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Sunday, 28 December 2008

SPINOZA – The Absolute Philosopher

Towards the end of 15th Century, around the time when Columbus was in pursuit of discovering India, Ferdinand the King of Spain, who financed Columbus Journey, started persecuting the Jews in his kingdom of central Europe, not for any religious acrimony but to grow his exchequer.

Jews who were wealthy merchants and traders then fled for their safety. From the many ports in Europe they boarded vessels in search of a peaceful refuge. In predominant Christian Europe and Islamic Africa they were not welcomed in most of the places. They were killed in Africa for the jewelries they were expected to have swallowed. Some settled in Venice but a majority of them took refuge in small but large hearted country of Holland. Espinoza, a Portuguese Jews family was one among them.

Jews prospered in Holland. They built there first Synagogue in 1598. Seventy five years later they built there second synagogue with the help of local Christians. The perennially persecuted Jews were indebted to the Christian inhabitants for giving them shelter when they were thrown out from Europe and not only that they got a peaceful and conducive environment in which they flourished in trade.

So when Jew Uriel A Costa wrote a treatise vigorously attacking the Concept of Afterlife, which was not very contrary to the Jews belief, the synagogue compelled him to retract publicly lest it hurts the religious sentiments of the Christians who till now have been very benevolent and tolerant towards the Jews. Uriel A Costa had to undergo the penance and the ritual required him to lay prostrate in front of threshold of synagogue and members of congregation would walk over him. After the ritual Uriel A Costa went home with a pride of a dead man. Agitated, he wrote denunciation of his persecutors and shot himself dead.

This was 1640. Brauch Espinoza (Spinoza), the brightest student of aforementioned Synagogue was then just 8 years old. This incident made a big impact in his life.The precocious boy, to whom the community was looking forward, then drowned himself in the study of Jewish philosophy and theology. Unsatiated he started learning Latin so that he could read Hellenic philosophy. But aside Latin he also got interested in the beautiful daughter of his master. He is not to be blamed because in youthfulness such dalliance are natural and more so when beauty was this ethereal. But the girl didn’t find our boy worthy enough in front of precious gifts bestowed on her by another suitor. She left Spinoza and the world should be indebted to her for her infidelity. This was the event which turned the Spinoza into a philosopher and arguably the most important philosopher of modern time.
Unrequited in love he found solace in Latin, which he mastered. He read Greek masters like Plato and Aristotle but consented more with Stoics, Democritus, Epicurus and the atomist. But he was influenced most by Descartes(of "'Cogito Ergo Sum' : I Think, therefore I am" fame) the father of subjective and idealist tradition in modern philosophy to whose concept of ‘Homogenous substance’ he concurred the most. Not only he concurred but he took it from where Desecrates left and propounded it further removing the duality of matter and mind saying that all being in this world arose from one homogenous, infinite, free 'Substance'.Reader must not take the word 'Substance' literally for we'll see later that it is much more profound, in fact the profoundest thing.
For his iconoclastic view, this once poster child of synagogue, was called by the Jews Clergy and asked to publicly agree with the normative Jews beliefs, at least externally for which he was offered an annuity of $500.
The difference between an ordinary man and an extraordinary man is that of an extra which he engenders. Ordinary man concurs to the views which are prevailing in the society but an extraordinary man creates his own which can be contrarian to popular views. Not only he creates but also he sticks to it despite all odds.Spinoza was an extraordinary man. He refused the offer.
Hence he was excommunicated not much because Clergy have started disliking him but more to appease the native Christians lest there religious sentiments are hurt. But Spinoza was no A Costa and he took excommunication with a great courage.
He shifted to Hague and subsisted for rest of his life by grinding lenses. On 20 Feb. 1677 he died leaving a great work unpublished the task of which he bestowed to his friend. His sublime work 'Ethics' was published after his death. ‘Ethics’ brought him his due greatness though posthumously. Lets us have a glimpse at what he taught.

Just as in Geometry where in conclusion follows from axiom which is taken as universal truth, in Spinoza’s system moral and physical facts which philosopher considers follows from their Definition. The three main elements of Spinoza’s system are Substance, Attribute and Mode.

Theory of Substance: Substance exists in itself and is conceived by itself. Substance is its own cause, otherwise it would have been produced by something else and in that cased it would not have been substance. Substance is infinite. If it was finite it would be limited by other substance and consequently depend on them and in that case it would not be a substance. There is only one substance. If there is more than one then they would limit each other and hence dependent on each other hence not a substance. Hence there is only one substance which depends on nothing and on which everything depends. Now substance should not be taken in literal term. Here we should avoid referring anything as substance which ceases to exist by itself. The term should signify the being which exist in itself and is conceived by itself and on which all other things are dependent and derived and if that makes it a God then lets accept that God alone is substance and substance is God. Since Substance is all by itself, infinite and alone its free. But its liberty is synonymous with necessity but not with constrain. To act necessarily means to determine one’s self, to act under constrain is to be determined, in spite of one’s self, by an external cause. It has neither intellect nor will. Had it had these it would have acted for an end in view but it doesn’t. It is the efficient cause of the things.

Theory of Attributes: Attribute means the essence of the substance. Substance (God) has infinite attributes each of which expresses distinctively the essence of it. Human intellect knows two attributes of substance: extension and the thought. Now attributes are not inherent to God. It is the way in which intellect can perceive god which can be in infinitely different ways (attributes) Spinoza holds that God has neither will nor intelligence yet he attributes thought to him and speaks of infinite intelligence. This is contradicting in nature. This opposition can be cleared if we understand that Spinoza’s God is not the creature of universe but universe it self. Now indeed there is reason and logic in universe but that has not come consciously by thinking of God but is inherent to universe and comes unconsciously. Just as a spider weaves it web without slightest notion of geometry and reason the Spinoza’s god is unconsciously intelligent.

Theory of Mode: Mode signifies the modification of the substance, i.e. that which exists in and is conceived by something other than itself. The modifications of extention are motion and rest and modification of thought are intellect and will. Thus movement, intellect and will are modes (modification) of substance or its attributes. Like substance and its infinite attributes modes are also infinite in nature. Each infinite mode consists of infinite series of finite mode e.g. motion is eternal but the corporeal form which it constitutes originates and decays. The human soul like all intellectual modes is modification of infinite thought. Similarly human body is modification of infinite extension. Since the intellectual or ideal order and the real or corporeal order are parallel, every soul corresponds to a body, and every body corresponds to an idea. The mind is therefore the conscious image of body. Sensation is a bodily phenomena; it is prerogative of human and animal bodies and result from the superior organization of their body. Similarly Perception is the mental phenomena. As a body is affected by sensation, mind creates and image or idea about this sensation.

Late 20th century Europe demonstrated a greater philosophical interest in Spinoza, often from a left-wing or Marxist perspective. Gilles Deleuze’s, the French philosopher, doctoral thesis, published in 1968, refers to him as "the prince of philosophers”. He called Spinoza the Absolute philosopher for his philosophical accomplishments. George Eliot translated, for the first time, ‘Ethics’ in English. W. Somerset Maugham alluded to one of Spinoza's central concepts with the title of his novel, “Of Human Bondage”. Albert Einstein named Spinoza as the philosopher who exerted the most influence on his world view Spinoza equated God (infinite substance) with Nature, consistent with Einstein's belief in an impersonal deity. In 1929, Einstein was asked in a telegram by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein whether he believed in God. Einstein responded by telegram: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings."