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.
For 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.
Thanks to everyone who got up for 10.30am on a Monday morning to talk about the Life of the Stoic at Forest Hill Library. What I didn’t tell you is that I realised on the bus there that I’d left all my notes and the hand-outs at home. Luckily I’d also emailed them to myself, but then it turned out that the public computers had all gone down temporarily, and for a moment I wondered if the Fates were conspiring against me.
What this provided me with was an excellent opportunity to ask the question, what would Epictetus have done? What I’m sure he would not do is to complain about it. For a start, a slave at birth, he would have suffered far worse than a little anxiety over paperwork. As I mentioned in the session, he was once beaten so badly by his master, that he was crippled for life, and yet could still say, “No one suffers misfortune because of the actions of another” .
His words which have come down to us, give us more than a clue as to how he dealt with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune:
I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile; so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?
I’ll be posting more about the ideas of the Stoics in the coming days and nights, so do check back. Or, click on the Follow button, to receive an email update every time the page is updated.
Meanwhile, please put any questions or feedback in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
Our next bibliotherapeutic outing is on Monday 1st September, 10:30am at Forest Hill Library. We will be talking about the Stoic philosophers, especially Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. In particular the session will look at their ethical ideas: what makes a life goes well.
The session is hosted by the Lively Minds group, aimed at people aged 55+. But if you’re younger in body as well as in spirit, I’m sure they won’t ID check you! No previous knowledge required. Just bring your curiosity and willingness to question your own assumptions. Oh, and your library card if you have one.
Monday 1 September 10.30AM to 12 noon
Forest Hill Library
Forest Hill Library
London SE23 3HZ
Philosophers seem to be a high-risk group for severe mental breakdown. Or perhaps it is the experience of coming through a crisis that creates such a strong motivation to search for deeper questions about the nature of reality and the human condition. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, for instance, underwent a psychological crisis in his early twenties after four years of intensive study. But he survived and went on to create a radical empiricist philosophy that Kant claimed woke him from his “dogmatic slumbers”.
Another example is the twelfth-century philosopher and physician Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. After his younger brother David was drowned at sea on a voyage to India, Maimonides spent an entire year “prostrate in bed with a severe inflammation, fever and numbness of heart, and well-nigh perished.” The Maimonides scholar Joel E. Kraemer has suggested that Maimonides was suffering the kind of severe depression caused by traumatic separation that would make him susceptible to recurrent episodes of the malady throughout his life .
Eight years later, Maimonides wrote :
How can I be consoled? For he was my son; he grew up upon my knees; he was my brother, my pupil. It was he who did business in the market place, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security…Were it not for the Torah, which is my delight, and for scientific matters, which let me forget his sorrow, I would have perished in my affliction.
Maimonides achieved fame as a court physician in Egypt, possibly to Saladin, among other royal patients. He wrote a large number of treatises covering different aspects of medicine including the treatment of melancholia. His philosophical work The Guide of the Perplexed had a lasting effect, not only on subsequent Jewish thought, but on the whole of Western philosophy, influencing Aquinas, Spinoza and Leibniz.
 “Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual Portrait” in Seeskin, Kenneth. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. The quotation is taken from this essay.
I am leading a study session on Spinoza and the Intellectual Love of God for Beit Klal Yisrael on Saturday 24 May, during which we will look at Maimonides’ view on the love and knowledge of God and exploring how this may shine a light on Spinoza’s ideal. Details at www.bky.org.uk
This post is a summary of a study session that I led on 15th February 2014 for Beit Klal Yisrael.
We can approach a great philosopher like Spinoza, as a figure in the history of ideas, focusing purely on trying to establish what he himself meant in his writings, as well as his influences and his legacy. Or, we can treat him as if he were a living philosopher and through interpreting, criticising and developing his system, apply his ideas to contemporary problems. And arguably there is no greater problem facing humankind than the problem of environmental destruction and how we should conceive our relationship with nature.
