Spinoza and Leibniz

It’s Spinoza and Leibniz in CoPhi today, rounding out (with Descartes) the traditional and somewhat arbitrary rationalist triple-play triumvirate we always rehearse when telling the story of philosophy. They’re the Tinker, Evers, and Chance of a priorism.

Spinoza, dubbed the most lovable philosopher by Russell, took Descartes’ three substances, trimmed them to one, and called it all God. He must indeed have been intoxicated by divine vapors. His deterministic Spinozism of freedom requires re-framing our view of “outside” and “self”, and though it has much in common with Stoicism it seems less heartless and disengaged in the face of tragic misfortune. 

Finally, though, it strikes our guide as unacceptably deferential to an ultimate universal harmony that in his view cannot at last redeem any and all suffering and cruelty. “Particular events are what they are, and do not become different by absorption into a whole.” And yet, Russell does admire Spinoza’s wide cosmic perspective on our little passion play. He acknowledges comfort, if not an ultimate rationale, in the reflection “that human life, with all that it contains of evil and suffering, is an infinitesimal part of the life of the universe.” Contrary to popular belief, a pantheist does not overestimate the significance of his own divine pedigree.

Leibniz, on the other hand, did seem to think quite highly of himself in his windowless monadic universe. If he’d not existed Voltaire would surely have invented him. Not content with one or two or three substances he insisted on a practical infinity of them, enough to keep an infinite God busy at the control board. (Looking for that cartoon…) As today’s poem says, there’s just one of him  

And so many of us
How can we expect Him
to keep track of which voice
goes with what request…

Is this the best of possible worlds after all, or the worst? I think they’re right in Lake Wobegon, it could always be worse. Let’s hope it can be better. If it can’t, maybe John Prine had the right idea: blow up your TV, move to the country etc. Ride a mule up a hill, enjoy the ride and the view, find what solace you can on your own and with your neighbor, understanding with Spinoza that we’re not as separate as we seem.


6:50/6:46, 61/78/57, 6:26

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