Articles from 11/2013

21 November 2013

Spinoza’s God

A cosmos in the mind of the harmonious philosopher

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) has long appealed to skeptics and secularists. In the 18th century, "Spinozism" was a synonym for atheism. Shelley channeled him in his own arguments for atheism, George Eliot translated him, Hegel and Marx admired him, and he was one of Nietzsche's favorite philosophers. Yet in his major philosophical works, he can hardly stop talking about God, whose existence never seems to be in doubt—prompting the German poet Novalis, one of the many Romantic poets enchanted with him, to call him "that God-intoxicated…Read

Everybody loves Spinoza

Atheist Jew, champion of modernism, and kind and sociable man, the 17th century lens grinder who was "drunk on God" continues to win hearts and minds with his breathtaking philosophical vision.

Bertrand Russell declared the 17th century lens grinder Baruch Spinoza to be "the noblest and most loveable of the great philosophers." To judge from several recent books, he's not alone in that opinion. The neurologist Antonio Damasio made the philosopher's thought a keystone of his 2003 book on emerging theories of emotion and consciousness, "Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain." In "Betraying…Read

Spinoza,  p8 / Reading the ethics

In this final installment, how the Ethics is not just a philosophical treatise, but also a training manual for a philosophical way of life.

In this series we've examined several elements of Spinoza's philosophy, including his critique of traditional religious doctrines, his metaphysics of human life, his theory of human emotions, and his account of virtue. However, very little has been said of the distinctive philosophical method and literary style of his great work, the Ethics – and so in this final instalment I want to address this issue.

The Ethics differs from…Read

Spinoza, p7 / On the ethics of the self

For Spinoza the main hurdle to virtue isn't egoism but ignorance of our true nature – by being selfish we can in fact help others

Unlike many other philosophers, Spinoza does not think that living an ethical life involves overcoming our natural self-centredness. For Spinoza, the main obstacle to virtue is not egoism, but ignorance of our true nature. When we are subject to strong emotions, which we attribute to imagined causes, we are unlikely to act in a way that is good for ourselves, or for other people. Add to this our misguided belief in…Read

Spinoza, p6 / Understanding the emotions

By understanding our emotions, whether positive or negative, we gain in power and therefore happiness, argues Spinoza

In the third book of the Ethics, Spinoza writes that he intends to consider human emotions "as if the surfaces of lines, planes or solids". Because the emotions are just as natural and as law-governed as all other modes, he suggests, they can be studied with mathematical precision. And this means that human behaviour, so often motivated by emotion, must be completely intelligible and explicable.

Spinoza criticises people who, believing "that man rather disturbs than follows the order…Read

Spinoza, p5 / On human nature

We are not autonomous individuals but part of a greater whole, says Spinoza, and there is no such thing as human free will.

We have examined Spinoza's metaphysics, looking at how his radical reinterpretation of the philosophical terminology of substance, attribute and mode produces a new vision of reality. According to Spinoza, only God can be called a substance – that is to say, an independently existing being – and everything else is a mode of this single substance. But what does this mean for us?

One of the central questions of philosophy is:…Read

Spinoza, p3 / What God is not

In his Ethics, Spinoza wanted to liberate readers from the dangers of ascribing human traits to God Baruch Spinoza by Tea Moth

Spinoza's Ethics is divided into five books, and the first of these presents an idiosyncratic philosophical argument about the existence and nature of God. We'll examine this in detail next week, but first we need to look more closely at how the Ethics challenges traditional Judeo-Christian belief in God.

The view that Spinoza wants to reject can be  summed up in one word: anthropomorphism. This means attributing human characteristics to…Read

Spinoza, p4 / All there is, is GOD

Being infinite and eternal, God has no boundaries, argues Spinoza, and everything in the world must exist within this God So far in this series I've focused on Spinoza's critique of the religious and philosophical world view of his time. But what does he propose in place of anthropomorphic, anthropocentric belief in a transcendent creator God?

Spinoza begins his Ethics by defining some basic philosophical terms: substance, attribute, and mode. In offering these definitions, he is actually attempting a radical revision of the philosophical vocabulary used by Descartes, the leading thinker of his time, to…Read

Spinoza, p2 / Miracles and God’s will

Spinoza's belief that miracles were an unexplained act of nature, not proof of God, proved dangerous and controversial.

At the heart of Baruch Spinoza's philosophy is a challenge to the traditional Judeo-Christian view of the relationship between God and the world. While the Hebrew Bible and the Christian scriptures share a conception of God as the creator of the natural world and the director of human history, Spinoza argues that everything that exists is an aspect of God that expresses something of the divine nature. This idea that God is not separate from the world…Read

Spinoza, p1/ Philosophy as a way of life

For this 17th century outsider, philosophy is like a spiritual practice, whose goal is happiness and liberation.

Although Baruch Spinoza is one of the great thinkers of the European philosophical tradition, he was not a professional scholar – he earned his modest living as a lens grinder. So, unlike many thinkers of his time, he was unconstrained by allegiance to a church, university or royal court. He was free to be faithful to the pursuit of truth. This gives his philosophy a remarkable originality and intellectual purity – and it also led to controversy and charges of…Read

Spinoza, the Modern-Day Radical

You probably already know that 17th century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza was radical for his time—from his notorious excommunication from the Amsterdam Jewish community at age 23 to his proclamation of "the end of Jewish politics," in his 1677 Theological-Political Treatise, which was written in Latin rather than vernacular Dutch to avoid censorship by Dutch authorities. But University of Chicago political scientist Julie Cooper recently extended Spinoza's rebel status into the present, defending the radical implications of his thought for Jewish identity and politics today at a lecture held earlier this month at the University of Chicago.


Spinoza: Why he still matters

The average Westerner has probably never heard of Spinoza. He is still one of the most important philosophers in European history. This year's final issue looks at Spinoza's legacy with insights from recently published books about this much-loved (but also maligned) figure who was, paradoxically, remembered as both both heretical and "God-intoxicated". Religious freedom: As a Jew in 17th century Europe who rejected the infallibility of the Bible, young Spinoza found himself condemned by both the politically powerful Church and the rabbinical clerics. If he had been living somewhere less tolerant than relatively easygoing Amsterdam, Spinoza might…Read