Baruch Spinoza – The Prince of Philosophers

Baruch Spinoza, born Benedito de Espinosa, 24 November 1632 – 21 February 1677,  was a Jewish-Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Sephardi origin. His family moved to the Netherlands during the inquisition to escape persecution and he was raised in a Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam. There he received a traditional Jewish education and developed highly controversial ideas regarding the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible, the nature of free will, good and evil and of the Divine. He was offered 1000 florins a year to conceal his doubts; when he refused, Jewish religious authorities issued a herem (חרם‬) against him, causing him to be effectively shunned by Jewish society at age 23.

Spinoza spent his remaining 21 years writing and studying as a private scholar. His books were also later put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Spinoza lived an outwardly simple life as an optical lens grinder. His wants were few and simple, and he showed throughout his life a rare indifference to money, turning down rewards and honours, including prestigious teaching positions. 

Spinoza’s magnum opus, the Ethics, was published posthumously in the year of his death. The work opposed Descartes’ philosophy of mind–body dualism, and earned Spinoza recognition as one of Western philosophy’s most important thinkers.

Spinoza wrote the … masterpiece, and one in which the refined conceptions of medieval philosophy are finally turned against themselves and destroyed entirely.

Medieval philosophy places heavy emphasis on the theological. One of the most heavily debated topics of the period was that of faith versus reason. Avicenna and Averroes both leaned more on the side of reason, whereas Augustine stated that he would never allow his philosophical investigations to go beyond the authority of God, stating first believe, and then second, seek to understand (fides quaerens intellectum). Anselm attempted to allow for both faith and reason. 

Spinoza contended that everything that exists in Nature (i.e., everything in the Universe) is one Reality (substance) and there is only one set of rules governing the whole of the reality that surrounds us and of which we are part. Spinoza’s system also envisages a God that does not rule over the universe by Providence, by which it can and does make changes, but a God that is the deterministic system of which everything in nature is a part. Spinoza argues that

things could not have been produced by God in any other way or in any other order than is the case, 

In writing such, he directly challenges a transcendental God that actively responds to events in the universe.  In his view, no amount of prayer or ritual will sway God. Spinoza influenced many later thinkers including Einstein  who named Spinoza as the philosopher who exerted the most influence on his world view. Einstein once wrote:

I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.

Interestingly, Spinoza did not argue that humans were primarily rational creatures. Since to Spinoza everything must necessarily happen the way that it does. Therefore, humans have no free will, despite strongly believing that they do. This illusionary perception of freedom stems from human consciousness, experience, and indifference to prior natural causes. Humans think they are free, but they ″dream with their eyes open″.

This picture of Spinoza’s determinism is illuminated by this famous quote in Ethics:

the infant believes that it is by free will that it seeks the breast; the angry boy believes that by free will he wishes vengeance; the timid man thinks it is with free will he seeks flight; the drunkard believes that by a free command of his mind he speaks the things which when sober he wishes he had left unsaid. … All believe that they speak by a free command of the mind, whilst, in truth, they have no power to restrain the impulse which they have to speak.

Spinoza held good and evil to be relative concepts, claiming that nothing is intrinsically good or bad except relative to a particularity. Things that had classically been seen as good or evil, Spinoza argued, were simply good or bad for humans.

Despite his alleged atheism, according to Spinoza, the highest virtue is the intellectual love or knowledge of God/Nature/Universe. 

Blessedness, which consists of love towards God, is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself; we do not rejoice in it because we control our lusts, but we control our lusts because we rejoice in it.

He also meditated on the transformative power of love over pure reason. 

Hatred is increased by being reciprocated, and can on the other hand be destroyed by love. Hatred which is completely vanquished by love, passes into love; and love is thereupon greater, than if hatred had not
preceded it.

Besides the religious controversies, nobody really had much bad to say about Spinoza. Even those who were against him “had to admit he lived a saintly life”.  Spinoza died at the age of 44 in 1677 from a lung illness, perhaps tuberculosis or silicosis exacerbated by the inhalation of fine glass dust while grinding lenses. He is buried in the churchyard of the Christian Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague.

