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  Spinoza’s Moral Code (1907)*

By Bertrand Russell

Spinoza: A Handbook to the Ethics. By J. Allanson Picton. London: Archibald Constable, 1907. Pp. ix, 264.

OF ALL THE great modern philosophers, Spinoza is probably the most interesting in relation to human life, and is certainly the most lovable and high-minded. Unfortunately, the difficulty and crabbedness of his writing make it very hard for people who are not serious students of philosophy to understand even what is not inherently difficult in his doctrines. He therefore requires commentaries to translate him into easier language, if his main ideas are to be appreciated as widely as possible. Sir Frederick Pollock’s book has performed this task with rare skill, and might be thought to have rendered Mr. Picton’s work unnecessary. But I do not think such a view would be just. Mr. Picton’s book is shorter and easier; it confines itself wholly to the Ethics; and it can be read by those who have no previous acquaintance with philosophy.

“The aim of this book,” we are told in the Preface, “is practical; that is to say, I have endeavoured to avoid discussing the philosophy of Spinoza more than is absolutely necessary to an understanding of his moral code.” The author is an enthusiastic admirer, and, in the main, adopts Spinoza’s metaphysics. He has, perhaps, a somewhat excessive desire to find resemblances between Spinoza and Herbert Spencer, and a tendency to urge that what Spinoza says is common sense, when it is really something much better. But in the main he successfully extracts his master’s teaching on the conduct of life and on the intellectual love of God. Much of the moral teaching of the Ethics, being inspired by a general tolerant largeheartedness, remains valid, whether we accept or reject the metaphysic by which it is “proved”; but the more interesting and characteristic portions stand or fall with that metaphysic, and remain unconvincing to readers who are not pantheists. Spinoza subordinates the good to the real: “By reality and perfection,” he says, “I understand the same thing.” Hence, to prove a thing perfect, he need only prove that it is real. If humanity had ardently desired to prove that the world is made of green cheese, some philosopher would doubtless have declared: “By reality and green cheese I mean the same thing,” whence comforting conclusions would have followed as cogently as in Spinoza. As an illustration of the resulting fallacies, the following may serve: Prop. 16, pt. 5, states – “This love of God above everything ought to occupy the mind.” The proof is as follows: “For this love is connected with all the affections of the body (Prop. 14, pt. 5), by all of which it is cherished (Prop. 15. pt. 5), and, therefore (Prop. 11, pt. 5), above everything else ought to occupy the mind.” But when we refer to Prop. 11, pt. 5, we find the following: “The greater the number of objects to which an image is related, the more constant is it, or the more frequently does it present itself, and the more does it occupy the mind.” There is not a word here about what ought to occur, but only about what does occur. Thus, what Spinoza has really “proved” is that the love of God above everything else does occupy the mind – a conclusion which is palpably false, and has no bearing whatever upon the question as to what ought to occupy the mind.

Spinoza’s philosophy, however, whether we agree with it or not, remains one of the noblest monuments of human genius, and whoever makes it more widely accessible is doing a useful work. To readers unacquainted with philosophy, Mr. Picton’s book may therefore be confidently recommended.

*  Bertrand Russell, “Spinoza’s Moral Code,” The Nation (London), 1 (Apr 13 1907), 276  Review of Picton, Spinoza: A Handbook to the Ethics, (London: Archibald Constable, 1907)