Interest in Spinoza (1632 -- 1677) has increased dramatically in recent years. Besides the studies of the philosopher and his influence by Jonathan Israel and Steven Nadler, for example, there have been several shorter, more popular works for the general reader including Rebecca Goldstein's study, "Betraying Spinoza", and Irwin Yalom's novel, "The Spinoza Problem". Beth Lord's short book, "Spinoza's Ethics" (2010) takes an approach different from these. It is an introductory study of and commentary on Spinoza's "Ethics" in which Spinoza develops his philosophy in detail. The book is part of a series called "Indiana Philosophical Guides" in which a seminal philosophical work is explored for new readers. Beth Lord teaches philosophy at the University of Dundee, Scotland. She has written extensively about Spinoza.
What draws people to Spinoza and to study a notoriously difficult book such as the "Ethics"? Lord writes: "Spinoza gives us a programme for being human beings in the best way possible -- a programme based on a deep understanding of the nature of reality that anyone can attain. He leads us on a journey that reveals to us the truth about what we are and our place in the universe. Understanding the truth about ourselves is the basis for positive human relationships, true scientific knowledge and good political organization." A friend recently asked me about the basis for my longstanding fascination with Spinoza. I replied much more cryptically than Lord, "Release from theism and final causes. An attempt to combine a secular outlook with ethics. Emotional and intellectual freedom and liberation." The book is one of a small number of works with the ability to change perspectives and lives. As Lord writes, "perhaps the best reason for reading Spinoza's "Ethics" is this: it is a book that may change your life."
Lord writes primarily for students approaching the "Ethics" closely for the first time, say in the context of a course. As she points out, her book will also help other readers coming to the work for the first time or readers who want to revist or remind themselves of the key elements of the book after a time away. Her goal is to engage the reader with Spinoza's text and arguments, regardless of whether the reader finds Spinoza convincing. Lord offers good advice to the reader about approaching Spinoza or any philosophical text:
"When you come to critically assess the "Ethics', adopt a principle of interpretive generosity. Do not assume that Spinoza must be wrong because his ideas are old, unfamilar or do not seem to meet with your experience. Try to understand the text on its own terms and evaluate it according to its philosophical merits."
Although the book includes a wonderfully challenging bibliography, Lord does not presuppose a great deal of prior knowledge of Spinoza. She works, and encourages the reader to pay attention to, the text of the "Ethics" itself. She refers frequently to Descartes to bring out the features of Spinoza's thinking, and she makes some perceptive comparisons of Spinoza and Nietzsche. Lord also uses Spinoza's correspondence in an attempt to clarify some of the difficulties of the "Ethics".
The heart of the book is called simply "A Guide to the Text" and includes five parts, corresponding to each of the major divisions of the "Ethics". The longest sections are those which deal with the first two parts of the book, which Lord calls, "Being, Substance, God, Nature", and "Minds, Bodies, Experience, Knowledge." These are the sections of the "Ethics" which remain most often emphasized in philosophy courses. Lord also offers a careful, insightful treatment of Spinoza's treatment of the passions and of ethics itself in the next two and one-half parts of the "Ethics". As does every reader, Lord struggles with the second half of Part V. Her expositions are clear and tied carefully to what Spinoza says. Each section is broken into shorter sections with good topic headings. Lord cross-references frequently among various sections of the "Ethics" to help the student understand the relationship among the parts. Several good diagrams help the reader approach the dizzying abstractions of Spinoza's thinking.
Every philosophical commentary is itself a philosophical work in its own right. Lord proves herself highly sympathetic to Spinoza's thought and approach. She mentions many of the difficulties that students have found in all parts of the "Ethics" and offers arguments to resolve these difficulties in a way that saves Spinoza's insights. In this, she adopts the principles of "interpretive generosity" that she recommends to her readers. Many readers over the years have been more critical of Spinoza and have found large amounts of inconsistency or obscurity in his writing. Lord wants to expound the philosophy while encouraging the reader to engage with it and perhaps reserve criticism until the book is broadly understood. Following her exposition of the first four and one-half sections of the "Ethics", Lord offers her own summation, which states in part:
"If we align our finite existence as far as we can with the true order and connection of ideas and activities that is our essence, we will be more rational, more active, and more free. We will be less affected by our passions, will maximize our physical and thinking capacities and act with greater virtue, and our love for all being and knowledge will increase. Our lives are best directed at 'unconfusing' our minds and bodies from the mess of passions and external things, so that we clearly, distinctly, truly, adequately actualize our essence."
Lord's book reminded me about why I have remainded fascinated with Spinoza over the years. Her book admirably serves its purpose of offering a philosophical guide to new readers wanting to engage seriously with the "Ethics" of Spinoza.
on 11 March 2010
This is one of the best books you could possibly read on Spinoza. An analysis of his ethics which is exhaustive, interesting, dare I say it, entertaining. One of the best things about Lord's survey is how well it is written.