*—P.G. Wodehouse, Joy in the Morning (1946).
Professor Clare Carlisle wrote for The Guardian of 7 Feb 2011:
“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 heresy. In the 19th century, and perhaps even more recently, “Spinozist” was still a term of abuse among intellectuals.
In a sense, Spinoza was always an outsider – and this independence is precisely what enabled him to see through the confusions, prejudices and superstitions that prevailed in the 17th century, and to gain a fresh and radical perspective on various philosophical and religious issues. He was born, in 1632, to Jewish Portuguese parents who had fled to Amsterdam to escape persecution, so from the very beginning he was never quite a native, never completely at home. Although Spinoza was an excellent student in the Jewish schools he attended, he came to be regarded by the leaders of his community as a dangerous influence. At the age of 24 he was excluded from the Amsterdam synagogue for his “intolerable” views and practices.
Spinoza’s most famous and provocative idea is that God is not the creator of the world, but that the world is part of God. This is often identified as pantheism, the doctrine that God and the world are the same thing – which conflicts with both Jewish and Christian teachings. Pantheism can be traced back to ancient Greek thought: it was probably advocated by some pre-Socratic philosophers, as well as by the Stoics. But although Spinoza – who admired many aspects of Stoicism – is regarded as the chief source of modern pantheism, he does, in fact, want to maintain the distinction between God and the world.
His originality lies in the nature of this distinction. God and the world are not two different entities, he argues, but two different aspects of a single reality. Over the next few weeks we will examine this view in more detail and consider its implications for human life. Since Spinoza presents a radical alternative to the Cartesian philosophy that has shaped our intellectual and cultural heritage, exploring his ideas may lead us to question some of our deepest assumptions.
One of the most important and distinctive features of Spinoza’s philosophy is that it is practical through and through. His ideas are never merely intellectual constructions, but lead directly to a certain way of life. This is evidenced by the fact that his greatest work, which combines metaphysics, theology, epistemology, and human psychology, is called Ethics. In this book, Spinoza argues that the way to “blessedness” or “salvation” for each person involves an expansion of the mind towards an intuitive understanding of God, of the whole of nature and its laws. In other words, philosophy for Spinoza is like a spiritual practice, whose goal is happiness and liberation.
The ethical orientation of Spinoza’s thought is also reflected in his own nature and conduct. Unlike most of the great philosophers, Spinoza has a reputation for living an exemplary, almost saintly life, characterised by modesty, gentleness, integrity, intellectual courage, disregard for wealth and a lack of worldly ambition. According to Bertrand Russell, Spinoza was “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers”. Although his ideas were despised by many of his contemporaries, he attracted a number of devoted followers who gathered regularly at his home in Amsterdam to discuss his philosophy. These friends made sure that Spinoza’s Ethics was published soon after his death in 1677.”
From: Think (1999), by Simon Blackburn:
“…Some philosophers (Baruch Spinoza (1632-77] is the most famous example) like to associate freedom with increased knowledge and understanding. We are free, they say, in so far as we understand things. This is in many ways an attractive idea: it ties freedom of the will to things like political freedoms: freedom of information and freedom of speech. We are only free in so far as we have opportunities open to us, and lack of information denies us opportunities. We could add this thought to the revised compatibilist definition, by specifying that the ‘other thoughts or considerations’, first, are accurate representations of the agent’s situation and options, and second, are available to the agent. That is, it is not much use saying that under the impact of other thoughts or considerations she would have chosen differently, if those other thoughts and considerations were simply not in the landscape. Thus, suppose I set about to poison you and cunningly put arsenic in your coffee. You drink it. It is not much use saying that you were free not to do so. For although it is true that you would have avoided the coffee if you had chosen differently, and true that the thought or consideration that perhaps the coffee was laced with arsenic would have made you choose differently, nevertheless, since there was no reason for that thought to enter your mind, you were a victim rather than a free agent…”