Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Courtier and the Heretic

Here and there I have come across both Spinoza and Leibniz in my reading. Spinoza intrigued me as a secular philosopher interested in ethics and salvation. Is it possible to have Faith compatible with a modern perspective? Leibniz's metaphysics forged an impression on me during my attempt to better understand String Theory (Effort failed). So, while browsing the bookstore the other day I was excited to come across Mathew Stewart's "The Courtier and the Heretic". The introduction promised a blend of historical biography and outline of philosophies that fits me like a glove.

The first impression I have as I finish the book is: Man, Matt Stewart tore Leibniz apart! He portrays the distinguished German philosopher as materialist, reactionary, vain, and worse. While these personal characteristics might be true (I've never met the guy), I was more interested in exploring his undoubtedly rich positive contributions. This attempt to embarrass Leibniz plays a part in the author's worship of Spinoza, whom he obviously identifies with. In fact, Mr. Stewart's self-description is as someone who has retired to "pursue a life of contemplation". This smug imitation of his idol was nauseating enough for me to not buy the book at first, but I finally relented and ordered it online. I'm glad I did.

>As an introduction to Spinoza, I learned a lot. He lived in Holland during the mid 1600's. He was a Portuguese Jew by descent, but was excommunicated from the church due to his views on God. Reading the verdict of his banishment is amusing. The furious Rabbis ask for the Lord to make him "cursed by day and cursed by night, cursed when he lies down and cursed when he rises up". We get it, already. This zealous persecution is better understood with a look at the era. There are several anecdotes in the book about mob lynchings and executions of people with unorthodox views. The leaders of the Dutch Republic were actually murdered and then barbecued in the streets for supposed wrongs. It appears the authority of the Church was insecure due to the proliferation of alternative ideas and responded with violent repression.

Spinoza's first major published work is a treatise on tolerant governance. Although he later became famous for his metaphysics, the surrounding theocracies of the time were what first impelled him to write. He argued for democratic institutions and the permissal of dissenting views. Stewart states that he was in fact the earliest direct contributor to the political philosophy expressed in our Constitution. It is one thing to live in a dogmatic society and another to live in a dogmatic society whose values you reject. A reason for Spinoza's political frustration was he adamantly disagreed with the prevailing philosophy of orthodox religion.

Spinoza believed that God was universal. By this I mean that God is not a separate entity from his creation, but that creation is an extension of God. This view is radical within Western Philosophy, but can be seen in many indigenous religions. A result of this idea is that Man does not hold a special place on earth. In fact, Spinoza holds that our image of God as a bearded man making decisions is a result of our limited and human-centered imagination. Virtue in this worldview is not pleasing this substitute father figure, but in pursuing our self-interest.

This concept was misunderstood by his contemporaries. The typical understanding of self-interest is hedonism. It is assumed that we would be happiest indulging in our every desire and that virtue is a sacrifice of this enjoyment for a later, greater reward. Spinoza believes that happiness is actually found in forging a relationship with God through the development of yourself and an understanding of the world around you.

There is a neighboring perspective to this idea echoed in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama often states that his original premise is that man seeks to be happy, and from there he advocates a life of compassion to best achieve it. Both the Dalai Lama and Spinoza believe that negative emotions are the result of "inadequate conceptions of things". For Spinoza Man, should find solace in reason. Buddhism allows positive emotions to play a part.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone not specifically interested in Leibniz. I am looking forward to learning more about Spinoza in future reading. His perspective resonates still, and I am interested in the hints of Stoicism, Buddhism, Rationalism, and Indigenous thought. If anyone has a suggestion, leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

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