Love Naturally


Thank you everyone who came to my Coffeehouse discussion on Spinoza last Monday at Rosslyn Hill Chapel. I was really challenged by the questions, and impressed by the engagement with the ideas of a sometimes difficult philosopher who lived over three hundred years ago.

Something I always try to do is to persuade people that, despite appearances to the contrary, Spinoza was not a simple pantheist, someone who reduces God with the totality of Natural entities, or the universe conceived materially. I quoted this passage from Spinoza’s letter to Oldenburg:

All things I say are in God and move in God, and this I affirm together with Paul and perhaps together with all ancient philosophers, though expressed in a different way, and I would even venture to say, together with all the ancient Hebrews, as far as may be conjectured from certain traditions, though these may have suffered much corruption. As to the view of certain people that the Theological-Political Treatise rests on the identification of God with Nature (by the latter of which they understand a kind of mass of corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken (Letter 73 to Henry Oldenburg, 1675?).

Spinoza’s reference to Paul is to Acts 17:28: “…though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ as even some of your own poets have said.”

This close relation is echoed in a passage from the First Letter of John (4:13) which Spinoza quotes on the title page of his Theological-Political Treatise:

By this we know that we remain in God and that God remains in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

Someone asked whether Spinoza’s conception God was really just the same thing as Nature, at least Nature more broadly conceived. This could be encapsulated in the expression deus sive natura, “God or Nature” used in the Ethics, Preface to Part Four.

The problem I think  is that unpacking Spinoza’s concept of Nature is just as hard as understanding his definition of God. He draws a distinction, based on medieval scholastic terminology between the active, creative power of Natura naturans (“Nature naturing”) and Natura Naturata (“Nature natured”), the passive, created aspect. The first he identifies with God and His attributes, the second with the finite modes – the individual beings that make up the world. This second aspect seems to correspond with our contemporary use of the word Nature, but while the modes (finite objects and ideas) depend on God for their existence, they do not completely constitute God. But how should we understand the relation between the two?

A clue to the resolution of this might be found in the medieval Jewish compilation, the Yalkut Shimoni (Gathering of Simon):

Why do we use a pseudonym and call the Holy One ‘place’ (makom)? Because He is the place of the world and the world is not His place. (Remez 117).

Spinoza’s God contains the world but is not a being in the world – or merely the world itself. Nature is entirely in God, caused by God and can only be understood through the concept of God. However as God acts from the “necessity of His own being” in causing the world, then God cannot exist without Nature also existing, any more than Nature can exist without God. This intimate connection, a kind of sameness perhaps, between two seemingly distinct concepts is a key motif in Spinoza. Perhaps just as he asserts the identity of, as well as the explanatory disconnection between, mind and body, he also understands that there is both identity and difference between God and Nature.

Perhaps what really matters is that we, as finite beings, reflect on and recognise how we participate in God, particularly in God’s infinite love, and live our lives accordingly. Spinoza’s notion of the “infinite love of God” encapsulates not just God’s love of Himself and of human beings, but our love of God.

 As the previous verses in John’s letter urge:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (I John 4:11-12).

The Idea of the Body: Spinoza on Mind and Emotion


Ethics IIP13

This is an edited version of a talk I gave at Pinner Philosophy Group on 14 May 2018

Here, in the first part of the 21st century, we all seem to be suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, the philosopher of mind David Papineu has declared, ‘We are all physicalists now’.[1] Only a minority of philosophers – and perhaps no natural scientists – endorse substance dualism: the view that mind and body are distinct substances, or completely different types of stuff. It seems that we all subscribe to a form of monism, holding that there is only one substance or type of substance, just one single reality.

Or do we? Edwin Curely has suggested that Cartesian dualism is ‘educated common sense’[2] – simply the way that adults in our culture conceive of the world in terms of the mental and the physical.

In 2006, in a tragic turn of events, a British man, John Hogan pushed his two children from a balcony in Crete and then jumped after them, following an argument with his wife. Hogan and one of the two children survived, but his six-year-old son sadly did not. Joannis Nestoros, a professor of psychiatry from the University of Crete, conducted a series of interviews with Hogan (who was later found not-guilty of murder on grounds of insanity). He said, ‘The situation will not reoccur, the only possibility is self-harm and suicide because of the guilt. His body did this, not his brain – he wasn’t himself that night.’[3]


Framing the mind-body problem

On the 16 May 1643, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia began a lengthy correspondence with Descartes. In her first letter, she raised a problem with his ‘real distinction’ between mind and body, which Descartes held to be different substances:

So I ask you please to tell me how the soul of a human being (it being only a thinking substance) can determine the bodily spirits, in order to bring about voluntary actions. For it seems that all determination of movement happens through the impulsion of the thing moved, by the manner in which it is pushed by that which moves it, or else by the particular qualities and shape of the surfaces of the latter. Physical contact is required for the first two conditions, extension for the third. You entirely exclude the one [extension] from the notion you have of the soul, and the other [physical contact] appears to me incompatible with an immaterial thing.[4]

Descartes’ attempt to explain how such mind-body interaction could take place, eventuated in his Passions of the Soul where he claimed that the mode of interaction could be explained through the operations of the pineal gland, which he designated the ‘principle seat of the soul’.

[T]he machine of the body is so composed that, merely because this gland is moved diversely by the soul or any other cause there may be, it drives the spirits that surround it toward the brain’s pores, which guide [the spirits] through the nerves into the muscles, by means of which it makes them move the members.[5]

Like Elisabeth, Spinoza failed to see how it could be possible that a thinking substance, a mind, could interact with the extended or physical substance, the body. Descartes’ putative solution, which Spinoza called ‘a hypothesis more occult than any occult quality’, cuts little ice:

Again, I should like very much to know how many degrees of motion the mind can give to that pineal gland, and how great a force is required to hold it in suspense. For I do not know whether this gland is driven about more slowly by the mind than by the animal spirits, or more quickly […] And, of course, since there is no common measure between the will and motion, there is also no comparison between the power, or forces, of the mind and those of the body. Consequently, the forces of the body cannot in any way be determined by those of the mind (V Preface).


