Spinoza’s Ethics: Introduction

[2000 words]

The Ethics is a book which was published in 1677.

It was written by Baruch (or Benedict) Spinoza.

His first name means “Blessed”.

His surname means “Thorny”, or, if you will, “spiky”, or even “prickly”.

In other words: he’s one of the most beautiful things to ever happen on this planet, but he nevertheless really seems to rub a lot of people the wrong way.

This is a book, whose first draft is this series of blog posts, in which I sum up his thought in an accessible and cheerful way.

In other words, I want to pluck out as many of the prickly thorns as I can, while leaving the blessedness as intact as possible.

I think it would be of benefit to a lot of people.

But before I start, I want to say a few things.

Here are the usual quotes you hear about him:

He is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.

Bertrand Russell

The fact is that Spinoza is made a testing-point in modern philosophy, so that it may really be said: You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by ‘instinct.’ Not only is his overtendency like mine—namely to make all knowledge the most powerful affect—but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself; this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil. Even though the divergencies are admittedly tremendous, they are due more to the difference in time, culture, and science. In summa: my lonesomeness, which, as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and make my blood rush out, is now at least a twosomeness. Strange!

Friedrich Nietzsche

He is the Prince of Philosophers.

Giles Deleuze

All those dudes are really, really big philosophers, from totally different ends of European thought.

And just get a load of what Albert Einstein had to say about him.

I am fascinated by Spinoza’s Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.

What do you think of Spinoza? For me he is the ideal example of the cosmic man. He worked as an obscure diamond cutter [actually, he was a glass cutter], disdaining fame and a place at the table of the great. He tells us the importance of understanding our emotions and suggests what causes them. Man will never be free until he is able to direct his emotions to think clearly. Only then can he control his environment and preserve his energy for creative work.

How much do I love that noble man
More than I could tell with words
I fear though he’ll remain alone
With a holy halo of his own.

So basically, it’s not just little ol’ me who thinks trying to get to grips with him might be a good idea.

And the funny thing is… what I think you’ll find, if you make it through this blog post series… is that you’re probably already a Spinozist too. You just hadn’t gotten round to reading him yet.

If you’re a contemporary “free thinker”… if you like science, but also think there’s more to the universe than the simplistic picture its adherents sometimes paint, but also don’t buy into any particular religious group… then you’re an inheritor of the tradition exemplified by Spinoza more than any other thinker in history.

Perhaps the primary association people have with Spinoza is that he is a Rationalist — someone who thinks we know things just by thinking them, through deduction. That’s opposed to an empiricist — someone who thinks we know things because of observation, through our senses.

In other words, we know things from the top-down, rather than the bottom-up.

This idea about Spinoza is not wrong.

However, it is also not the main point.

The title of the book is “the Ethics”.

In English, that’s: “How to live a good life”.

It is not entitled “Why Rationalism is better than Empiricism”. (Or “the Theology”, or “the Metaphysics”, or “the Philosophy of Mind”.)

So, in my opinion, the fact that he’s a rationalist is not the main thing, and I will be writing in light of that.

Funnily enough, he seems to agree with that assessment.

Finally, we see also that reasoning is not the principal thing in us, but only like a stairway, by which we can climb up to the desired place, or like a good spirit which without any falsity or deception brings tidings of the greatest good, to spur us thereby to seek it, and to unite with it in a union which is our greatest salvation and blessedness.

A Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being

Another big association people have with Spinoza is that he is very complicated.

I do not think this is true at all.

When you really think about it, what he’s saying is extremely simple.

Dealing with the consequences is, of course, a little more tricky.

But then, why does it all look so complicated?

Here’s my theory.

Well, first, an anecdote.

And then the theory.

And then another anecdote.

In January 2018, I wanted to write a blog post about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The first draft was 3000 words in total, divided into 3 sections.

However. When it came time to publish it online, I thought to myself:

Oh no. People are very touchy about these things. Almost as if… I dunno… it were a sacred religious text or something.

So I better make sure I cover my bases and anticipate every possible objection and set out the most solid possible foundation for it so that no one could fail to see my point.

And before I knew it, the first section had ballooned to 20,000 words.

And I realized that the second section, which was more important, would probably be 50,000. And then the third… would have probably been a million.


What’s the point of this story?

Basically, when you anticipate criticism, you find yourself working harder and harder to prove your point beyond all possible doubt… which, in turn, makes it harder and harder for people to understand it.

