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.
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
I’m giving a talk at 7.30pm tonight at Kant’s Cave, a series of lectures organsied by Philsosophy for All.
What I am going to do as best I can is to sketch out how we might understand Spinoza’s “God or Nature”. Then I will try and explore what Spin’s metaphysics – how he understands reality at the fundamental level – means for how we understand ourselves. What makes an individual for Spinoza and how does it relate to Spinoza’s God?
In part 2 I am going to switch to the subject of environmental philosophy and see how some of Spinoza’s statements suggest that he may give little comfort to those seeking an ethic of concern for nature. I’ll then show how a recent Spinozist philosopher, has based an environmental philosophy – Deep Ecology – not on ethics but on Spinoza’s metaphysics: his conception of the self and its place in Nature. Finally I’ll conclude that Deep Ecology places too much emphasis on self-actualization, and would do better to stress a more fruitful element in Spinoza’s thought: the Intellectual Love of God.
7.30pm Wednesday 4 December 2013: Upstairs at the Exmouth Arms at 1 Starcross Street, London NW1 2HR. The Exmouth Arms is in a quiet residential street about five minutes walk from Warren Street, Euston and Euston Square stations.
How do you solve a problem like (reading) the Ethics? Try not to get put off by the appearance of the geometrical method. At a first look, you may open the book to find dry definitions, arcane axioms and a series of propositions, pared-down to provide an economical and rigorously argued logical progression from premises to conclusion. However, don’t skip over the scholia (referred to as “notes” in some translations) or the prefaces and appendices, where Spinoza lets his hair down a bit, allowing himself a more conversational engagement with the reader. I would also argue that the book can be approached in a non-linear fashion, dipping in and out, following meandering trails signposted by the constant cross-references in the text, getting pleasantly lost as one might in a well-written encyclopaedia. Whether Deleuze himself says this or not, I’d suggest that the book can be taken as rhizomatic, allowing for multiple entry points, with each proposition being linked by uncountable paths to all the others. If you’re interested in the ethical-therapeutic angle, you could start with the Appendix to Part Four, where Spinoza summarizes his psychological results, providing simple advice on how to live with ourselves and with others. The other question about the Ethics is whether to read an introductory volume, or to approach the work with a fresh and open mind. The philosopher Stuart Hampshire writes:
I believe that everyone who has ever written about Spinoza, and who has tried to interpret his thought as a whole, either has been, or ought to have been, uneasily aware of some partiality in his interpretation, when he turns once again from his words to the original. Certainly this is my own position. (1)
While it is certainly true that every writer on Spinoza has their own standpoint, and reading “secondary” literature carries the danger of accepting a partial view as Spinoza’s own, historical distance can be hard to traverse unaccompanied. A wise companion can be of great assistance in overcoming the difficulties in understanding Spinoza’s seventeenth-century conceptual scheme. All the same, like Spinoza’s ring, I advise caution: even the clearest and most faithful commentary is no substitute for reading the text itself, given, of course, that even a translation is an interpretation. The following bibliography is anything but exhaustive. If you feel I’ve left out anything that you have personally found useful and relevant, please post a comment. It’s also almost certainly more than most people will ever read, myself included, but ask a librarian for a book and he or she will always return with arms full of ’em. And do check back, as I will be adding those that I think are most useful, as well as others that come to my mind or my notice.
Translations of the Ethics
Assuming that you’re not going to read it in the original Latin, the canonical translation of the Ethics (used by most current writers on Spinoza) is by E.M. Curley and has been included in at least three different titles.
→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1996). Ethics. London : Penguin, 1996.
→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1994). A Spinoza reader: The Ethics and other works. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1988). The collected works of Spinoza Vol 1. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.
→ (In Finnish) Spinoza, B. d. & Oittinen, V. (1994) Etiikka. Helsinki: Gaudeamus
→ The Ethics at Project Gutenburg Older translation by R.H.M Elwes, also still in print, published by Dover Publications.
→ Spinoza, Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order at Early Modern Texts Jonathan Bennett’s loose, modern language translation, more readable, less faithful to the original.
→ Nadler, S. M. (2001). Spinoza: A life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Excellent and meticulously researched biography by a prominent Spinoza scholar and philosopher.
→ Kayser, R. (1946) Spinoza, portrait of a spiritual hero. New York, Philosophical Library. Entertainingly written, more like a historical novel than a serious biography, with a short preface by Einstein.
Introductions to Spinoza and the Ethics
→Curley, E. M. (1988). Behind the geometrical method: A reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Seminal introduction, based on three lectures delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1984, taking a materialist view of Spinoza’s metaphysics.
→ Della Rocca, Michael. (2008) Spinoza. London : Routledge, 2008. Clear and readable introduction, probably aimed at undergraduates. Central thesis is what Della Rocca refers to as the “principle of sufficient reason” (a phrase coined I believe not by Spinoza, but by Leibniz) which the writer holds as fundamental to Spinoza’s thought. Also has a useful index of propositions of the Ethics which means it can be used as a commentary and companion.
→ Lloyd, G. (1996). Routledge philosophy guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics. London: Routledge. Concise and readable. → Nadler, S. (2006) Spinoza’s Ethics An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
→ Popkin, R. (2004) Spinoza. Oxford : Oneworld. Readable introduction to Spinoza’s thought, including on religion and politics, and putting this into historical context.
→ Scruton, R. (2002). Spinoza: A very short introduction ([2nd ed].). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Very short introduction, as the name suggests, and by a very forthright British philosopher. A very much abridged version of this is also available in Finnish, published by Otava, but with so little remaining, it may not be good value for money!
→ Silverman, R.M. (1995) Baruch Spinoza – Outcast Jew, Universal Sage. Northwood: Symposium) 1995 Particularly useful on the Jewish philosophical context, tracing a thread from earlier Jewish thinkers through to recent critics of Spinoza, such as Emil Fackenheim.
→ Bennett, J. F. (1984). A study of Spinoza’s Ethics. [Indianapolis]: Hackett. Quirky and partial, includes a chapter ‘Psychotherapy’, a very critical reading of Spinoza’s recommendations for working with the emotions. See Koistenen (1998) below for a partial rebuttal.
→ Deleuze, Gilles (1988) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights. Not sure if this belongs in the “introductory” or “advanced” category, as the best part of it is a glossary of the often archaic terminology found in Spinoza’s work.
→ Hampshire, S. (2005). Spinoza and Spinozism. Oxford: Clarendon. Written by a notable philosopher in his own right and one of a previous generation of commentators on Spinoza though still relevant. Beautifully written.
→ James, S. (1997). Passion and action: The emotions in seventeenth-century philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon. Contains a chapter on the psychology of Hobbes and Spinoza; by one of the foremost Spinoza scholars, who has recently published…
→ James, S. (2012). Spinoza on philosophy, religion, and politics: The Theologico-Political treatise. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A reading of Spinoza’s other great work, published in his lifetime, before the Ethics.
→ Koistinen, O. (1998). ‘Bennett on Spinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy’ A critique of Bennett’s critique of Spinoza’s prescription for the mind’s power over the emotions.
→ Koistinen, O. (2009). The Cambridge companion to Spinoza’s Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edited volume including a chapters on the passions by Susan James and Michael LeBuffe.
→ Lloyd, G. (1994). Part of nature: Self-knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics. Ithaca, N. Y. ; London: Cornell University Press. Examines Spinoza’s ideas of individuality, selfhood, and freedom in Spinoza’s Ethics.
Podcasts and videos
Notes: (1) Hampshire, S (2005) p. 175.