Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bertrand Russell on Spinoza

Today has been almost completely a philosophy day, as I've buried myself in the particulars of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. I've largely relegated them to a textbox on famous rationalists (which I'll probably post later tonight).

Anyway, I was skimming through Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy on this triad of rationalists. I find him very readable today, although I didn't twenty years ago.

Russell (early 20th century) was of course an atheist, but a friendly one. What I mean is, there does not seem to be an edge to his thought. Spinoza (1600's) was not an atheist proper, but a pantheist. In other words, he did not believe in a personal God.

I was just struck by a number of comments Russell makes in his chapter on Spinoza, and when the striking hit a critical mass, I felt like sharing some excerpts. Keep in mind that he published this history in 1945 around the age of 73, having been a professor at Cambridge, the second most glorious university in the world after the University of Durham :-) World War 2 was just winding up.

"Spinoza (1634-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness. He was born a Jew, but the Jews excommunicated him. Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philosophy is dominated by the idea of God, the orthodox accused him of atheism" (569).

"... The whole of this metaphysic is impossible to accept... And the concept of substance, upon which Spinoza relies, is one that neither science nor philosophy can nowadays accept" (578).

"But when it comes to Spinoza's ethics, we feel--or at least I feel--that something, though not everything, can be accepted...

"Take for instance, death: nothing that a man can do will make him immortal, and it is therefore futile to spend time in fears and lamentations over the fact that we must die... What should be ... avoided, is a certain kind of anxiety or terror... The same considerations apply to all other purely personal misfortunes.

"But how about misfortunes of people whom you love? Let us think of some of the things that are likely to happen in our time to inhabitants of Europe or China. Suppose you are a Jew, and your family has been massacred. Suppose you are an underground worker against the Nazis, and your wife has been shot because you could not be caught. Suppose your husband, for some purely imaginary crime, has been sent to forced labour in the Arctic, and has died of cruelty and starvation. Suppose your daughter has been raped and then killed by enemy soldiers. Ought you, in these circumstances, to preserve a philosophic calm? (578-79)

"If you follow Christ's teaching, you will say, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' I have known Quakers who could have said this sincerely and profoundly, and whom I admired because they could. But before giving admiration one must be very sure that the misfortune is felt as deeply as it should be. One cannot accept the attitude of some among the Stoics, who said, 'What does it matter to me if my family suffer? I can still be virtuous' ... the Christian principle does not inculcate calm, but an ardent love even towards the worst of men. There is nothing to be said against it except that it is too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely.

"The primitive reaction to such disasters is revenge... Nor can it be wholly condemned... But on the other side it must be said that revenge is a very dangerous motive... A life dominated by a single passion is a narrow life, incompatible with every kind of wisdom. Revenge as such is therefore not the best reaction to injury."

"As we saw, he believes that hatred can be overcome by love... I wish I could believe this, but I cannot, except in exceptional cases where the person hating is completely in the power of the person who refuses to hate in return... (580)

"The problem for Spinoza is easier than it is for one who has no belief in the goodness of the universe" [like Russell himself].


Angie Van De Merwe said...

The highest form of wickedness is control of another. As Kant believed that people are never to be used as a means, but are the end in themselves. Presumption upon another's graciousness is demeaning, for it does not walk circumspectly concerning the other, nor does it take the other seriously.
Control, manipulation, experiementation lead to questions about God's personalbility. It is not a question of bitterness, but it becomes impossible at some point to believe in a personal God, unless one believes in a God who is demanding and controlling, when it comes to virtue.
This was the case with Hirshi Ali, the author of "Infidel", who is an avowed atheist. It is a fantastic book.

Ken Schenck said...

If we surrender the idea of a God who provides freedom of will, I think we are left with a world of ultimate indeterminacy, where what happens is superficially determined but ultimately random. Either way, what I take to be my freedom is really the whims and fortunes of nuclear particles. Of course there are also conceptions of God in which He does not provide freedom of will.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

So, do nuclear particles have any "responsibility"? If people are only nuclear particles, then, our wills themselves are only a function of my brain's physicality. And since physicality is determined (by "God"?), then, no one has responsiblity for their actions. There therefore is no moral order or accountability. And the "function" of any communication is only the manifestation of the physicality of my brain's particular function in expressing my unique determinitive "teleos".

I can agree that we are genetically very distinct, as science has borne that out. But, our uniqueness is such that each individual is fully unique, not only in the actual physical but the experiential. And though I agree that reason can be a "reason" to understand, there is a "reality" of experience that yells louder than "reason" at times. Sometimes I wonder if our uniqueness is due to our personalities and experiences such that we formulate or interpret the same facts differently. There is no commonality except in substance...So, in social structures, how do we understand what "spiritual formation" should be about? Certainly, Jesus is not the ONLY moral model...But, in hierarchal systems theory, it seems to me that the highest escheolons of the system do have to "determine" or "plan" what the function of each part of the system will be (just as God the Father "determined" or willed Jesus "fate" of the "cross")...And how can humans determine or plan another's teleos, when we are so unique in our genetic expression that no two individuals are alike (that presupposes indetermanacy)...We can't reduce it to our physicality,or social systems theory can we?

