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)

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