Along with René Descartes, Spinoza was a leading philosophical figure of the Dutch Golden Age. By laying the groundwork for the Enlightenment including modern conceptions of the self and the universe, he came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy.

His philosophical accomplishments and moral character prompted Gilles Deleuze to name him “the ‘prince’ of philosophers’.

Marcus Aurelius – Philosopher King

Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, 121 – 180 AD) was Roman emperor from 161 to 180. He ruled with his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, until his brother’s death in 169, and then with his son, Commodus, from 177 to 180.

Aurelius was the last of the rulers traditionally known as the Five Good Emperors. He was a practitioner of Stoicism, acquiring the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime. His personal philosophical writings,  Meditations, or ‘Things to Oneself’ are a significant source of the modern understanding of ancient Stoic philosophy and have been seen as one of the greatest works of philosophy.

In popular culture, he was portrayed by Richard Harris, in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster, ‘Gladiator‘.

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Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics in which, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by using our minds, our logic, to understand the world around us, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

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While on campaign between 170 and 180, Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in common Greek, the style of which is simplified and straightforward, reflecting the Emperor’s stoic perspective; the work not of a man of nobility but of a man among other men.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

A central theme to Meditations is the importance of analyzing one’s judgment of self and others and the development of a cosmic perspective:

Consider that before long you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist that you now see, nor any of those who are now living. For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.

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He advocates finding one’s place in the universe and sees that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time.

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Another strong theme is of maintaining focus and to be without distraction all the while maintaining strong ethical principles such as “being a good man”.

If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.

His Stoic ideas often involve avoiding indulgence in sensory affections, a skill which will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He claims that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him.

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.

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An order or logos permeates existence. Rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with existence allowing one to rise above faulty perceptions of “good” and “bad.” Things out of your control like fame and health are irrelevant and neither good nor bad.

When you have assumed these names – good, modest, truthful, rational, a man of equanimity, and magnanimous – take care that you do not change these names; and if you should lose them, quickly return to them.

The historian Herodian wrote,

Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.

Iain King concludes that Marcus Aurelius’ legacy is tragic, because the emperor’s,

..stoic philosophy—which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others—was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death.

His death in 180 is seen as an end to the Pax Romana. The increasing instability in the West that followed has traditionally been seen as the beginning of the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire.

A brief summary of Stoic thought is captured here in this video by The School of Life:

Señor Don Gato [according to Aristotle]

“Señor Don Gato” is a children’s song loosely translated from the traditional Spanish song “Estaba el señor Don Gato” [yet with the melody of “Ahora Que Vamos Despacio“].

The song recounts the misadventures of Señor Don Gato, a tom-cat who receives a love letter from ‘a lady cat, who was fluffy, white, and nice and fat‘ and in [mock ?] paroxysms of joy, falls to his untimely death. The English version was published in a Grade 3 music book in 1964.

While simple in form, the song displays many of the hallmarks of classic tragedy and scene creation as outlined by Aristotle in his timeless, Poetics (c. 335 BCE)

Let me explain.

Somewhat profoundly, Aristotle, put forth the idea the play should imitate a single whole action which,

has a beginning and middle and end.

By this blinding insight,  Aristotle means that the events follow each other by probability or necessity, and that the causal chain has a beginning and an end.

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According to Poetics,  the tragedy is devised around a knot, a central problem that the protagonist must face. In our case, the knot arrives in the form of a love letter for Don Gato prompting his heart to react with violent emotion.

Aristotle continues: the tragic play has two parts: complication and unraveling. During complication, the protagonist finds trouble as the knot is revealed or tied and these complications arise from a flaw in the protagonist character ultimately leading to his or her undoing.

In the case of Señor Don Gato, this flaw is arguably either the vulnerability of his heart to love, or the invulnerability of an alley-cat to be tied down to love. Which of these plague our protagonist is up to the audience interpretation.

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Aristotle continues: in the second part, named the unraveling, the knot is resolved. To explain this, two types of scenes are of special interest: the reversal, which throws the action in a new direction, and should happen as a necessary and probable cause of what happened before, and the recognition, meaning the protagonist has an important revelation. .

