point of “sadness and pain”, and he deeply questioned his faith wondering if it “[agreed] with reason” (66-67). He abandoned his Christian faith and converted to Judaism in 1612 (67). But after some time living among the Jews in Amsterdam, he found their sect to be too Pharisaical. He moved to Hamburg in 1616 and published his quarrels with Judaism, railing against the “vanity and invalidity of the traditions and ordinances of the Pharisees” (68). Besides rejecting and deriding Jewish rites such as circumcision and the use of phylacteries and prayer shawls, Da Costa denied the immortality of the soul, the afterlife and eternal reward, all of which, he thought, caused great errors in thinking and “superstitious behaviors” (69). The Jewish religious leaders banned him, and he was exiled from the community; but after several years, he repented. He confessed his sins to the congregation, was then stripped to his waist, tied to a pillar and whipped thirty-nine times, then laid down at the threshold of the synagogue and walked over by every congregant as they exited the building. A few days later, Da Costa killed himself (71-72). Who is to blame for the anxieties of Da Costa? Was he in the right? Were his lay ministers rightfully justified in this brutal repentance process? Or were Da Costa and the rabbis all tragically in error?
Perhaps Spinoza thought they were all in error and attempted to correct these ideas. One historian of Spinoza wrote that having an “anthropomorphic conception of God can have only deleterious effects on human freedom and activity” (Nadler, Spinoza : A Life, 229). Furthermore, a modern author noted a similar sentiment when she wrote, “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do” (Lamott). To rebut this erroneous perspective, Spinoza intended to elucidate a philosophy which would help society see reality from “the aspect of eternity” and to comprehend nature as an enduring and infinite entity in “which we participate because in it we are dissolved.” (Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy : From Descartes to Wittgenstein, 62). Dissolution of oneself is synonymous to what Seneca wrote when he suggested the human soul "[inject] itself into the cosmos as a whole” (see Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius 66.6 and Hadot, et. al., The Present Alone Is Our Happiness : Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, 230). Consequently, if we have a correct understanding of God or nature, we minimize emotions and are free to not only plunge ourselves into nature, but to also participate with God by acting virtuously. In brief, Spinoza claims “our happiness and well-being lie, not in a life enslaved to the passions and to the transitory goods we ordinarily pursue, nor in the related unreflective attachment to the superstitions that pass as religion, but rather in the life of reason” (Nadler, Spinoza : A Life, 227). The crux of Spinoza’s philosophy is God as substance.
Spinoza’s God is not meant to be anthropomorphized. As he states in the scholium of proposition 15: “some imagine God in the likeness of man, consisting of mind and body, and subject to passions” (Benedictus De Spinoza et al. Ethics, Part 1). Rather than a personal God, like that found in Abrahamic religions, Spinoza argued God is “infinite … (self-caused), [and a] unique substance of the universe” and that God is this substance, and all else that exists in the universe is in God (Nadler, “Baruch Spinoza (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)”). Since everything is God, humans and objects in the cosmos are simply modes or affections (Benedictus De Spinoza et al., Ethics, Part 1, proposition 15). There are two types of modes. The first are “infinite and eternal” and the second are “finite and temporal” (Dutton). The first are like the laws of motion which are “pervasive features of the universe” while the second are individual objects which inhabit the universe (Dutton). Lastly, Spinoza defines God as deterministic, when he stated, “nothing in nature is contingent, but all things are from the necessity of the divine nature determined to exist and act in a definite way” (Benedictus De Spinoza et al., Ethics, Part 1, proposition 29). As for free-will, he bluntly wrote, “men believe themselves to be free, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined” (Benedictus De Spinoza et al., Ethics, Part 3, proposition 2, scholium). In all these aspects of defining God, Spinoza remained totally committed to helping humanity comprehend reality from “the aspect of eternity” and to avoid the cruel, emotional behavior which many, including Da Costa, suffered in his time (Nadler, Spinoza : A Life, 241).
