|About the Book|
Spinozas Ethics is a strangely charismatic book, and Ive long been fascinated by it. To understand the Ethics better, I previously read a big chunk of Wolfsons Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Process of His Reasoning, but found it to have little interesting content. (I found myself nodding in agreement with Bennetts similar assessment: ...Wolfson places Spinoza in a densely described medieval setting: the labour and learning are awesome, but the philosophical profit is almost nil.) Ive also read Della Roccas more recent (2008) Spinoza--an excellent and concise overview of all of Spinoza works. Della Rocca is definitely the best choice for anyone coming to Spinoza for the first time.For those interested in an in-depth analysis of the Ethics, this book is a tour de force. One great feature is Bennetts stern treatment of Spinoza. As Bennett notes, there has long been a certain courtly deference which pretends that Spinoza is always or usually right, and it is bracing to read an intelligent philosopher like Bennett, harshly critiquing Spinoza at points where he is bluffing, incomprehensible and confused.The Ethics is written in an oracular, dense style, employing pseudo-Euclidean demonstrations so its easy for the unwary to fall into the trap, and assume that Spinoza is actually proving all his statements. However, even a casual reader can grasp the uneven quality of the Ethics by simply reading the Propositions (i.e., the statements being proved) and explanatory Scholia, and skipping the arcane demonstrations. Theres a tremendous let-down from the ethereal metaphysics of Books I and II, to the generally dumb and useless ethical material of Books III-V. The fact is: moral philosophy was not Spinozas forte, and Ethics is an unfortunate title. There is no material in Books III-V of the Ethics which will help you make moral decisions or live your life. Its fairly obvious on a reading of the Propositions, but Bennett digs in to make the case airtight, while still pointing out areas where Spinoza made pioneering contributions (such as his foreshadowing of Freud and psychoanalysis in Book V).One virtue of Bennetts study is thus that it allows us to set aside the chaff of the Ethics, and focus on what remains interesting today: Spinozas pantheistic doctrine of the single substance (i.e., nature, or as the atheistic Spinoza slyly calls it, God), and his panpsychic doctrine of the parallelism of mind and body. On both of these topics, Bennetts treatment is outstanding. His innovative interpretation of the single substance doctrine makes complete sense of many of Spinozas cryptic statements, and reveals Spinoza to be a perceptive forerunner or modern physics. Bennetts contributions on the mind-body parallelism are also illuminating and useful.While reading Bennett, the thought kept occurring to me: Spinoza was blessed with incredible visionary powers that allowed him to make early contributions to many future developments: pantheistic atheism, determinism, modern physics, rational ethics, rejection of teleology, scientific criticism of the Bible, and political tolerance. At the same time, he was held back by the era in which he was born. Spinoza died in 1677, ten years before Newtons Principia was published, so he was never influenced by that archetype of modern science. Instead, he took a wrong turn- he knew that rationality and mathematics were the keys to establishing the new science, but rather than applying those tools to experience as Newton did, he tried to apply the a priori methods of geometry (theorem/proof) directly to human sciences like psychology and moral philosophy. Obviously the results of such a procedure arent going to be good no matter how smart the psychological/moral mathematician, and thats another common-sense reason why the latter part of the Ethics has little value. Spinoza knew he had the right tool box (rationality, math) but was trying to tighten a bolt (the social sciences) with a screwdriver (geometrical proof). From our vantage point, it seems like a silly mistake, but in the pre-Newton era, it was surely very easy to make. Human progress is often a matter of luck and groping.