A monist solution

According to Spinoza’s version of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), everything must have a cause.

For each thing there must be assigned a cause, or reason, both for its existence and for its nonexistence (IP11D).

It is important to note that the ‘cause’ and ‘reason’ are not distinguished here but conflated as terms which are almost equivalent. Because attributes can only be conceived through themselves, it follows that each mode can only be explained under one attribute (IIP6). Putting this together with the PSR, it follows that each mode will form part of a causal chain of modes of the same attribute.

Spinoza gives very little space to arguing for the parallel relation between modes of extension and modes of thought, boldly asserting that it follows clearly from IA4, the axiom which states:

The knowledge of an effect depends on, and involves, the knowledge of its cause.

However, perhaps we can fill in the gaps. Let us say the relata of an instance of a cause and an effect to be two modes of extension E1 and E2 respectively. Now, according to IIP3, there is an idea in God of everything that follows from his essence. Therefore there must be ideas, modes of thought that correspond to E1 and E2. We can call these T1 and T2 respectively. Given the explanatory dependence asserted in IA4 (‘The knowledge of an effect depends on the knowledge of its cause’), the knowledge of the thing E2, that is to say the idea T2, depends on the knowledge of E1, which is to say the idea T1. So we arrive at a correspondence relation between modes of extension and modes of thought.

As each effect is itself a cause, the chains continue ad infinitum:

… → T1 → T2 T3

… → E1 E2E3

Of course the relations of cause and effect might involve one cause with several effects and vice versa, creating a network of causal nodes. But what is important is that the network of ideas is isomorphic with the network of things: there are two corresponding systems with a one-to-one relation between modes of extension and modes of thought mapping causal and explanatory chains in one onto causal and explanatory chains in the other. [6]

Spinoza states this succinctly:

The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things (IIP7).

This central proposition expresses a theory often referred to as Spinoza’s parallelism, a term which conjures up the image of two distinct rails, which always follow one another but never meet. In one way this image is helpful, as Spinoza rules out interaction between modes of different attributes as I shall later explain. However there is another equally important sense in which it is misleading. From the premise that there is only one substance, comprehended sometimes under one attribute and at other times under another attribute, Spinoza holds that similarly, ‘a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways’ (IIP7S).

So what we have now is not two entities running on parallel rails. Rather we might think of a single causal/logical chain of interacting bodies/ideas, perhaps more like a monorail, a single process that can be viewed from different sides, in different ways, manifesting itself to us under two different attributes (mind and extension). The view that an object (or ‘formal’ being) is identical to the idea (or ‘objective’ being) that represents it is grounded in the medieval scholastic conception of ideas as having what they called esse intentionale. This is a form of being that objects have in thought, so that an idea and its object have, as Lloyd suggests, ‘a kind of sameness’.[7] Spinoza gives an example of a circle that exists in nature and the idea of the circle (IIP7S). Both are in God or Nature and are identical to each other. The difference only pertains insofar as they are conceived either under the attribute of extension or the attribute of thought.


The identity of mind and body

Spinoza now applies his conception to the relationship between the human mind and the human body. The human mind is a finite idea, and one that must have as its object an existing finite thing (IIP11).

Spinoza’s argument rests on two axioms – claims for which he does not argue, taking them to be self-evident:

We feel that a certain body is affected in many ways. (IIA4)

We neither feel nor perceive any singular things, except bodies and modes of thinking. (IIA5).

Since as embodied human beings we are aware of the ways in which our body is affected (IIA4) and can feel nothing other than the body or the mind itself, the object can be no other than the human body:

The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, or a certain mode of extension, which actually exists, and nothing else (IIP13).

A human being (‘man’) is an individual that consists of a complex mode of thought, the human mind, and a complex mode of extension, the human body (IIP13C). However, rather than these being two distinct parts of each individual human, their relation is once again one of identity:

The mind and the body are one and the same individual, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension (IIP21S).

There remains the vital question of how the causal and explanatory relation between the modes of different attributes is to be understood. The conception of an attribute cannot involve the conception of any other attribute (IP10). It follows that a mode of a given attribute can only have God for its cause, as expressed under the same attribute (IIP6). A causal relation between modes of different attributes would contradict this, requiring one attribute to be conceived through another. This entails what has come to be called Spinoza’s ‘explanatory barrier’ between the attributes:

The body cannot determine the mind to thinking, and the mind cannot determine the body to motion, to rest, or to anything else (if there is anything else) (IIIP2).

In this way, the problem of interaction simply does not arise for Spinoza in the same way as it does for Descartes. All the same, Spinoza is quick to admit that his audience will find this claim counter-intuitive:

They are so firmly persuaded that the body now moves, now is at rest, solely from the mind’s command and that it does a great many things which depend only on the mind’s will and its art of thinking (IIIP2S).

Spinoza is not daunted by the task of overcoming his readers’ firm persuasion. He claims the evidence of our experience supports his arguments. For example, sleepwalkers perform actions when asleep that they would not do when awake, so demonstrating that the body is capable of acting from its own nature alone. So in the face of our Cartesian intuitions, Spinoza insists that it is simply not the case that bodily movements arise from the mind or that the mind animates the body. Even if contemporary science could not yet account for the way the body functions, there is no reason in principle that the movements of the body could not be given a purely physical explanation. As he points out, ‘no one has yet determined what the body can do, that is, experience has not yet taught anyone what the body can do from the laws of Nature alone’ (IIIP2S).

It is key to Spinoza’s project that the laws of Nature should be understood as applying universally, in the human sphere just as they do everywhere else:

Therefore, I shall treat the nature and powers of the affects, and the power of the mind over them, by the same method by which, in the preceding parts, I treated God and the mind, and I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies (IIIPref).


The Affects

Spinoza aims to address the tensions in Cartesianism by naturalizing human psychology. He sets out to show that the mind, as the idea of the body, is subject natural laws, just like the rest of nature:

The affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, and the like, considered in themselves, follow with the same necessity and force of Nature as the other singular things. […] I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies. (III Preface)

Spinoza describes and explains the passions using the psychological language of beliefs and desires. However, it must be remembered that for Spinoza, each of these ideas, is an idea of some thing, and that thing exists in the body (IIP13).