How does this understanding of God help the individual to minimize emotions? An awareness of “the universe in its totality cannot produce confused ideas, since the idea of the universe in its totality is the idea of God, which, to the extent that we grasp it, is adequate in us” (Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy : From Descartes to Wittgenstein, 62). This seeking and comprehension of how the cosmos operates unshackles us “from the troublesome emotional ups and downs of this life” by freeing us “from a reliance on the senses and the imagination” (Nadler, “Baruch Spinoza (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)”). No longer tied to the puppet strings of religious dogma, fear of death, fame, riches and a myriad of other external things beyond our control, our emotions are not pulled and manipulated by others, but rather we freely choose how to act virtuously and with equanimity (see Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.29 and Nadler, Spinoza : A Life, 242).
Once we become unchained from externals, we exit the proverbial cave and enter the cosmos as an active agent instead of a passive entity (see Plato, et. al. 516a-517b). “The attempt to understand reality through that idea necessarily leads us to the love of reality … this love is active and intellectual, not passive and emotional; in acquiring it we come to participate in the divine nature” (Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy : From Descartes to Wittgenstein, 62). As an active agent in the universe, we see reality from a timeless and limitless perspective. Our actions and attitude, in a sense, are unified with God and we are free to choose a virtuous life which aligns itself with the morality of God. This entire concept is perfectly captured in the Greek word eudaimonia, which means one’s daimon – or deity within – is flourishing well or “good” (eu) (see Hadot, The Inner Citadel, 120-124).
Having attained this realization and enlightenment via this leap into reality, we begin to comprehend how every event and interaction becomes a way to practice and live a virtuous, moral life, which “happiness … is strictly its own reward” (Scruton A Short History of Modern Philosophy : From Descartes to Wittgenstein, 62). Our egotistical identity becomes transformed – we realize we are a part of God – and God’s reason becomes our reason. Pierre Hadot, in his analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, succinctly explains this realization and inner transformation. The individual passes from the “domain of necessity to the domain of freedom, and from the domain of freedom to the domain of morality” by assuming the perspective of God or nature and realizing one is only an “infinitesimal point within the immensity” (Hadot, The Inner Citadel, 182). Realizing how little is in one’s control, he is liberated to focus solely on his own attitude; responding with justice, courage, temperance or wisdom to circumstances placed before him; refraining from judging something to be good or bad, and holding on to a higher perspective – these are the choices one makes to inject oneself into the universe and become dissolved in and unified with God.
Spinoza embodied his philosophy. In a poignant letter with a colleague in England, while the Dutch Republic and the United Provinces of England were at war, Spinoza wrote,
these troubles move me neither to laughter nor again to tears, but rather to philosophising, and to a closer observation of human nature. For I do not think it right to laugh at nature, and far less to grieve over it, reflecting that men, like all else, are only a part of nature, and that I do not know how each part of nature harmonises with the whole, and how it coheres with other parts. And I realize that it is merely through such lack of understanding that certain features of nature - which I thus perceive only partly and in a fragmentary way, and which are not in keeping with our philosophical attitude of mind - once seemed to me vain, disordered and absurd. But now I 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 (Nadler, Spinoza : A Life, 220).
On another occasion, when financial stakes were high, Spinoza’s sister Rebekah tried to prevent him from acquiring his share of his father’s inheritance after he had died. Spinoza, out of sheer principal, took her to court, “established his claim, and then calmly renounced it” thus maintaining justice, while not grasping at externals (Scruton, Spinoza : A Very Short Introduction, 9).
In conclusion, Spinoza was an honorable soul who observed the barbarities of his time and tried to do his part to rectify them. He worked all his life explaining his vision of universal harmony as well as establish a path away from superstition and one toward unity with the cosmos. His friends closest to him bear witness to Spinoza’s embodiment of his philosophy, noting his “personal charm, nobility of outlook, and affectionate disposition” (18). He never relented in advocating a comprehension of nature as an enduring and infinite entity, into which we plunge, are dissolved and actively participate in a virtuous and moral life.
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Hadot, Pierre, et al. The Present Alone Is Our Happiness : Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson. Stanford University Press, 2011.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books, 1994.
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Nadler, Steven M. “Baruch Spinoza (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford.edu, 2016, plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/.
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Plato, et al. A Plato Reader : Eight Essential Dialogues. Hackett Pub. Co, 2012.
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“Sears Optical Raccoon Spot.” Www.youtube.com, 23 Jan. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7ySvH3UGys&ab_channel=searsopticalvideos.