Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), the notorious Jew of Amsterdam, has long been a darling of academics. Excommunicated from the Jewish community for his radical philosophical views, Spinoza devoted his life to philosophical reflection, unencumbered by the dogmatic religious attitudes of his contemporaries. He supported himself grinding lenses for scientific instruments and when, later in life, he was offered an academic post, he declined for fear that it would threaten his intellectual freedom. The result of his labors was a philosophical system that won Spinoza the reputation, for centuries to follow, as an atheist and immoralist par excellence.
It is a testament to Spinoza’s foresight that many of its most scandalous commitments have become commonplace, for instance, that democracy is the best form of government and that governments should protect freedom of speech and thought. Other commitments remain controversial today, for instance, that God should not be understood as acting like a person, judging souls, commanding laws or acting with aims and intentions. Unsurprisingly, Spinoza’s views also won him generations of admirers, including Nietzsche, swathes of German Idealists and, more recently, Deleuze and feminist philosophers. Spinoza’s influence, however, was not limited to intellectuals. Jonathan Israel’s recent reappraisal of the Enlightenment makes the case that Spinoza’s philosophy played a central role in disseminating the ideas that most fundamentally shaped the modern world.
Despite his tremendous importance, Spinoza’s philosophy remains unfamiliar to even very well educated people today. Unlike Locke or Kant, whose ideas are enshrined in the founding documents of most modern constitutions, Spinoza rarely even finds his way on to the syllabi of basic courses in Western Civ. Much of the reason is that Spinoza’s works are particularly inaccessible to today’s readers. His most important work, the Ethics, is written according to the “the geometrical method,” in other words, in the method of Euclid. This method provides technical definitions and axioms, from which Spinoza’s conclusions are derived in a series of numbered propositions. While the style was familiar at the time, it strikes readers today as excessively arcane, the metaphysical version of a credit card contract. His other main work, the Theologico-Political Treatise provides a political philosophy by inquiring into the proper method for scriptural interpretation. Consequently, the work spends a great deal of time providing a close reading of the Bible and the history of the Jewish people. In the seventeenth-century, this approach struck at the heart of the most pressing political questions concerning the nature and justification of authority, conflicts between religious traditions, the limitations of human reason and the political remedies for its shortcomings. In our increasingly secular age, however, the work appears to offer a rather circuitous route to theorizing about the state. Try convincing a college freshman that Spinoza’s painstaking analysis of Biblical descriptions of prophecy (complete with detailed discussions of the original Hebrew) is really a veiled criticism of religious sources of knowledge. It’s not hard to see why Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, from which the American Declaration of Independence is all but lifted, provides an easier route to understanding the foundations of modern political thought.
The real key to understanding Spinoza’s thought and its historical importance is to focus on his ethical views, which are far more accessible than the metaphysical and political views that have received the lion’s share of academic attention. Spinoza believed that the purpose of ethics is to help us to plan our lives so that we can attain the thing of greatest value: a distinctive kind of happiness, which the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia. This term is often translated as “flourishing,” because it comes only from developing one’s own talents and potential. Consequently, it is not the kind of happiness that one could possibly obtain through pharmacological means, say, by taking Prozac. Rather, it only arises from leading the right kind of life, devoting oneself to the right ends and prioritizing one’s various activities appropriately. Since Spinoza understands ethics as helping to direct our lives in this way, he believes that ethics speaks to the kind of practical questions that are most important to people’s lives: whether to take a job that makes money or one that is meaningful, whether to go to college, to have another child, how to balance work and family.
This general conception of ethics has been shared by many ethicists throughout history, most notably, by Plato, Aristotle and Christian writers, such as Augustine and Aquinas. However, Spinoza puts his own distinctive stamp on this approach because he holds that we can only attain this happiness through freedom. Consequently, he thinks that the right life, the ethically worthy life, is a free life. It is here, in explaining what freedom is that Spinoza’s famously difficult metaphysics comes into the picture. According to Spinoza, it is the essence of all people (indeed, of all things) that they strive to increase their power. We become free, then, when this striving is successful, when we become powerful. The suggestion that we ought to improve our lives by becoming more powerful initially suggests that Spinoza wants us to become some sort of Nietzschean superman, but nothing could be further from the truth. Spinoza holds that we most increase our power, not through force or domination, but rather through reason. Furthermore, he holds that reason directs us to act in accordance with general moral principles, for instance, to act with benevolence towards others. Thus, the ultimate message of Spinoza’s philosophy is a moral message, that happiness arises from acting for the good of others.
This reading of Spinoza’s ethics helps to explain his more obscure projects and their historical significance. Spinoza’s political philosophy primarily provides recommendations for how states should be structured to help people attain freedom. Since he believes that freedom comes from rationality, Spinoza’s politics is chiefly concerned to eliminate what he regards as the greatest threats to rationality: intolerance and religious superstition. Furthermore, he defends democracy on the grounds that increasing public deliberation and participation in government increases people’s rationality. Meanwhile, Spinoza’s metaphysics aims to analyze human power and its place in the natural order so that we can better understand what promotes our power, namely rationality and the moral laws, in other words, the practical directives of reason. This reading shows the great irony that this philosopher, so famous for radical and dangerous ideas, ultimately defends a moral vision that appears, from today’s perspective, conventional and, even, pious. This is perhaps the greatest testament to Spinoza’s enduring influence.
Matthew J. Kisner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Spinoza on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy and the Good Life (Cambridge University Press, 2011).