Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza, The Greatest Rationalist of the 17th Century

benedict-baruch-spinoza

The work is a brief research into Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza, the greatest rationalist of the 17th Century, whose works greatly influenced the method of thinking and laid the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment and Modern Biblical criticism. It highlights Spinoza’s ideas and the influences from this ideas; it also took note of some of Spinoza’s method arriving at his philosophies, as well as the significance of his philosophy. A conclusion was therefore drawn.

INTRODUCTION

Prior to the modern period philosophy, was the Ancient and medieval philosophies where philosophising was highly mythological and was based on faith; the modern period, however, started when philosophers like Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, refined reason, strengthen reason and made reason more accountable. The modern period is a period that introduced scientific reason around 15th Century. This period also produced Rennaisance Thinkers like Francis Bacon (1561-1626), where ideas were centred on the fact that real knowledge must be based on experience. Also, that whatever one must know must be seen.

The period is characterised by features as moving from theological philosophy to human reason; eradicate theological colouring to pure reason and it is also a quest for scientific rationality.

BENEDICT SPINOZA (1632-1677): HIS BIOGRAPHY

Baruch (in Hebrew) or Benedict (in Latin) all meaning blessed, was born on 24th November 1632 in Amsterdam. He is the middle son in a prominent family of Jews origin. His father Michael Spinoza was a successful and respectable member of the community. As a boy, he worked in his father’s business, and he was intellectually gifted and so he received a traditional orthodox Jewish education study Talmud and Hebrew in Talmud Torah School. At the age of 24, Spinoza had achieved important ideas about God, Nature and Reality. Some of his ideas contradicted the prevailing Jewish belief of the period, and this idea were considered wrong opinions and horrible heresies by the Jewish community. According to them, that Spinoza interpreted the Bible in a critical way and that he defended a kind of Deism arguing that God does not interfere in the natural world, but manifest in the New law of nature. Before then, the Jewish community had attempted to bribe him with a huge sum of money so that he would keep silent and continue to come to the synagogue but he declined the offer; on July 27th, 1656, he was issued a writ of herem (excommunicated) as pronounced by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam. In 1661, he left Amsterdam and lived in Rijnsburg, where he worked on the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, and the Short Treatise on God, Man and His well-being. In 1663, he moved to Voorburg, where he also worked on what eventually was called the “Ethics”, his philosophical masterpiece. While in 1670, he completed his “Scandalous Theological-Political Treatise. At the age of 45, Spinoza died in 1677.

THE MAIN ISSUE ADDRESSED

As stated earlier in his biography, Spinoza was not satisfied with what his religion offers. He decided to create ideas that could guide him through life. He wanted a form of knowledge that could give him inner peace and continuous joy, supreme till eternity. In doing this, Spinoza mapped out four items that will concern him:

  1. To know himself

  2. To know nature

  3. To know how it can be modified

  4. To know the kind of power man has over nature.

These intellectual programme which he mapped out for himself was “to provide a set of integrated answers to fundamental questions, on a wide variety of crucial topics, concerning nature and the structure of the universe, the relationship between divinity and nature, the place of human knowledge, the character of emotions, and the fundamental principles of human psychology; the nature of virtue, the basis of human interaction and cooperation, the proper attitude toward religion, the extent to which human being can appreciate and participate in the eternal and character of the kind of life as well as means to achieve that kind of life”(Ethics xii-xvi).

Spinoza believed that there are different things that can help him achieve this, which he singled out how best this could be done.

To know nature, he believed that there is a way this world is and not everybody is able to understand it the way it is. Spinoza approached these issues from a level of metaphysics and ethics to achieve what is called “integrated knowledge”. He makes a distinction and says that there are different kinds of knowledge and one knowledge is more certified than the other. He discovered that some knowledge is deeper and more relevant to understanding the world than others. He preferred this knowledge by the intellect (which is demonstrative and illustrative) to other forms of knowledge. He said knowledge is devoted to the healing of the intellect. He, therefore, attempted to provide a form of knowledge that will capture the world in the best term it should be captured.

To understand how he did this, let us discuss the path to knowledge and the method applied.

The Path to Knowledge

Spinoza made a sharp distinction between the intellect and imagination as root to knowledge, as it is written of him;

The chief aim of philosophy was to increase overreliance on intellect and decrease overreliance on imagination.

