PROP. XXV. The highest endeavor of the mind, and the highest virtue, is to understand things by the third kind of knowledge. Proof.—The third kind of knowledge proceeds from an adequate idea of certain attributes of God to an adequate knowledge of the essence of things; and, in proportion as we understand things more in this way, we better understand God; therefore the highest virtue of the mind, that is the power, or nature, or highest endeavor of the mind, is to understand things by the third kind of knowledge. Q.E.D.
Huh? The above is part of the 5th section of the ‘Ethics’, a monumental philosophical work by Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. If you are wondering what it all means and how anyone could write this way and expect someone to actually understand it, you are not alone. Some consider Spinoza to be the most influential early modern philosopher. But if he writes like this, how did anybody ever understand him enough to be influenced in any way? For that matter, how did anyone manage to read him at all?
While these questions may be considered heretical by the philosophers who can actually read this stuff, they aren’t by most of us who can’t. So what’s the story with Spinoza? He was a Sefaradi Jew whose ancestry was rooted in the persecutions and forced conversions in Spain and Portugal. Many of these conversos ended up in Holland, a 16th century haven of religious freedom. Most reverted back to their ancestral religion upon gaining their freedom in Holland. Spinoza’s family was among them. He was born in 1632 and received a traditional Jewish education. Through some uncertain manner, in his late teens he began associating with renegade Christians whose ideas were early indications of the direction that the enlightenment movement would take. Spinoza, it seems, latched on to these ideas very quickly and very powerfully. Though there is no real evidence, it is possible that he began professing them in public to his fellow Jews. What happened next appears to be nothing less than an act of fate for Spinoza, for the Jews, and for the Western World.
Among the ideas that he was entertaining included some radical notions about God, religion, Judaism, and the nature of man. In all of these areas he blazed new ground, demonstrating his uncanny knack for crossing over lines that were previously considered uncrossable. Spinoza was a brilliant thinker with incredible originality. This was a dangerous combination for a member of an ancient and very traditional religion. On top of this, much of the Dutch Sefaradi community was only a generation or so removed from Christianity and was probably very staunch on maintaining tradition in their newly rediscovered religion. Spinoza challenged that tradition. The community leaders had to do something to head off the challenge. In 1654 they put him in ‘herem’, the Hebrew word for excommunication. Fate had spoken.
Spinoza essentially left the Jewish community following the herem and spent the rest of his life as a secular philosopher. His ideas about God were forerunners to the atheism that would blossom during the enlightenment era and beyond. He was called an atheist, but would not qualify as one by today’s standards. God, to Spinoza, was existence, or being. It is not quite the same as equating God with nature (standard pantheism), since in Spinoza’s theology God is infinitely greater than the natural world. This makes him not a pantheist but a panentheist, a term that didn’t exist in his time. Nevertheless, since the closest thing out there to Spinoza’s belief was pantheism, a pantheist he remains. But Spinoza’s God is so constrained by the deterministic laws of nature that could only be the way they are, that It is hardly recognizable as God. The entire universe is also determined by these laws, as are human beings. Even free will is up for grabs, as it seems to be nothing more than an illusion generated by our faulty understanding of the way things really are. With all this in mind, it is no wonder that the Jewish community wanted to get rid of him.
Aside from his political problems, his philosophy has provoked countless interpretations and critiques. Without going into the gory details, one particular problem concerns us. With no real free will, with a completely deterministic universe, what meaning is there to life? This is a question which was to plague atheists for centuries – if it’s just atoms and energy all the way down then whatever we do is ultimately devoid of all meaning. But Spinoza was no atheist. He considered the existence of God to be the most fundamental of all knowledge. But did his God imbibe meaning into creation or not?
That bizarre quote above came from Spinoza’s major work, The Ethics. It is extremely difficult to read, as the above example shows (that quote was pretty representative of the whole thing). He essentially boils all of life – God, the world, the mind, human emotions, blessedness - to geometrical proofs (check it out yourself if you don’t believe us). One particular section (4:Prop 28), which is quite short and thankfully a little easier to make heads or tails out of, sheds light on what Spinoza may have considered to be the purpose of life. Here it is in all its glory: ‘The mind's highest good is the knowledge of God, and the mind's highest virtue is to know God.’
