Today, I will be introducing my students to one of the most important philosophers of my own life and thought process: Benedict de Spinoza. Unable to sleep more than three hours last night, I got out of bed, opened the pages of the Ethics, and began to read. These pages struck me with thunder years ago. They fail to make an impact on me now. With my current mind, would I have been affected as a first time reader in the same way I did when I was 23? Have I matured beyond this book, or am I no longer able to see what I saw back then?
I remember my first reading of his Ethics vividly. I was visiting my paramour of the time in New Mexico for five or six days. As a new 2nd Lieutenant in need of training, she had been stationed there with the National Guard for the summer for her military intelligence school. Our “relationship” was not a smooth one. I had ferocious passion for her, but also frequently felt betrayed, manipulated, and used. My desire for her felt meaningful and true, but also filled with strife. Was this worth it? Was this what a truly powerful love should be? I was there to find out.
This is all relevant, because it was within the conditions of this emotional and reflective maelstrom that Spinoza was able to find proper soil for his ideas to grow in my mind. Looking at the short table of contents, one sees that Part III of Ethics is titled “On the Origin and Nature of the Affects,” affects meaning something like “the emotions of desire and aversion fused with ideas,” and encompass everything that we feel. It is an early and robust causal psychology, two hundred years before proper psychology texts and theories were established. Part IV is “Of Human Bondage, or the Powers of the Affects.” This aims to illustrate how our belief that we are free is actually an enslaving idea, and that given the deterministic nature of nature’s causality, we are totally lacking in free will. But Part V, “Of the Power of the Intellect, or on Human Freedom,” promises us a different sort of freedom, based on recognizing our lack of freedom, repairing our ideas by finding true, natural causes for our thoughts, and ultimately devoting one’s self to the love of god. Albeit, a god that cares or thinks nothing for us. For Spinoza, love of god is simply love for existence itself, the expansion of the mind by learning those natural laws that govern human society and the individual mind. I could smell my personal salvation laying within these pages.
One early morning at 4:30 or 5:00am, we drove to the National Guard base from her apartment so she could attend her morning physical training session. I had packed my copy of The Ethics, and brought it along in hopes of finding some time to read. While she undertook her training, I began my reading of The Ethics sitting in an adjacent dark parking lot,. From the very first lines, the book is built like a puzzle. At first, the reader is given eight short definitions for the book’s most important terms, followed by seven axioms. At this point, nothing about the world has been asserted. Spinoza has merely laid out his tools. But then, the real fun begins. Proposition One states, “A substance is prior in nature to its affections.” But what does this mean, and how do we know this? Spinoza provides a demonstration: “This is evident from Definitions 3 and 5.” So the reader flips back, and reads D3: “By substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself, that is, that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed.” Definition 5: “By mode I understand the affections of a substance, or that which is in another through which it is also conceived.”
I had to stop and think about this. I don’t know what sorts of things substances or modes are, but I think I can understand “what is in itself and is conceived through itself.” I reason that substance must be any object or idea for which, in order to think about, what does not need to think about anything other than the object or thing itself: something independent. What could this be? A shotgun burst of thoughts emerges from my mind–my imagination jumping to myriad conclusions–but I must restrain myself. Spinoza is obviously trying to be careful here, so I must do the same. What is a mode? The affections of a substance, he says, or anything for which, in order to think about it, one must think about something else. Aha! And so these fit, and clearly bring us to the postulate that modes (or affections) are always dependent on a substance. After one postulate, I still don’t know what this is talking about, but I am beginning to see the structure of his thought. This, of course, does not strike one as profound. But then again, this was only step one of a long geometrical formula. But it was a sure step, and true profundity is not achieved with the single dazzling insight of a poet or prophet, but rather with a series of small, meticulous, and thoroughly mundane steps.
The book rarely gets much simpler, and is generally much more complicated. It is an extraordinarily complex read. Flipping through the first few pages, it looks more like a technical manual than a philosophical treatise, complete with diagrams. With every postulate, the demonstrations become more complicated, including not only the three or four named definitions, axioms, and propositions, but every definition, axiom, and proposition that previous demonstrations used as well. Occasionally, a discussion, or “Scholium” breaks out and the reader can slow her pace to a more leisurely stroll through prose, and see Spinoza’s reflective and occasionally biting self shine through. One biographer notes that Spinoza’s name belies his personality well: “Benedict Spinoza” loosely translated “Good-willed thorns.”
My very first encounter with Spinoza actually occurred a couple years prior, when I was still in the Marine Corps.. I was given a book about the philosophies and lives of philosophers titled The Story of Philosophy, by William Durant. He had a chapter devoted to Spinoza, and I was in awe of this simple-living man, whose philosophy was so fresh, powerful, mystical, and rational. Spinoza was a man who devoted himself to learning and writing on a myriad of topics, including god, ethics, sciences, democracy, and psychology. He lived a simple life, renting out an attic space from a merchant family in The Hague, dressing plainly, eating plainly, and working. He was despised for his philosophy, and survived not only an excommunication from the synagogue of his youth, but also an assassination attempt in his later life. The coat he wore during the attack was pierced by a knife, and he never mended the hole. It was a reminder, and he took on the motto “Caute,” meaning caution, because he understood that criticizing peoples’ political and religious beliefs often risks irrational retaliation. His philosophy is ultimately one of uncompromising search for truth, for benevolent and free societies and individuals, and a love of the god to which we all equally belong. He struck me then, and still does, as a kind of Saint for philosophers.
Can I still read Spinoza the way I once did? Compared to the fresh, eager, and clear mind I possessed at 23, my 34 year-old mind feels sluggish and dull-witted. Perhaps it is age. Perhaps it is the skepticism instilled from David Hume, Kant’s critique of the faculty of reason, or Nietzsche’s psychological demolition. Or the years oppressive graduate school and academia that seems to despise, or at least disregard as superfluous, any genuine love of philosophy. Maybe it was getting a stable job and a pleasant life that closes my philosophical eye. Or maybe it was simply too many beers and video games that dulled my intellect. I am not sure if I will see Spinoza the way I once did, but I sincerely hope that my relationship with Spinoza has more in my future than in the past.