The Magazine

Spinoza’s God

A cosmos in the mind of the harmonious philosopher.

Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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The Tractatus, Nadler points out, is a more readable and urgent book than his posthumously published magnum opus, the Ethics, with its rigorously Euclidean, axiomatic format, but the books have a common aim: “liberation from bondage, whether psychological, political, or religious.”

Exactly. There is, after all, that famous chapter head in the Ethics, “Of human bondage, or the strength of the emotions.” In the Tractatus Spinoza compares the arbitrary divine power exercised in the Bible to “the rule of some royal potentate.” He wants to liberate us from a heavenly despot whom we abjectly petition for miraculous favors or reprieves, from clerics who claim to be his agents and intermediaries, and from the powerful and capricious emotions, especially hope and fear, that those clerics exploit. Unlike the ancient Stoics whom he somewhat resembles, Spinoza thought emotions are best taken care of when they are fully understood, not when they are fully extinguished. Freedom means minimizing our emotional subjection to things outside ourselves.

Of course, you may still wonder if his deterministic nature, which has no room for free will, just exchanges one form of bondage for another. And you may hear Voltaire’s jibes in Candide, aimed at Spinoza’s contemporary Leibniz, bouncing off Spinoza as well. If everything comes from God just being God, then all would seem to be for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and our calamities are, so to speak, simply divine. But that’s why secularist readers (Nadler among them) have always seen Spinoza’s God as a thin disguise for an orderly, perhaps awe-inspiring, but purposeless and indifferent nature. And why we’re less interested now in Spinoza’s logic than in his peace of mind.

Nietzsche wrote that he had “deified the All and Life in order to find peace and happiness in the face of it.” Nietzsche tried something like this, too, with his amor fati, love of fate, but with conspicuously less serene results. Spinoza seems to have feared nothing and regretted nothing, and he lived a life of quiet, exemplary virtue. On the last day of his life, before his death at the age of 44 from lung disease, he was calmly conversing with his friends about philosophy, the same as always.

Like Einstein, we can likely use some of his soothing sense of cosmic harmony, whether or not we pay it the compliment of calling it Spinoza’s God.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.