Given the above statement to interpret nature and articulate the place of man in nature, it is clear that Spinoza does not rely on imagination and when we think of images, we attempt to create a replica of things, but that which creates or attempts to create needs to understand itself before it can imagine, or carry out the functions of imagination. Man himself is a part of nature, therefore needs to understand himself. To allow a man to exercise his imagination without applying the intellect to interpret and demonstrate in concrete terms what nature that houses man is all about is wrong.

Spinoza distinguished three kinds of knowledge;

  1. The knowledge that is anchored on random experience

  2. The knowledge that is founded on reason

  3. Knowledge of intuition.

These forms of knowledge correspond to modes for arriving at truth. like his predecessor Descartes, Spinoza is not going to rely on knowledge that arises from and is spelt by the nature of a thing. He would prefer to know the ultimate cause of a thing by knowing the proximate cause. His position is that examining the cause or reason from which a thing is made is the sure way to understand philosophy. Aristotle had identified four causes; the material cause, formal cause, efficient cause and final cause.

Now, Spinoza implied these ideas in his philosophy by arguing that to understand a thing is to go back to the nature of the things. You go back to the cause for which it is made (Final cause). His rationalism is so enduring; he believed that we can only understand the world by getting back to God or nature.

Meanwhile, the God Spinoza was talking about was not the Christian God. So he defined God in a different way. For him, God is nature. The interconnection and interrelation between insights into what the world is meant to be, the world is given (what the world is meant to be is already there, awaiting the exploration of the human mind), but to work towards a certain end which has already been designed. God to Spinoza is not a divine reality. God is nature, so he is a natured idea of God, i.e. the God he discovers, the implication of his position are overwhelming in relation to the moral place of man in the world. It is determined and this is the place he assigns morality.

Spinoza’s ideas and the main issue is expressed in his attempt to define God or nature which he did use deduction method through the expressions of propositions.

God or Nature

On God”, he begins with some deceptively simple definitions of terms that would be familiar to any seventeenth-century philosopher. He said:

By substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself”; “By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence”; “By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.”

The definitions of Part One are, in effect, simply clear concepts that ground the rest of his system. They are followed by a number of axioms that, he assumes, will be regarded as obvious and unproblematic by the philosophically informed (“Whatever is, is either in itself or in another”; “From a given determinate cause the effect follows necessarily”). From these, the first proposition necessarily follows, and every subsequent proposition can be demonstrated using only what precedes it.

In propositions one through fifteen of Part One, Spinoza presents the basic elements of his picture of God. God is the infinite, necessarily existing (that is, uncaused), unique substance of the universe. There is only one substance in the universe; it is God, and everything else that is is of God.

The proof that God – an infinite, necessary and uncaused, indivisible being – is the only substance of the universe proceeds in three simple steps. First, establish that no two substances can share an attribute or essence (Ip5). Then, prove that there is a substance with infinite attributes (i.e., God) (Ip11). It follows, in conclusion, that the existence of that infinite substance precludes the existence of any other substance. For if there were to be a second substance, it would have to have some attribute or essence. But since God has all possible attributes, then the attribute to be possessed by this second substance would be one of the attributes already possessed by God. But it has already been established that no two substances can have the same attribute. Therefore, there can be, besides God, no such second substance.

If God is the only substance, and (by axiom 1) whatever is, is either a substance or in a substance, then everything else must be of God. “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God” (Ip15). Those things that are “in” God (or, more precisely, in God’s attributes) are what Spinoza calls modes.

God is now described not so much as the underlying substance of all things, but as the universal, immanent and sustaining cause of all that exists: “From the necessity of the divine nature there must follow infinitely many things in infinitely many modes, (i.e., everything that can fall under an infinite intellect)”.

There are, however, differences in the way things depend on God. Some features of the universe follow necessarily from God – or, more precisely, from the absolute nature of one of God’s attributes – in a direct and unmediated manner. These are the universal and eternal aspects of the world, and they do not come into or go out of being; Spinoza calls them “infinite modes”.

Spinoza’s metaphysics of God is neatly summed up in a phrase that occurs in the Latin (but not the Dutch) edition of the Ethics: “God, or Nature”, Deus, sive Natura: “That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists” (Part IV, Preface).

