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A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works [Paperback]

Benedictus de Spinoza , Edwin M. Curley

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Book Description

27 Feb 1994

This anthology of the work of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) presents the text of Spinoza's masterwork, the Ethics, in what is now the standard translation by Edwin Curley. Also included are selections from other works by Spinoza, chosen by Curley to make the Ethics easier to understand, and a substantial introduction that gives an overview of Spinoza's life and the main themes of his philosophy. Perfect for course use, the Spinoza Reader is a practical tool with which to approach one of the world's greatest but most difficult thinkers, a passionate seeker of the truth who has been viewed by some as an atheist and by others as a religious mystic.

The anthology begins with the opening section of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, which has always moved readers by its description of the young Spinoza's spiritual quest, his dissatisfaction with the things people ordinarily strive for--wealth, honor, and sensual pleasure--and his hope that the pursuit of knowledge would lead him to discover the true good. The emphasis throughout these selections is on metaphysical, epistemological, and religious issues: the existence and nature of God, his relation to the world, the nature of the human mind and its relation to the body, and the theory of demonstration, axioms, and definitions. For each of these topics, the editor supplements the rigorous discussions in the Ethics with informal treatments from Spinoza's other works.

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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The man who made Einstein's God 26 Aug 2009
By David R. Scott - Published on Amazon.com
Albert Einstein was asked in a telegram by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein whether he believed in God. Einstein responded by telegram: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings." This famous quote is what lead me to seek out and read 'A Spinoza Reader.'

The book was one of the most challenging that I have ever read.

First, for those who are wondering what is in it and what might be left out, 'A Spinoza Reader' contains the entirety of 'The Ethics', which constitutes most of this book, and so it has only a limited number of Spinoza's other writings. Those few are carefully selected from his primary published work known as the Theological-Political Treatise ('The Ethics' was unpublished in Spinoza's lifetime), along with some unpublished fragments that preceded and foreshadowed `The Ethics', and several letters to his friends which discuss his ideas a little less formally. These letters are helpful in spelling out both what Spinoza means by many of his more abstract fundamental concepts, and how clearly he (I dare say wrongly) supposed his logic and meaning were explicitly self-evident.

`The Spinoza Reader' also contains a very helpful 25 page introduction by the translator ('The Ethics' was originally written in Latin with some Dutch), which covers key biographical facts and other background material, so that one need not know much at all about Spinoza to get a good cursory appreciation for his ideas just from the book alone.

Written in some secrecy in the 17th Century, and not only unpublished in Spinoza's lifetime but also banned by Orthodox Jews and Catholics for many years after, 'The Ethics' (along with the writings of Descartes, Pascal, John Lock, and a few others) is part of the landmark in human thought with respect to questioning of traditional intellectual authority (particularly religious authority in this case) by the application of logic and reason, which is now known now as modernism; as opposed not only to traditional authoritarianism in the distant past, but also to postmodernism, which seems to question everything, including logic, reason, and even reality itself.

The writing in this 300-page book is very tedious (It took me as long to read as it did to read 'War and Peace', which is more than four times longer and not exactly light reading either), primarily because 'The Ethics' is stylistically modeled on Euclid's writings on the logical foundations of Geometry -- but still, for those few folks who have taken classes in the foundations of logic or have studied and enjoyed pure math or college level philosophy and thus who will not be put to sleep by such a brutally non-intuitive approach to knowledge-building -- for those few of us, reading 'The Ethics' is a great way to contemplate the meaning of life and the idea of God as conceived by an original, highly influencial, and intellectually courageous iconoclast from the dawn of the so-called Age of Reason. And for me, knowing that this book was banned for so long (and that Spinoza was excommunicated by the Holland Jewish community for similar ideas) pushed me to keep reading so that I could get to the core of his thesis.

Put very simply, this thesis seems to be: God is hypothetically knowable to all of us, but is not accurately represented in any biblical anthropomorphisms. Instead this God *is* the universe itself, and at the same time *is* all ideas in the universe, along with any other unknown infinite substances.

