A Portrait of Spinoza as a young man*

Through experience, Spinoza arrives at the conclusion that ordinary events that occur in everyday life are “empty and futile” (3, I can sense Lefebvre’s blood-pressure rising at this opening sentence) and that objects that he feared “had nothing of good or bad in themselves, except insofar as [his] mind was moved by them (3). In my understanding, this speaks directly to the Cartesian subjectivism that Spinoza resolved to challenge (though they are both rationalists) by seeking out things that could both communicate their own true good and directly affect the mind. Spinoza notes that “wealth, honor, and sensual pleasure” (3) are highly valued by the men of his day and wonders whether he can pursue the true good when these ostensibly certain goods are already generally accepted. By way of showing that the pursuit of sensual pleasure is disorienting and that pursing honor and wealth is distracting, he concludes that in his new pursuit he “would be giving up a good by its nature uncertain…for one not uncertain by its nature…but only in respect to its attainment” (4). Moreover, he considers this change in the course of his life to be a shedding of “certain evils for a certain good” (4).

Here he bolsters his argument for avoiding wealth, honor, and sensual pleasure with an argument that they not only do not preserve life, but actually hinder its preservation; regarding wealth: “There are a great many examples of people who have suffered persecution to the death on account of their wealth, or have exposed themselves to so many dangers to acquire wealth that they have at last paid the penalty for their folly with their own life” (4). I take note of this theme only because I’ve been reading Kaufmann’s Nietzsche and have passages like “[Nietzsche] contended that all living creatures, far from tending to persevere their existence, strive to enhance themselves, to grow, and to generate more life. For this end, Nietzsche believed, most living creatures are willing to risk their existence” (246). It’s important to note the Spinoza does indeed consider this tendency. As Curley notes in his introduction, “the conatus doctrine…requires not merely that things strive for self-preservation, but also that they strive to increase their power of action” (xxx, refers to IIIP12 in the Ethics).

Anticipating Nietzsche’s conception of the will as “something complicated” that is really constituted by multiple sensations constantly vying for domination (Section 19, Beyond Good and Evil), Spinoza divulges that even in this pursuit of the true good he cannot “put aside all greed, desire for sensual pleasure, and love of esteem” (5). Nevertheless, he argues that in his rational pursuit he will be able to control or domesticate these desires**. Furthermore, Spinoza realizes that if one rationally conceives of greed, desire for sensual pleasure, and coveting honor as means rather than ends, then they indeed have limits, and can no longer be obstacles to the pursuit of true good.

The question of what constitutes the true good remains, and Spinoza offers a brief definition. He argues that good and bad, as well as perfection and imperfection, can only be considered as such according to different respects (e.g. killing an animal humanely because it is already suffering is good but torturing and maiming it for pleasure is bad). But for him, “everything that happens happens according to the eternal order, and according to certain laws of Nature” (5), so good and bad or perfection and imperfection are concepts that do not apply (“beyond good and evil” for Nietzsche). Conversely, true good is defined by means that lead one to understanding these laws of Nature. More importantly, “the highest good is to arrive – with other individuals if possible*** – at the enjoyment of such a nature” (5). This is Spinoza’s project and he lays out the following requirements (presented in my words):

1)    To understand Nature to the point that one can enjoy constantly striving to understand it in full.

2)    To form a society that embodies this desire so that many people may also attain it

3)    Cultivate these values through moral philosophy and education

4)    Develop medicine so that people can be healthy and undertake this project

5)    Develop mechanics/technology so that we can have time to pursue this project

In the end, Spinoza’s goal is – much like Aristotle’s and Nietzsche’s – the attainment of the highest human perfection (6). In order to set ourselves on this path, we should also follow the three rules that Spinoza suggests for living well (in his words from page 6)

1)    To speak according to the power and understanding of ordinary people, and do whatever does not interfere with our attaining our purpose… (This appears to be a political maneuver that reflects the realities of his time but also is reasonable for those of us interested in proffering new ideas today).

2)    To enjoy pleasures just so far as suffices for safeguarding our health. (Aristotelian moderation)

3)    Finally, to seek money, or anything else, just so far as suffices for sustaining life and health, and conforming to the customs of the community that do not conflict with our aim. (both moderation and an effort to maintain good relations – and therefore freedom – with those around us).

*Starting Monday I will be taking a seminar and Spinoza in which we will mainly be reading his Ethics, and I hope I can find time to keep writing posts like this. All posts tagged “Spinoza seminar” will refer to page numbers in A Spinoza Reader, edited and translated by Edwin Curley.

** cf. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; also Kaufmann on Nietzsche: “Reason is extolled not because it is the faculty that abstracts from the given, forms universal concepts, and draws inferences, but because these skills enable it to develop foresight and to give consideration to all the impulses, to organize their chaos, to integrate them into a harmony – and thus to give man power: power over himself and over nature” (230).

*** I cannot help but be reminded of Nietzsche’s constant discussion of the nobility of solitude in Beyond Good and Evil.

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One Response to A Portrait of Spinoza as a young man*

  1. Mark Purcell says:

    Interesting that he talks about the “enjoyment” of nature and its laws, rather than obeying or understanding. Although you then render that as “understanding” in your characterization of his requirements. Do you think he conceived of this highest good, our project in life, as the enjoyment of nature, or as the understanding of it?

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