Spinoza defines a passion twice, the first time in the definitions of Part III:

By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections.

Therefore, if we can be the adequate cause of any of these affections, I understand by the affect an action; otherwise a passion (IIID3).

There are two key features of the way Spinoza defines a passion. Firstly, it is a change that the individual undergoes, either positively, by becoming more capable (passing to a greater perfection or having a greater power of acting), or negatively, becoming less capable (passing to a lesser perfection or having a lesser power of acting). Secondly, while affects can be both actions and passions, Spinoza understands the passivity of the passions, as determined by the fact that their cause comes, at least in part, from outside the individual. Actions on the other hand have their cause wholly caused within the individual.

This can also be understood under the attribute of thought. As distinct from an action, the passion is caused by both an idea in the mind (which must be an idea of a state or change of the body), and an idea that exists outside it: the idea of an external object:

The actions of the mind arise from adequate ideas alone; the passions depend on inadequate ideas alone (IIIP3).

This conception of a passion in terms of ideas is elaborated in Spinoza’s second definition of a passion, which incorporates both its mental and physical aspects:

An affect which is called a passion of the mind is a confused idea, by which the mind affirms of its body, or of some part of it, a greater or lesser force of existing than before, which, when it is given, determines the mind to think of this rather than that (III General Definition of the Affects).

Spinoza identifies a passion (under the attribute of thought) as a confused or inadequate idea. But an idea in the mind must always be an idea of something in the body, and for Spinoza, the idea’s corresponding object is the increase or decrease in the perfection of the body, and so also, its power of acting.


The Primary Passions and the Conatus

Spinoza lists three primary affects: desire, joy and sadness. Central to his psychology is the concept of conatus, the essential striving of a thing, including the human individual, to persevere in its being (IIIP6). When related to the mind and body together, Spinoza terms this striving “appetite” and he explains desire, the first of the affects, as “Appetite together with consciousness of the appetite” (IIIP9S).

Things can both increase or diminish the body’s power of acting and correspondingly the mind’s power of thinking. This accounts for the other two primary passions. Joy is the passage from a lesser to a greater perfection, and sadness, the passage from a greater to a lesser perfection (IIIP11; III Definitions of the Affects II & III).


Love, hate and anger

Spinoza explains the secondary passions through relations between primary passions and ideas, as can be seen, for example, in his definition of love:

Love is a joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (III Definitions of the Affects VI).

For Spinoza, it seems, no physiological description is needed. Each passion can be explained as a species of desire, joy or sadness, defined by its relation to an idea or belief.

According to Spinoza, the mind both strives to persevere in its being and is conscious of this striving (IIIP9). Therefore, when the mind imagines things that diminish the body’s power of action (which might include apprehension through the senses as well as forming a mental image), then it strives to recollect that which excludes the existence of such things. Given his definition of love as a joy (an increase in power) with an imagined external cause, if follows that the lover will wish to continue to imagine or experience the beloved object, and so,

We see, then, that one who loves necessarily strives to have present and preserve the thing he loves (IIIP13S).

Spinoza makes little reference to the physiological aspects of passions, and anger is no exception. Rather he defines it in terms of two other passions: desire, a primary passion, and hate, which is produced in a similar pattern to love, but by the combination of the opposite primary passion (sadness), along with a belief:

Hate is sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause (IIIP14).

Spinoza takes a view here of the affected (or impassioned) individual as being, in some sense rational. If he hates someone, that is if he has the idea of that person as the cause of his sadness, he will desire and strive to remove that cause (IIIP39). The definition of anger then, takes hate as the cause or motive of a species of desire:

Anger is a desire by which we are spurred, from hate, to do evil to one we hate (III Definitions of the Affects XXXVI).

Spinoza’s quasi-mathematical approach to understanding emotion should not be seen as purely an attempt to create a systematic science of human affects for its own sake. Towards the end of the Ethics, we learn that humans can achieve at least a degree of freedom from negative emotions, not through sheer force of will, but by the power of understanding. It is by virtue of our knowledge we attain power over our passions.

In particular, we need to understand that excessive love towards an object that is impermanent (for example riches and fame) can only lead to bondage to negative passions:

Next, it should be noted that sickness of the mind and misfortunes take their origin especially from too much love toward a thing which is liable to many variations and which we can never fully possess. For no one is disturbed or anxious concerning anything unless he loves it, nor do wrongs, suspicions, and enmities arise except from love for a thing which no one can really fully possess.

From what we have said, we easily conceive what clear and distinct knowledge – and especially that third kind of knowledge, whose foundation is the knowledge of God itself-can accomplish against the affects. Insofar as the affects are passions, if clear and distinct knowledge does not absolutely remove them, at least it brings it about that they constitute the smallest part of the mind. And then it begets a love toward a thing immutable and eternal, which we really fully possess, and which therefore cannot be tainted by any of the vices which are in ordinary love, but can always be greater and greater and occupy the greatest part of the mind and affect it extensively. (VP20S)

Why should any of this matter today? After all, we have much more sophisticated understandings of brain functions, a neuroscience informed by experiments using fMRI scans and are equipped with the means to alter mood with psychotherapeutic drugs. Why do we continue to study the somewhat opaque writings of a seventeenth century lens-grinder, and attempt to makes sense of his difficult and sometimes obscure ideas on the mind-body relation


The brain’s mappings of the body

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has throughout his career questioned the ‘Cartesian common sense’ that would separate mind and body, reason and emotion as binary opposites. In this he was inspired by Spinoza’s notion that both the mind and the body were parallel attributes of the very same substances. He writes

Spinoza was serving notice of his opposition to the view of the mind-body problem that prevailed in his time. His dissent stood out in a sea of conformity. More intriguing, however, was his notion that the human mind is the idea of the human body. This raised an arresting possibility. Spinoza might have intuited the principles behind the natural mechanism responsible for the parallel manifestations of mind and body […] I am convinced that mental processes are grounded in the brains’ mappings of the body, collections of neural patterns that portray responses to events that cause emotions and feelings. Nothing could have been more comforting than coming across this statement of Spinoza’s and wondering about its possible meaning.[8]

You too may still be wondering what Spinoza meant by ‘the mind is the idea of the human body.’ But perhaps, like me it is this kind of wonder that drives your engagement with philosophy – the love of and search for wisdom or understanding. I hope that I have been successful, if not in making crystal clear what Spinoza meant in IIP13, at least in sharing some of my own sense of wonder about how one great philosophical minds understood the mind and its identity with the body.



