Nuovo on Spinoza: Religion

Editor’s note: This is the 15th in a series of essays about the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and his thoughts concerning nature, God and politics.
In the first essay of this series, I wrote that Spinoza practiced no religion, professed no faith and did not affiliate with any religious community. He was neither a Jew nor a Christian, which were the only real options in 17th century Holland. He lived by choice a secular life, publicly and privately. In our time, there are many who live like Spinoza, and yet who admit to a lingering sense of religion or spirituality, one that is often vague and ill defined, perhaps a mere longing. Could it be that Spinoza had the same feeling? It is a question worth exploring. For we can be sure that a robust thinker like Spinoza, this athlete of the mind, would have brought it to clarity and definition.
Consider the evidence. Spinoza called the object of his supreme idea “God.” And he promised that the knowledge of God, as he represents it, “feeds the mind with a joy entirely exempt from sadness.” He described this knowledge as love, albeit an intellectual love, and he imagined it to be a saving passion that frees the mind from anxiety and from every other disturbing passion, replacing them with gentle ones that provide quiet joy and infinite calm. It is like redemption. This knowledge of God or Nature was for him not an occasional idea; rather it was an enduring state of a mind engaged with the whole of reality. It was metaphysical. So, was Spinoza’s metaphysics his religion, and if so, what sort of religious sensibility did it produce?
We can be sure that Spinoza’s religion would have nothing to do with traditional theistic religion, which is a practical affair involving transactions or contractual agreements between a personal divinity and his chosen clients. “I shall be your God and you shall be my people”; “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” Spinoza’s metaphysics is not about such things. The practice of looking for favors from a presumed supreme supernatural power was repugnant to him, as it was, by the way, to Lucretius, who Spinoza had read and approved.
But there are other sorts of religion, which prescribe meditation and seek no reward other than enlightenment, a clarity of mind with regard to truth and reality. This kind of religion seems a better fit for Spinoza. To discover whether it really fits, we must replicate his metaphysical thinking, to see whether thinking after him about the nature of things satisfies and brings clarity and resolution to a secular religious longing.
Now to find an answer to our question concerning Spinoza’s religious sensibility, we must begin to read the most difficult and for many off-putting part of his literary body: his great work, which he titled “Ethics.” I beg the reader’s patience; it is a very great work. As a literary work, it belongs in a class with Joyce’s “Ulysses, or “Finnegan’s Wake.”
It begins with a set of definitions, words that are supposed to fashion in the mind that thinks them a grasp of reality: ultimate reality, being itself, eternal, complete, self-sufficient, encompassing vast and changing landscapes.
By cause of itself I understand something whose essence [what it is] involves existence [that it exists], or whose essence cannot be conceived except as existing.
That thing is said to be finite in its own kind which can be limited by another of the same nature. [For example: a body of a certain kind — a mere human body, or a galaxy, or a universe is limited by and limits other bodies etc.; bodies cannot be in the same place at the same time; and while universes have their own space-time, they do not and perhaps cannot infringe upon each other.]
 By substance I understand something that exists in itself and is conceived through itself; a thing whose concept does not requires the idea of another thing to be thought [a thing that is not like anything else, that is unique, self-dependent, and self-sufficient].
By attribute, I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance as constituting its essence [attributes are the qualities that define a thing].
By mode I understand the affections of a substance, or that which is another through which it is conceived.
By God [or Nature] I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal or infinite essence.
That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its nature alone, and is determined to act by itself alone.
By eternity I understand existence itself.
Here it is, the whole of reality in eight definitions. What are we to make of it? To comprehend it requires that one enter an infinite intelligence, which encompasses reality’s every detail: what was, what is, and whatever will be, a mind reflecting the whole of reality and its never ceasing generative power, God or Nature, the cause of itself, free, eternal, a being that cannot be thought not to exist.
Now consider yourself, a finite being, neither self-conceived nor self-sufficient, one of many things that come and go, a creature of nature; not a lasting thing, hence neither a substance, nor an attribute; merely a mode, a modification, a bundle affections or affectations, a passing fancy, soon to be gone without a trace. Yet with the aid of your intelligence, you are able to let yourself go, to abandon your attachment to a vanishing unsubstantial self and enter the infinite expanse of Being, never ending, eternal, all encompassing. Universes and worlds pass in review. Nations and empires rise and fall. Creatures are conceived, born, and die; here is a vast display of reality, tragic, comic, pathetic, or sublime, passing in review. If you ask, “What does it all mean?” you will receive no answer. But it is awesome, wonderful, the ultimate mystery, yet curiously welcoming.
Postscript: An English translation ofSpinoza’s “Ethics” by Edwin Curley is published by Penguin Books. It is affordable and fits easily in your hand, and, although not so easy to read, if you read it persistently, it will become a welcome companion. Ask at your local bookseller.

Share this story:

More News
US Probation Office Uncategorized

US Probation Office Request for Proposals

US Probation Office 2×1.5 062024 RFP

Middlebury American Legion Uncategorized

Middlebury American Legion Annual Meeting

Middlebury American Legion 062024 1×1.5 Annual Meeting

Sports Uncategorized

MAV girls’ lax nets two triumphs

The Mount Abraham-Vergennes cooperative girls’ lacrosse team moved over .500 with a pair o … (read more)

Share this story: