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Why Study Spinoza

The following was posted on 4/9/2000 to the Spinoza Slow Reading list (see Related Sites)

    Why Slow Read Spinoza? Lance mentions "Respect for authorial intent" as an element of the concept of "Slow Reading". What is Spinoza's intent in his writing and beyond that; with what was his life concerned? He didn't want any more money than he needed for the simplest of life's necessities. He turned down positions that would have brought prestige and power to his life. He passed his time in study, writing, and making lenses and apparently enjoyed the fellowship of close friends and neighbors. In this life, he seems to have discovered what he thinks is a great treasure within his own mind and he wants to share it with us! He tells us in several places what he is aiming toward and what he found but how many of us take him seriously. Maybe he's just making fancy talk, maybe he's crazy as a loon, maybe his words will provided good material we can show off at cocktail parties or maybe, just maybe, he actually discovered what he says he did and he believes he can help us discover it too!

    What did he say about his intent? Early on he expressed his resolve to:

============ TEI-P1:
"...inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else; whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness."

    I guess he saying, look, so far life seems to have had its ups and downs for me and I set myself to wondering whether there is anything of real value to be discovered which will provide real happiness. I can get myself in such a frame of mind to some degree. So what does he mean by "some real good"? He describes:

============ TEI-P12:
"I will here only briefly state what I mean by true good, and also what is the nature of the highest good."

"...all things which come to pass, come to pass according to the eternal order and fixed laws of nature. However, human weakness cannot attain to this order in its own thoughts, but meanwhile man conceives a human character much more stable than his own, and sees that there is no reason why he should not himself acquire such a character. Thus he is led to seek for means which will bring him to this pitch of perfection, and calls everything which will serve as such means a true good. The chief good is that he should arrive, together with other individuals if possible, at the possession of the aforesaid character. What that character is we shall show in due time, namely, that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature. This, then, is the end for which I strive, to attain to such a character myself, and to endeavor that many should attain to it with me."

    Ok, he says he can form a conception of a higher human character and that he desires to attain such character for himself and others. This character is "the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature" and this knowledge brings with it supreme, and unending happiness. Sure sounds good to me, the only question might be "Is this guy nuts? The mind and the Whole of Nature??? What's he got in that pipe he's smoking?" I don't know but I'd like to put myself in his shoes and to acquire his viewpoint, and see if I can acquire this character too. I'm thinking; "Yea, but he thinks all things come to pass according to the eternal order and fixed laws of nature." and we know better now a days what with [fill in your favorite pet quantum theory.] But look, if the guy says that what he found brought him supreme happiness then I'm more than a little curious to know what he means.

    He goes on:

============ TEI-P16:
"...before all things, a means must be devised for improving the understanding and purifying it, as far as may be at the outset, so that it may apprehend things without error, and in the best possible way." ... "Thus it is apparent to every one that I wish to direct all sciences to one end and aim, so that we may attain to the supreme human perfection which we have named; and, therefore, whatsoever in the sciences does not serve to promote our object will have to be rejected as useless. To sum up the matter in a word, all our actions and thoughts must be directed to this one end."

    He clearly states that he has one end and aim, to: "attain to the supreme human perfection which we have named" and that further, the sciences are useful to him only in so far as they are directed toward this goal. He also identifies an immediate need to improve our own Understanding and then goes on to distinguish the known modes of perception and indicates that Reason and Intuition are to be preferred over the Imagination and Memory. He points out that False, Fictitious, and Doubtful ideas all involve the imagination and the confusions of experience and memory and that we must constantly seek to avoid them in working toward our goal.