All quotations from Spinoza’s Ethics are from the translation by Edwin M. Curley, published in Penguin Classics. Also available in E.M. Curley (A Spinoza reader: The Ethics and other works. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994) and The collected works of Spinoza Vol I (Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1988).

[1] David Papineau, ‘Physicalism and the Human Sciences’ accessed 1.6.18

[2] Edwin Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988)

[3] ‘Mum tells of balcony death plunge’ Wales Online, 22.01.2008 accessed 15.05.18

[4] Lisa Shapiro (Ed.), The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007), p.62.

[5] Rene Descartes, Passions of the Soul, Tran. Stephen H. Voss, (Indianapolis: Hackett,1989), p.38.

[6] I paraphrase Jonathan Bennett, (‘Spinoza’s Mind-Body Identity Thesis’, Journal of Philosophy, 1981, Vol 78, No 10. pp 573-584). However, this picture still omits all but the two known attributes. Whatever other attributes there are, there must be a similar relationship between their modes and ideas of their modes.

[7] Genevieve Lloyd, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics (London: Routledge,1996), p.49

[8] Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. London : Heinemann, 2003

Immortality as a language game

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Or life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) held that the meanings of words could only be understood within ‘forms of life’. We don’t simply come to use language by a teacher pointing to an object, a chair for example, and saying, ‘chair.’ This misconception, that words had meanings that could be understood outside their wider context was, for Wittgenstein a mistake:

Naming appears as a queer connection of a word with an object.—And you really get such a queer connection when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word ‘this’ innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.



“Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” – Wittgenstein

We know someone is adept at communication when they use language correctly, hence Wittgenstein’s famous slogan: ‘meaning is use.’ There are rules for using a language within every domain, rules for what Wittgenstein called a ‘language game’, to draw attention to the fact that speaking a language is part of a rule-bound activity, or of a form of life. He gives a number of disparate examples of language games, including:


Forming and testing a hypothesis— Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams— Making up a story; and reading it— Play-acting— Singing catches— Guessing riddles— Making a joke; telling it— Solving a problem in practical arithmetic— Translating from one language into another— Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

For Wittgenstein then, to understand someone, we have to know which language game our interlocutor is playing, and be at least open to playing by and have a tacit understanding of the same rules. The same also goes for the rules or ‘grammar’ of religious belief.

Suppose someone were a believer and said: ‘I believe in the last Judgement’, and I said, ‘Well, I’m not so sure. Possibly.’ You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said ‘There is a German aeroplane overhead’, and I said ‘Possibly. I’m not so sure’, you’d say we were fairly near.

It may seem on the surface that the person who speaks the last Judgement is making a scientific claim, but this is a misconception. There is a particular (religious) language game in play here, and we only confuse matters by interpreting his remarks as if they were part of another language game, that of science. Asking if there will be a Last Judgement within the context of the scientific language game is absurd as asking if a violinist has scored more points than the conductor during a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

The Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion D.Z. Phillips (1934-2006) claims that it makes no sense to ask for proof of validity of religious beliefs once they are understood as language games: ‘philosophy is neither for nor against religious beliefs,’ he writes. ‘After it has sought to clarify the grammar of such beliefs its work is over.’ Phillips sums up his view by listing examples of religious rituals and suggests their possible significance or functions:

A boxer crosses himself before the fight; a mother places a garland on a statue of the Virgin Mary; parents pray for their child lost in a wreck. Are these blunders or religious activities? What decides the answer to this question is the surroundings, what the people involved say about their actions, what their expectation are, what if anything, would render the activity pointless, and so on. Does the boxer think that anyone who crosses himself before a fight will not come to serious harm in it? Does the mother think that the garland’s value is prudential? Do the parents believe that all true prayers for the recovery of children lead to that recovery? If these questions answered in the affirmative, the beliefs involved become testable hypotheses. They are, as a matter of fact, blunders, mistakes, regarding causal connections of a kind. […] But perhaps the activities have a different meaning. Perhaps the boxer is dedicating his performance in crossing himself, expressing the hope that it be worthy of what he believes in, and so on. The mother may be venerating the birth of her child as God’s gift, thanking for it, and contemplating the virtues of motherhood as found in the mother of Jesus. The parents may be making their desires known to God, wanting the situation which has occasioned them to be met in Him. The beliefs involved are not testable hypotheses, but ways of reacting to and meeting such situations.

In the same way, for Phillips, those who assess talk of immortality of the soul as if it rested on a claim about duration beyond death are really missing the point. Rather, the meaning of eternal life, for those who speak of it is not ‘something which happens after human life on earth is over’ but ‘the reality of goodness, that in terms of which human life is to be assessed.’ For Phillips then the question of the immortality of the soul is an ethical one, and not one of assessing a quasi-scientific or metaphysical belief.

The soul which is rooted in the mortal is the soul where the ego is dominant […] The immortality of the soul by contrast refers to a person’s relation to the self-effacement and love of others involved in dying to the self. Death is overcome in that dying to the self is the meaning of the believer’s life […]. I am suggesting then, that eternal life for the believer is participation in the life of God, and that this life has to do with dying to the self, seeing that all things are a gift from God, that nothing is ours by right or necessity.

