VII. REASON

Never completely, for we remain part of nature, subject (as Napoleon was to say) to “the nature of things.” And since the emotions are our motive force, and reason can be only a light and not a fire, “an emotion can neither be hindered nor removed save by a contrary and stronger emotion.” 137 Hence society rightly seeks to moderate our passions by appealing to our love of praise and rewards, our fear of blame and punishment. 138 And society rightly labors to instill in us a sense of right and wrong as another check to passion. Conscience, of course, is a social product, not an innate endowment or divine gift. 139

But to use the imaginary rewards and punishments of a life after death as stimulants to morality is an encouragement to superstition and quite unworthy of a mature society. Virtue should be—and is—its own reward, if we define it, like men, as ability, intelligence, and strength, and not, like cowards, as obedience, humility, and fear. Spinoza resented the Christian view of life as a vale of tears, and of death as a door to heaven or hell; this, he felt, casts a pall over human affairs, clouding with the notion of sin the legitimate aspirations and enjoyments of men. To be daily thinking of death is an insult to life. “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.” 140

Nevertheless Spinoza seems at times to flutter around the idea of immortality. His theory of mind and body as two aspects of the same reality committed him in logic to view their death as simultaneous. He affirms this quite clearly: “The present existence of the mind, and its power of imagining, are taken away as soon as the mind ceases to affirm the present existence of the body”; 141 and again: “The mind can imagine nothing, nor can it recollect anything that is past, except while the body exists.” 142 In Book V some hazy distinctions appear. “If we look at the common opinion of men, we shall see that they are indeed conscious of the eternity of their minds, but they confound this with duration, and attribute it to imagination and memory, which they believe remain after death.” 143Insofar as the mind is a series of temporal ideas, memories, and imaginations connected with a particular body, it ceases to exist when that body dies; this is the mortal duration of the mind. But insofar as the human mind conceives things in their eternal relationships as part of the universal and unchanging system of natural law, it sees things as in God; it becomes to that extent part of the divine eternal mind, and is eternal.

Things are conceived as actual in two ways by us, either insofar as we conceive them to exist with relation to certain time and space, or insofar as we conceive them to be contained in God [the eternal order and laws], and to follow from the necessity of the divine nature [those laws]. But those things which are conceived in this second manner as true or real we conceive under a certain species of eternity [sub quadam specie eternitatis—in their eternal aspect], and their ideas involve the eternal and infinite essence of God. 144

When we see things in that timeless way we see them as God sees them; our minds to that extent become part of the divine mind, and share eternity.

We attribute to the human mind no duration which can be defined by time. But as there is nevertheless something else which is conceived under a certain eternal necessity through the essence of God, this something will be necessarily the eternal part which appertains to the mind 145 . . . We are certain that the mind is eternal insofar as it conceives things under the species of eternity. 146

Let us suppose that in contemplating the majestic sequence of apparent cause and effect according to apparently everlasting laws, Spinoza felt that through “divine philosophy” he had escaped, like some sinless Buddha, from the chain of time, and had shared in the viewpoint and tranquillity of an eternal mind.

Despite this seeming reach for the moon, Spinoza devoted most of his concluding Book V, “Of Human Liberty,” to formulating a natural ethic, a fount and system of morals independent of survival after death, though fondly using religious terms. One sentence reveals his starting point: “An emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it” 147—that is, an emotion aroused in us by external events can be reduced from passion to controlled feeling by letting our knowledge play upon it until its cause and nature become clear, and its result in action can, through remembered experience, be foreseen. One method of clearing up an emotional state is to see the events that begot it as part of a chain of natural causes and necessary effects. “Insofar as the mind understands all things as necessary, it has more power over the emotions, and is less passive to them” 148—less given to passions. No one becomes passionate at what he considers natural and necessary. Anger at an insult can be cooled by viewing the offender as the product of circumstances outreaching his control; grief over the passing of aged parents can be moderated by realizing the naturalness of death. “The endeavor to understand is the first and only basis of virtue,” 149 in Spinoza’s sense of this word, for it reduces our subjection to external factors, and increases our power to control and preserve ourselves. Knowledge is power; but the best and most useful form of that power is power over ourselves.

