I was lost from the very beginning of Spinoza's Ethics. Consider the third definition, on page one: " By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception." I have no idea what that means. I consider "substance" something with physical reality; Spinoza's defintion appears, as far as I can tell, totally different. Or definition six: "By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite—that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality." I can understand a definition of God that includes that he is infinite in some way. But an infinite number of attributes? I do not understand what that is supposed to signify.
Fortunately, the rest of the book is not so obscure. Unfortunately, unless you have a firm grasp on these obscure definitions, most of what Spinoza says will make little sense. Some things are clear. For Spinoza, God is equivalent to what we call nature. Although Spinoza asserts that "thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing," he also says that "neither intellect nor will appertain to God's nature." This makes sense to a certain degree, for, as Spinoza writes, "if God acts for an object, he necessarily desires something which he lacks." This is something that troubled me growing up, because we were taught in church that God created man in order to worship Him. But why does He need somebody to worship Him? Is He insecure? That question did not go over well in Sunday School, but I am glad to see Spinoza taking it up. The flip side of this is that, according to Spinoza, "strictly speaking, God does not love or hate anyone." However, he later says that "God loves himself with an infinite intellectual love." Maybe this is logical if you parse Spinoza's language closely enough, which I am not inspired to attempt.
Spinoza was obviously heavily influenced by Descartes, but he differs on one essential point: for Spinoza, there is no distinction between mind and body. The mind and body are the same thing, only perceived as an extended object or as a thinking object. He actually takes this to some extremes, saying that anything that helps the power of activity in the body helps the power of thought in our mind. One wonders how he would reconcile the idea of a handicapped genius such as Stephen Hawking with his theory. The principle seems so counter-intuitive that I suspect Spinoza has something different in mind than his plain words would indicate, but I never saw an explanation. Because the body and the mind are the same, the mind can't cause the body to act, or the body cause the mind to think; these concepts make no sense when they are really the same entity.
Ideas are how the mind understands external things, including its own body in the aspect of extension. There are no wrong ideas, only ideas that are not accurate representations of the things they are supposed to comprehend. This is kind of a postivist system in which there is an absolute right (understanding God) but not an absolute wrong. What is odd about it is Spinoza's faith in the ability to get things right. Not only does he obviously repose infinite confidence in reason (not only explicitly in this work, but implicitly through the "Tractatus Religio-Politicus"), he also seems to think that there is a special state of being right. "He, who has a true idea," he writes, "simultaneously knows that he has a true idea, and cannot doubt of the truth of the thing perceived." Spinoza spends some time defending this counterintuitive notion. There may be some sense in which he is right, but I don't see how it could be a meaningful sense. People who are right doubt themselves anyway, and people who are wrong are often most convinced of their own correctness; since we lack any signs to tell us which is which, the fact that the right person somehow "knows" that he is right doesn't seem to be of much practical use even if one could make a theoretical argument demonstrating that it is true.
Much of the book centers around explaining what emotions are, how they affect us, and what we can do about them. A human, like any other entity, exists to perpetuate itself. That is its essence. Anything that tends to destroy it, or even limit its power of action, is bad; anything that increases its power of action is good. This is a remarkably materialist conception of the world, and seems to point to Darwin and evolution insofar as it identifies self-preservation as the major goal of life. Spinoza, however, carries it further to establish a moral right to do what things would do naturally, i.e. to perpetuate themselves: "the first and only foundation of virtue, or the rule of right living is (IV. xxii. Coroll. and xxiv.) seeking one's own true interest."
A body desires to perpetuate itself and increase its power; anything that promotes that causes pleasure, and anything that counters it causes pain. We accordingly love that which causes pleasure and hate that which causes pain. Spinoza elaborates a whole list of emotions based around these two ideas. Naturally, "love" comes down to things causing us pleasure; there is nothing romantic or irrational in the emotion for him. Ultimately, Spinoza argues that if we only act rationally, we can overcome our emotions and achieve true blessedness.