When you really boil it down, all he’s actually saying is “Guys… let’s all just get along.”

But then people were like “Oh yeah, Mr. Smarty-pants? How do you propose we do that?”

And he was like, “Well… how about we all learn to deal with our emotions first? And then, once we’ve calmed down, we get together and think clearly about what we want, and how best to get there? And then we can all collaborate, and proceed much more smoothly than if we didn’t coordinate at all?”

And they were like “Die after being tortured for a long time in the worst possible ways.”

And he was like:

Wooooaaah there. OK. I guess I’d better go and find a small room to live in, and live there alone, and work alone… all so I can prove it to you. That way, you can have no possible objections that this how we can all live our lives in peace and harmony.

What’s the most solid standard of proof?



Then what I’m gonna do is write a self-help book modelled after Euclid’s Elements.
[Basically the first maths textbook in the world, and the place we get geometry from.]

And then… as soon as I’m finished doing that…

I’ll quietly die alone and leave you guys to it.

That is basically what happened.

I’ll just come right out and say that I don’t know how many tears I have shed over this little movie I’ve just played in my head. But it’s really a lot. I mean, I’m crying right now, as I type this.

I’m not going to claim that this is altruistic. Crying about him has apparently been one of the main ways I found myself able to cry about myself. But it’s not just myself, though — it’s for everyone who ever suffered a similar fate.

Christians do this through Jesus. I’m not a Christian. I am, I suppose, a Secular Jew. Spinoza is often known as the first Secular Jew. So, it makes sense that I identify with him.

Main point, though, is that (…also like me) HE didn’t really identify as a Secular Jew. He identified as… well, we’ll get to the specifics in a bit. But the main thing is that his was a pretty universal vision. As universal as they get, to be honest. So he wrote the book for you exactly as much as he did for me.

Lastly, I’ll just say that, if you find anything I’ll be saying sounds weird… then, so long as you’re finding it remotely interesting, please just roll with it.

The Ethics is the most beautifully complete and intricately worked out book I have ever read. All those hyper-polished and immaculately plotted mystery novels and thrillers pale by comparison. It all hangs together like nothing else. Or, I suppose, like a chandelier in a Cathedral.

I am not exaggerating one bit when I say that reading it and thinking it through has been one of the most absolutely beautiful experiences of my life.

You read the first two parts, and it’s like “Woah. Huh? Woah. Wait. What? Woah. Woah.” At some point during this process, most people go, “Wait, no — I’m getting confused. Where is this all going, anyway? Don’t I have better things to do?” And then they stop.

I was personally pretty much sold from Page 1, Line 1. But it is true that it can be a bit hard going at first.

As soon as you get to Part 3, though… my God, guys.

If Parts 1 and 2 are like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill, then Parts 3, 4, and 5 is like watching the boulder finally crest the summit and rumble down the other side, sending an army of bowling pins flying as it goes.

In this analogy, the bowling pins are “things about your life that had confused you but now suddenly make so much sense.”

It’s just like….. BAM……..BAM……BAM…BAM..BAM.BAM.BAM.BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAMBAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM oh my God I better put this down why do people ever go to a boxing gym if they wanted to get hit in the head a bunch of times they should just have read this.

Or, to let him make this point in his own words:

To bring all this to an end, it remains only for me to say to the friends to whom I write this: do not be surprised at these novelties, for you know very well that it is no obstacle to the truth of a thing that it is not accepted by many.

And as you are also aware of the character of the age in which we live, I would ask you urgently to be very careful about communicating these things to others. I do not mean that you should keep them altogether to yourselves, but only that if you ever begin to communicate them to someone, you should have no other aim or motive than the salvation of your fellow man, and make as sure as possible that you will not work in vain.

Finally, if in reading through this you encounter any difficulty regarding what I maintain as certain, I ask you not to hasten, on that account, immediately to refute it before you have given enough time and reflection to meditating on it. If you do this, I feel sure you will attain the enjoyment of the fruits you promise yourselves from this tree.

A Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being

So, if any of this sounds interesting to you… click here to start with PART I: OF GOD.

[A quick note on translations.
I’ve read the Edwin Curley and Samuel Shirley ones — which are the two best into English, as far as I can tell.
The Curley one is more eloquent, and the Shirley one is more careful and precise.
You should probably choose the Shirley one.
…I’m going to be quoting largely from the Curley one.

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