The Book of The Abstract God

January 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

Ethics (Spinoza, Baruch)

  • “Spinoza (1632-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness…”
    Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

Philosophy was a precarious profession to pursue in 17th century Europe, somewhat like Formula One racing in today’s times. It must have been exhilarating, of course, and it must have paid reasonably well if you had the right sponsor, but there were pitfalls at every turn, and it could all end nastily at any moment, in a gigantic ball of fire. Just ask Giordano Bruno.

Mostly, the pitfalls (for the philosophers) involved what you said or thought about God. Apart from Bruno, there was Galileo, who was made to pay for his unorthodox views; Descartes wrote his books as if he were only one jump ahead of the Inquisition and as if his every word could be used against him. Pascal, too, decided to be sensible about the whole thing and not invite too much trouble. Berkeley and Leibniz went on wild metaphysical flights of fancy, but when it came to God and religion, they pretty much toed the party line. But not Spinoza.

Spinoza’s God is not your common or garden variety of God. He doesn’t have a white billowy beard, a kind face, a thunderbolt, a booming voice, a third eye, a home in the clouds, or four arms; and He doesn’t look like Morgan Freeman, either. Indeed, Spinoza’s God doesn’t look like anything. Spinoza’s God looks like everything. The entire universe, material and spiritual, every speck of dust, every thought running through any mind at any time is part of the infinite intellect of Spinoza’s God.

Let lesser men preach the existence of divinity. Spinoza preached the divinity of all existence.

Not Spinoza’s God (Courtesy

So pantheistic is his position that it is borderline blasphemous, and scandalously close to being atheistic, despite God’s perpetual presence in his thoughts and words. “Mais je crois, entre nous, que vous n’existez pas,” Voltaire wickedly has Spinoza say to his God: “Just between you and me, I don’t think you exist.”

So did Spinoza believe in God at all? I couldn’t say for sure at the end of this book. At times it felt as if a posse of angry people with flaming torches and pitchforks had demanded to know if he believed, as they did, that there was an elephant in the room, and his reassuring response was, “My dear fellows, but of course I believe there is an elephant in the room – provided, of course, that we can all agree that an elephant is defined to be the combination of a table, six chairs and a small, silver salt-and-pepper shaker set.” So it wasn’t a Yes, and it wasn’t a No: it was a That Depends On What You Mean.

This much is certain: Spinoza believed in the God of the Old Testament no more than he did in a square circle. There is a point where he mentions that scripture and revelation are only important because most people are not smart enough to figure out that it makes sense to be virtuous, and have to be told that they would roast in Hell otherwise. (Actually, his exact words were, ‘for all can obey completely, and there are but very few… who acquire the habit of virtue under the guidance of reason alone’, but you know what the guy is thinking). Curiously enough, this position is closer to that espoused by the 9th century Hindu guru Adi Sankara (who points out that the Upanishadic establishment of the identity of our self with an all-encompassing World Spirit is too much for ordinary people, who would assume that such an abstract God is as good as non-being), than to Judeo-Christianity. Spinoza’s God is as abstract as it gets: He (She? It?) is impersonal Nature, the immutable laws of physics, the eternal theorems of Euclid, the never-ending chain of cause and effect; She (He?) is Logic Itself.

But that’s the important thing about Spinoza’s philosophy, even when shorn of the God debate. It roots a harmonious, virtuous life firmly and deeply in logical thinking.  The real problem in life, Spinoza says, is that we don’t see things as they are, but only by how our mind is affected by them; and we don’t even know how our mind works very well. Our thinking gets clouded by emotions, which makes us confused and unclear about everything. Instead, if we were to eschew emotions like hatred, anger, pride, derision and envy, we would remove all hindrances to true knowledge, the pursuit of which is the highest possible ethic. We would then be able to “bear with equanimity those things which happen to us contrary to what a consideration of our own profit demands, if we are conscious that we have performed our duty”. Ah, there’s that Hindu streak again, the ma faleshu kadachana of the Bhagavad Gita!

Also (continues Spinoza), to do all this, you don’t need to live like a hermit: “it is the part of a wise man to refresh and invigorate himself with moderate and pleasant eating and drinking, with sweet scents and the beauty of green plants, with ornament, with music, with sports, with the theatre and with all things of this kind which one man can enjoy without hurting another”.

In essence, Spinoza’s ethical philosophy is as follows:

  1. Stuff Happens.
  2. Keep Calm and Carry On.
  3. Keep learning till you die.
  4. Enjoy the good things in life, but in moderation, except:
  5. Always be cheerful. There is no such thing as being too cheerful.
  6. Brush your teeth after every meal

OK, maybe I made up the last one, but it’s all pretty sane advice, and a devastatingly practical piece of philosophy. What is best about it is that by all indications, Spinoza lived his life in perfect accordance with his philosophy: that he was unassuming, friendly, down-to-earth and knowledgeable about many things. (When he died, the local community gave him a saint’s burial and turned his humble home into a shrine).

It is unfortunate, though, that he should couch such a simple philosophy in such tortured prose, with definitions, axioms, propositions, demonstrations and scholiums, much of which I found fairly unreadable. The translator of the copy I read, WH White, no stranger to philosophy himself, says in the preface, with shocking but refreshing candor:

“We now come to the Ethics; but before saying anything about it, it is as well to make an admission…that the present author does not pretend to understand the whole of it and, so far as he can make out, nobody has fully understood it. It is easy to obtain what is called ‘a general view’ of it; it is easy to follow as a handbook; the difficulties begin when we study it patiently for ourselves”

Well, a general view was enough for me, but there must have been a reason Spinoza wrote it as convolutedly as he did. Perhaps he felt that mathematical logic was the only way to convince people to see reason, but I can’t help feel that there is a certain inescapable Godelian circularity to using logic to prove the efficacy of logic, and in doing so, he restricted his appeal to an intellectual elite that could automatically and intuitively grasp an impersonal God (Einstein, Freud, Goethe, George Eliot and Borges were disciples) but not the ordinary people whose lives and attitudes he would have wanted to change. And of course, not everything about reality boils down to logical reasoning. Perhaps his biggest failing was to see every argument as something whose truth could be deduced from necessary facts.

But then, with Hume and Kant yet to come, that was one of the occupational hazards of being a 17th century philosopher.


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