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Getting Started with Ethics 1

The following was posted 4/18-22/2000 to the Spinoza Slow Reading list (see Related Sites)

    As we begin this Slow Reading I suspect many of us have been here before but perhaps it might be useful to renew our Spinozistic Wonder about what our author is trying to tell us. Spinoza steps right in and begins to examine the Idea of God. Earlier he had said:

========== TEI-P91(68):
"In order that all ideas may be reduced to unity, we shall endeavor so to associate and arrange them that our mind may, as far as possible, reflect subjectively the reality of nature, both as a whole and as parts."

    There's that "highest good" he told us in the TEI is his sole aim; "knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature." Apparently this idea of God is involved but what does HE mean by the term "God"? I have so many associations in my imagination surrounding this term that it's hard to keep from being tossed about as one fragment keys off another and I get thrown off course. Focus!, focus!, circles of confusion abound!, I need to focus on specifics, not the general feelings my vast imagination provides me. Spinoza wants us to associate these words with particular ideas.

========== TEI-P92(69):
"The best basis for drawing a conclusion will be either some particular affirmative essence, or a true and legitimate definition. For the understanding can not descend from universal axioms by themselves to particular things, since axioms are of infinite extent, and do not determine the understanding to contemplate one particular thing more than another."

    These are the first formal definitions in his supreme work. As I read the words on the page the first thing that comes into play is my imagination. How else can I make anything out of the words except by prior encounter with them in association with other bodily modifications? I trust that the translator has done a reasonable job but even if I were a Latin scholar I would still be relying at first on my imagination. Spinoza wants us to go beyond the words and "fortuitous play of circumstance" and awaken our Understanding. He identified some of the properties of the Understanding earlier and I need to bring these frequently to my mind so that I can work with ideas and avoid falling back into mere words and memory. He assures me that as a human being I have a grand instrument at hand in my Understanding and he suggests that I need to get to know this for myself. I can't just take his "word" for it.

========== TEI-P99(81):
"As regards the order of our perceptions, and the manner in which they should be arranged and united, it is necessary that as soon as is possible and rational, we should inquire whether there be any being (and, if so, what being) that is the cause of all things, so that its essence, represented in thought, may be the cause of all our ideas, and then our mind will to the utmost possible extent reflect nature."

    The first definition often gives me the most trouble though I am learning not to equate "lack of trouble" with Understanding. "Self-caused?" He expresses a union of two ideas here; Essence and Existence but he says, of this self-caused thing, that the Essence involves Existence so it seems to me that Essence is a key idea. He also seems to say that if we can conceive such a thing it must exist. Why? To conceive a thing is to form the idea of its Essence and since, by this definition, its Essence involves Existence our conception must also involve affirmation (an act of Understanding) of its Existence. Ok, I'll try to think more about this but often I just end up in "word affirmations" I need to awaken my Understanding, not my ability to play back words from memory.

    The second definition seems much more clear to me, perhaps because my imagination can construct pictures that seem to support it. Still, it's the ideas which involve clear affirmation and negation, not those word games involving associated images. "A body is called finite because we always conceive another greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body." So, finite things are such by some other thing of the same kind which, in the Understanding, involves both affirmation and negation.

    The third, fourth, and fifth definitions seem to go together and also seem fairly clear but again I am suspect of the appearance of clarity brought about by ready imaginations and arrangement of words.

    The sixth, we were told earlier, defines the thing from which all other things, and especially our ideas originate. Fine, why can't I just stop here and let my Understanding take over? After all, is this not the; "...standard of the original true idea"? Why does this not; "makes itself manifest," and therefore all things flow, as it were, spontaneously toward me? Again I believe I am confusing words and images with particular, real things. Also, even as Reason begins to come in to play I get caught up in abstractions and I need to remind myself of the method our author has asked us to follow:

========== TEI-P75b(59):
"...if we proceed with as little abstraction as possible, and begin from primary elements --that is, from the source and origin of nature, as far back as we can reach,--we need not fear any deceptions of this kind. As far as the knowledge of the origin of nature is concerned, there is no danger of our confounding it with abstractions. For when a thing is conceived in the abstract, as are all universal notions, the said universal notions are always more extensive in the mind than the number of individuals forming their contents really existing in nature."

No danger of confounding it with abstractions or universal notions? Elsewhere he talks about differentiating between "Beings of Reason" and "Real Beings." Am I here working with the idea of God or am I still at the level of thinking; "Well, ok let's say some 'God' exists." where I have this confused image that I am somehow standing outside all this as an "objective" observer?

    Similarly with the last two definitions of this part I feel there is more here to be grasped and for now I'll take with me our author's warning that "Many things we affirm and deny, because the nature of words allows us to do so, though the nature of things does not." I'm going to take a break in my private study now and go back and review the properties of the Understanding and then, with that fresh in mind I will read again these deceptively simple definitions and try to see beyond this vast collection of fragments which is my Imagination.