    Moving on to the Ethics, which is the ultimate expression of Spinoza's quest for the "Highest Good", we find that he often reiterates his goal and gives us advice on how to proceed. He summarizes Ethics, part I, On God:

============ Ethics I, Appendix:
"In the foregoing I have explained the nature and properties of God. I have shown that he necessarily exists, that he is one: that he is, and acts solely by the necessity of his own nature; that he is the free cause of all things, and how he is so; that all things are in God, and so depend on him, that without him they could neither exist nor be conceived; lastly, that all things are predetermined by God, not through his free will or absolute fiat, but from the very nature of God or infinite power"

    Later on he's going to tell us that though we might follow his reasoning here and know these ideas to be true they do not affect our mind so much as when we come to know the same things by Intuition. But let's continue; what can we make of the foregoing:

============ Ethics II, The Human Mind, Preface:
"I now pass on to explaining the results, which must necessarily follow from the essence of God, or of the eternal and infinite being; not, indeed, all of them (for we proved in E1P16, that an infinite number must follow in an infinite number of ways), but only those which are able to lead us, as it were by the hand, to the knowledge of the human mind and its highest blessedness."

    Again he indicates the aim for himself and for others; "supreme human perfection" or what he here names "blessedness." He continues his reasoning, leading always in a specific direction. He says we need to understand our own mind and how it works. He explains the three kinds of knowledge and reminds us that Reason may provide the direction and a runway but we need liftoff into Intuition for the Highest Human Perfection:

============ Ethics IV, Appendix, 4:
"Thus in life it is before all things useful to perfect the understanding, or reason, as far as we can, and in this alone man's highest happiness or blessedness consists, indeed blessedness is nothing else but the contentment of spirit, which arises from the intuitive knowledge of God: now, to perfect the understanding is nothing else but to understand God, God's attributes, and the actions which follow from the necessity of his nature. Wherefore of a man, who is led by reason, the ultimate aim or highest desire, whereby he seeks to govern all his fellows, is that whereby he is brought to the adequate conception of himself and of all things within the scope of his intelligence."

    He's bringing us toward the peak of human perfection in part 5 where he begins:

============ Ethics V, Preface:
"At length I pass to the remaining portion of my Ethics, which is concerned with the way leading to freedom. I shall therefore treat therein of the power of the reason, showing how far the reason can control the emotions, and what is the nature of Mental Freedom or Blessedness"

    Here Blessedness is equated with Mental Freedom and much of what he has said so far and will here show more directly is the usefulness of understanding our own emotions so that we can enjoy this Blessedness as he relates:

============ Ethics V, P20, Note:
"Again, it must be observed, that spiritual unhealthiness and misfortunes can generally be traced to excessive love for something which is subject to many variations, and which we can never become masters of. For no one is solicitous or anxious about anything, unless he loves it; neither do wrongs, suspicions, enmities, etc. arise, except in regard to things whereof no one can be really master.
    We may thus readily conceive the power which clear and distinct knowledge, and especially that third kind of knowledge, founded on the actual knowledge of God, possesses over the emotions: if it does not absolutely destroy them, in so far as they are passions; at any rate, it causes them to occupy a very small part of the mind. Further, it begets a love towards a thing immutable and eternal, whereof we may really enter into possession; neither can it be defiled with those faults which are inherent in ordinary love; but it may grow from strength to strength, and may engross the greater part of the mind, and deeply penetrate it."

    What follows in the Ethics from this point has been much debated and in some cases simply written off as the ravings of a lunatic by some and as a misguided endeavor to satisfy some social or political aim by others. However, maybe we need to put these judgments aside for a while and if we can free ourselves a bit from attachment to our own imagination and preconceived notions and can use our power of reason without turning it to the support of dogma ("scientific" or otherwise) we might find that this part expresses in words something far beyond all ordinary pleasures and that we can truly attain it for ourselves.

    Desiring to attain blessedness does not make it happen and just because Spinoza says "...I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, I know that I understand the true philosophy." we can't just take his word for it. We need to apply great effort to study the writings and our own nature and keep in mind always that "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare." These works seem to be the expression of a mind which found the Highest Human Blessedness for himself and he tells us that this Blessedness awaits all who will put in the effort to Understand.

    Slow reading may begin the process of Improvement of the Understanding and sharing our thoughts and confusions here about what we read may help each of us attain the Inner Freedom and Joy our author seems to intend.


I welcome any thoughts on the above subject.
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tneff [at] earthlink [dot] net

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