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].