So Spinoza works his Euclidean way to the life of reason. Recalling his three kinds of knowledge, he describes merely sensory knowledge as leaving us too open to domination by external influences; rational knowledge (reached by reasoning) as gradually freeing us from bondage to the passions by letting us see the impersonal and determined causes of events; and intuitive knowledge—direct awareness of the cosmic order—as making us feel ourselves part of that order and “one with God.” “We should expect and bear both faces of fortune with an equal mind; for all things follow by the eternal decree of God in the same way as it follows from the essence of a triangle that its three angles will make two right angles.” 150 This escape from thoughtless passion is the only true freedom; 151 and he who achieves it, as the Stoics used to say, can be free in almost any condition in any state. The greatest gift that knowledge can give us is to see ourselves as reason sees us.

On this naturalistic basis Spinoza arrives at some ethical conclusions surprisingly like Christ’s:

He who rightly knows that all things follow from the necessity of divine nature, and come to pass according to eternal, natural, and regular laws, will find nothing at all that is worthy of hatred, laughter, or contempt, nor will he deplore anyone; but as far as human virtue can go, he will endeavor to act well. . . and rejoice. 152 . . . Those who cavil at men, and prefer rather to reprobate vices than to inculcate virtues . . . , are a nuisance both to themselves and to others. 153 . . . A strong man hates no one, is enraged with no one, envies no one, is indignant with no one, and is in no wise proud. 154 . . . He who lives under the guidance of reason endeavors as much as possible to repay hatred, rage, contempt, etc., with love and nobleness. . . . He who wishes to avenge injuries by reciprocal hatred will live in misery. Hatred is increased by reciprocated hatred, and, on the contrary, can be demolished by love. 155 . . . Men under the guidance of reason . . . desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind. 156

Does this control of emotion by reason contradict, as some 157 have thought, Spinoza’s admission that only an emotion can overcome an emotion? It would unless the following of reason could itself be raised to an emotional level and warmth. “A true knowledge of good and evil cannot restrain any emotion insofar as the knowledge is true, but only insofar as it is considered as an emotion.” 158 This need, and perhaps a desire to kindle reason with phrases hallowed by piety and time, led Spinoza to the final and culminating thought of his work—that the life of reason must be inspired and ennobled by the “intellectual love of God.” Since God, in Spinoza, is the basic reality and invariable law of the cosmos itself, this amor intellectualis dei is not the abject propitiation of some nebular sultan, but the wise and willing adjustment of our ideas and conduct to the nature of things and the order of the world. Reverence for the will of God and an understanding acceptance of the laws of nature are one and the same thing. Just as the mathematician finds a certain awe and ecstasy in viewing the world as subject to mathematical regularities, so the philosopher may take the deepest pleasure in contemplating the grandeur of a universe moving imperturbably in the rhythm of universal law. Since “love is pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause,” 159 the pleasure we derive from viewing—and adapting ourselves to—the cosmic order rises to the emotion of love toward the God who is the order and life of the whole. Then “love toward a being eternal and infinite fills the mind completely with joy.” 160 This contemplation of the world as a necessary result of its own nature—of the nature of God—is the ultimate source of content in the mind of the sage; it brings him the peace of understanding, of limitations recognized, of truth accepted and loved. “The highest good (summum bonum) of the mind is the knowledge of God, and the highest virtue of the mind is to know God.” 161

Thus Spinoza mated the mathematician and the mystic in his soul. He still refused to see in his God a spirit capable of returning man’s love, or of rewarding litanies with miracles; but he applied to his deity the tender terms that for thousands of years had inspired and comforted the simplest devotees and the profoundest mystics of Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Cold in the solitude of his philosophic empyrean, longing to find something in the universe to receive his adoration and his confidence, the gentle heretic who had viewed the cosmos as a geometrical diagram ended by seeing and losing all things in God, by becoming, to the confusion of posterity, the God-intoxicated “atheist.” The compulsion to find meaning in the universe made the exile from every faith conclude his seeking with the vision of an omnipresent divinity, and an exalting sense that, if only for a moment, he had touched eternity.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!