There are, Spinoza insists, two sides of Nature. First, there is the active, productive aspect of the universe – God and his attributes, from which all else follows. This he employed in the Short Treatise, he calls Natura naturans, “naturing Nature”. Strictly speaking, this is identical to God. The other aspect of the universe is that which is produced and sustained by the active aspect, Natura naturata, “natured Nature”.

By Natura naturata I understand whatever follows from the necessity of God’s nature, or from any of God’s attributes, i.e., all the modes of God’s attributes insofar as they are considered as things that are in God, and can neither be nor be conceived without God. (Ip29s).

METHOD APPLIED

Spinoza’s method includes the following:

  1. Geometric method

  2. The sub-species model or perspectivism.

  3. Analytic method

Geometric Method

The dictionary tells us that it was coined from the word Geometry, which means, the branch of mathematics that deals with the deduction of the properties, measurement and relationship of parts, lines, angles and figures.

Spinoza was greatly influenced by a Greek mathematician Euclid, who wrote a book on mathematics called Euclid. Euclid was able to arrive at a truth following from a chain of deductive reasoning. A deductive process of reasoning is one that progresses from the general to the particular. It was Euclid’s geometric method Spinoza took and applied to the problems faced in his philosophy, and the reason he used this method was that he aimed at a complete objectivity. Spinoza used deductive reasoning to tackle problems like what is substance attributes, do human beings have free will, what is cause and effect? Yet his use of the geometric method in philosophy is not without problems.

Sub-Specie Model or Perspectivism

This method states that all the ways of knowing are different ways of knowing one thing and not different ways of knowing substantially different things while our knowledge may be perceived as changing. What we know cannot truly be perceived in such ways.

INFLUENCE

Spinoza is an important historical figure in the Netherlands where his portrait was featured prominently on the Dutch 1000 – guilder banknote and legal tender until the Euro was introduced in 2002. Most notably, the highest and the most prestigious scientific award is named Spinoza’s price. Spinoza’s philosophy is mind teasing such that it led to people raising various fundamental questions. His influence is beyond the confines of philosophy. It impacts is reflected in individuals as well as on the larger society.

His geometric method to solving problems and issues of life is widely a topic in mathematics studied worldwide.

His pantheism has had great influence on environmental theory. Arne Naess, the father of deep ecology, acknowledged Spinoza as an important inspiration even in the field of ecology.

Jorge Luis Borges was greatly influenced by Spinoza’s worldview. Borges makes allusions to the philosopher’s work in many of his poems and short stories.

SIGNIFICANCE

The Jewish and Christian Authorities of Spinoza’s felt threatened by his ideas, as a result of the Catholic Church later put his works in the index of a forbidden book. But his philosophy did hold an attraction for late 18th century Europeans in that it provided an alternative to materialism, Atheism and Deism, which made him significant. Three of Spinoza’s ideas in particular strongly appealed to them; the unity of all that exists, the regularity and order of all that happens and the identity of spirit and nature.

CONCLUSION

The philosophy of Spinoza is an attempt to create a form of knowledge that is count most profoundly about nature, man’s place in it and how a man should get about to locate and fulfil his place in nature. With Spinoza’s philosophy, a peaceful and joyous life becomes our certain.

REFERENCES

  1. Deleuze, 1968.

  2. Spinoza and Nietzsche: The Meeting, Daniel Spiro, page 1

  3. Einstein‘s Third Paradise, by Gerald Holton

  4. Michael Dirda, The Washington Post, book review of “BETRAYING SPINOZA: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity”, May 21, 2006 ,”Long ago, Will Durant wrote of the Ethics in his Story of Philosophy , “When you have finished it a second time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy”.

  5. Spinoza’s Ethics, in Edwin Curley, Translator, The Collected Writings of Spinoza (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), Volume 1.

  6. Allison, Henry, 1987. Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction, New Haven: Yale University Press.

  7. Balibar, Etienne, 1998. Spinoza and Politics, London: Verso

  8. Western Philosophy into Religion in Modern Philosophy. By Professor Omorergbe: Joja Prints.

  9. Lecture Note on Modern Philosophy by Prof. L.O. Ugwuanyi.

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