Spinoza claims that our rational self-interest will lead us to want to live in harmony with other people, but his evidence is scanty. You have to take a very particular view of self-interest to arrive at the peaceful world that he creates. The fact that he wrote this book like Euclid's Elements, with postulates, axioms, propositions, and corollaries, doesn't make it in the least more convincing. Geometry might lend itself to such abstract definitions, but human behaviour does not, and much of what Spinoza tries to prove seems to come down to empirical questions. Consider, for example, the following proposition and its "proof":
PROP. XVIII. A man is as much affected pleasurably or painfully by the image of a thing past or future as by the image of a thing present.Proof.—So long as a man is affected by the image of anything, he will regard that thing as present, even though it be non—existent (II. xvii. and Coroll.), he will not conceive it as past or future, except in so far as its image is joined to the image of time past or future (II. xliv. note). Wherefore the image of a thing, regarded in itself alone, is identical, whether it be referred to time past, time future, or time present; that is (II. xvi. Coroll.), the disposition or emotion of the body is identical, whether the image be of a thing past, future, or present. Thus the emotion of pleasure or pain is the same, whether the image be of a thing past or future. Q.E.D.
I don't find it convincing, and I don't see how a proof in this form could ever be very convincing -- and I am a stronger believer in the power of a priori reasoning that most other people I know. (For instance, I was much influenced by Ludwig von Mises's "Human Action.") Spinoza obviously went to an enormous amount of effort to construct this tight logical system, yet it is beyond me how he ever expected anyone to be convinced by it. And plainly they aren't convinced, in the same way that they are convinced by mathematical proofs, because people take the trouble to prove or disprove the latter, but no one has tried to refute Spinoza on his own terms as far as I am aware. It is the ultimate form of disbelief not to bother to disprove someone's reasoning.
I don't want to say that there aren't many interesting ideas in here. I like the parts better where Spinoza allows himself to digress and engage with those whom he thinks will not follow his logic. In the first long digression, he takes to task those who find fault with God: if God is perfect, they ask, "why are there so many imperfections in nature?" One often hears this kind of argument in regard to evolution: why would God create this type of creature with such obvious imperfections, such as the superfluous appendix on humans? But this logic comes from people who are predisposed to see a design in everything, and "when they behold something in Nature, which does not wholly conform to the preconceived type which they have formed of the thing in question, they say that Nature has fallen short or has blundered, and has left her work incomplete. Thus we see that men are wont to style natural phenomena perfect or imperfect rather from their own prejudices, than from true knowledge of what they pronounce upon." This is another of my particular irritations with atheists, that they hold God to human standards, as though God should need to create things according to what humans think would make the most sense.
Spinoza seems to foreshadow a number of later developments in philosophy and even science. For instance, he states clearly that a body in motion remains in motion until it is impinged upon by another body, an idea that I had previously associated exclusively with Newton. His idea of perception seems to anticipate the idealists of the following century, when he says that "the ideas, which we have of external bodies, indicate rather the constitution of our own body than the nature of external bodies."
The most extraordinary thing about this book is perhaps its title and purported subject matter, ethics. Spinoza argues that self-preservation is the essence of humans (and everything else as well) and says that self-interest is "the first and only principle" of virtue. What is the point of an ethics that tells you to do what you would have done without it? True, Spinoza proposes that an enlightened self-interest will lead us to get along, but those who fail to follow this principle are only damaging themselves. I suppose it could be an ethics of a certain sort to instruct people to "be true to themselves," but not in the traditional sense.
Also, although Spinoza argues that our true interest lies in getting along with one another, he makes no allowances for genuine self-sacrifice. He does make some attempt to argue that the mind continues after the body's death -- a feeble attempt, in my opinion, after he has invested so much effort into convincing us that the mind and the body are two aspects of the same thing. In any case, even this extension of the mind in time gives him no cause to argue that we could ever give our own lives for the sake of another person. Since that would be against self-preservation, it must, in Spinoza's view, be unethical. He does not even allow that we may wish to stay alive for the sake of someone else. "No one wishes to preserve his being for the sake of anything else," he writes, thereby seeming to deny the feeling that many parents have that they have a responsibility to keep themselves alive in order to raise and protect their children.
Even if one ignores this curious approach to ethics, Spinoza's book is still extraordinarily curious in light of his completely deterministic view of activity. Everything follows strictly from its cause in an unending chain back to God; humans, he stresses, do not really make choices. So what could be the point of a book on the right way to behave? Anything that happens will happen inevitably without any moral choice on our part. I suppose Spinoza might argue that he wrote the book because of the same inevitabiliity that everything happens, but, like every other strict predestination/predeterminationist thinker ever, he still writes as though he believes that people are making choices. It is true that the last section of the book talks about how reason can overcome the emotions, and even uses the phrase "of human freedom" in its title, but I can't imagine that Spinoza is using the word freedom in the same sense that other people use it. For he has not only attempted to show that all actions are inevitable, but has even argued that the mind can never cause the body to act, so his discussion of the uses of reason sound hollow.