Nuovo on Spinoza: Eternal bliss
Editor’s note: This is the 13th in a series of essays about the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and his thoughts concerning nature, God and politics.
Bliss is a state of uninterrupted calm or tranquility, and if it is eternal it is without beginning or end. We cannot possess this state by nature, for, like all of nature’s products, we are finite, we have an end as well as a beginning, and, therefore, we cannot possess anything eternally. But, perhaps, if this state were accessible, we might enter into it for a time, feel it, enjoy it, be calmed by it and even charmed into thinking our enjoyment with it is without limit. Spinoza thought this was possible. I will try to explain.
At the outset, we must remember that Spinoza did not believe in personal immortality. Mind and soul are not immaterial things, separate from a material body, and therefore able to exist independently and apart from it. Rather, when the body dies, the soul dies with it, and the mind ceases to function. That’s all there is; there isn’t any more. We should also be reminded that as long as we live, we are creatures of desire, beset with passions, and that a passionate state is just the opposite of a blissful one.
However, reason is not a passion. And we are also rational animals, capable of understanding many things. Using rational methods, we have increased our knowledge of the universe and the forces governing it; we have gained access to its origins and can contemplate its end and much that is in between. Our knowledge of the natural history of our planet is immense and still growing. Spinoza observed that when we discover the cause of a thing, examine it, learn how it operates, such knowledge empowers us, and this power increases as we proceed to discover the causes of causes. The history of technology is abundant proof of this, and of medicine too.
Recall that Spinoza invented the art of psychotherapy, which also involves discovering causes by rational methods. The same methods can be used in self-analysis; and, by using them we can acquire knowledge of ourselves, analyze our passions and identify their causes. Passions are causes, forcing us to do things against our will or better judgment, preventing us to do what we know we ought to do — “The good that I would, I do not; the evil that I would not, that I do … O wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7: 19, 24).
But passions are also natural events, and can be understood rationally. By transforming our passions into objects of rational enquiry, we disarm them, having diverted them from their external objects. We are no longer merely victims of their impact on us, but dispassionate observers of their operations and their causes; we are enabled to regard them with indifference, or at the very least to bear with them to a degree that we are free to act independently of them.
We are empowered. Jealousy, envy, resentment, craving, or deep melancholy have beset all of us some of the time; they recur and it is not likely that any of us will ever be altogether free of them; yet when we inform ourselves of how they work in ourselves and others, and the stimuli that quicken them, we are able, in spite of them, to behave rationally, responsibly, with tenacity and nobility.
What has this to do with catching glimpses of eternal bliss? To begin with, we cannot truly love our life without understanding what life is; without understanding, we merely crave it. And we cannot understand life without understanding our place in nature. And we cannot understand our place in nature without understanding what Nature is, that it is a self-generating power encompassing the whole of being, and that in creating everything it works according to the necessity of its own nature, according to laws of nature. Self-understanding is our private access to the whole of nature, understanding the whole from our own depths. And deep familiarity is a necessary condition for love.
Spinoza believed that nature is eternal and infinite in expanse, which seems a reasonable surmise. For all we know, this universe is one of many that like stars in a galaxy flame in and out, or one phase in a cycle of generation and corruption that repeats itself without end or purpose. An alternative: that this universe is one and unique, that it emerged from absolute nothing to which it will someday return, is perhaps also plausible for all we know, but Spinoza would not have found it acceptable.
So, let us consider the universe or the multiverse as infinite and eternal, and as a natural system, ever productive. Since it is a natural system according to unchanging laws, it is perfectly knowable. And indeed, Spinoza supposed that inherent in it is an intelligence that comprehends its eternal and infinite becoming. I have been through this before in the fifth essay.
Eternal bliss is a state of calm untroubled cognition. It is a state of knowing that everything is as it must be. Human enquiry as it progresses toward this knowledge glimpses the totality, as from afar, from its finiteness, drawn towards its object by a dispassionate love, “intellectual love,” which is reason fully engaged with the sum of reality; it is an ecstasy, a finite mind reaching beyond its own finite limits; standing outside of itself. Spinoza described it “the standpoint of eternity.”
Philosophers have noted that there are two faces of eternity. In one respect, it is infinite duration, of time without beginning or end. In another, it is a timeless moment, or as theologians described it, nunc stans, time standing still, an eternal now. This second sort of eternity, I believe, is a quality of thought. Our thoughts do not normally proceed in logical sequence. Logical ordering is an afterthought, a method of critical assessment.
Rather our conscious mind, when it is productive, is a sequence of lucid moments that burst forth, and which we follow after with words. Much that goes on in thinking probably goes unnoticed. It is these moments, overflowing with lucidity, that have an aspect of eternity; moments of splendid truth, glowing, infused with light. This may explain why philosophers envy poets, and why all great poetry is philosophical.