October 4, 2010

Spinoza's God

Recently finished reading Blesséd Spinoza: A Biography of the Philosopher (1932) by Lewis Browne, a marvelously detailed classic account of the Jewish-Portuguese-Dutch philosopher, Baruch (blesséd) de Spinoza (1632-1677).  This is my second book about Spinoza, the first being The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (2006) by Matthew Stewart.  The Essential Spinoza:  ETHICS and Related Writings (2006) edited by Michael L Morgan is an excellent rendering, with commentary, of the philosopher's major works.

Thank God (Spinoza's God) there was a Spinoza to help begin lifting the smothering spell of the Abrahamic religions, and help open the way for the emergence of reason, empirical science and natural history as honorable, fact-based belief systems.  I'm reminded of Einstein's response when he was asked if he believed in God.  He said:  "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." (Upon being asked if he believed in God by Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue, New York, April 24, 1921, Einstein: The Life and Times, Ronald W. Clark, Page 502.)

Browne describes Spinoza's philosophy with particular reference to God or Nature as follows:

"Spinoza's God is the elemental Substance, the stuff and essence of all that exists.  ...  According to Spinoza, the universe is all essentially of one piece, and the things we see in and around ourselves are all related.  To call some of them things of the Spirit (or Thought), and others, things of matter (or Extension), is to point out a purely superficial distinction between them.  At bottom the thinking world, the mechanical world, and perhaps other such worlds of which our minds cannot conceive, are all really aspects of one world.  Fundamentally all things, whether men or trees or stones or dreams, are but part of a single homogeneous reality.  And this reality Spinoza called God.  He might have called it Nature; and he did at times.  ... 
Yet he never ceases to emphasize the point that this God of his has nothing in common with the deity of the orthodox.  There is nothing transcendent about the Ultimate.  It is not a spirit hovering over the earth, but the 'idea' of the earth itself, and of all that is in and around the earth. There is therefore nothing anthropomorphic about it.  ...  Nor is there any aspect of personality about it.  To call it Father, Judge, or King of kings is preposterous; to praise it is no less impertinent than to blame it.  ...  No, the God of Spinoza knows no obligation to man; it is utterly indifferent to him.  It no more created man than the plans and specifications created the bridge which was built according to them.  ...  This God of Spinoza's is in no sense a Personal Being; it is a logical concept.  It is the name for that all-embracing, all pervading Essence which inheres in all that exists.  Therefore man can be no more than a detail in the cosmic scheme - a detail absolutely of no greater importance than any other.  Man is merely a 'particular mode,' a finite manifestation, of the Infinite.  ...  How, then, is a man to fulfil his destiny?  Obviously it is by accommodating himself as best he can to the infinite scheme of things.  ...  And to accomplish this a man must forget ephemeral 'goods' and think only of the enduring 'good.'  In other words, he must be virtuous.  Not in order to obtain a reward in some other world.  No, virtue is its own reward here and now.  For to be virtuous is to live in accordance with the laws of Nature, and to live in accordance with the laws of Nature is to fulfil one's destiny as a part of Nature - and he that thus fulfils his destiny enjoys enduring happiness!"  (Browne pages 185-190)

A great book that describes the life and works of an important contributor to the development of a secular, holistic view of humankind and our place in the cosmos.  Spinoza also lived his philosophy -  a modest, virtuous existence.

"Sell Decartes, buy Spinoza," by Rebecca Goldstein, Prospect, May 25, 2011

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