Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Netherlands - Spinoza - Deus sive Natura

During my learning journey through the Netherlands and Dutch culture, I stumbled upon the Sephardic Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.  Never having studied philosophy in school or at university, I'm a complete beginner when it comes to the various different philosophers and, with Spinoza, I feel like I've stumbled on an interesting crossroads in European thinking, a bridge between medieval thinking and the birth of the scientific age.

To make my life easier, I ordered a book called Spinoza: A very short introduction by Roger Scruton - part of a wonderful series of introductions published by Oxford University Press.  I definitely would have found it very painful to read one of Spinoza's great works, the Ethics or the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, so it was useful to get an overview of Spinoza's philosophy and from that very short introduction, I'm going to try to write an even shorter overview in this blog :-)

Not knowing the great philosophers, I was a bit out of my depth and reading about Spinoza, I also touched on the Philosophy of Descartes, Grotius, Hobbes and many others.  A lot is made of Spinoza's Sephardic roots and, for those of you who don't know, the Sephardic Jews originated in Spain and Portugal, fleeing after the Reconquista and the introduction of strict Christian laws in Iberia - many of them moved to the more tolerant society of the 17th century Netherlands, forming their own communities in Amsterdam and Utrecht.  Spinoza was born and raised in the Netherlands, but had a cultural understanding of the ancient Jewish texts and also some of the philosophy of Islam. 

Something that really fascinated me was the fact that ideas like the ones Spinoza postulated, had such a violent impact on the society he lived in.  He was cast out of the Jewish community and ex-communicated.  He was reviled and feared as a supposed atheist, even though his philosophy puts the existence of God beyond all human contemplation or questioning.  It's not hard to imagine how ideas could have been so dangerous in the religious powder-keg of 17th century Europe - however, I can't help feeling they would hardly raise an eyebrow in our society and, what's more, few people would bother to read and understand Spinoza's philosophy, nevermind feel threatened by it.  I think ideas can still be very dangerous in our 21st century world, but somehow I feel the philosophy has been lost and the only voices that get heard in the modern world, are those of the prophets or 'prophetic order' that Spinoza opposed. 

I'm not going to go into great detail regarding the things I have learned from reading about Spinoza, suffice to say I took pages and pages of notes as I was reading and, although I don't really agree with Spinoza's philosophy, his ideas have given me some food for thought and helped me conceptualise some of my own philosophy. 

The book starts with Aristotle's philosophy of 'substance' which is the essence of existence and doesn't ultimately change in its nature, although the attributes or 'modes' of the substance can change form and appearance.  For Spinoza the substance is God and this brings him immediately into conflict with his co-religionists and with Christianity.  Spinoza's God is not some separate entity, sitting on a cloud somewhere, listening to our prayers and making judgements.  For Spinoza, God is removed from the human mind and becomes the essence of everything which exists, man, beast or object - for Spinoza God is existence. 

Spinoza's famous words Deus sive Natura, 'God or Nature' sum up his philosophy quite well - ie. God is nature and the substance is God or nature.  No wonder his philosophy was considered to be a heresy!  This reminded me of a book my parents (rather mysteriously) had at home, called the Bhagavad Gita.  I used to love looking at the pictures in this book when I was a child and Spinoza's idea of God being the essence of everything, reminds me of the illustrations in the Bhagavad Gita of Paramatman with flames of God inside all the people and animals (I don't remember them being inside inanimate objects).

Spinoza was also famous for using an 'axiomatic method' or geometrical analysis of his thought, which he was often later derided, as a proof of the craziness of his theories.  Indeed, Spinoza's summation of human existence and his desire for 'clear thinking' (ie. not tainted by emotion or passion) does seem quite mathematical in a way that you know will never be possible where people are involved.  Although a lot of things can be mathematically explained or analysed, I really believe there are things out there that can't be explained - total superstition, I know, but Spinoza's methodical approach to reason and existence seems more of an ideal than a reality. 

I was interested by Spinoza's concepts of 'adequate' and 'inadequate' ideas.  Adequate ideas are those which are essentially true - ie. the existence of God, things which don't need to be proven.  Inadequate ideas are things which are invented by the human mind, all imagination and passion is deemed to be inadequate and that's where I have difficulty with Spinoza, as imagination and passion are things that, rightly or wrongly, rule the lives of many 21st century people. 

For Spinoza, using maths and geometry to describe his philosopy was more adequate than using ideas or human language.  Language was, for Spinoza, the most inadequate way of describing God and existence and, I must admit, I agree with him here.  If you think of the Latin mass and Buddhist chants, religion is not really concerned about whether or not people understand the language they are using during ceremonies, language itself is only a series of sounds that don't really mean much, it's the ritual chanting and mindlessly repeating of phrases (or song) that gives the ceremony it's spiritual aspect.  I think part of the problem of modern religions is that people try to make sense of it all, when really rituals are meaningless. 

I'm not religious, but I would consider myself to be spiritual in the sense that I enjoy a beautiful sunset, or an inspiring piece of music - language is beautiful too, but I agree with Spinoza that the meanings we attach to words can be quite arbitrary and, I guess, words will never adequately describe the feelings of a spiritual experience.  Words are part of the science of man and I really wonder whether or not science and religion can ever been reconciled, they seem to be in such polar opposition. 

Another important concept from Spinoza's philosophy is the idea of conatus - roughly translated, I think this means our 'determination to exist/survive'.  Spinoza believed that all human beings desire existence and we will go to great lengths to ensure our self-preservation.  For Spinoza a truly free man is one who has aspired to self-preservation, including the accumulation of power to reach a state of being where he understands the true nature of existence and is no longer enslaved by inadequate ideas.  Essentially his philosophy is about the triumph of reason over passion. 

Although he liked using geometrical equations to explain his ideas, Spinoza denied the ability to express God in terms of number.  I think this also angered his contemporaries, who were very much into the idea of one God, or a trinity within God etc.  This aspect of Spinoza's philosophy reminds me of Islam and how unneccessary it is to express Allah in terms of a number or an image.  For Spinoza, depicting God in an art form was irrelevant superstition, as was the idea of Christ taking God's mortal form on earth and commonly accepted beliefs such as the value of prayer etc.  One thing I really like about Spinoza is that he genuinely believed in a secular society, yet one which was tolerant of other religious beliefs.  This seems to be a very Dutch thing and I think modern Dutch society reflects this Golden Era of Dutch thinking. 

I guess Spinoza was a bit of an optimist - he believed that when enough men (no mention of women) achieved a higher level of understanding and rid themselves of inadequate ideas then they would form a society that was, almost effortlessly, just and without conflict.  Maybe in an ideal world . . . for Spinoza achieving true intellectual freedom from inadequte ideas is the highest ideal, whereas he believed, far too many people welcome intellectual slavery as the end of fear and conflict.  I think Spinoza's ideas could still be dangerous if interpreted by political extremists in a prophetic way.  There is SO much more to Spinoza's philosophy than I can do justice to in this short blog, but I'll leave you with a quote from his Political Treatise

'If slavery, barbarism and desolation are to be called peace, peace is the greatest misfortune that men can suffer'

Image credits

The Dutch flag and the image of Spinoza are both from Wikimedia Commons and are copyright free.

The image of the sunrise is my own photograph from my walk on the Camino de Santiago, like all the walks I do, a very spiritual experience.  This photo was taken at about 7.30 on a chilly October morning in the Rioja.

The image of Adriaen van Ostade's Peasants in a Tavern is also copyright free and I think it sums up the opposite of Spinoza's philosophy, which is the triumph of passion over reason - I think we can all relate to that after a few too many on a Friday night on the town :-)
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