Sometimes you finally get to read that book that makes things fall into place. No matter how much modern philosophy you read, without tracing those thoughts back to their place of origin, you will miss a lot. And who would have thought that this little book by Spinoza (1632-1677), who was ostracized for thinking outside of the limits the religious community he grew up in had put on him, would be such an eye-opener? Nowadays Spinoza’s work is an inspiration not only for philosophers, but also across different religious communities. In 1929 Einstein wrote “I believe in Spinoza’s God.” [Source] So why is Spinoza’s legacy still such an inspiration today?
This has to do with the strong alternative conception of ‘God’ that Spinoza put forth. Instead of thinking of God as an external creator of the world, Spinoza’s understanding is that of an “immanent God”. It is not a personal, external God that will put rules and regulations on us. Instead, it is as Einstein paraphrased it, “a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order… This firm belief, a belief bound up with a deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.”
This has profound impact when we consider what ethics is. How can we know what the right way of living is? To know this, we need to find a way to listen to what we are ourselves, to use reason and our natural intuition that brings us closer to our nature. According to Spinoza, when we develop our rational faculties according to how nature intended it to be used, we will not be able to do anything but the ‘good’. What is good is therefore defined by what human beings do when they are true to their human nature, an almost shocking statement when we consider how the opposite idea has been propagated by the likes of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Of course there is much more to say about why The Ethics was such an interesting and difficult book to read. But foremost this ‘Copernican revolution’ that Spinoza offered is something that I will have to think about again and again.
About the author
Nicole des Bouvrie is a continental philosopher and a visiting scholar during autumn 2016 at the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace. She works as a freelance philosopher all around the world, applying structures of thought to practical problems. She is interested in radical change and feminine thinking.
For more information: personal website.