The Wittgensteinian approach to religious statements is not without its critics. Stephen Law points out that it is disingenuous to claim that the believer has a different relation or approach to her creedal statements than her atheist opponent. And it certainly appears that many sincere Christians, Muslims and Jews do believe quite literally in a life after death. Even if we take the view that there views are simply naïve compared to a more sophisticated philosophical theology, would that not be, to say the least, a little patronising? Can we really accept that for example, a regular church goer does not believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead?

Over eight centuries ago, Maimonides could write in his Essay on the Resurrection about the common people who he describes as needing:

precept after precept, precept after precept, now here, now there [Isa. 28:13]. The sense of it is that they understand but little, the comprehend a bit, a little here, a little there. But the right thing to do is to address each group according to its capacity.

However, if written today, such statements might be considered unacceptably elitist. And yet, literalism seems to be a blunt tool for interpreting religious beliefs and texts, and perhaps an anachronistic one at that. Looking back to the way that generations of religious philosophers have interpreted and reinterpreted sacred texts  bearing in mind the Talmudic adage that the “Torah speaks in the language of human beings.” We see that at least as far back as Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE – c 40 CE), scriptural passages were read as allegories or parables. We might, therefore, be taking an unduly narrow approach if we dismiss texts and mythologies describing life after death as merely prevalent forms of pseudoscience.



Why nothing matters

I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent. – Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)

In my dialogues there are no answers. But sometimes a question is the flash of an answer. – Edmund Jabès (1912-1991)

This is the revised text of a talk I gave at CANAL gallery, Haggerston on 18 March 2017 in response to the exhibition ‘What kind of hole am I?’ work by Bol Marjoram.

For the next ten minutes I want to talk to you about nothing. About two kinds or better, two aspects or senses of nothingness.

The first is instantiated by lacunae or absences, and conveniently enough, these are illustrated both literally and metaphorically, in and by the holes in Bol’s books.


As he says,

Please direct your attention towards the holes, it is the holes that matter.

The second kind of nothingness, presents me with a stiffer task, as I can do more than gesture towards what I might call ‘absolute’ nothingness: which I will identify with a kind of infinite potentiality, ultimate emptiness – a nothing that lacks nothing.

To see what I mean by that, accept my invitation to look through the holes and beyond.

So the first kind of nothingness goes hand in hand with what is felt to be lacking there. It’s a privation of whatever it may be that we might normally, perhaps tacitly expect to be present.

It can provide a kind of relief, as when the workman digging up the road with a pneumatic drill outside our bedroom one Saturday morning, stop to take a tea break. Rushing to the bar at the interval in the middle of an intense or agonizing theatrical performance.

It can show up as boredom: waiting for something to happen. Diverse responses to composer John Cage’s ‘4’33”’ (1952) a piece with no notes, range from the dismissive, through the perplexed to the contemplative. But what is essential to this piece is its boundedness. It is finite and must necessarily be performed within the four and half minutes – plus three seconds – of a concert programme. And of course, there is not total silence. Audience members breathe, cough, fidget, and giggle nervously between the movements. Like the two-minute silence at the cenotaph, its power lies not so much in itself but in that it disrupts and by doing so draws attention to the normal, the unnoticed, the conventional course of things.

Or this nothingness can present itself as dangerous, as when we have to mind the gap, or find ourselves in a state of anxious boredom, with nothing to be but a fertile market for snack foods to fill our bellies, and brain candy (Candy Crush Saga) to fill our minds.

Perhaps it is for this that nothing is more subversive than nothing: conspiracies of silence, silent protests, strikes, civil disobedience which is markedly non-action, the not-doing what is required by the state.

The nihilistic seventies movement known as punk took as its emblem the safety pin; re-pairing deliberate rips in clothes, holes emphasized by –visible mending. The material lacunae visualized a deliberate absence of musicianship, practice, denying the finished smooth surfaces demanded by the despised overproduced prog rock supergroups.

Or think about the revolutionary work of Lucio Fontana, such as Spatial Concept Waiting (Tate Modern) which is nothing more – and nothing less – than an incision of the canvas, puncturing the two-dimension into a three-dimensional space. In 1968 Fontana told an interviewer that, ‘my discovery was the hole and that’s it. I am happy to go to the grave after such a discovery’. The morbid, eschatological illusion may not be entirely accidental, as we shall see.

So often the presence of the missing is felt more strongly than if it were present. Valentine Schmidt’s beautiful photographs of the Berlin Olympic Village seem to me to be haunted by figures conspicuous by their absence: the triumphant athletes of an illusory and transitory Aryan master race and the ghosts of those – the aunts and uncles I never got to see – oblivious then to the death camps waiting for their arrival.

For the American rabbi Richard Rubenstein, the ultimate absence at Auschwitz, is that of a providential personal god, whose deafening silence in the face of horrendous evils announces the breaking of the thread uniting heaven and earth. He writes, ‘We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any power beyond our own resources. After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God.’

This death of God, understood perhaps as the same death of other grand narratives – continuous scientific progress, the triumph of rationality – is no less felt at the personal level.

Maybe we’ve experienced the very nadir of the ground beneath our feet giving way, when we experience an existential crisis, perhaps brought on by abandonment, bereavement, or betrayal.

In these moments we may fall into a pit of despair but if we have the grace, we can fall not into but through it, dropping down further into a reconfigured identity, a bottomless falling that is exhilarating, terrifying and beautiful. [The phrase ‘touching the void’, springs to mind]

There! Right there

There we find, if we don’t overlook it, an experience of what Rubenstein calls holy nothingness, a nothingness lacking nothing, an ‘indivisible plenum so rich that all existence derives from his very essence…the nothing is not absence of being but superfluity of being.’ Rubenstein is drawing on ancient mystical tropes. The Jewish Kabbalists spoke of Ayin, the Buddhists ‎śūnyatā, while the medieval Scottish philosopher John Duns Scotus (c.1266-1308) referred to that which ‘when it is thought through itself, neither is nor was nor will be. For in no existing thing is it understood, since it is beyond all things…When it is understood as incomprehensible on account of its excellence, it is not improperly called ‘nihil’ (that is ‘nothing’) ”.