And more practically: our purpose is to know this God, and in order to get closer to Him (one might even say `closer to It', since to Spinoza, God is not a person in any way), we must (for reasons which he deduces literally with mathematical logic and precision from his definition of God) strive not to sink to negative relations with our fellow man or succumb to passions (lust, anger, envy, etc.) formed in ignorance of the infinite chain of cause-and-effect which leads to any given passion; and above all, we must accept that absolutely everything in nature is a manifestation of this God. Einstein's God.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent selections, lucidly translated 8 Jun 1999
By John S. Ryan - Published on Amazon.com
This volume of excerpts from Spinoza's writings, selected and translated by Edwin Curley, provides a surprisingly accessible overview of the life and thought of rationalism's greatest "saint." Curley's translations are crisp, clear and accurate, and his selections well-chosen. The reader unfamiliar with Spinoza and with no background in philosophy is advised to begin with Roger Scruton's _Spinoza_ volume in the Past Masters series, also available from Amazon, and then move on to this extremely helpful volume.
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent, usable translation 15 May 2001
By Thomas Brugger - Published on Amazon.com
Curley does a decent job of translating Spinoza, although his penchant for identifying the Latin vocabulary with English cognates, almost without exception, sometimes lacks sensitivity to the content at hand. Both his introductory essay and selection of texts illustrate his peculiar, if not intriguing, analytical interpretation of Spinoza. For beginning readers of Spinoza, these issues will certainly not obstruct the view of Spinoza's extraordinary system. Advanced students who have not mastered their Latin, should consult Shirley or, dare I say, Elwes, for additional perspective on Spinoza's ideas.
26 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Key Document of West 31 Mar 2004
By Dorion Sagan - Published on Amazon.com
This literally wonderful introduction to one of the world's great philosophers by one of his major English translators can be a revelation. It concentrates on The Ethics, the work in which Spinoza lays down his thoughts on God and emotions "geometrically." Spinoza took time out from this, his major work, to write the Theological-Political Treatise-a work which, by showing the Bible to be an historical document tied to its time, helped usher in the modern, free state with its separation of church and state, freedom of speech and freedom to worship. Spinoza's ancestors were persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition, moving to Portugal and then to Holland, which showed more toleration; yet Spinoza's own beliefs, based on the universality of reason, the proto-scientific philosophy of Descartes, and the political requirement for freedom to understand the universe without autocratic nincompoops who didn't know what they were talking about, led him to be excommunicated from the Dutch community of Portuguese Jews when he was 24. The Theological-Political Treatise meant at first for a small circle of Dutch Protestant friends, was a key document in the 17th century and that eventually led the civilized world (e.g., the founding fathers of the United States) to realize that, since biblical interpretation depended on a knowledge of history and language, correct understanding of the Bible and God demanded reason. Knowledge of God, as the early, non-institutionalized Protestants realized, was accessible to the individual without clerical interference. It could not be monopolized by a priestly caste but was available to any reader of scripture. Spinoza takes this radical idea one step further, showing that it is not monopolizable by any one sect and, indeed, that it is accessible through inner reflection without even reading the imperfect historical document known as the bible. Spinoza's God is Einstein's God, an awesome, rationally necessary being who does not interfere personally in human affairs. He is far too big for that. Indeed, "He" is impersonal, infinite in comparison to man's finitude. Spinoza argues, not always completely persuasively or without contradiction, that God can be intuited from first principles (he is a "substance" with "infinite attributes") as formally as Euclid could deduce that all triangles add up to two right angles. Ironically-due to the importance the Treatise had as arguably the most important single document in safeguarding the future of freedom to worship and the separation of church and state-Spinoza in the Ethics argues against freedom. Everything we do is necessary, since God, who includes all space ("extension" in Cartesian thought) and thought, is rationally constructed. There is no room for probability, choice, or non-causal factors. (This may be why Einstein to his death doubted that "He...plays dice"-i.e., the intrinsic statistical factor in quantum physics.) In a famous letter (# 58, to Schhuller for Tschirnhaus, included here) Spinoza argues that a thrown stone "while it continue[s] to move....is conscious only of its striving, and not at all indifferent, it will believe itself to be free, and to persevere in motion for no other cause than because it wills to. And this is that famous human freedom which everyone brags of having, and which consists only in this: that men are conscious of their appetite and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined." Although what appears to us as evil is made inevitable by this deep suggestion that free will is an illusion unbefitting of the real God (whose manifestation as thought and extension, the spiritual and the physical, are the two of his infinite attributes most accessible to us) accessible to reason, Spinoza adds (p. 269) "what of it? for evil men are no less to be feared, nor are they any less destructive, when they are necessarily evil."
Spinoza argues that primitive religious ideas and poetic language mask the beatitude of a God almost, but not quite coterminous with nature, who is far too great to be made in man's image. He is based on necessary principles, such as the sort intuited by Einstein in the thought experiments that led 100 years ago to the relativity of space and time and the convertibility of mass and energy-to nuclear weapons and the Nobel Peace Prize. We are part of nature. Although I take issue with Spinoza's (and Descartes', whom he was following) claim that nature never acts "for the sake of some end" (p. 198)-because the second law of thermodynamics clearly leads systems to end-states of equilibrium-it is fascinating to see how this deep prejudice-a tonic against superstitious humanity's earlier over-reliance on the concept of divine will-comes into nature. And I agree that final causes play no role in a truly infinitely existing being, as Spinoza posits of God (p. 198): "That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists. For we have shown...that the necessity of nature from which he acts is the same as that from which he exists. The reason, thereofore, or cause, why God, or nature, acts, and the reason why he exists, are one and the same. As he exists for the sake of no end, he also acts for the sake of no end. Rather, as he has no principle or end of existing, so he also has none of acting. What is called a final cause is nothing but a human appetite insofar as it is considered as a principle, or primary cause, of some thing." God-manifesting to our limited senses as Nature-is not to be taken personally. He is too great for that. One of the great documents in the west, key to understanding the progress of both religion and science.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Delight to Read 24 July 2010
By M. Baum - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
From the introduction to the final passages, this compilation of Spinoza's thoughts is truly enlightening. It's not a particularly tough read, but I found myself needing some peace and quiet to really enjoy it. Spinoza's philosophies are insightful and well grounded. He exemplifies the rapidly changing intellectual climate he lived in, and most of his ideas carry over very well to the modern era. The book is an absolute delight.
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