(I am not being antagonistic, although I am a little baffled at how to understand)(By the way, I believe there is always contingency, that is why we can't plan "ultimates", unless we believe that we can predict someone's "take" on what has been planned. Goals of "teleos" cannot "determine" others unless the others are informed, like God with Jesus or the "Freedom of Information Act" as with our government. This is just.)

Ken Schenck said...

Craig, how's life? Good to hear from you!

I was pegging Aristotle as an empiricist, although I'm having trouble finding an alleged quote to that effect in the Metaphysics.

Angie, the nuclear particle thing was meant in the absence of God. In an atheistic world, most human beings will still act within certain parameters because society gives them an incentive to follow its laws. In an atheistic world, we might say that most people are superficially determined to obey the most important laws of the land and that nuclear indeterminacy doesn't contravene.

However, in an atheistic world, those who are superficially determined to violate central laws are removed from "healthy" societies. In an atheistic world, language of responsibility is really irrelevant. In an atheistic world no one has any intrinsic rights and those societies that thrive will inevitably remove and have removed any individuals who impede its health.

In the words of Dostoevsky, "If there is no God, then everything is permissible." But even in an atheist world, the words of Paul continue to apply: "... but not everything is beneficial."

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Laws uphold the structure of society, but do not neccesarily have to be maintained by belief systems of "god". The form of government is at issue.
In representative republics, the elected are chosen to uphold laws that protect the people (for the people and by the people). Unless one is a theocratic absolutist (like Islam) where laws are implemented for "God's honor",and in the "name of virtue" then there must be freedom of conscience. Otherwise, we might as well stone the adultress, cut off the arms of thieves, pull the eyes out of pornographers and kill the homosexual...because they are not healthy for society...This is a state with no mercy or grace, as far as difference.And it is legislated by an absolute view of virtue and text....

As far as rights go, then, rights are garunteed by reason's assessment of "order" and that does imply that the one's who don't obey the powerful (Machvelli?) will be "done away"...so the laws are to be balanced by the three branches of our government. Paul himself appealed to his Roman citizenship..."beneficial" instead of moderation, I suppose?....I thought moderation was the understanding of Aristotle, as well as virtue...because without freedom to develop moderation, there can be no growth in wisdom or virtue, which is based on self-governance.

Ken Schenck said...

I think it is quite possible to justify laws apart from God, just not intrinsic rights. If a tyrant can live his entire life oppressing and killing everyone who gets in his way, be happy, and die at peace in his bed, I see no way from an atheistic standpoint to say he is wrong to do so.

However, most people will not thrive or be happy in such cases. It is in the best interest of us the masses to contract together as a society to keep such rogues from taking power. But in an atheist system, if one of us has the good fortune to become more powerful than the others, there is little reason to agree to surrender that power just so that others can be happy.

In the absence of God, I see no way other than that of Machiavelli and Nietzsche. I find the ethical wheel spinning of so many atheist philosophers today only so much foolishness. Everything has already been said on that topic.

Anonymous said...

I have difficulty swallowing your comment towards Spinoza being a pantheist. If your point is to make clear that Spinoza did not believe in a anthropomorphic god, then you are correct; however, pantheism is a muddled term in and of itself, and something that I would not use to describe Spinoza--especially since he held no "awe" towards Nature or God.

I also find it distasteful that you put Descartes and Leibniz in the same boat as Spinoza. The former two were not true rationalists, that is, they eventually adopted Medieval tactics to defend their positions. It was Spinoza that saw rationalism through and through; hence, the rightful title as the "Father of Modern Philosophy." Descartes and Leibniz were, in fact, Medievalists.

I am not sure what the purpose of your post is, but I cannot stomach the fact that you poorly season such a unique, inspirational thinker. I don't think you have adequately read Spinoza through and through. If so, please update this post.

One other thing, someone with a religious agenda such as yourself has no business discussing anything other than religion. You label Spinoza an atheist, sure. But, you, too, are an atheist in that I doubt you view Muhammad as the true, last prophet, thus denying Christ as God incarnate. Atheism holds little water and is such a grotesque term to use when describing someone whom you poorly understand. Please, be more courteous to one of the brightest, most original thinkers since the invention of cuneiform. With that in mind, stick to defending your faith against other faiths, Islam, for example. You should be concerning yourself with Al-Farabi, Averroës, and Ibn Sina for Christianity would be less interesting without their writings.

Ken Schenck said...

What a bizarre response, brndnjtkn. The grouping of Spinoza with Descartes and Leibniz doesn't originate with me, nor was there any disrespect intended for Spinoza or Russell. I have respect for all thinkers who are trying to be objective, whether they believe in God or not. There is no tone of disrespect toward atheists in any of my comments above.

Anonymous said...


How is my response bizarre?

The grouping of Spinoza may not have originated with you, but as an academic, you're still responsible for clearing the waters. This is like saying, "The term 'nigger' didn't originate with me, but I'm going to use it since that is how they were/are referred."

As academics, it is our responsibility to continually filter out any impurities, which is why I called out you. I am just trying to make you, and your readers, better.