This blog started from the premise that philosophical literature and the ideas contained in it, can be therapeutic, having the capacity to cure disease or dis-ease in the widest sense of unsatisfactory conditions, including the human condition. There is a Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, “to heal the world”, a duty which appears in early rabbinic literature and has more recently been taken up by those seeking inspiration for social responsibility in Judaism. Perhaps we can make a fruitful connection between this sacred duty to heal, a seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher who saw divinity in nature, and contemporary environmental movements such as the Deep Ecology of Arne Næss.
I took as a starting point what I take to be the central question of environmental ethics: Why (or how) should we be concerned for nature and natural objects? Earlier approaches have in some way considered Nature through its instrumental value (or use-value) either as a source of such resources as food and fuel or even less tangible goods such as aesthetic pleasure or spiritual sustenance. More recently though, there has been a move towards approaches holding that natural entities have intrinsic value (or value in themselves), what is sometimes described as a move from anthropocentrism to biocentrism or ecocentrism.
Accordingly, the environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott has written:
[T]he primary goal of environmental ethics is to rethink moral philosophy and reformulate ethical theory so that nonhuman natural entities and nature as a whole may be directly enfranchised
If we look to teachings in the Torah and Talmud, these seem to fall within a “stewardship” tradition that can be traced back to Genesis 1:26-28. There are two ethical strands to this. The first concerns the “pain of living creatures” (tza’ar ba’alei chayim) demands that animals are not made to suffer needlessly. So for example, cattle must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10), two animals of unequal strength should not be yolked together, which would cause pain to the weaker animal (Deuteronomy 22:10), and if eggs are taken from the nest of a wild bird, the mother should be allowed to live (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Significantly, only the last is a mitzvah or commandment that concerns a nondomestic animal. As Eric Katz has pointed out, the scope of moral considerability is generally limited to animals that are at least on the fringes of the human community.
A second strand of teachings concern wanton destruction, bal tashchit (“do not destroy”) which is contained in the verse (Deuteronomy: 19-20) which prohibits the felling of fruit trees belonging to a city when placing it under siege. Again, this prohibition seems to have the function of preserving a source of food for humans rather than protecting trees for their own sake. Likewise, even as Maimonides extends the prohibition, he applies applies to things which have clear use-value.
Rather anyone who breaks utensils, tears garments, destroys buildings, stops up a stream or ruins food with destructive intent transgresses the command “Do not destroy”.
This all seems to imply that within Judaism, the ethical viewpoint is anthoropocentric or perhaps as Katz suggests, theocentric: we are required to take care of things in creation because they belong to God.
In our discussion, someone raised the view that what was lacking in most political decision-making was a sense of intimate engagement with nature and a longer-term understanding of economics. It was pointed out that both the words economics and the word ecology come from the Greek root oikos meaning house or household, suggesting an origin of both disciplines that encompasses the management and preservation of the biosphere as our home. Modern economics ignores this, and with its emphasis on measurable indicators such as growth and employment, it neglects the importance of satisfaction, including satisfaction as it relates to a broader or even “spiritual” consciousness.
A dualist view of man as separate from nature fails to reflect our embedness in and complete dependence on the natural world as well as ignoring the extent to which our species has constantly managed and shaped its environment in positive as well as destructive terms. It seems that to consider an environmental ethics, we must first reconsider the reality of our relationship with nature, raising metaphysical as much as moral questions.
It is for this reason that some environmentalists have looked to the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), and reconsidered the implications of his nondualist conception of Deus sive Natura (God or Nature). Arne Næss (1912-2009), the Norwegian environmental activist, philosopher and Spinoza scholar claimed:
No philosopher has so much to offer in the way of clarification and articulation of basic ecological attitudes as Baruch Spinoza.
To find out why he might still be relevant to such questions today, we have to look at the basic tenets of his philosophy, most clearly laid out in Part One of his magnum opus, the Ethics.