    In a letter to Spinoza, Simon de Vries referred to a group in which he and other members met regularly to study Spinoza's writings. He mentioned that the group had begun a fresh series of meetings and went on to say: "As regards our club, the following is its order. One of us (that is everyone in turn) reads through and, as far as he understands it, expounds and also demonstrates the whole of your work, according to the sequence and order of your propositions..." He then goes on to list a few questions the club has about items that are not clear to them.

    Spinoza, in part replies that their club "is wisely enough ordered" and responds to their questions. We, of course, can not ask Spinoza what he meant but we do have a rather large membership in this list so perhaps we can help each other to think more clearly when we reach sticking points. Of course we must keep always in mind that it is our own efforts that must be applied to Improve our Understanding. As Lance has pointed out too; we need to be "willing to live for a time with more questions than answers."

    In a previous post I expressed where I am with the definitions of Part 1 and also [another member] had pointed out that their meaning should become more clear as we proceed through the propositions and proofs where they are put to work. If we refer to Lance's "Index of Implication" we can see that these definitions are used explicitly very often especially, as might be expected, in Part 1. Without dwelling too long here; after reviewing the properties of the Understanding which Spinoza enumerated toward the end of the TIE I came back to the definitions of part 1 and continued through the axioms. The axioms seem fairly straight forward to me but again, as with the definitions, I find that my imagination tends to be filled with words and images.

    When I read Axiom 1 it seems clear; in words anyway. What other choice could there be but a thing existing either in itself or in something else? Then I start to wonder; "What does it mean that something exists in itself?"

    Axiom 2 has a strange feel for me, similar to Definition 3 (Substance). What does it mean of a thing to be "conceived through itself"? Again, this seems simple enough but I sense that there is much more to Understand with the actual simple idea expressed by these words.

    Axiom 3 also seems quite clear to me: "From a given definite cause an effect necessarily follows; and, on the other hand, if no definite cause be granted, it is impossible that an effect can follow" but then I hear echoes in my imagination of conversations and studies about Quantum Mechanics and Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, etc. These have proven to be quite useful tools for some "real world" pursuits though the concepts seem quite abstract. How would Spinoza respond if he were here today? I do not know. He does tell us that he is endeavoring to share with his readers something wonderful that he found in his own Understanding and which he described as the "Highest Good" namely; "knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature." He found this without the use of such abstract tools and in fact warned us against stepping in to abstraction in endeavoring to understand his ideas.

    I have similar feelings and questions about the rest of the axioms but again, Spinoza points out that we do have within our own mind a "native strength" and that though we may proceed with difficulty at first, we can build for ourselves "fresh instruments" with which to proceed higher. We will need to exercise care and to "turn over frequently" in our mind the ideas expressed and to follow the chain of reasoning. Also he tells us we need to work continually to separate the Understanding from imagination; Ideas from words and images. With that in mind I'm looking over the first eight propositions since, as mentioned before, Prop. 7 & 8 seem to be the first major destination and the two where my mind pauses to take a deep breath and wonder. In words:

E1P1: Substance is by nature prior to its modifications.
E1P2: Two substances, whose attributes are different, have nothing in common.
E1P3: Things which have nothing in common cannot be one the cause of the other.
E1P4: Two or more distinct things are distinguished one from the other, either by the difference of the attributes of the substances, or by the difference of their modifications.
E1P5: There cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute.
E1P6: One substance cannot be produced by another substance.
E1P6C: Hence it follows that a substance cannot be produced by anything external to itself.
E1P7: Existence belongs to the nature of substance.
E1P8: Every substance is necessarily infinite.

    But now, how did he get here? I have to sit and read the words of each proposition and proof carefully and sometimes it remains just words and images. At other times the words awaken Ideas and they seem to flow, each to the next and the Idea of Substance, Eternal and Infinite, begins to come through more clearly. By way of Reason yes, but there is also a glimmer that this is known by the mind more directly through Intuition. Then my imagination rushes in with images of the ordinary world and I loose it. Later, I might be out walking, and the reasoning comes again to mind, more clearly this time. Again there's that glimmer that keeps me coming back to this study. Spinoza tells us that Intuitive knowledge of God is our Highest Good. I taste something good here and I want to Know this more clearly for the Inner Joy it brings.

    I suspect we each have some sense that Spinoza is endeavoring to present something wonderful and he assures us that the strong efforts required will be rewarded by the awakening in our mind of knowledge of our Eternal, Essential Being.

I welcome any thoughts on the above subject.
You may send email to:
tneff [at] earthlink [dot] net

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