Courtier 0, Heretic 1

Dear Baruch,

I have just finished The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart, a book I first heard about in that dialogue with Rebecca Goldstein you flagged a few weeks ago.

The book is very good, and I recommend it. There are, of course, quibbles: He translates the anecdote about the placard onto which Spinoza is said to have written “ultimi barbarorum” as meaning “the last of the barbarians”. This is completely nonsensical — these weren’t Mohicans Spinoza was dealing with, nor were the de Witts the barbarians in question.

He is also openly speculative at many points throughout the book, in part because primary sources are so scarce, but also because all the ingredients for good historical fiction are in place — and it sure is tempting to reïmagine the dialogue between Leibniz and Spinoza — even Goldstein has a go in the interview. I’m surprised there isn’t a Hollywood treatment of this.

Leibniz comes out of this rather badly, of course. What a vain intellectual dilettante! And above all, a compulsive liar, in stark contrast with Spinoza, whose entire life seems to have revolved around telling people the truth as he saw it, consequences be damned. Stewart’s thesis, in part, is that when Spinoza and Leibniz met, Spinoza must have given the German a dose of psychoanalysis he wasn’t at all ready to hear.

Leibniz saw in Spinoza’s version of God the downfall of civilization, should it gain currency. The only problem, according to Stewart: Leibniz was too smart not to see the genius of Spinoza’s ideas, and thus, a Salieri to Spinoza’s Mozart, he spent an inordinate amount of time constructing a highly unlikely and rickety facade as an alternative to Spinoza’s world view — involving monads, little miniscule particles in which souls can reside and which make up our bodies. It reminds me a lot of Scientology’s thetans avant la lettre, but it was supposed to salvage Christianity from Spinoza’s methodical scepticism.

As a bonus, in the last chapter Stewart takes the 10-mile-up view of the history of philosophy since Spinoza and Leibniz, and makes a compelling case that Kant’s taxonomy of philosophers, that of rationalists vs. empiricists, is bunk, despite the fact that it remains the orthodox way of teaching philosophy at universities today. Spinoza’s world was one where what you see is what you get, and one that is above all knowable through investigation — ergo, he was also an empiricist.

Stewart also mentions that Friedrich Nietzsche was among the philosophers that publicly derided Spinoza (along with Locke and Hume). A quick trawl through the publicly available Nietzsche resources on the web shows that Stewart is right; plenty of snide asides. Here is one example from Beyond Good and Evil:

198. All the systems of morals which address themselves with a view to their “happiness,” as it is called–what else are they but suggestions for behaviour adapted to the degree of DANGER from themselves in which the individuals live; recipes for their passions, their good and bad propensities, insofar as such have the Will to Power and would like to play the master; small and great expediencies and elaborations, permeated with the musty odour of old family medicines and old-wife wisdom; all of them grotesque and absurd in their form–because they address themselves to “all,” because they generalize where generalization is not authorized; all of them speaking unconditionally, and taking themselves unconditionally; all of them flavoured not merely with one grain of salt, but rather endurable only, and sometimes even seductive, when they are over-spiced and begin to smell dangerously, especially of “the other world.” That is all of little value when estimated intellectually, and is far from being “science,” much less “wisdom”; but, repeated once more, and three times repeated, it is expediency, expediency, expediency, mixed with stupidity, stupidity, stupidity–whether it be the indifference and statuesque coldness towards the heated folly of the emotions, which the Stoics advised and fostered; or the no- more-laughing and no-more-weeping of Spinoza, the destruction of the emotions by their analysis and vivisection, which he recommended so naively; or the lowering of the emotions to an innocent mean at which they may be satisfied, the Aristotelianism of morals; or even morality as the enjoyment of the emotions in a voluntary attenuation and spiritualization by the symbolism of art, perhaps as music, or as love of God, and of mankind for God’s sake–for in religion the passions are once more enfranchised, provided that . . . ; or, finally, even the complaisant and wanton surrender to the emotions, as has been taught by Hafis and Goethe, the bold letting-go of the reins, the spiritual and corporeal licentia morum in the exceptional cases of wise old codgers and drunkards, with whom it “no longer has much danger.” –This also for the chapter: “Morals as Timidity.”

