Magic Moments

Baruch here. I’ve almost finished the Ethics. It hasn’t all been plain sailing: trips to Zurich on business, the Bernese Oberland for fun, and now the USA, have all intervened. Work has been unbelievably annoying. But I have been very good, very diligent. I read the Ethics in restaurants, in cafes, and of course on the bog, all the time scribbling notes in the margins as has recently become my wont.

It is of course a fantastic set of ideas. I have been astonished often, and do not regret in any way hitching my blog to Spinoza.

Some thoughts in no particular order:

1. Reading about Spinozism in advance, in Nadler, Stewart and of course that hottie Goldstein, has been a great help in getting through the more obtusely written passages with a sufficient head of steam to be able to carry on.

2. I am struck again and again how thoroughly modern it all is. And then I think that this has all been conceived and written in the 1650, 1660s and 1670s, and think about the state of knowledge of science, of economics, of psychology, of literary criticism, of political forms of the time. I am never one to underestimate the intellectual sophistication of our forebears, after all, there is very little that is new under the sun. Then what is this but an anticipation of the core message of Adam Smith 100 years later:

IVP35Cor2: When man seeks most his own advantage for himself, then men are most useful to one another. . . For the more each seeks his own advantage , and strives to preserve himself, the more he is endowed with virtue. . . But most men agree in nature, when they live according to the guidance of reason (by P35). Therefore, men will be most useful to one another when each one seeks his own advantage, q.e.d.

Or how about this one:

IVP24: Acting absolutely from virtue is nothing else in us but acting, living, and preserving our being (these three signify the same thing) by the guidance of reason, from the foundation of seeking one’s own advantage

Which the same thing as saying we should seek life and the liberty to reason freely, in the pursuit of happiness. Truly: I am lumping in a possibly egregious way, and I am certainly committing a grave sin of using my imagination excessively, but I can see now how very seminal Spinoza’s writings are. Following these precepts in politics and economics has led humankind to some of its greatest achievements, not least of which are the free, science-oriented societies in the US and Europe where millions live in a way which could only be described as magical splendour were a time traveller from Spinoza’s time ever to be able to witness it.

3. That said, I have a few problems with it all. In particular the concept of “adequate knowledge”, the Good type, distinct from “random experience” and “opinion or imagination”, which are both Bad, I find too immaculate to be immediately useful in many contexts. It is in conflict with my Hayekian and Popperian scepticism concerning the limits of knowledge in the face of complexity. Practically speaking there are many decisions that need to be taken where “adequate” knowledge is impossible to achieve: I know this is true in my own job, betting on outcomes in stocks run by lying or incompetent management teams, shilled by banks and brokers with their own nefarious agendas. Here adequate knowledge is impossible to achieve, and in many other forms of endeavour the same is true.

Certainly it is so where it comes to organising ourselves, to my mind. In addition to being the philosopher of the free society, by insisting on the need for “adequate knowledge” in the pursuit of virtue, Spinoza leaves the door open to some unpleasant, rather Platonist outcomes, many of which came to pass in the last century. In his own conclusions of course, he is very clear on the need for tolerance and liberty to use reason as one sees fit. But in his apparent faith in our ability to achieve its pure use free of the passions, coupled with his mild elitism, there are some darkish edges.

I forgive him this. In his lifetime and the recent history of his time, he had only seen the effects of unbridled religous and dynastic authority on his countrymen, never the effects of unbridled “applied reason” as we have seen in our time. He might never have understood how powerful the current leviathan of the state could become, and how easily men conceiving of “adequate reason” to follow certain ends, could use it for very evil purposes.

Anyway I have to go to the shopping mall now. More later.