So, this second aspect of nothingness is a nihil or nothing or emptiness so perfect, so unbounded, eternal and unchanging that it can contain an infinite space of possibility.

Deep down we may experience a yearning for this ultimate nothingness, the desire for annihilation which when conceived pathologically, Freud called Thanatos a death-instinct, a drive to return to the state of inanimacy in which we once rested from the origin of the cosmos.

If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal  reasons–becomes inorganic once again–then we shall be compelled to say that “the aim of all life is death” and, looking backwards, that “inanimate things existed before living ones”.

(Beyond the Pleasure Principle)

The metaphysical poet and preacher John Donne saw something dark, even satanic in nothingness, declaiming that while small could become great, acorns grow into oaks,

[A]bsolutely nothing, meerly nothing, is more incomprehensible than any thing, than all things together. It is a state (if a man may call it a state) that the Devil himself in the midst of his torments, cannot wish.

But when conceived positively, this desire can motivate a kind of self-transcendence or what the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss (following Spinoza) called Self-Realization! a movement out of the narrow ego, towards an identification with whole ecosystem in which we are constituted – or put more paradoxically perhaps, falling in love with life itself.

And what of the holes. Pay attention to the holes and then look through and beyond them. Perhaps they are not just lacunae, gaps in the materiality of the work, but portals. Step inside them. As the Sufi mystic Rumi writes:

People are going back and forth across the threshold
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

Nothing but nothing, nothing else is inexhaustible. Nothing will never let you down. As Lao Tzu says of the ‘root of Heaven and Earth’ or the Tao or Way, ‘use will never drain it’.

In fact, for this sage, nothing is that without which


can be


Thirty spokes
Share one hub.
Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.
Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.

What kind of hole am I? Bol Marjoram runs alongside This Heaven: Valentine Schmidt until 1st April 2017 at CANAL60 De Beauvoir Crescent
London N1 5SB

020 7923 9211
0786 606 3663

open Thur – Sat 1-6pm during exhibitions
or by appointment

Burbea, Rob, Seeing That Frees: Meditations on emptiness and dependent arising (West Ogwell: Hermes Amara Publications, 2014)
Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, Holocaust Theology: a reader, (Exeter : University of Exeter Press, 2015)
Donne, John, ‘Twenty-Six Sermons (25) Preached at the Spital’, 1622
Duclow, Donald F., ‘Divine Nothingness and Self-Creation in John Scottus Eriugena’ in his Masters of Learned Ignorance: Eriugena, Eckhart, Cusanus (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006)
Freud, Sigmund ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XVIII (Toronto: Hogarth Press, 1955) pp.7-64.
Jabès, Edmond, From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1991)
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching trans. D.C. Lau, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003)
Marion, Jean-Luc, God Without Being (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)

About nothing

f3ef1dae7ebfcca387f0272e1dd138d0_numbers20clipart200-number-zero-clip-art_187-227For reasons that will become apparent, I’m contemplating the idea of emptiness at the moment. And perhaps something more empty than emptiness, more absolute than mere negation, more devoid of anything and everything than just void.

What I’m talking about is perhaps what the Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein refers to as Holy Nothingness, the infinite God, which can be in no sense a thing such that it might resemble the finite things of this universe. This conception of God would reject even such understandings, found in say, Tillich and Aquinas, of the Divine as ‘being itself’. Rather, it makes Him out to be, if anything, infinite potential, ultimate non-being. So, as Rubenstein explains, the very absence of anything, makes for ‘an indivisible plenum so rich that all existence derives from his very essence. God as the nothing is not absence of being but superfluity of being.’(1)

For the next four weeks I’m going to explore some ideas around nothingness, absence, lacunae, silence. So, watch this (empty) space.


Thirty spokes

Share one hub.

Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.

Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.

Lao Tzu (551-479 BCE) Tao Te Ching, trans. D.C. Lau (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963).

Jewish philosophers think the afterlife

10.30am, Saturday 23rd July 2016

This session is hosted by Beit Klal Yisrael


When we wonder whether there is life beyond the frontier of death, what kind of life are we talking about? Would a life without end be a life worth living, especially if it was lived in the body in which we died? In this session, we will be investigating how three (arguably) Jewish philosophers might have attempted to make sense of the widely held notion of the eternal soul.

We will not, I’m afraid, be investigating the empirical evidence for life after death, such as past-life memories and near-death experiences. The thesis I wish to explore is that when considered carefully, the possibility of immortality need not rest on a belief in personal survival at all. Rather, attaining or realizing eternity is concerned with the here and now, how we understand and act in this world rather than what will befall us in the world to come. In other words I wish to interpret the tradition of afterlife as an ethic for living, for as Spinoza put it, ‘A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not death’ (Ethics IVP67).

However, there are a number of preliminary questions we may wish to examine before or during the session, including:

  • What is ‘Jewish’ and what is ‘philosophical’ about Jewish Philosophy? Are Maimonides, Spinoza and Wittgenstein, Jewish philosophers?
  • Can reason penetrate mysteries such as what happens to us after death?
  • What traditional Jewish beliefs are there concerning the afterlife? Does progressive Judaism have anything to say?
  • Why might we wish to imagine there is life after death?
  • What kind of language do we use when we express religious beliefs: scientific, allegorical, metaphorical or mythical?
 A draft handout and a reading list for the session can be found here

10.30 – 14.00 Saturday 23rd July

Essex Unitarian Church, 112 Palace Gardens Terrace, London W8 4RT – Nearest Tube: Notting Hill Gate

(Ring bell for the library which is downstairs. Regretably there is no disabled access.)

Please bring something to eat and drink for a light vegetarian shared lunch

On being unreasonable


There is a much-quoted polemic by the early theologian Tertullian (c. 160-220 CE) which encapsulates a seemingly eternal tension between philosophy and religion, faith and reason:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.