Spinoza is reported to have remarked, “The popular philosophy starts from creatures: Descartes starts from mind: I start from God.”  And for Spinoza, God is substance, the most elemental level of being, which depends on nothing and upon which all things depend. There is only one substance – God – and there is nothing besides that can exist, or even be conceived as existing, without God.
This inclusive view of God has led many to assume that Spinoza’s “God” is simply synonymous with “Nature”, the totality of material things, making Spinoza a kind of pantheist. In one of his letters to Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society in England, Spinoza specifically denies that God is nature is this is taken to mean “a kind of mass or corporeal matter” and in the ethics he identifies God with the active aspect of Nature, natura naturans. Some modern commentators have suggested that we might take this active aspect to be the laws of nature themselves.
Others argue that individual things “inhere” in God, a relation traditionally reserved for properties such as the height or colour of a tree. But another way this could be understood, is through the metaphor of waves on the ocean. The waves are transitory and local and do not constitute the ocean in its entirety, but they are in and depend on the ocean for their existence. This version of Spinoza’s God might be understood as panentheist: holding that all things are in God while paradoxically God is at the same time in the world or permeates it.
This type of view at least resembles that expressed by Spinoza’s predecessor, the sixteenth-century exponent of the Zohar Rabbi Moses Cordovero:
He is found in all things, and all things are found in Him, and there is nothing devoid of His divinity, heaven forfend. Everything is in Him, and He is in everything and beyond everything, and there is nothing beside Him.
What both these interpretations omit is the fact that for Spinoza, God is mental as well as physical, thinking as well as extended. Spinoza acknowledges his debt to earlier Jewish thinkers who pointed towards this double-aspect conception of God’s reality, “having seen this, as if through a cloud, when they maintained that God, God’s intellect, and the things understood by him are one and the same” (IIIP7S). Spinoza does not indicate which of the Hebrews he is referring to, but something very similar to this identification is found in the writings of both Maimonides and Cordovero.
Where Spinoza discusses God under the attribute of thought, he claims that God’s understanding, unlike our own, must come before the things which He understands, “since God is prior in causality to all things” (E P17S). Rather, as strange as it may seem to our mindset steeped as it is in empiricism, God’s knowledge of things is what causes them to be: He knows them into existence. The claim that God’s knowledge is the cause of things would not have seemed unusual to medieval scholars, appearing in the Summa Theologiae of the thirteenth century Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas.
Yet however difficult it may be to determine precisely what Spinoza’s God is, he is quite clear about what God is not. The Appendix to Part I of the Ethics, which we looked at in the session, rules out a God who is providential. He does not have purposes – as this would contradict the fact of his perfection – and less still does God or Nature act to reward or punish particular persons or make the things as they are for the benefit of humankind in general. Furthermore, being perfect he cannot be affected with human passions such as joy or sadness (E VP17). Spinoza writes, “Strictly speaking, God loves no one and hates no one” (E VP17C). The use of “strictly” here, licenses the exception that “God loves himself with an infinite intellectual love” (E VP35) and in doing so, he also loves man (E VP35C). Perhaps this kind of love is of a completely different category to the common, human love, either by virtue of its nature or by its object.
So where does that leave us as humans? We are a kind of composite of a mind and a body, a complex individual that can be perceived in two ways. As a mind we contain ideas, some partial or mutilated, and others complete, that are themselves ideas in the mind of God. As a body, we are both made up of simple bodies, while ourselves going to make up the individual that is the whole of nature.
So, the boundary between the human self and the rest of nature is both porous and fluid, and it is impossible for man to be anything other than a part of nature (E IVP4, E IVapp.32).
