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:

Thales, the Father of Philosophy

Thales of Miletus,  c. 624 – c. 546 BC was a Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who influenced much of later classical Greek and western thought

He was one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who were concerned with “the essence of things. They were named physiologoi (φυσιολόγοι), physical or natural philosophers or physikoi (physicists) because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi (theologians), whose explanations looked to the supernatural.

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The pre-Socratic philosophers were asking:

  • From where does everything come?
  • From what is everything created?
  • How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
  • How might we describe nature mathematically?

Thales’ hypothesised that the originating principle of nature and matter was a single substance: water. Moreover, rather than assuming that earthquakes were the result of the whims of divine beings, Thales explained them by theorising that the Earth was a large disc which floated on water and that earthquakes occurred when the Earth was rocked by waves.

Thales used geometry to calculate the heights of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore.

Placing your stick at the end of the shadow of the pyramid, you made by the sun’s rays two triangles, and so proved that the pyramid[height] was to the stick [height] as the shadow of the pyramid to the shadow of the stick.

W. W. Rouse Ball, A Short Account of the History of Mathematics (1893, 1925)

He is the first known individual to use deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving the Thales’ theorem which observed that any triangle which sits along the diameter of a circle will by nature be a right angled triangle.

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Thales was one of the seven sages of Greece, ho heptoi sophoi, (οἱ ἑπτὰ σοφοί) alongside Solon of Athens, and Periander of Corinth. These sages were known for pithy sayings including the inscription [attributed to Thales] at the Oracle of Delphi

Know thyself!

The Seven Sages of Greece were not only philosophers, scientists and teachers but also involved in political life. Thales political involvement had mainly to do with the involvement of his region, Ionia in the defense of Anatolia [Asia Minor] against the growing power of the Persians. The neighbouring king of Lydia, king Croesus, had conquered many of the coastal cities of the Ionians and he engaged Thales support in his war against the Medes. The war endured for five years, but in the sixth an eclipse of the Sun spontaneously halted a battle in progress (the Battle of Halys). It seems that Thales had predicted this solar eclipse and based on it the Lydians and Medes made peace immediately, swearing a blood oath.

Croesus

The Medes were vassals of the Persians under Cyrus. Croesus now sided with the Medes against the Persians and marched in the direction of Persia, stopping by the river Halys, then unbridged.  The king gave the problem to Thales who got the army across by digging a diversion upstream so as to reduce the flow, making it possible to ford the river.  When Croesus was unsuccessful against the Persian armies in Cappadocia, he marched home, and summoned his dependents and allies to send fresh troops to Sardis. The Persian army surrounded the armies of Croesus, trapping them within the walls of Sardis. This time, Thales fame as a counselor was to advise the Milesians not to engage in “fighting together”, with the Lydians against the Persians.

Croesus was defeated before the city of Sardis by Cyrus, and Miletus was subsequently spared because it had taken no action. Cyrus was so impressed by Croesus’ wisdom and his connection with the sages that he spared him and took his advice on various matters. The Ionians were now free and Miletus, received favorable terms from Cyrus including amnesty.

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It was Thales wisdom in science, philosophy and politics which led to the rise of the Milesian school of philosophy which was influenced by both Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics and astronomy. It was Anaxagoras  [c. 510 – c. 428 BC] of the Milesian school of philosophy who later brought its teaching to Athens, influencing Socrates and Pericles under the Golden Age of Greece.

Although Socrates born two centuries later [c. 470 – 399 BC], is more famously remembered to be the ‘father of western philosophy’, it is Thales earlier wisdom and scientific endeavours that have led to him being credited with fathering western philosophy.

Paolo Freire and “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

Any living or breathing creature cares about the plight and welfare of others, especially the equality [or inequality] of wealth, resources and services such as health care, education, freedom of speech, etc.  How to achieve equality of resources though is a much debated issue, especially around election times.

Do we budget tightly and stimulate business at any cost [capitalists views], or do we tax the wealthy to redistribute wealth to the disadvantaged, in an effort to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor [socialist views]?

Articles such as this, from the Quora digest this week, address the problem of the distribution of wealth:

So “redistribution of wealth” is a tricky thing.  Money isn’t wealth, and if you redistribute it, it doesn’t really change anything.  You need to redistribute (or even out via other means) ownership of the means of value-creation, which is a far more complicated thing to do – you can’t easily tax a rich guy a portion of his factory (not as easily as you can tax liquid profits in the form of money). Thus, the real problem you’re looking to solve is “how can I make it so that the poor control a larger proportion of value-creating power?”

http://www.quora.com/Distribution-of-Wealth/Why-cant-the-poor-be-handed-out-lots-of-money-to-make-them-rich

The term “value creating power” is an interesting point to dwell on. If not simply referring to production power [factories] alone, could it mean value in the form of information power, wealth of mind, of heart, of connections, of knowing and of being?

How then does a society create equality of consciousness among people?

paulo freire

Paulo Freire [1921-1997] was an Brazilian educator and philosopher who believed in the power of education to allow the oppressed to regain their sense of humanity. His seminal work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” [1968] questioned traditional education methods, which might simply replicate prevailing power structures. He labelled this a “banking model” of education in which the student is treated as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. Instead, he advocated for a “co-creation” model of education. This model, particularly used in literacy projects amongst adults, enabled the learner to question social domination of race and class that is woven into traditional education systems.

paulo

Having grown up in colonial Brazil and experienced poverty himself first hand, he acknowledged that the powerless in society can be frightened of freedom. He writes,

“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion”.

So the redistribution of power and wealth comes through struggle on behalf of the socially disadvantaged themselves, a struggle first for belief in their own spiritual and moral freedom to be agents of change. Interesting.

In 1961, Freire was appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University and in 1962 he applied his theories to literacy programs, when he taught 300 sugarcane workers to read and write in just 45 days. His successes were both supported and and at points censored by various governments.

Freire believed that,

“education makes sense because women and men learn that through learning they can make and remake themselves, because women and men are able to take responsibility for themselves as beings capable of knowing—of knowing that they know and knowing that they don’t.”

Freire’s work explains how and why the mere re-distribution of wealth away from ther rich to the poor is not sufficent to create equality. Equality exists as much in the struggle of the mind and heart. Once adults can not only read and write, but have the power and strength to accept their own freedom, then they can question power structures of race and class and reclaim not only “means of value creation” such as businesses and factories but also, books, films, stories. They can bring others of the “oppressed” with them and fight for the equality that every human desires.

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