This antagonism between faith and reason was earlier played out in the death sentence passed on Socrates for refusing to recognize the state deities, and later in Spinoza’s expulsion from the Amsterdam Jewish community. As the pendulum swings in the opposite direction, we witness the continuing ascendancy of Western European secularism and, as it reaches its zenith, New Atheism. For myself, and in my conversations with friends, both atheist and theist, from deeply secular to doggedly religious, this dilemma is often experienced as the pull of the noetic against the tug of the affective: the voice that demands, “Why can’t you explain what you mean?” and the one that replies, “Why don’t you shut up and listen?” It’s worth remembering, however, that the division does not correspond neatly with the division between religious believer and secular atheist. Among people of faith and even within the minds of adherents, there is conflict and cognitive dissonance – which is at the same time a visceral unease –  between the God of the philosophers and scholars, and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I started the philosophy of religion course I am teaching at the London School of Philosophy by looking at three ways at looking at religion. Functional definitions concentrate on the role religions play in society, for example by binding individuals together in cooperative wholes. Traditional and especially analytic philosophy of religion tends to focus on the substantive aspects, viewing religions as if they were constituted by sets of beliefs which can be analysed, dissected and measured against a standard of evidential warrant and rational justification. This approach demands that statements such as ‘There is a God’ are supported by rational arguments – or at least by an account justifying the redundancy of such arguments.

However some writers claim that religions should not be viewed as if they were a system of doctrines at all. One example is the Wittgensteinian philosopher D.Z Phillips (1934 – 2006), who suggests that the substantive conception of religion  misses the point. Rather, he claims, religious language, expresses a heartfelt need, existential anxiety or deep wondering:

To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question. If it is to mean anything at all, it is to wonder about praising and praying; it is to wonder whether there is anything in all that. This is why philosophy cannot answer the question ‘Does God exist?’ with either an affirmative or a negative reply […] ‘There is a God’, though it appears to be in the indicative mood, is an expression of faith.

~Religion without Explanation

Reading Phillips might point us towards such an expressive conception of religion, a third way of viewing religion as an affective response to our deepest questions and yearnings. This is what the theologian Paul Tillich called our “Ultimate Concern”.

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern. Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns — cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfilment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name.

~Dynamics of Faith

Martin Buber makes perhaps the the most radical, almost ascetic, demand of our understanding of religion, that it can only be attained, not in examining the doctrinal belief but in the act of encounter:

Philosophy errs in thinking of religion as founded in a noetic act, even if an inadequate one, and in therefore regarding the essence of religion as the knowledge of an object which is indifferent to being known. As a result, philosophy understands faith as an affirmation of truth lying somewhere between clear knowledge and confused opinion. Religion, on the other hand, insofar as it speaks of knowledge at all, does not understand it as a noetic relation of a thinking subject to a neutral object of thought, but rather as mutual contact, as the genuinely reciprocal meeting in the fullness of life between one active existence and another. Similarly, it understands faith as the entrance into this reciprocity, as binding oneself in relationship with an undemonstrable and unprovable, yet even so, in relationship, knowable Being, from whom all meaning comes. [Italics mine]

~Eclipse of God: Studies in the relation between religion and philosophy

It is important to note that Buber is not suggesting that this encounter is purely subjective and that with which it takes place is ‘mind-dependent’ or a mere idea or social construct. Rather, what he elsewhere refers to as the Eternal Thou is real even if undefinable. Buber insists, “Many true believers know how to talk to God but not about Him. If one dares to turn toward the unknown God, to go to meet Him, to call to Him, Reality is present.”

So do we have to choose between the two: set aside our Aristotelian rational souls in order to apprehend an ultimate reality promised by religion, or alternatively pull back from the abyss, refusing the Leap of Faith to sacrifice our deepest yearnings on the unstable altar of the Enlightenment?

Yesterday I serendipitously encountered a possible solution, or at least a rephrasing of the problem,  in my reading of two books:  one was Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Akiva Tatz and David Gottlieb, the other the Book of Genesis. Towards the end of the narrative of the Flood, we read that Noah blessed two of his sons (though rather unfairly it seems not Ham, whose son Canaan is cruelly cursed), namely Shem and Japheth.

And he said,

  “Blessed be the LORD

  The God of Shem;

  Let Canaan be a slave to them.

  May God enlarge Japheth

  And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;

  And let Canaan be a slave to them.” (Genesis 9:26-27)

Now tradition has it that Japheth was the ancestor of the Greeks. The early rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel interpreted this as sanctioning the Bible being translated into Greek, while no translation into any other language was permitted. And the nineteenth-century Hassidic rabbi Tzaddok HaCohen quoted ‘Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem’, as being fulfilled when, after the Hasmoneon victory over the Greeks, the Jews were able to integrate Greek philosophy into their own culture. But HaCohen also believed that the Jewish exile had a Divine purpose, to absorb ‘points of essence’ from the host cultures, this being a reading of the mystical idea of Tikkun, the reclamation of the hidden, divine sparks in order to restore the world to harmony.

So rather than faith/reason we have a different duality, that of host/guest, where the same person or the same tradition alternates between the two different roles, or can even perform both simultaneously – in relation to the stranger within its midst as well as to the greater nation within which it is a stranger. Some would say that we are ultimately guests of the Infinitely Great on whose land each one of us is merely a resident alien.

Richard Kearney in his provocative book Anatheism: Returning to God After God takes as an exemplar the first patriarch Abraham. Despite being, in the words of Psalm 119, “a stranger on this earth”, Abraham offers hospitality to the three divine ‘men’, angels perhaps, at the Terebinths of Mamre (Genesis 18). In the face of theophany, he humbly offers them water and bread. And perhaps as his reward, the angels announce the future arrival of another stranger, the child Isaac that his elderly and barren wife Sarah will bear.

For the atheist, openness to the unknown other does not mean embracing ‘the delirious delusions of theism’. Nor for the agnostic or the reflective theist, does it enthrone a new belief or religion. ‘It simply invites us to see what has always been there a second time around.’

Can we take the risk, gambling all that we have, yet knowing we can never possess the prize, even if we knew what it was?

Kearney suggests:

For in surrendering our own God to a stranger God, no God may come back again. Or the God who comes back may come back in ways that surprise us.

