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Spinoza on the Right Way to Live

Spinoza on the Right Way to Live

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Published by Gary Zabel
A short paper I wrote for my students introducing them to Spinoza's philosophical conception of the highest human perfection.
A short paper I wrote for my students introducing them to Spinoza's philosophical conception of the highest human perfection.

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Published by: Gary Zabel on Mar 10, 2011
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03/14/2014

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Spinoza on the Right Way to Live
- Gary Zabel
Like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and most other ancient philosophers,Spinoza sets for philosophy a very elevated goal, namely to guidehuman beings to the realization of their highest good, or as Spinozaalso puts it, the ultimate human perfection. Though Spinoza followsthe ancients in calling this goal happiness (
felicitus 
), he also followsthinkers of the medieval Jewish and Christian traditions in naming itsalvation (
salus 
), joy (
gaudio 
), blessedness (
beatitudo 
), acquiescenceof spirit (
animi acquiescentia 
), glory (
gloria 
), and love (
amore 
).Finally, in an expression that gives the ultimate good a modernpolitical significance as well as one pertaining to the life of theindividual person, Spinoza calls it freedom (
libertas 
). One of the keysto grasping Spinoza's conception of the highest good is to see howthese various strains (ancient, medieval, and modern) enter into acombination in his work that is radical in its significance, and thatbrings down upon him, not only the wrath of the conservativereligious and political forces of his day, but also the consternation ofhis liberal friends.Let's proceed by examining the three historical strains that enter intoSpinoza's conception of the highest good and the transformations heworks on each of them.The most important treatment of ancient moral philosophy isundoubtedly the
Nicomachaen Ethics 
by Aristotle. This is because itboth is the culmination in classical Athens of the philosophical inquiryinto the good begun by Socrates and carried further by Plato, andposes the question and terms in which most philosophers wouldcontinue to discuss ethics in Alexandrian and Roman empires, and
 
then in Northern Europe and the Arab World right down through theMiddle Ages. The central questions that Aristotle raises are: What isthe good that is unique to human beings? And how is it possible toachieve it?According to Aristotle, every entity has a good that is unique to itskind and that represents the completion of its nature. The good is a
telos 
, a goal or end that the entity in question seeks to achieve byperforming the functions specifically appropriate to the sort of thing itis. So, for example, while human beings are capable of taking innutrients and growing, the human good cannot lie in the perfectedexercise of these functions, because plants and other animalsengage in them as well. But neither can it lie in the capacity to move,sense, or desire, since these activities are common to the entireanimal kingdom, not just to its human members. Since the onlyactivity unique to human beings is the exercise of rationality, forAristotle the human good must lie in the full development of reason.This is the same thing as attaining the state of happiness(
eudaimonia 
). Happiness is that end for the sake of which weengage in all other activities, but which is not itself the means to anyfurther goal. Since the full development of rationality is the specificallyhuman good, it alone can serve as the ultimate end of human life, andso must be identical with happiness.Spinoza adopts a great deal from Aristotle's treatment. For him toothe purpose of moral philosophy is to enable people to achievehappiness, and happiness lies in the full development of reason. But,unlike Aristotle, Spinoza refuses to call happiness the perfection ofhuman nature, or the good that is natural to human beings. This isbecause he rejects the idea that anything in nature, i.e. in reality as awhole, lacks perfection or fulfillment. The concepts good and bad,perfect and imperfect do not apply to things as they are inthemselves, but only to things as they are evaluated from givenperspectives. The venom of a snake for example is bad for me, butgood for the snake that bites me. A house that conforms to my idea ofwhat a house should be is a perfect house, but it is an imperfect onefor you who have a different idea in mind. For Spinoza, since anythingthat exists has its cause in the power of God, nothing in the universe
 
is lacking in something it ought to possess; in other words, nothing ismore or less perfect, more or less good than anything else that hasbeing. Good and bad, perfection and imperfection are not aspects ofreality, but rather ways of thinking, modes of assessing things, whatSpinoza calls "beings of reason." They are concepts that weintroduce in order to evaluate the contribution made by other entitiesand processes to the advance of our own interests. The developmentof rationality is good for Spinoza, not because it is the completion ofour nature - our nature is always complete - but rather because itincreases our
conatus 
, the power to persist in our being. We are ableto speak of the perfection of human nature, or of its imperfection, onlyfrom this vantage point as well, namely from the perspective of theincrease or decrease of power. By rejecting Aristotle's teleologicalconception of nature, Spinoza abandons the idea that there is anontological hierarchy in which some kinds of being are superior toothers (for example, living beings to nonliving ones, man to animals,and so on), and therefore gives a radically different meaning to thenotion of the highest good.In spite of the fact that his critics accused him of atheism, in his earlyyears Spinoza was steeped in religious activity, both as a giftedstudent of Torah in the Portuguese Synagogue School in Amsterdam,and, after his excommunication, as a participant in meetings of theCollegiants (a sect without ministers, somewhat similar to theQuakers) and other unorthodox Christian sects in Rinjsburg. His useof such terms as salvation, blessedness, glory and so on for thehighest good is obviously connected with his religious past. But justas in the case of his appropriation of ancient philosophical conceptsof the highest good, Spinoza's use of religious terminology incharacterizing the ultimate human perfection profoundly alters themeaning of the traditional ideas. This is because Spinoza rejects bothanthropomorphic views of God, especially the idea of God as King orJudge, and the usual idea of sin, which involves that of freedom of thewill and its misuse. But if Spinoza is right that there is no sin in theaccepted sense because there is no freedom of the will, since allevents unfold in accordance with inexorable natural laws, then whatcan salvation mean? And if he is correct that God is not a King orJudge, then what can glory and blessedness mean? More broadly,

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