However there is a salient difference between humans and other animals. While both have minds and can suffer, it is only with humans – since they share with us the possession of reason – that we can cooperate. Such cooperation is rational in seeking our own advantage. Animals “do not agree in nature with us” and have affects of a different nature to ours. This, according to Spinoza, allows us to “consider our own advantage, use them at our pleasure, and treat them as is most convenient for us” (E IVP37S). So, while disavowing man has a God-given purpose in having dominion over nature, Spinoza places human beings alongside other animals that, owing to their drive for self-preservation, make use of other species. In the Theological Political Treatise, he gives as an example that large fish eat smaller fish “by the supreme right of nature” (TTP 16:2). Similarly, because of our being more powerful than animals we have a similar natural right over them.
This element of Spinoza’s thought, making man a part of nature but with no special moral responsibility for other living creatures, might seem to make him a problematic philosopher for contemporary environmentalist theorists. Yet Næss has argued that Spinoza’s system, taken as a whole, provides a firm basis for an ecocentric environmentalism he called “Deep Ecology”.
The “Deep” in Deep Ecology sets it apart from the “shallow” conservation movement focused on preserving natural entities – forests, rivers, oceans – as a resource for the use of humans. Building on Spinoza’s metaphysics of interconnection, Næss sets out an a “gestalt ontology” which sees the parts of reality as no more than an abstraction, which is defined by its place in the structure of the whole. Næss argues that just as every organism is intimately connected with every other, we ourselves are symbiotically bound up with animals, plants and ecosystems.
The implication of this is that our interests coincide with the interests of nature or perhaps of the ecosystem of which we are a part. Therefore, rationally and out of self-interest alone we can and should identify ourselves with all life forms, ecosystems and the planet – a vital step which Næss refers to as “Self-realization!”. (The capital ‘S’ differentiates “Self” from a narrow, egoistical conception of self; the exclamation mark makes adopting this greater conception an imperative.)
Experiencing reality in this way changes the way we act without the need for tortuous, altruistic moralizing. Næss writes:
If reality is experienced by the ecological self, our behaviours naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics.
This idea of an expanded, ecological self has not been without its critics even within the environmental movement. The ecofeminist Val Plumwood has argued that to truly care for something, we much be able to distinguish it from ourselves. She is sceptical of statements by Deep Ecologists such as, “I am part of the rain forest protecting myself” which might just as well conceal our promoting our own narrow interests as if they were those of the rain forest.
If there is a problem with “Self-realisation,” it may be that it is a term which seems tainted with the twentieth-century obsession with individual self-expression, self-fulfilment and self-actualization, a trend which many see as a the disease at the root of the problem of environmental degradation.
However there is a quite different notion, central to Spinoza’s philosophy, that implies a form of identification, but with something much greater than ourselves. This is what Spinoza sees as constituting “blessedness”or the highest state which we can attain, namely the “intellectual love of God”. This idea of intellectual love, a joy which we experience the more we understand and know God, can be found in earlier Jewish writers such as Maimonides who, interpreting the commandment in Deuteronomy 11:13, “To love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul”, states that “as we have shown several times, man’s love of God is identical with His knowledge of Him.” 
According to Spinoza, In loving and knowing God, not only do we experience an increase in our power but we participate in God’s love for Himself and for humanity – the love for the Divine is at the same time Divine Love.
[I]t follows that insofar as God loves himself, he loves men, and consequently that God’s love of men and the mind’s intellectual love of God are one and the same (E VP36C).
How can we engender this love? Spinoza instructs us that we understand God through understanding individual things: ourselves, ourselves in nature and additionally, other natural entities (VP25). As Næss writes, this intellectual love is more than a merely passive emotional state. Rather it implies “acts of understanding performed with the maximum perspective possible, or loving immersion and interaction in Nature.”
The difficult and dazzling idea, that we can at least aspire to an understanding love of God through Nature, an intuitive and joyful act of loving that reunites us with the process of Nature knowing or nurturing herself, is a topic to which I hope we can return in a future study session.
In the mean time, please help keep the conversation going by posting a comment, criticism, objection or question in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
My handout for the BKY session, including additional readings and quotations, can be downloaded here.
