24 November

(above) Unsigned portrait of an anonymous subject in the Herzog August Bibliothek of Wolfenbüttel , Germany. Dated ca. 1665. It is unknown how this picture became associated with Spinoza, as it does not match his physical description (the dress suggests a lawyer), and he is not known to have ever sat for a portrait.

On this day in 1632 was born a boy in the Jewish district of Amsterdam. Eight days later, at his Brit milah, he would be given the surname Baruch, which in Hebrew means “blessed,” and take up the surname of his Inquisition-exiled Portuguese ancestors, “Espinoza,” which means “thorn.”

He would prove himself a bright boy, but not in a way meeting community approval. In twenty-three years, he would be accused of heresy. Amsterdam’s elders would curse him with all the maledictions in the Book of the Law. He was cursed by night and by day, cursed in rising up and in lying down, cursed and coming and going. The elders raised supplication that the wrath and displeasure of the Godhead be upon him, and that his name be blotted out from under the sky. The Sephardi were forbidden to pass within four cubits of his person, to converse with him, or read that which was written in his hand. Going against common practice of the day, Spinoza never sought clemency for his excommunication. He Latinized his name to “Benedict,” moved to Rijnsburg, and set up a modest trade grinding lenses to make ends meet.

However, the real project of his life would be elaboration of the Weltanschauung which earned him the infamy of his community—and, as it became disseminated, Dutch society on the whole, and all of Christendom with it. But Spinoza was not merely an iconoclast. His theory of a world comprised of a single Substance with the attributes of thought and extension, and the systemic exposition of that theory—to say nothing of the discipline, courage, irony and benevolence under which he worked—is one of the singular contributions to Western thought.

Such diverse and contradictory thinkers as Diderot, Holbach, Goethe, Coleridge, Hegel, Flaubert, Haeckel, Nietzsche, Hinton, Santayana, Einstein, Deleuze, Dick and Mudede have declared themselves Spinozists, or, as Russell did, acknowledged a “rightness” to the Spinozistic worldview. That such a diverse spectrum of opinions be represented among the Dutchman’s avowed disciples is not, I think, a mark of vagueness or self-contradiction against him. Granted, some of his points beg clarification which now can never be given—for example, to answer the question whether his overall tendency is Platonic or Aristotelian rests on whether his doctrine of “immortality” is to be read figuratively or literally, a problem which has baffled and infuriated interpreters for three centuries. And Spinoza does contradict himself, but as much can only be expected when one tries to construct a self-evident system of metaphysics, cosmology, human psychology, and ethics out of 259 propositions.

Even so. For all its flaws methodological, logical, and empirical, in the Spinozistic system, the work in which it is lain out, Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata is a sublime book. Difficult, granted, but all things excellent are so. Even discounting the sometimes failing strength of its arguments, Ethica is invaluable as a purely aesthetic accomplishment—a reception that would likely have horrified Spinoza. Yet in spite of himself, the work is awesome—I mean “awesome” in the sense that it fills the reader receptive to it with awe. Ethica is one of a few works to do justice to humanity’s encounter with Nature in its totality. Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura celebrates the rapture and adventure of discovery. Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maitre affirms man the machine, laughing off its mechanism as one facet of its folly. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra gives epic scope to the life which recognizes its worldliness, and brings us to understanding what is at stake.

It is a fitting but wholly unplanned coincidence that today, in addition to being the 377th birthday of this remarkable man, is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s masterwork, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Both thinkers made queasy their respective times for humbling humankind’s place in the cosmos.

Darwin argued (and those after him proved) that homo sapiens sapiens was a thing of Nature, possessed of no essence not of the animal kingdom from which it rose by virtue of its fitness against the hardness of life. He was, of course, giving scientific backing to Spinoza’s rationalized insight that all which lives desires to live for the sake of nothing else. The irrepressible will to live in a world of infinite powers beyond the control of any finite being. Indeed, all that lives is beholden entire to the universal order. All its motions and willings arise from the cosmic order itself. Flux and spontaneity are only contingent or free in appearance because of our blindness to causes, and in truth all that is real is necessary. All phenomena arise from this necessity, all the blessings and curses upon men and women are granted without love or malice.

Against the dread of fatality before cosmic indifference, he prescribes affirmation. Though we live only by accident of the arrangement of the world, we are to affirm the world and call it divine, for it is the only world we will ever know.   We are told to affirm what little powers we have lest we be slaves to them, and apply them with all diligence to the alignment of self-interest to the common good, and to understanding.

If we are to understand religion as providing a framework with which to orient the human condition in the cosmos and a foundation and description of ethics, Spinoza’s system is undeniably religious. It is hard and austere and inescapable.


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