Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review: Benedict de Spinoza-Ethics

Benedict de Spinoza was a Dutch Philosopher of Jewish descent. He spent a great deal of time reading ancient philosophy, Descartes, and Hobbs. He supported himself through grinding lenses and spent every free moment he could reading, theorizing, and writing. He so desired to maintain his intellectual independence that he turned down a regular job to work as a teacher at Heidelberg. His intellectual independence led him to some amazing theoretical discoveries that influenced philosophy, psychology, democracy, law and ethics. His two greatest works were Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demostrata. 

In his work The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus  he provided a strong critique of the militant nature of Holland's ruling House of Orange. He also advocated tolerance of religions. He believed that religions could live peacefully with each other if they rose above their petty ideological debates. The problem is that people become narrowly defined by their ideologies and do not quite understand the similarities between all of these religions. 

Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (Ethics) (1677) is modeled after Euclid’s Elements. The work entails a deduction of each ethical proposition that builds off of each other to create a methodology. They all lead back to a few axioms. The entire work is completed much like a geometric mathematical formula. He seeks an elemental approach to understanding life and the nature of existence. The work proposes a number of axioms and then provides the proofs associated with them in a list type book format. 

 His main arguments are that rationality is the highest form of freedom, all human beings live by the laws of nature, and society should enhance freedom of thought. God and nature are tied together and very much the same. All reality can be defined by mathematical principles and methods of deduction. The more we know about our world the more we know about ourselves. Pure rationality is considered perfection and this cannot happen unless one is God. More knowledge leads to higher levels of awareness. Of interest in Spinoza’s work is that all concepts and aspects of life can be deducted down to elemental principles. Furthermore, the entire universe can be represented by a formula or other method of mathematical equation. 

Certainly if we bounce around in science a little we can find a formula for a great many things. It makes one wonder that if we were to connect all formulas together through if and then statements would we come to untie the world knot. If everything could be predicted by developing accurate formulas for human nature and then connecting them into the longest formula the world has ever seen would we know everything? Perhaps no one’s brain could be so large as to complete this task. I guess that would put us above nature.  Of course you would still have the problem of an infinite space which means it would be impossible to know everything because everything is always expanding. You would need to be faster than that expansion. 

If anything I guess we should learn not to make assumptions without first looking around at the whys and why nots of any situation. If you haven’t done this analysis then you are likely limited by a number of poor assumptions. For a great majority of us to be wrong would be impossible-so we think. You can find additional explanation in each of the sections of Spinoza’s work on Ethics.

I: Of God:
The first part of the book discusses the nature of God or Ethics of God. Of particular interest in this section is the concept that God is infinite because if God was not he would be limited in power by another being of similar power. He discusses God and nature as being the same. All laws of nature are inherent part of God and we are determined by these laws. Each and everything within the world fits within this nature, is ruled by it, and is defined by it. That understanding the laws of nature may help a person better understand God. Humans are not above nature but deeply embedded within it and therefore limited by their perspective. 

Proof 13: A substance which is absolutely infinite is indivisible.
II: Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind:
The second section is often debated today as heavily as it was in the past. To Spinoza the mind has an idea of the body and there is no separation between mind and body. The very nature of thinking is related to having a concept of one’s body and objects in the world. Perhaps this is a concept related to self-reflection. If we do not think about ourselves then we are not conscious that we exist. It is a little like Descarte’s “I think therefore I am”. Our minds are part of nature and reflections of that nature. How we think of ideas and concepts, are representations of objects in the world and seem to be part of larger collective connection of thoughts related to understanding nature/reality. Intuition is seen as the highest form of knowledge while opinions are full of fallacies.

Proof 7: The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.

III: Of the Origin and Nature of the Effects:
Spinoza in this section basically sets up psychological theory. As nature is run by laws and rules so too his human nature and should not be separate from nature. The affects of passion and actions are part of nature. Morality is about understanding one’s nature and how it works within the natural environment. He appears to create an argument for the subjectivity of one’s environment and how this influences passions and in turn behavior. It is those thoughts and how we make meaning that lead to certain decisions and choices that influence our behaviors.

Proof 1: Our mind does certain things (acts) and undergoes other things, namely, insofar as it has adequate ideas, it necessarily does certain things, and insofar as it has inadequate ideas, it necessarily undergoes other things

IV: Of Human Bondage, or the Powers of the Affects:
In this section Spinoza talks more about the bondage of mind and emotion and the ability to create true freedom for oneself. This freedom can only come when we are able to act in any way we choose (baring immoral acts). The environment doesn’t force us to act but we act because we deem it within ourselves. He discusses the nature of false freedom whereby we are controlled by our environment and its forces and believe we are acting with a level of free will. The power to create freedom is difficult as we are most comfortable thinking only of ourselves and our own needs…which means we are not free. True freedom and goodness requires us to think of those things made of joy and positive affectivity because their affects are more powerful than those which are negative. It is a problem of limited perspective, lack of emotional intelligence, and the ability to critically think about ourselves or the world.  
Proof 18: A desire which arises from joy is stronger, other things equal, than one which arises from sadness.

V: Of the power of the Intellect, or on Human Freedom:
The last chapter is stronger than the first four. Spinoza appears to make an argument that freedom is built upon knowledge and rational thought. That a person cannot be free unless they understand themselves, nature, rational thought, emotions, and even the institutions in which they exist. He suggests democracy as the highest form of governmental freedom when and if that democracy supports the protection of people from abuse and allows for positive societal action. Democracy should support trust, individual freedoms, balance of civic interests, and rational patterns of behavior. 

Proof 6: Insofar as the mind understands all things as necessary, it has a greater power over the affects, or is less acted on by them.
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Pages: 180
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