Book Review – Ethics by Spinoza

EthicsEthics by Baruch Spinoza
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This masterpiece from Spinoza is a manual for ethical living, to be free through reason. In this book Spinoza sets out to prove the nature of God not HIS existence per se. He does so by proving certain propositions deduced from pre defined axioms.

Spinoza first starts with epistemology proving the ability of reason to uncover the ultimate truth. Then he delves into metaphysicsproving that the universe is governed by rational laws. And finally delves into ethics which are his recommended set of tenets for living an ethical life.

Spinoza’s epistemology lays down a three step knowledge system that first starts
with knowledge acquired from sense perception which cannot be trusted but only sensed. Only authentic knowledge is rational which follows pre defined scientific principles. But this rational knowledge is also discounted by Spinoza as only adequate but not final. The ultimate knowledge can only be derived through scientific intuition which transcends both sensory and rational knowledge and allow one to see the ultimate reality of world. In Spinoza’s own words “From all that has been said above it is clear, that we, in many cases, perceive and form our general notions :-(1.) From particular things represented to our intellect fragmentarily, confusedly, and without order through our senses ; I have settled to call such perceptions by the name of knowledge from the mere suggestions of experience. (2.) From symbols, e.g., from the fact of having read or heard certain words we remember things and form certain ideas concerning them, similar to those through which we imagine things. I shall call both these ways of regarding things knowledge of the first kind, opinion, or imagination. (3.) From the fact that we have notions common to all men, and adequate ideas of the properties of things; this I call reason and knowledge of the second kind. Besides these two kinds of knowledge, there is… a third kind of knowledge, which we will call intuition. This kind of knowledge proceeds from an adequate idea of the absolute essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things.

Spinoza’s metaphysics concludes that there is a rational order in the universe as expressed through the natural world and through human mind. And this rational order is determined by the ultimate substance i.e. God. For Spinoza an idea is the
first element constituting the human mind and that is idea of some particular thing actually existing.

Spinoza differs from Descartes and does not believe mind and body to be two different things, for him mind thinks and body endures. In his
own words “there cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute.”. He concedes that “the human mind has no knowledge of the body, and does not know it to exist, save through the ideas of the modifications whereby the body is affected.” and also that “an idea, which excludes the existence of our body, cannot be postulated in our mind, but is contrary thereto”. But rather confusedly towards the end of Ethics he propounds that “the human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but there remains of it something which is eternal.”.
So in a way he is accepting spilt of mind and body in some form.

Spinoza believes firmly that for men to be free they need to follow reason because for “men who are governed by reason-that is, who seek what is useful to them in accordance with reason, desire for themselves nothing, which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind, and, consequently, are just, faithful, and honourable in their conduct.

The essence of ethical living in Spinoza’s own words is that “every man exists by sovereign natural right, and, consequently, by sovereign natural right performs those actions which follow from the necessity of his own nature ; therefore by sovereign natural right every man judges what is good and what is bad, takes care of his own advantage according to his own disposition avenges the wrongs done to him, and endeavours to preserve that which he loves and to destroy that which he hates. Now, if men lived under the guidance of reason, everyone would remain in possession of this his right, without any injury being done to his neighbour. But seeing that they are a prey to their emotions, which far surpass human power or virtue, they are often drawn in different directions, and being at variance one with another, stand in need of mutual help. Wherefore, in order that men may live together in harmony, and may aid one another, it is necessary that they should forego their natural right, and, for the sake of security, refrain from all actions which can injure their fellow-men. The way in which this end can be obtained, so that men who are necessarily a prey to their emotions , inconstant, and diverse, should be able to render each other mutually secure, and feel mutual trust, is evident from… that an emotion can only be restrained by an emotion stronger than, and contrary to itself, and that men avoid inflicting injury through fear of incurring a greater injury themselves. On this law society can be established, so long as it keeps in its own hand the right, possessed by everyone, of avenging injury, and pronouncing on good and evil ; and provided it also possesses the power to lay down a general rule of conduct, and to pass laws sanctioned, not by reason, which is powerless in restraining emotion, but by threats Such a society established with laws and the power of preserving itself is called a State, while those who live under its protection are called citizens. We may readily understand that there is in the state of nature nothing, which by universal consent is pronounced good or bad ; for in the state of nature everyone thinks solely of his own advantage, and according to his disposition, with reference only to his individual advantage, decides what is good or bad, being bound by no law to anyone besides himself. In the state of nature, therefore, sin is inconceivable ; it can only exist in a state, where good and evil are pronounced on by common consent, and where everyone is bound to obey the State authority. Sin, then, is nothing else but disobedience, which is therefore punished by the right of the State only. Obedience, on the other hand, is set down as merit, inasmuch as a man is thought worthy of merit, if he takes delight in the advantages which a State provides. Again, in the state of nature, no one is by common consent master of anything, nor is there anything in nature, which can be said to belong to one man rather than another : all things are common to all. Hence, in the state of nature, we can conceive no wish to render to every man his own, or to deprive a man of that which belongs to him ; in other words, there is nothing in the state of nature answering to justice and injustice. Such ideas are only possible in a social state, when it is decreed by common consent what belongs to one man and what to another. From all these considerations it is evident, that justice and injustice, sin and merit, are extrinsic ideas, and not attributes which display the nature of the mind.

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