Spinoza, and art
Today in CoPhi: Baruch (nee Benedict) Spinoza (and Susan James on his concept of the passions).
Spinoza (“Spinozer,” my old teacher from Brooklyn called him) believed in Einstein’s God (or would have), and vice versa. Gambling with your soul? Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive or do anything intentional and deliberate. No more than nature does, anyway. God just is. Paul Davies:
Sometimes (Einstein) was really using God as just a sort of convenient metaphor. But he did have, I think, a genuine cosmic religious feeling, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe. Not just its majesty, but its extraordinary subtlety and beauty and mathematical elegance.
You could say the very same of Spinoza.
In HAP 101 last year we tried to make sense of the Buddhist-inspired statement that we’re not part of nature but all of it. Spinoza offers another take on that disorienting notion.
In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.
I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.
I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.
Nothing in nature is by chance… Something appears to be chance only because of our lack of knowledge.
The passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from the necessity and efficacy of nature… I shall, therefore, treat the nature and strength of the emotion in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.
They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As we noted Jennifer Hecht noting, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” This contrasts sharply with Spinoza’s view. “What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.
Spinoza, says Susan James, was interested in our capacity to maintain ourselves as ourselves, which he called our conatus. How do we do that? By breathing, sleeping, fighting, friending,… but ultimately he thought our best bet was to resign ourselves to an acceptance of rational necessity.
“Spinoza thinks that, in so far as you’re passionate,” subject to external influence, “you’re in bondage and unfree.” How to free yourself? Become mentally active, get “a better understanding of yourself and the world,” and experience his version of cosmic bliss or supreme happiness. And what does this maximal understanding come to, in a word? Pantheism.
In Spinoza’s vision, there is no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance, which is also God. This means that our sense of isolation from and opposition to one another is an illusion, and it also means that our sense of distance from God is mistaken… Given that the universe is God, we can therefore be confident that whatever happens to us happens for a reason. Passion for Wisdom
And still they called him heretic and atheist, and excommunicated him despite his “intellectual love of God,” which he said was “the highest felicity.” God only knew why.
He’s still a good guy to follow on Twitter, btw.
Also today: art. We’ll try to discern the artfulness of Duchamp’s Fountain, Dewey’s ballplayer, maybe even Mapplethorpe’s transgressive iconoclastic work. We’ll introduce Wittgenstein’s family resemblance, the Institutional Theory, and more.
And then we’ll be done with Philosophy: The Basics.
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