Monday, 19 March 2012 07:35

Baruch Spinoza: Men of Ideas

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Baruch Spinoza (1732-1677 was a Dutch Jewish mathematician and philosopher. Baruch’s ancestors were kicked out of Portugal and eventually settled in Holland. They were kicked out because of their Judaism and they held fast to that religion.

Baruch was offered the usual Jewish education but at some point declared himself not a believer in the Judeo-Christian personal God. Fearing that the Christians, among whom they lived, would not take kindly to this rejection of their personal God, the Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated Baruch and sent him packing from their community. Apparently, the Jews were grateful to the Dutch Christian community for allowing them be and practice their religion in their country and did not want to alienate them and be asked to leave, as they were asked to leave Portugal. They found it easier to disown one of their own than to alienate the Dutch community.

It is amazing what folk do in their efforts to please God and his worshippers. Belief in God is one of the greatest sources of human evil.

Baruch left and became an eye glass polisher, an optician of sorts and in his spare time wrote books on geometry and philosophy.

Baruch was a rationalist who tried to employ the human capacity for reason to understand the world he lived in. In this sense he contributed to the development of the French enlightenment, if by that we mean a decision to approach phenomena from a rational perspective rather than from a religious one. Spinoza wrote many books but he is chiefly remembered for his magnum opus, Ethics.

Spinoza did not really reject the idea of God; he rejected the Christian idea of a personal God. Instead of that God he posited an impersonal force that he called substance. That substance manifests in all things on earth; it manifests in people, animals, trees, the wind, rocks, in everything. That force gives order to the seeming chaos of the natural world.

Substance and nature, however, are not dual forces, as in Descartes dualism; instead, substance and nature, soul and matter are intertwined. As it were, nature contains substance and substance contains nature, they are not different forces, but a unified force. One reality, substance, operates in nature and in man. God and nature are the same; they are part of one substance.

Regarding human free will Spinoza could not see it. Human beings do what their nature disposes them to do. Yet they are capable of behaving virtuously. Indeed, Spinoza coined the phrase: virtue is its own reward.

If all there is, is part of substance then the idea of good and evil become superfluous. Nature operates impersonally; there is no good and evil; what human beings consider good or evil is relative to what is good for them or not but to nature such differentiation does not make any sense.

Consider that the same volcano that spilled out lava that destroyed human beings also altered the soil and makes it richer for future farmers to plant crops on and harvest plentiful crops. Nature does not obey the categories of what is good or bad for human beings but its own categories. Somehow, however, nature works out in a manner that serves human interests.

As Spinoza sees it, despite human beings apparent evil behaviors they are really not evil, they are behaving as part of natural forces and their good or bad is part of nature hence not good or bad but just nature at work. Ultimately, human behavior is neither good nor bad; human behavior is part of nature’s impersonal behavior, neither good nor bad.

Spinoza’s ideas on nature and morality, as can be readily seen, could be put to dangerous purposes. If everything done is part of nature it follows that if the state, say, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi state, chooses to kill folk that is merely the workings of nature.

Spinoza also justified human beings employing animals for their good, for in nature animals eat animals. This sort of approach to animals has led to wholesome slaughter of animals and employment of animals in life experimentations regardless of the pain inflicted on them.

Spinoza was accused of being a pantheist. Pantheism is difficult to explain. Perhaps, Pantheism means god operating through nature and is part of nature? If so, how is this different from materialism?  Spinoza was accused of materialism by no other than Leibniz.

I am not sure that Spinoza would characterize himself as a pantheist or materialist. I am supposing that what he set out to accomplish was to show that there is nature and that a seeming rational but impersonal force operates in nature, a force that seems to give order to what would have been chaotic nature. He seems to be saying that that force does not pay particular attention to human needs, not in the immediate, anyway, and that that force works out for the good of man albeit in the long run.

In Spinoza’s view, nature is perfect as it is (this echoes Leibniz’s perfect world, but a world created by God…Leibniz had visited Spinoza and probably borrowed a bit from him).

In so far that we see nature as imperfect it is because we look at it from what, in our shortsightedness, we consider our self interest. But in the long run nature’s working is in our best interests even if we do not know it.

Nature is perfect as it is. Nature is to be accepted as it without judging it as good or bad or wishing it to be different to serve supposed human interests. This is stoicism at work.

Spinoza was really a stoic thinker; one suspects that he was a depressed person trying to reconcile himself to nature’s ugly realities.

Spinoza’s views leads to a non-judgmental approach to nature, to accepting whatever nature dishes out to human beings as natural and fine. This is not the philosophy of optimism but the philosophy of pessimism, the thinking of a depressed human being. Clearly, human beings must act from their self interests’ perspective and if nature causes them diseases must work to understand and heal those diseases.

Spinoza’s philosophy is the philosophy of a defeated spirit trying to accommodate himself to what he called reality.

A heroic spirit, as Nietzsche pointed out in will to power, fights reality and makes it serve his interests, even if in the long run reality defeats him (he dies).

Spinoza’s philosophy is not the philosophy for heroic souls but for slaves adapting to the ugly reality that is nature and society; nature and society are not to be adapted to but to be changed, to be made friendly to human needs.


Baruch Spinoza. Ethics. (1677)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176