November 2013

Spinoza: Why he still matters

Written by Tom McGuire

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 have been executed. Such was the fate doled out to another Jewish teacher of many centuries prior who dared to challenge the religious authorities (and whose birth anniversary is fast approaching). Spinoza's writings on religious freedom may have indirectly influenced the founders of American democracy such as Thomas Jefferson, who ensured that religious freedom and the separation of church from state was integral to the US constitutional framework.

All is one: Spinoza's notion that everything is God, including the world, appeals to the growing demographic who consider themselves 'spiritual, not religious'. His is not the only philosophy to make such a claim, but he was one of the first to give it a systematic and rigorous exposition. The idea that the universe or Nature is divinely sacred and essentially whole is a compelling worldview for many who seek alternatives to traditional religion. A flurry of attention has recently been given to the so called "new atheists" (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens) and their debate with theists. This debate often conceals the various alternative conceptions of God that don't fit into a narrow dichotomy. Spinoza's view has appeal for those who
don't believe in an anthropomorphic deity, but are not satisfied with a universe that is empty of divine order and unity.

Happiness is the goal: For Spinoza, the real point of philosophy is to find true happiness. This approach makes philosophy an immensely practical pursuit. These days, people have an overwhelming demand for answers to life's problems, yet the study of philosophy at universities often seems disconnected from practical human strivings. The popularity of a recent Harvard course on how to be happy (also known as 'positive psychology') and this year's declaration of an annual UN International Day of Happiness point to a growing focus on the importance of recognising emotional and spiritual needs. Spinoza believed that his philosophy, if properly understood and practiced, would give people the happiness they seek.

It makes sense to be good: Spinoza also believed that we could not be truly happy without living virtuously. It is often thought that good people are virtuous while bad people are self-centred. Spinoza believed that true self-interest can only be found in virtue. As we begin to understand our true nature and what really makes us happy, he thought we will be transformed into a state of 'blessedness' in which the motivation to act in unvirtuous ways will have departed. The idea that we can become good without holy books or an external punitive authority was radical at the time. If salvation is available from within and the essence of God is ultimately our own essence, then the role of a priest as 'middleman' between the individual and the divine seems a little redundant.

Love rules. According to Spinoza, the right kind of love can make us both virtuous and happy. In its highest form, this is what he calls the "intellectual love of God". Spinoza's disbelief in a personal God makes his notion of love peculiar. This has led some commentators to deny that he actually means love as we normally understand it, and to suggest it is more like a joyful appreciation and acceptance of all that the universe has to offer. Whatever it means, it gives us a different spin on love as not just an attachment to fleeting objects but an enduring state of being with the power to transform us for the better.

Loneliness can be liberating. Spinoza showed that you don't have to be under the wing of a big institution to have influential ideas – in fact it might be better not to. Spinoza was a pariah of the establishment, yet his works are still popular and engaging today. He wasn't a 'professional philosopher' but a tradesman, grinding lenses to pay his way so that he could philosophise how he wanted with no one else pulling his strings.

There are plenty of other reasons why Spinoza's views are still important, which is why the articles in here are worth a read. Liberties that we are in the habit of taking for granted such as democracy and freedom of conscience did not arise automatically, but were the result of great ideas followed by lots of hard work and struggle. This is why it is worth occasionally paying homage to those rare souls who had the audacity to think and act differently from the crowd, and in doing so altered the trajectory of humanity's progress.