You need only listen to four more verses to hear how Don Gato’s dilemma is resolved through a rather amusing reversal scene through perhaps a recognition of Don Gato’s true heart orientation. 

Perhaps, the ballad of Señor Don Gato follows the pattern of a comedy, rather than a tragedy, however, we cannot discover that from Aristotle’s Poetics since the second part of his work, the part addressing comedy, was lost.

For now we will have to settle with a tragical reading of Señor Don Gato according to Aristotle

Why I am So Wise – Nietzsche

Why I Am So Wise is one of several chapter essays with ironic titles including ‘Why I am So Clever” and “Why I Write Such Good Books,” in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is  [1908]. 

The book is the last original book written by philosopher before his death in 1900 and was published posthumously.

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The phrase ‘ecce homo’ is Latin for ‘behold the man‘ and is the phrase used by Pontius Pilate in John 19:5 [Vulgate] when he presents Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a crowd shortly before his Crucifixion.

According to Walter Kaufmann, the text contains parallels to Plato’s Apology which documented the trial of Socrates. Just as Socrates was presented as the wisest of men precisely because he freely admitted to his own ignorance, Nietzsche argues that he himself is a great philosopher because of his withering assessment of the entirety of Philosophy which he considered a cowardly failure to pursue its stated aim to its reasonable end.

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In this regard, the wording of his title was not meant to draw parallels with Jesus, but to suggest a certain kind of contrast.

Nietzsche posits that mythological figure of Jesus actually represents the mistake of failing to see that being a man is enough, that the important task of transcending the all-too-human requires nothing genuinely inhuman or supernatural,  nothing beyond the reach of flesh-and-blood humans.

Nietzsche holds that to believe in the existence of objective values is to believe in an illusion that is devoid of any constructive meaning, and therefore nihilistic;

In religion the constraint is lacking to consider ourselves as value positing.

Nietzsche maintains that when the will of the self is subordinated to the will of God,  the content of experience is negated.

Nietzsche’s scathing critique of religion and morality has exerted a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern thought, particularly on existentialism. However, his critique of the person of Christ, the ‘ecce homo’ of history and art, is in my view, somewhat amiss claiming Christ represented an embodiment of ultimate morality.

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In my view, Christ arrived not to represent a divine morality but to address the failure of human constructed morality, the very self-constructed morality Nietzsche championed.

A contemporary of Nietzsche, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, examined this dilemma in his 1880 novel, The Brother’s Karamazov. Nietzsche’s senior by only 23 years, Dostoevsky wrote of man’s attempt to create moral norms without God and concludes that it is not within man’s power to overcome nihilism — without God, man will inevitably destroy himself.

Why so? Dostoevsky’s Ivan asks to what end is mankind served by God’s plan for bringing about a harmony between good and evil in some distant future while meanwhile mankind suffers inexplicably. Ivan’s question is quite compelling because it addresses the problem of evil and suffering in terms of how mankind experiences it.

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Nietzsche’s thought on the reality of suffering fails to account for why anyone or anything suffers at all, or why the problem of evil was ever a valid moral question in the first place, because the exploitation and “overpowering of what is alien and weaker” is a natural consequence of strength passes unquestioned as a self-evident rule.

Dostoevsky’s novel, through the dialogue of the two brothers, examines and critiques the empty vanities of religion and moralism, pointing out many of Nietzsche’s later conclusions, yet ends on a very different note. Rather than championing the creation of new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, the Jewish and later Christian scriptures address the self-created morals of humanity and their failure.

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It is in the Book of Job, written in the 3rd century BC, in which the protagonist who in the face of pointless suffering has the choice to turning back to moralism or towards nihilism, turns instead angrily and audaciously to address God with an ultimatum.

Answer humanity personally!

This challenge was answered in the person of Christ, not an ‘ubermensch’ or ‘superman’ because he represented God’s moral superior standards, but because he represented the face of God’s suffering with and for humanity. The cost of human freedom and moral agency finds reconciliation, and ultimate meaning in the scars of God himself.