So much for Spinoza’s being an atheist. To understand this quote, we have to take in mind that this is not some isolated quip that Spinoza said out of the blue. It is a statement in the middle of his major work, a work that contains a complete philosophy of life. This quote must be analyzed in light of Spinoza’s entire system. Such an analysis would take a whole book. A brief overview of the major points does not really do Spinoza justice. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
Spinoza saw God as the whole of existence. Human beings are a part of that whole, and thus a part of God. All of existence has a basic nature that determines its being. It cannot veer from this determined nature. A rock is a rock and cannot do anything to not be a rock. The same goes for bacteria, insects, cows, apes, and human beings. We are all part of grand ‘fact’ known as existence. However, we human beings do have something unusual in our nature. We have a mind, a faculty that enables us to be aware of our situation, and to react to in various ways. It is in the arena of the mind that all the action takes place.
On the one hand we have emotions – states of the mind that are caused by factors that are outside of the mind and are essentially ‘passive’ reactions to these outside influences. Spinoza writes a great deal about emotions, devoting about half of the Ethics to their causes and their effects. In spite of the benefits we may derive from them, he considers them to be the source of all problems of the mind. Improper understanding of how the emotions work gives us the illusion of free will. They lead us to believe that we make choices and control our own fate, when in reality it is all under the strict rule of nature.
But there is another aspect of the mind, the faculty of knowledge. While this also is merely another process under the guidance of our nature, it does grant us the possibility of ‘freedom’, or ‘blessedness’. How is this so? Spinoza divides knowledge up into three distinct branches: imagination or opinion, reason, and intuition. The first is totally subjective and subject to falsity. It has little value in Spinoza’s system. The second is objective truths like mathematics or natural science. These truths lead to the primary use of knowledge, which is knowledge of the third kind. Intuition, which is difficult to define, both within Spinoza’s system and not within it, is the key to blessedness. Intuition seems to be an innate ability to know fundamental truths about reality – about ourselves, our world, and ultimately, God.
The desire for intuitive knowledge is an intrinsic part of our nature. In fact, it is our most basic desire, our only true desire. Understanding ourselves and the world is to understand God, being as a complete understanding of the first two is tantamount to an understanding of the third. This, according to Spinoza is our purpose, though it is doubtful that he would have worded it that way. The reason he would have avoided the word ‘purpose’ is that he rejected the idea of any ultimate goal in existence. It simply is the way it is and that’s that. Our part in the process is to recognize that our essence is realized when we strive for and attain this knowledge of the third kind.
Blessedness is the result of this recognition. It can be attained by a flash of realization and by a lifetime of striving. Blessedness is the freedom gained by understanding that we are simply a part of the great whole called God. Our free will is not our freedom – it is part of the illusion. Freedom comes with awareness that we really have no freedom, we simply ‘are’. This somewhat restrictive freedom grants us the ability to rise above the pulls of the emotions, above the petty concerns of life, above even the changing and illusory notions of good and evil. A person who attains blessedness desires nothing else, for himself or for others, than this blessedness. It is a kind of heaven on earth, or as Spinoza himself put it, ‘indeed blessedness is nothing else but the contentment of spirit, which arises from the intuitive knowledge of God’
This one is not very easy to work with. Spinoza himself closed his book with the words, ‘If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labor be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.’ This path certainly is rare, so it should be no surprise that it is difficult. It is not easy to dismiss all emotional pleasures and to strive after some eternal and infinite God, especially if that God is indifferent to all the striving.
But it does have its uses. One of them is to be unencumbered by emotional burdens. We carry around our emotions like some enjoyable or antagonizing companions whose company we can never be rid of. Spinoza’s idea of freedom is to be free of the emotional baggage that shackles us throughout our lives. To be free means to recognize emotions as the burden that they are and to break their hold on us. If that means giving up much of what we consider essential for life itself, then so be it. Emotions may be the spice of life, but they aren’t the meat and potatoes. To shun the emotional highs and lows of life is no easy task, it requires tremendous sacrifice. To many, it may seem like there is nothing left. Ironically, this may be the freedom that many seek but are not aware of. If Spinoza is read with an open and persistent mind, one can almost hear the gritty voice of Janis Joplin, as she downs another swig of Southern Comfort and belts out the words, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…’
Food for Thought
This is all very intellectual and pie-in-the-sky. Can anyone actually live this way? Would anyone actually want to live this way? Is life’s purpose supposed to be so inaccessible and unappealing?
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