May 28, 2006

Self-interest and self-preservation

By Michael Dirda, May 21, 2006
Surprisingly, the Ethics opens by establishing basic truths about God and nature. Everything that exists is part of the single substance of the deity, who, in fact, is identical with Nature, or as Spinoza invariably writes "God, or Nature." Because everything is inherent in God eternally, there are no goals or ends for man or the universe. As Matthew Stewart says in The Courtier and the Heretic (Norton), a highly recommended new biographical study of Spinoza and Leibniz, "To the fundamental question -- what makes us special? -- Spinoza offers a clear and devastating answer: nothing."
From this rather bleak beginning, the philosopher nonetheless goes on to lay out his Ethics proper. Human psychology, he determines, is based entirely on self-interest and self-preservation, while being largely subject to ever-changing combinations of desire, pleasure and pain. Such domination by the changeable senses and the outside world inevitably results in emotional turmoil: "Like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we toss about, not knowing our outcome and our fate." To overcome this "human bondage" to ephemeral passions, we should learn to moderate our desires, live according to reason and ultimately aspire to a kind of intellectual love of God. This acceptance of the universe as it is will create an inner peace of mind, or "blessedness," during life and permit a kind of impersonal immortality after death.
Part of Spinoza's prescription for true happiness may sound familiar. The ancient Greeks advocated a stoic indifference to the world's ills; St. Augustine confessed that our hearts are restless until they rest in God; Buddhists believe that we must free ourselves from the wheel of desire to find spiritual beatitude. Unlike these austere systems, however, Spinoza's doesn't reject the body or the delights of the world:
"It is the part of a wise man, I say, to refresh and restore himself in moderation with pleasant food and drink, with scents, with the beauty of green plants, with decoration, music, sports, the theater, and other things of this kind, which anyone can use without injury to another. For the human body is composed of a great many parts of different natures, which constantly require new and varied nourishment." And we should strive to be cheerful too: "Why is it more proper to relieve our hunger and thirst than to rid ourselves of melancholy?" It is just this combination of rigorous thinking and deep, kindly humanity that makes Spinoza such an appealing figure.

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