I have decided to try something here. Rather than writing a huge ream of notes for all of the chapters in one lump, which would make for a long read (though this one is longer than I intended), I’m going to post one chapter at a time. So here’s Spinoza, who was neither a dog, nor an ice cream.
Russell begins by stating that Baruch Spinoza was the most ethical of the great philosophers, but was intellectually inferior to many of them. Russell’s reasoning for this is one thing that needs to be explored. He was born in Amsterdam and was around eighteen when Descartes died. Spinoza only lived until the age of forty-three; Russell gives the cause of death as phthisis, which is a rather archaic name for tuberculosis.
It is interesting to note that he was accused of being an atheist, even though “his whole philosophy is dominated by God” (p.521). It seems as though this is because his faith wasn’t enough, and so he was shunned for not practicing religion in the orthodox way.
Russell recommends that before discussing his major work, Ethics, we look at two of his other books, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Theologico-Political Treatise) and Tractatus Politicus (Political Treatise), in order to understand some of the beliefs and ideas around which Ethics was written. I first thought the books were the reason for him becoming unpopular, but I found a website chronicling the events of his life which says he was accused of heresy before he published anything, so it may have simply been due to Spinoza vocalising his views. Russell notes that Spinoza’s political theory is rather like that of Hobbes.
These books expressed much opposition to the content of the Bible and the Torah. Russell says “He endeavours throughout to show that the Scriptures can be interpreted so as to be compatible with a liberal theology.” (p.522) This is important as it rather reflects the role of Christianity today. The Bible, for instance, contains a lot of advice that would be unacceptable in the Western World of the 21st Century, and so in most cases religious teachings are adjusted to suit the changing world.
Some key points on page 522 include the idea that “in a state of nature, there is no right or wrong.” At first, it seems as though he is simply saying that morals are a fabrication of man, but there is more to it than that, which we shall see shortly. Russell also notes that he was a secularist and that the sovereign can do no wrong; this is a clear link to Hobbes. Spinoza also placed much importance on freedom of opinion, and it was this opinion that made him so unpopular.
“He accepted from Descartes and his contemporaries a materialistic and deterministic physics, and sought, within this framework, to find room for reverence and a life devoted to the Good.” (p.522) This quote gives the impression that Spinoza was a man who was fascinated by science believing it to be so important that he had to find a way of reconciling it with his faith. It could be suggested that this was the reason for his efforts in this area; to find some way of allowing his two loves to co-exist.
Spinoza believed that God is everything. This should not to be confused with the idea of omnipresence (God is everywhere). He taught that the Earth, space and even peoples’ thoughts and feelings were attributes of God. This is called pantheism. This would mean that there is no free will and no good or bad. The churches took issue with this, as if the idea took hold it meant people could no longer be called sinners and be threatened with damnation, everything is part of a whole and that no one was in control of their actions. He also said that, presumably due to this ‘single substance’ theory, people didn’t need to try to know or understand God. After all, all knowledge and considerations are those of God.
Spinoza believed that self-preservation is our most fundamental driving force, an idea upon which Abraham Maslow built his Hierarchy of Needs model in 1943. “No can be conceived as prior to this endeavour to preserve one’s own being.” (p.524) But he went on to say that fear of death is senseless (as everything is pre-determined, more on that later), and so this self preservation is simply one of the passions which clouds the truth. A passion, he said, is an emotion which has sprung from an inadequate idea (p.524).
One of Spinoza’s more interesting ideas is that time is unreal (p.525), and therefore thinking about the future is as nonsensical as thinking about the past, as you can’t influence one any more than the other. He also said that ‘the knowledge of evil is an inadequate knowledge’ (p.525). By this, he meant that if you know evil, then that is more than nothing, but it is not the whole picture; evil is simply another part of the universe, which is God. On the same page, Russell says that Spinoza was attempting to free people from fear, that if they accepted the universe, including themselves, to be part of a single entity with no past or future, there could be nothing to be afraid of. Once someone accepts this to be true, they are free.
He held that loving God must always be in the front of our minds (p.526), after all, we are a part of God. We do this by understanding ourselves and our emotions (not passions). In addition to this, he pointed out that God cannot love us back. He said that unhappiness stems from loving things which are variable, which is difficult to argue against. If you love God, who is eternal, you could never lose the object of your love or have it taken from you.
Russell closes by enthusiastically debunking Spinoza’s claims or refusing to accept them. This brings us back to his opening: Russell thought that the arguments and theories themselves were deeply flawed, but the results from them, if they were accepted, would be largely positive. Living nobly, free from fear and doubt and anger without resorting measures such as those suggested by Hobbes. He ends the chapter by saying: “Such reflections may not suffice to constitute a religion, but in a painful world they are a help towards sanity and an antidote to the paralysis of despair”