A man of substance

Thank you to everyone who came my class on Baruch Spinoza at the London School of Philosophy. We focused almost entirely on Spinoza’s metaphysics, his argument for substance monism, that there is only one substance, God, and that everything that exists is in God. As so often with a great philosopher, it’s almost impossible to provide an adequate introduction in a single session. This is why I chose Spinoza’s conception of God as the one substance, as the topic of the class: it doesn’t do justice to the breadth of his ideas, but his monism is fundamental to them all.

spinozaThe most difficult aspect to our modern, post-Kantian sensibilities is the way that Spinoza purports to prove the existence of God from a definition: the necessary existence of substance. In a letter to his friend Ludovic Meyer, Spinoza wrote:

The first things that I should like to be noted about Substance are the following–First, that existence pertains to its essence, that is, that its existence follows from its mere essence and definition.

We recall that Spinoza defined substance as not depending on anything else for its existence or for it to be conceived. Consequently he argued that it must be causa sui – the cause of itself. And if the cause of itself, then it must exist necessarily. These kind of ontological arguments now seem to us, to say the least, unconvincing. But perhaps Spinoza is not trying to convince any of his contemporary readers, let alone a twenty-first century (new) atheist. Maybe as a Jew, even after his expulsion from his community, he took God’s existence as a given, as obvious as the existence of the universe, of reality or of being itself. One could counter that perhaps nothing exists, but in that case, you’re really not playing the game –  you’re no longer doing metaphysics.

The question I’ve been pondering these last few days whether we need metaphysics at all to philosophize. If what draws us to philosophy is some kind of existential dissatisfaction, a nagging doubt that we are only living, and not living well, then why not cut to the chase,  bypass the seemingly unanswerable ‘What is?’ and go directly to the more pressing question of ‘What is it we should be doing?’

In the structure of the Ethics, Spinoza very approximately follows the conception of philosophy of his great predecessor René Descartes. Using a memorable analogy, Descartes wrote in the Principles:

Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals. By “morals” I understand the highest and most perfect moral system, which presupposes a complete knowledge of the other sciences and is the ultimate level of wisdom. (9B:14).

When Spinoza finally gets to the ethics of the Ethics, we see why the unity of Substance and the fact not only of our own inclusion as a ‘part of Nature’ but also of the essential – and metaphysical – interconnection of all humans, gives firm support to a creed of cooperation and a spirit of brotherly love.

 To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together should seek for themselves the common advantage of all (IVP18S).

What is more, Spinoza, somewhat optimistically, describes a virtuous spiral by which the more we seek knowledge and attain it, the  more we wish to share it with others:

The good which everyone who seeks virtue wants for himself, he also desires for other men; and this desire is greater as his knowledge of God is greater (IVP37).

Throughout the Ethics, there appears to be a consistent blurring of the boundaries of the conventional self. For the person seeking freedom, this is not so much something that is achieved but realized through the (self-)knowledge of our metaphysical status as mere modes participating in the Divine substance. Spinoza’s God is not then a distinct and distant being; nature is not an object, not even a unique object to which any countable noun could refer. I rather agree with Arne Næss that if we could really see through an only apparently separateness between individuals, then acts of kindness, generosity and compassion would seem to us not altruistic, but self-interested, an identification with a larger whole that transcends not only ourselves but even family and community.

A more recent Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas expresses such a view beautifully:

Monotheism is not an arithmetic of the divine. It is the perhaps supernatural gift of seeing each human person as being absolutely similar to the human person in the diversity of the historical traditions which each person continues. It is a school for xenophilia and antiracism.

(‘Monothéisme et langage’ in Difficile liberté)

The Excellence of Happiness

This guest post has been contributed by Richard Baron.

Aristotle Bust White Background Transparent

Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics (often just called the Ethics) in Ancient Greece, a society that was very different from ours. So booksellers think it only belongs in the academic philosophy section. It does belong there, but it should also be found in the self-help section. It does not offer any magical slogans that will advance your career or improve your love life. But it is one of the finest self-help books ever written.

The reason is that its basic approach is not to tell you what to do in specific circumstances, but to set out the qualities it is good to have, so that you will act well in good times and in bad. These qualities are the virtues, but one of the best features of the book is that “virtue” (arete in Greek) has a wider meaning than is normal today. It covers all sorts of excellence, both moral and intellectual, including courage, liberality, technical skill and wisdom. This broad meaning frees our minds from the tradition that sees poverty and humility as admirable. But the precise and detailed nature of Aristotle’s comments on virtues saves us from the flabby modern alternative of “Look at me, I’m awesome!”

And what is the goal? Aristotle calls it eudaimonia, often carelessly translated as “happiness”, but better rendered as “flourishing”. We should seek to exercise our specifically human talents to the full. It is no surprise that he concludes that the best life is one like his, the life of a philosopher. But we can admire his inspirational message even if we do not agree with him on that point. And we can admire it even more because it is conveyed in plain and sober prose, without any flights of fancy.

We need to make allowances when reading a book from so long ago. We no longer accept slavery, or the subordination of women to men. But the Ethics remains one of the most influential books on how to live that has ever been written. Read it, and be influenced.

Richard Baron is a philosopher who works in London.

Stoicism with a Kosher Twist

0111205875-philo_of_aFor our next discussion at BKY I wanted to return to the Stoics as I felt that there were questions remaining at the end of our last session. How might we learn to live the Stoic life, with dispassion and equanimity? Are there any techniques or exercises? Is really possible at all, and if so, is it desirable? Once again we will be focusing on the Greek philosopher of the 1st and 2nd centuries Epictetus. But I also want to take a look at perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Roman World, Philo of Alexandria, sometimes called Philo Judaeus but not to be confused with Philo of Larisa. He was deeply influenced by the Stoic philosophers, especially in his writings about ethics.

I’ll upload some readings for the session here.  I may add to them before Thursday 23rd, so if you’re printing them out for the session, leave it until Friday, if you can. I will have a few copies available on the day.

Hope to see you on Saturday at 11am. Bring your thoughts, questions and some vegetarian food for a shared lunch.


Stoics at BKY facebook