Sunday, August 24, 2014

Spinoza’s Ethics

Baruch Spinoza living, as he did, in the 17th century, did not find it as easy being an independent thinker as many of us do today. Spinoza lived Amsterdam, a city known for religious tolerance, as much as for its thriving capitalism. However he was excommunicated from his synagogue at the age of 23, and his books were put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. His views provide a bridge between the religious myths of the past and the psychology and freedom of thought we enjoy today.

In Spinoza’s universe, nothing happens by accident and everything has a reason. If circumstances are seen as unfortunate, it is only because of our inadequate conception of reality, which he believed was infinite and eternal. As a lens maker by profession, he believed that our senses were so imperfect that nothing like universal truth could possibly be discovered through the senses.

In his Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding, he held good and evil to be relative concepts. This means that nothing is intrinsically good or bad except when related to a particularity. I would rate his Treatise as “R”, because in the opening, he starts with the mental quiescence that results from sex and other sensual endeavors, and relates that to the effects of Riches and Fame, stating that these, too become a preoccupation of the mind. Another name for fame is “honor,” and these values were generally held as important, since they were named in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.  Here Spinoza clearly amplifies Aristotle’s critical demeanor, “… the attainment of riches and fame is not followed as in the case of sensual pleasures by repentance, but, the more we acquire, the greater is our delight, and, consequently, the more are we incited to increase. Fame has the further drawback that it compels its votaries to order their lives according to the opinions of their fellow men, shunning what they shun, and seeking what they seek.”

One of the things he’s concerned with here is that men he has seen, who are rich or famous, are placed in danger of their safety, “Examples are no less numerous of men, who have endured the utmost wretchedness for the sake of gaining or preserving their reputation.” Spinoza realized that benevolence was limited by the economy of scale; while one person could not feed all of the poor, the state might be large enough to do it.

For Spinoza, when people discuss good and bad, they mean, “That’s good for humans,” or, “That’s bad for humans.” Nothing is perfect or imperfect in itself, but only the eternal order of nature can determine their place. Presaging Huserl, Spinoza believes that humans cannot cogitate the order of nature itself, but rather their own knowledge of the union that exists between the mind and nature.  In the Ethics, Part III, his position is that human dominion over nature is an illusion,

Here, Spinoza may have been the first philosopher to realize that the function of the mind was not to override the emotions. The emotions rather, for Spinoza, are a passivity of the soul, or perhaps as we say today, human instincts. While he calls a man driven by instinct, one in “bondage”, he carefully replaces the terms, “good and bad”, with, “good, bad, and indifferent”. The opposite of this attitude is the Stoic, which believes that the emotions depend on our will, and that we can govern them.

The ethical imperative, then, for Spinoza is to find the character that best knows nature, emulate that character, and build a society that is the most conducive to the attainment of this character and forge a social order in which this character may be attained by the maximum number with the least difficulty and danger.

Rules of Life from the Treatise
  1. Speak intelligibly to the maximum number of people. (The logic here is that we gain large advantages from the multitude.)
  2. In regards to pleasures, only indulge in those which are healthful.
  3. Get enough of the money necessary for life and health, and follow economic customs.