Sunday, 15 May 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part IV

In a previous post I wrote briefly about Benedict (or Baruch) Spinoza, a seventeenth century natural philosopher. He was a Dutch Jew excommunicated from his Jewish community because of his heretical views. He spent the rest of his short life as a lens-grinder and natural philosopher. His books were banned and his last book ( Ethics ) had to be smuggled away from his lodgings shortly after his death to be published covertly.

So what was it about Spinoza’s ideas that made them so unwelcome? Many books have been written about him, but few quite do him justice. Spinoza believed among other things, that our environment is more powerful than we are and the greatest joy in life is to understand it. In fact he thought this to be literally true. To be happy is to understand the natural world, including people and institutions. This was far more radical than it sounds, because even today, people and institutions don’t necessarily wish to be understood in a dispassionate way.

Although our environment is more powerful than we are, although it controls us from cradle to grave via our genes and acquired habits, Spinoza identified an aspect of this control which to me is one of the great insights in human thought. It is this:-

If we don’t understand our environment then it controls us. If we do understand, then it still controls us, but we react differently to its pressures simply because we understand them. In a sense, we join the natural world by a special moderating habit of always trying to understand, however imperfectly we achieve it.

I say that we act or are active when something takes place within us or outside of us whose adequate cause we are, that is, when from our nature anything follows in us or outside us which can be clearly and distinctly understood through that alone. On the other hand, I say we suffer or are passive when something takes place in us or follows from our nature of which we are only the partial cause.

Benedict Spinoza – Ethics

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