Spinoza's Ethic

by Ian Mathers

9 June 2008

Mathers explores how the Ethic was a life saver not in the sense of sustaining him through dark periods, but by changing his sense of what life is.

The fact that I own a lovely scholarly edition of the Complete Works of Spinoza (the Hackett one, for the small sliver of the population who would notice or care) is not exactly unrelated to the fact that I recently defended my Master’s Thesis in Philosophy, but one of the unrelenting minor agonies of this discipline is the feeling that maybe it should be.  It’s like being an indie rock fan, only worse—there’s no loss of cred if people start reading philosophy, so we only get the nagging sense that people are missing out on something important without the smug compensation of being cool.

But engaging with philosophy is supposed to change your life, and not just in the trivial sense that spending four or five years studying any subject full-time will do.  I think (I hope) it worked.  I certainly notice things about my personality that I think would be different, probably worse, if I’d gone into English or something instead (no offence, English majors—it’s me, not your discipline).  I worried when picking this book as a life saver that it might be, in a sense, “cheating”.  Sure, art in general might be pleased to pull you through a tough time, but for an awful lot of philosophy, that’s the whole point.  Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while he was waiting to be executed.  Aurelius’ famous Meditations were set down at least partially to help him deal with the death of many of his children.  And so on.

Not Spinoza, though.  Yes, he was excommunicated from the Jewish community he grew up in (and, rather lovably, waited until his father had passed away before making public his heretical thoughts, knowing it would have upset the old man), but he seemed rather serenely above it all.  He even turned down the standard cushy court job to remain in relative poverty, grinding lenses and writing books that wouldn’t be safe to release until after he died. I have, as I said, this nice edition of practically everything that he wrote down, but that’s not an object I feel as much affection for as the battered, old, paperback, Everyman’s Library copy I have of Spinoza’s Ethics, his major work.  I bought it in September 2002, for the Major Texts course I took that semester. 

Actually, no, scratch that; pretty much every copy you’ll find says Ethics or The Ethics, but the original Latin title was Ethica, and that can be rendered in English as either the plural or the singular without problems.  Our language suggests the former, but given the content of his work, calling it the Ethic feels more appropriate, and that’s what we always did in class.

With old philosophical works, those in the public domain that need to be translated, there’s a tendency to fall in love not just with a book, but with a particular version of it. Certainly, we pay close attention to differences in translation, but the fact remains that the version you grew familiar with first always retains a certain comfortable feel.  I love everything about this particular text: the inscrutable, dark oil painting cover, the creases on the spine, the eternally dog-eared and pencil-marked pages, the way Andrew Boyle renders Spinoza as perhaps a bit snarkier than others do.

It was a good time in my life when I bought it, although I might not have realized or appreciated it enough at the time.  As much as my undergrad schooling seemed tougher than anything I’d done before, especially considering the near-to-full-time job I was doing, pulling the same trick with grad school means that these days I look back to that time with fondness for how much goofing off and socializing I was doing.  I read Spinoza for the class, and unlike most of my classes, I read him a lot.  I was lucky enough to have Spinoza taught to me by a professor who, relatively uniquely among academia, didn’t fall into the easy (and wrong) trap of labeling Spinoza a determinist and a pantheist and moving on—but we’re really not here to have me get all technical about my favourite philosopher.

He’s quite amazing, especially for the time.  To have someone say to you, effectively, “Whenever you get mad at someone, stop and think about why they did what they did—really think about it.  To the extent that you can understand why they did it, you’ll be unable to be angry,” is still good advice today, but to have someone write that back in 1676?  Radically ahead of his time, and that’s just an insight tucked away into a small corner of his compact yet massive little system, the only ontology I can think of that’s an ethical system and vice versa.  I am generally deeply suspicious of philosophers who claim one over-arching system can explain everything, but damn if Spinoza doesn’t come very close.

The Ethica of Spinoza, by Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.

The Ethica of Spinoza, by Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.

I fell deeply in love: I made friends with people in my class over our discussions of the book, I bored my other friends with descriptions of the book, I read it over and over, I wound up writing my undergraduate thesis on it a few years later.  In the Ethic, Spinoza is, more than anything else, a tricky bastard; in the age of Descartes he decided that ‘geometric form’ would be the most rigorous way to make his arguments, and so the novice reader is plunged head first into a thicket of Axioms, Propositions, and Corollaries; into the wilds of Substance, Modes, Attributes, Freedom, and Necessity, God, Nature—and many of these being used in technical ways (helpfully spelled out in, of course, Definitions) that do not, to paraphrase the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, mean what you think they mean.  But the tricky part is, as you immerse yourself in all this language and systemizing, some light begins creeping in.  This is essentially a book about the ways we are not free and then the ways we can make ourselves free (metaphysically), and fittingly it ends on the single longest sustained expression of joyousness I have ever experienced (the whole fifth part, if we’re keeping track).

I don’t know if I’m making him sound easy, but make no mistake: Spinoza, and maybe especially the Ethic, is tough going.  That “geometric form” is brutal for the modern reader to adapt to, and even once you do, the whole point of the book (and this is sort of mirrored in his ontological/ethical system, which I think is kind of neat) is that it’s only by going through the painstaking work of setting up all of his points, especially the fairly innocuous early propositions, that we get some of the philosophical fireworks Spinoza pulls out of his bag.  He gets you to agree to a whole bunch of very simple ideas that seem incontrovertible, and then spins you around and shows you how you must believe in a very different universe, and God, than you thought you did.

I prefer to remain agnostic, at least in public, on the subject of whether or not I ‘believe’ Spinoza, partly because I think that misses the point a bit, but while you’re in the midst of the book he’s certainly convincing.  There are parts of his viewpoint I have certainly adopted as my own, such as his insistence that we look at things not only in our everyday, limited, practical, determined sense but also sub specie aeternitatis—literally, ‘under the aspect of eternity.’  This is related to the point I made above about understanding people’s reasons for things, but Spinoza extends the principle in a wonderful, unexpected, and ultimately logical way.  I feel like a bit of a tease dropping that sort of sentence and then not giving you more, but honestly, we’d need a semester long seminar to unpack everything.  I’m not even sure I’d recommend picking up the book on your own, just because so much of my appreciation of it comes from the historical and philosophical context given to me by my teacher.  But that’s the eternal worry of the specialist; although it’s impossible for me to try it myself, I have some faith that with diligence Spinoza shines his light on all readers.

The Ethic was a life saver not in the sense of sustaining me through dark periods, but by changing my sense of what life is.  For someone who, even as a fledgling philosophy major, hadn’t thought about the grand cosmic questions too much, to have them not only addressed, but in such a way that flows naturally out of much more mundane issues, helped me set aside some of my natural suspicion of metaphysics and get in there.  I considered many times, then and now, whether Spinoza was actually on to something, or if I just was over-reacting to something that had been formative to me, but every angle I examine it from, there remains something deeply true at the core of his thinking.

Recently, in much more trying times, I wound up pulling out that paperback edition again, and reading a proposition or two before bed each night.  I often had to read my textbooks standing up for fear of passing out (seriously), but curled up in bed with Spinoza after a stressful day remains a balm, a way of making sense of the world and making the world seem (or maybe recognizing that the world is) benevolent rather than baffling.  There is plenty of art (music, or literature, or film, or visual art) that I find comforting, but no work of non-fiction that makes me feel so calm and content.  Really, all those years and all that tuition money would be worth it just for my relationship with Spinoza alone.


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