November 2013

Spinoza,  p8 / Reading the ethics

Written by Clare Carlisle

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 Spinoza's earlier writings in following the pattern of Euclid's Elements – and, indeed, its method is often described as "geometrical". Beginning with axioms and definitions, Spinoza elucidates step by step, in a series of interlinked numbered propositions, the tenets of his philosophy.

The deductive, quasi-mathematical structure of Spinoza's argument makes the Ethics rather daunting to first-time readers. It can seem cold and impersonal, lacking the intimate, confessional tone of Descartes' Meditations, or the dramatic, conversational style of Plato's dialogues. But in fact, Spinoza chose the geometrical method precisely because he wanted to communicate with his readers in a direct and profound just to how people thought, but to how they lived. way. He wanted his book to make a real difference, not The argumentative method of the Ethics, with its frequent cross-references between its axioms, definitions, propositions and demonstrations, reflects a basic principle of Spinoza's thought: that everything in the universe is connected. As we have seen over the last few weeks, finite individuals – including human beings – are not separate, autonomous substances, but modes of the single substance that can be called God or Nature. As such, every being is part of a larger whole, and can only be properly known when its place within that whole is grasped. And we have found that, for Spinoza, this kind of knowledge is the basis of a good, virtuous human life. But how exactly are things connected? What is the "order and connection of ideas" that  Spinoza speaks of – and how are we to know this order? Spinoza recognised that, as empiricist philosophers have argued, we learn about the world through our experience of it. And these experiences vary: depending on all sorts of factors, each of us enc ounters different things, in different orders. Over the years, each person's imagination and memory develops according to a complex web of associations and meanings, and this shapes the way they think. As Spinoza puts it:

"Each of us will pass from one thought to another, as each one's association has ordered the images of things in the body. For example, a soldier, having seen traces of a horse in the sand, will immediately pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a horseman, and from that to the thought of war, and so on. But a farmer will pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a plough, and then to that of a field, and so on. And so each one, according as he has been accustomed to join and connect the images of things in this or that way, will pass from one thought to another."

So habit or custom produces a certain order of ideas in a person's mind. But this order is based on fortuitous experiences and encounters – we often don't plan these experiences, but find that they just happen to us out of the blue. They certainly depend on where and when we happen to be born, and on how we are brought up. These subjective orderings of ideas are, of course, quite different to how things in the world are really ordered and connected. According to Spinoza, the true order and connection of ideas is known not through experience and habit, but through reason.

This brings us back to the deductive, geometrical structure of the Ethics. In this text, claims about the nature of reality follow a strict logical order. Spinoza doesn't tell us a story about how he developed his philosophical vision during the 1660s; instead, he lets that vision unfold according to its own rational structure. He believed that by reading the Ethics – something that requires a good deal of time and effort – people would gradually retrain their minds to follow its logical structure. Instead of letting their thoughts be ordered by habit, custom and imagination, they would become increasingly enlightened about the true order of things.

As we have seen over the last few weeks, Spinoza identified certain customary beliefs as especially misleading: for example, the ideas of a creator God and of free will, and the view that each person is a distinct substance, sufficient unto himself. It is precisely these entrenched habits of thinking that are targeted in the Ethics. This suggests that the book is not just a philosophical treatise, but also a kind of training manual for the philosophical way of life – and therefore reading it is a transformative spiritual exercise. As readers attain a deeper understanding of the text, their own activity of thinking should come to replace passive acceptance of prevailing superstitions and prejudices. And, Spinoza tells us, this transition from passivity to activity is always empowering, liberating and joyful.

Clare Carlisle
©First published in the Guardian Newspaper
This 8 part series on the life of Baruch Spinoza was written by Dr. Clare Carlisle a teacher of philosophy and was first published by the Guardian Newspaper, U.K.