I closed the session with a beautiful poem, Broad Daylight by James Kirkup which I’ve posted here.
I’ve previously posted a more detailed, annotated bibliography on Spinoza here.
— Bernstein, Ellen (Ed.), Ecology & the Jewish Spirit: Where nature and the sacred meet (Woodstock: Jewish Lights) 1997.
— Curley, E. M. Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press) 1988.
— Della Rocca, Spinoza (Abingdon: Routledge) 2008
— Drengson, A. & Devall, B. (Eds.), Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Næss (Berkely, Counterpoint) 2008.
— Katz, Eric, ‘Faith, God and Nature: Judaism and Deep Ecology’ in David Landis Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb (Eds.) Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred grounds (Albany : State University of New York Press) 2001
— Sessions, George Deep Ecology for the 21st Centrury (Boston, Shambala) 1995.
— Silverman, R.M. Baruch Spinoza – Outcast Jew, Universal Sage (Northwood: Symposium) 1995
— Spinoza, Benedict de (Trans Edwin Curley) Ethics (Harmondsworth: Penguin) 1996.
 Baird, J.L. ‘Environmental Ethics’ in Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Ethics (New York: Routledge) 2001.
 Katz, Eric, ‘Faith, God and Nature: Judaism and Deep Ecology’ in David Landis Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb (Eds.) Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred grounds (Albany : State University of New York Press) 2001.
 Quoted in Fruendel, B., “Judaism’s Environmental Laws” in, Bernstein, Ellen (Ed.), Ecology & the Jewish Spirituality: Where nature and the sacred meet (Woodstock: Jewish Lights) 1997.
 Quoted in Gregory, T.S., Introduction to Spinoza’s Ethics and de intellectus emendation (London, J.M. Dent).1910.
 Eilima Rabati, fol.25a Quoted in Elior, Rachel The paradoxical ascent to God : the kabbalistic theosophy of Habad Hasidism (Albany: State of University of New York Press) 1993, p. 50.
 “The Creator is himself the perception, the perceiving and the perceived.” Moses Cordevero Pardes Rimonim, fol.55a quoted in Brann, H.W. ‘Spinoza and the Kabbalah, in Hessing, S (Ed.) Speculum Spinozanum (London: Routledge) 1978, p.111. “You are acquainted with the well-known principle of the philosophers that God is the intellectus, the ens intelligens, and the ens intelligibile.” Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed I:68, (trans. Friedlander).
 “Self-Realization: An Ecologocial Approach to Being in the World” in Drengson, A. & Devall, B. (Eds.) Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Næss (Berkely, Counterpoint, 2008).
 Plumwood, Val, ‘Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism’ in Elliot, R (Ed.) Environmental Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1995.
 Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed, III 51 (trans. Friedlander).
 Næess, Arne, ‘Spinoza and Deep Ecology’ in Hessing, S (Ed.) Speculum Spinozanum (London: Routledge) 1978, p.422.
Thank you to everyone who came along to the study session at BKY on Saturday 15 February. I’m not exaggerating when I write that for me it’s a real privilege to be able to discuss the ideas of Baruch Spinoza – a philosopher who both fascinates and bewilders me in equal measure – with a group of thoughtful and interested people. And I hope you feel you learned as much from the session as I did.
I am part way through writing up a summary of the session which I’ll post here in a day or two, so please check back.
Meanwhile, while you’re waiting, here’s some poetry by the Argentinian poet and writer, Jorge Luis Borges:
Like golden mist, the west lights up
The window. The diligent manuscript
Awaits, already laden with infinity.
Someone is building God in the twilight.
A man engenders God. He is a Jew
Of sad eyes and citrine skin.
Time carries him as the river carries
A leaf in the downstream water.
No matter. The enchanted one insists
And shapes God with delicate geometry.
Since his illness, since his birth,
He goes on constructing God with the word.
The mightiest love was granted him
Love that does not expect to be loved.
trans. Yirmiyahu Yovel