Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Under the rose

Above is an illustration of the seventeenth-century natural philosopher Spinoza's personal seal. The letters BDS around the seal refer to Baruch de Spinoza. The flower in the centre is a rose and the word CAUTE is Latin, meaning 'cautiously' or 'with caution'. 

The purpose of the rose was to suggest that the contents of his letters were to be treated sub rosa, or confidentially. Spinoza lived all his life in seventeenth-century Holland and although there were wars, political upheaval and riots, it was by European standards a fairly tolerant society and by modern standards, Spinoza's books only mildly controversial. 

Yet here he is, obliged to communicate sub rosa for fear of persecution. Why was that? Well for one thing, he was widely labelled as an atheist, an accusation he vigorously, and with every justification, denied. But even in Holland, it was not advisable to be associated with atheism and the mud tended to stick, as slung mud is supposed to of course.

In the seventeenth century, atheists were thought to be evil-minded people intent on undermining both the state and the established church. The general atmosphere was less tolerant than today and being labelled as an atheist was not a good lifestyle image.

I think this was Spinoza's main preoccupation and one of the reasons I enjoy his philosophy - his focus on the logic of tolerance. Because however the universe brought it about, there is logic within tolerance, as Spinoza demonstrated in his book Ethics. His philosophy isn't a direct cry for tolerance though, but more of an attempt to undermine intolerance through reason, to show that reason should result in harmony, not disharmony. In this ambition, it has to be admitted he was not entirely successful.

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