I reread most of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics this week, and I have to say that he’s grown on me steadily over the years. In my first encounter with Spinoza, during a college philosophy class when I was twenty-something, I couldn’t believe anybody had ever taken him seriously at all, much less that philosophers still pondered his ideas. Then during the first Ten-Year Plan, the reading schedule that came with my set of Britannica Great Books, I read the whole Ethics a little bit at a time, and my interest and respect increased a little with each assignment. If Mortimer Adler hadn’t told me to read the book out of order over the course of about six years, I might have enjoyed it even more and even more quickly.
In that philosophy class, we mostly just talked about Spinoza’s pantheistic metaphysic. Essentially, he says that since God is infinite substance, He must be the only substance. Any other existing thing would put a limit on God. You and I and everything we see or know about, then, only seem to be separate existences; we are all actually just “modes” of the one infinite, existing Substance. That argument seems to me to make sense only if there is some kind of metaphysical space that substances occupy the way that material objects each occupy part of physical space. An infinitely large spatial object must be the only spatial object, because it would fill all of space, and two objects (so they once told us) cannot occupy the same space. But does existence itself work that way? The only limitation I can see that my mere existence puts on God is that it means something exists that He is not: He is not the thing that is not God. And that tautology doesn’t seem like a limitation I should worry about any more than the “limitation” of God not being able to make a rock so large He can’t move it. God can’t logically be what He isn’t, so it doesn’t limit Him to say that He can’t possibly be what He isn’t.
But this year, I read through that first part of the book again, chuckled a bit, and then moved on. After all, Spinoza seems to build on the idea only to say that God is sovereign over everything that exists and happens, and then to explore the tension of freedom and determinism, an important issue in almost any metaphysic. But then I ran into another snag: I couldn’t tell if Spinoza thinks humans have any freedom of choice or not. He says at first that we are so determined that all freedom is an illusion. We have no actual individual faculty of will, desire, or understanding. We only think we’re free because we are aware of our actions and thoughts and think that we have chosen them. In the last part of the book, though, he discusses the liberty that understanding can bring us, saying there that thinking correctly can deliver us from the determinism of the affections (joy, anger, pride, pleasure, etc.). First we have no freedom at all. Then we have the freedom to seek our freedom. What a muddle!
The farther I read, though, the more I saw the contradiction as a strength. As much as Spinoza tries to present his philosophy in a format as tightly logical as a geometry book, the human condition just can’t be boiled down to definitive theorems. Maybe I misunderstood him (at three different times in my life) when I read him say that freedom is an illusion. But if he simply flat contradicted himself from the urge to speak honestly about human life, I admire him for his humility. And after all, how much should I want to complain about a book that ends by teaching that we should repay evil actions in love?