In Nietzsche’s defense, he seems to have publicly derided everyone he ever read, so I’m not going to take it personally on this occasion. (Goldstein also touches upon Nietzsche’s view of Spinoza in the article linked to above.)


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.

Blogging the Ethics

So I, Baruch, have progressed from reading about Spinoza to actually reading Spinoza himself. My dear colleague Bento is no doubt gnashing his teeth; too busy sampling the fleshpots of Cairo, he is still probably reading the Cliff Notes (sorry apparently we are supposed to say Cliffsnotes) to Philosophy for Dummies. Now I have surpassed him in my Spinozan studies. I am the master now.

I am also, for the first time, scribbling thoughts and impressions in the margin of a book I’m reading. It makes me look more intellectual in cafés for sure, but I am also finding it helps me very much to keep track of the complex train of thoughts that make up the Ethics.

I also thought the Euclidean geometric format would be hard, with its Definitions, Axioms, Postulates, Demonstrations, Corollaries, and Scholia. In fact I quite like it, it is all nicely organised, and it makes reading what would have been a difficult book even in modern prose and paragraphs much easier. You don’t need to follow every argument in its entirety to understand the conclusions of each Part. The argument folds back in on itself a lot; you see each major point from a number of perspectives, you understand things you previously missed.

So I was initially quite impressed with my ability to understand and follow Part I, Of God. By his lights Spinoza makes the case for a unitary substance we can call God or Nature, but it is not a loving god, rather a largely indifferent one, and one without a “will” insofar as we know it. And god is definitely an “It” even if Spinoza doesn’t make the point himself.

I am now through with Part II, Of the Mind. This was heavier sledding, but I am pretty much OK with the end product, viz A. Our job is to “understand God”, B. we should “bear ourselves concerning matters of fortune” with equanimity and calm, C. social life should be based on respect, we should be as self contained as possible, and D. as such respect for the individual should be the prime value of government.

Part III Of The Affects is just starting, and I am 100% motivated. No problems so far. Go Baruch!

When philosophers meet. Sort of.

Baruch writes: I have been away, thus the lack of posting. Here’s a little gem, Rebecca Goldstein of the wonderful and moving Betraying Spinoza dramatises Leibniz and Spinoza’s rendévous in 1675.

 Warning: some vaguely annoying intellectual posing and name-dropping, mostly from the blogaviewer, has to be endured to get to the interesting stuff from Goldstein. There is a part 1 and part 3 of the blogalogue, accessible from the link.

 This I like particularly:

He is sitting in a sparsely furnished room, although it does contain the large four-poster bed that he had inherited from his parents, as well as a simple wooden chair and table, where he is seated. His long silken black wavy hair partially obscures his face as he leans over the table, quietly scribbling with a quill. He will remain there the entire time, intent at his writing, as ushers continue to show the audience to their seats.

The audience members will either discover his silent presence for themselves, or be directed by the bemused gesturing of their neighbors to the figure on the stage. Eventually, it is to be hoped, all of them, even the most distracted, will become aware of him and be swathed in the hush of anticipation as well, most importantly, of confusion.

Thus, even before a word of dialogue is spoken, the audience will be entangled in theatrical-ontological uncertainty, each onlooker forced to consider for himself the fundamental metaphysics of the situation: is the play in progress or is it not? And if it is not, at what point will it be? And if it is, then was it even before there was anyone there in the theatre to see it?

At some point, Benedictus Spinoza will look up, pushing away his luxurious locks from his brow and squinting out at the audience. He will pick up one of the lenses that lies, quite naturally, near to hand, and place it before his eye, studying the audience for a long uncomfortable time, provoking uneasy laughter, at which noise he will scowl. This can be drawn out for as long as it remains funny, which may amount to absolutely no time at all.

I didn’t know Goldstein and Steven Pinker get it on. Bento, did you? Also odd she seems to be a bit down on Matthew Stewart, but maybe that is just a bit of Spinozan scholar backroom back-biting. No doubt they’ll both start on us soon.