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  Spinoza (1910)*

By Bertrand Russell

Review of Ethic, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order. By Benedictus de Spinoza. Translated by W. Hale White and Amelia Hutchison Stirling. 4th ed. London, New York and Toronto; Oxford University Press, 1910.

THE WORK OF the popularizer, though sometimes depreciated by professional students, is a very useful and necessary work, and in few cases more useful or more necessary than in the case of Spinoza. For, although Spinoza is often so difficult that even the best philosophers cannot be sure of having understood him, the essence of his doctrine is capable of being interesting and profitable to many who cannot devote themselves to metaphysics. Although the task of interpretation has been admirably performed for the technical reader by Mr. Joachim, and for a wider class by Sir Frederick Pollock, there must be many who will be grateful for the chance of reading the Ethics itself, without having to work their way through Spinoza’s Latin. The translation, though not wholly devoid of errors, seems in the main accurate and careful. It is, perhaps, a pity that the translators have chosen the manufactured word “affect” to translate affectus rather than the word “emotion,” which is used by Sir Frederick Pollock and Mr. Joachim. But their choice has, at least, the merit of avoiding misleading associations, and of making the reader aware that Spinoza’s meaning cannot be accurately rendered by any existing word in its common signification. There is a useful preface, giving the main facts of Spinoza’s life, together with some account of his other works, of his relations to other philosophers, and of his influence on subsequent writers. In this preface, Mr. Hale White rightly emphasizes, what is sometimes lost sight of, that Spinoza’s purpose, as his title indicates, was ethical, and that he only introduced metaphysics in so far as seemed essential for his ethical doctrine. There is also a careful comparison of the Ethics with the Short Treatise on God, Man, and Man’s Well-Being, a sort of first draft of the Ethics, which was not discovered and printed until 1862, and was not even known to have existed until an abstract of it was found in 1851 attached to a manuscript of the life of Spinoza by his friend Colerus.

The unassisted reader who opens the Ethics casually is likely to be completely misled as to Spinoza’s purpose. In the first book he will find only pantheism; in the second he will find antiquated physiology, with a suggestion of materialism; in the third he will be tempted to regard Spinoza as a pedantic La Rochefoucauld, retaining the cynicism without the wit. It is only in the fourth and fifth books that Spinoza’s purpose becomes obvious; but the casual reader is hardly likely to persevere until he reaches them.

Spinoza, more than any other modern philosopher, writes always with a strong sense of the importance of philosophy in the conduct of life, and with a firm belief in the power of reason to improve men’s conduct and purify their desires. Like many men of great independence of mind, he feels the need of something great enough to justify him in submitting to its authority. Like all who contemplate human life without sharing its baser passions, he is oppressed by the endless strife produced by conflicting aims and unrestrained ambitions. Believing, as he does, that self-preservation is the very essence of everything that exists, he sees no end to strife except by persuading men to choose as their ends things which all may enjoy in common. Contempt and moral condemnation stand in the way of toleration; he therefore sets out to prove that what men do they do from a necessity of their nature. As well might one condemn a triangle for not having made the effort to increase its angles beyond two right angles as condemn men for being what their nature makes them. His theory of the emotions, in which, by his geometrical method, he demonstrates that men must act in ways which it is common to condemn, contains much admirable psychology; but it was not this that made him value his theory: what he valued was the conclusion that moral condemnation is foolish. It is for this reason partly that Spinoza inveighs against free-will, and finds pleasure in showing the necessity of everything. But there is also another reason: what is transitory, though it may be tolerated, cannot be worshipped; but the proof of its necessity connects it with the Divine nature, and thereby removes its pitifulness. To a certain type of mind there is something sublime about necessity: it seems that in the knowledge of what is necessary we place ourselves in harmony with what is greatest in the universe. This constitutes, to those who feel it, a great part of the value of mathematical demonstration; even Spinoza’s geometrical method, which has been almost universally condemned, will be held appropriate by those who know the “intellectual love of God.”

“He who loves God,” Spinoza says, “cannot strive that God should love him in return.” Goethe, in a passage of characteristic sentimentality, misquotes this proposition in singling it out for special praise; he quotes it as, “Who loves God truly must not expect God to love him in return,” and regards it as an example of “Entsagen sollst du, sollst entsagen.” If Goethe had understood Spinoza’s religion, he would not have made this mistake. Spinoza, here and elsewhere, is not inculcating resignation; he himself loved what he judged to be best, and lived, so far as one can discover, without effort in the way which he held to be conformable to reason. There seems to have been in him, what his philosophy was intended to produce in others, an absence of bad desires; hence, his nature is harmonious and gentle, free from the cruelty of asceticism, or the monkishness of the cloister, or the moralistic priggery of Goethe’s praises. “He who clearly and distinctly understands himself and his emotions,” Spinoza says, “loves God, and loves Him better the better he understands himself and his emotions.” It is through the love of God that we are freed from bondage to the passions, and that our minds become in some degree eternal. “God loves Himself with an infinite, intellectual love,” and “the intellectual love of the mind towards God is the very love with which He loves Himself.” Hence, though immortality in the ordinary sense is an error, the mind is nevertheless eternal in so far as it consists in the intellectual love of God. To represent such a philosophy as one of renunciation is surely to miss the whole of the mystic joy which it is intended to produce, and to misunderstand the reconciliation of the individual with the whole, which is the purpose of so much elaborate argument.

Spinoza’s ethical views are inextricably intertwined with his metaphysics, and it may be doubted whether his metaphysics is as good as is supposed by followers of Hegel. But the general attitude towards life and the world which he inculcates does not depend for its validity upon a system of metaphysics. He believes that all human ills are to be cured by knowledge and understanding; that only ignorance of what is best makes men think their interests conflicting, since the highest good is knowledge, which can be shared by all. But knowledge, as he conceives it, is not mere knowledge as it comes to most people; it is “intellectual love,” something coloured by emotion through and through. This conception is the key to all his valuations.

“It is knowledge,” he says, “which is the cause of love, so that when we learn to know God in this way, we must necessarily unite ourselves to Him, for He cannot be known, nor can He reveal Himself save as that which is supremely glorious and good.”

And owing to Spinoza’s pantheism, love of God, for him, included love of humanity. The love of humanity is a background to all his thoughts, and prevents the coldness which his intellectualism might otherwise engender. It was through the union of the love of truth and the love of humanity, combined with an entire absence of self-seeking, that he achieved a nobility, both in life and in speculation, which has not been equaled by his predecessors or successors in the realm of philosophy.

*  Bertrand Russell, “Spinoza,” The Nation (London), 8 (Nov 12 1910), 278,280  Review of Ethics, by Benedictus de Spinoza. Trans. W. Hale White and Amelia Hutchinson Stirling. 4th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1910)  The first edition of this translation of Spinoza’s Ethics was published in 1883