Spinoza: A Philosopher for the 21st Century

In his book God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens calls for a second enlightenment to sweep away faith-based religion. And he is not alone in this wish. Authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and many others have recently published books attacking organized religion. Yet, though many would agree that reason and tolerance are important, the longing for some kind of spiritual meaning or connection remains. Spinoza’s philosophy might provide this, and in a way perfectly compatible with science and reason.

Spinoza

Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 and raised as an Orthodox Jew. When he was 24, however, he was expelled from the Jewish community for his heretical beliefs. Forced to earn a living, he became a lense grinder and died in 1677. His most famous work, simply titled Ethics, was published after his death.

Spinoza was a biblical scholar, but he was also very interested in the scientific revolution then underway in England and France. Indeed, he even spent his working life grinding and polishing lenses for the microscopes and telescopes that would be central to this revolution. And it is his interest in both religion and science that makes Spinoza so relevant to the 21st century.

The 21st Century

The average inhabitant of a developed country enjoys a standard of living unimaginable to the vast majority of human beings in history. Even a Roman Emperor or Medieval monarch would have been astonished by the electric lights, flat screen TVs, central heating, and countless other luxuries that people now take for granted.

And yet such things do not seem to have made the average person any happier. Indeed, the statistics are shocking. In the USA, the richest nation on earth, around 15% of the population are so miserable that they take anti-depressant medication on a daily basis. In the UK, one in three women have taken such drugs, and their use is so widespread that popular brands can be detected in the drinking water!

Of course, the reasons for this are numerous and complex. The world is overcrowded, life moves at an ever-faster pace, more and more people live alone, 24-hour-news channels constantly alarm and frighten us, and so on. But the decline of religious faith, and the loss of religious consolation, has undoubtedly played its part as well. As early as the 1880s, Nietzsche was warning that the “spectre of nihilism” was “haunting Europe”, by which he meant a sense of emptiness, meaninglessness and futility.

All Is God

The great advantage of Spinoza’s philosophy is that it provides a sense of meaning wholly compatible with science and reason. For example, Einstein once wrote that, though he did not believe in a personal God, and though he rejected organized religion, he did believe in “the God of Spinoza.” He was, he said “a deeply religious non-believer.”

Like most great philosophers, Spinoza began by disagreeing with a previous philosopher. In his case, it was the Frenchman Rene Descartes. Descartes argued that three fundamentally different substances existed – consciousness, matter, and God. Spinoza rejected this. If there is a God, said Spinoza, then such a being cannot have boundaries or limits. Consciousness and matter are not separate things but aspects of God. And God is not a separate being, observing the world from the outside – all is God.

Even the most secular and skeptical have found comfort in these ideas. And this pantheistic view has inspired many poets, philosophers, and scientists – especially during the Romantic period. After all, Spinoza did not believe in an immortal soul and was highly critical of the Bible. But his philosophy offers a different path for those who cannot accept the literal truth of religious myths and yet find scientific materialism oppressive.

The British physicist Paul Davies, for example, once said in an interview that, while he rejected the idea of God as a “cosmic magician,” he still used the word to describe “the wonderful laws that can bring a Universe into existence.” Even Carl Sagan, another atheist, wrote that a new kind of religion was needed, one that “stressed the magnificence of the Universe.” Such a religion, he wrote, would inspire a sense of “awe and reverence hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Under the Aspect of Eternity

A critic would no doubt reply that such awe and wonder is of little use when confronted by life’s tragedies. After all, religion provides consolation as well. When people feel lonely, when a loved one dies, or when some other misfortune or misery befalls them, they find comfort in the thought that a supernatural being loves them, cares about them, and will some day put everything right. What use is Spinoza’s nature-worship in situations like those?

In fact, Spinoza does provide an answer. But for him, consolation can be found in a new perspective rather than a new faith. He used the Latin phrase sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”) to mean a certain way of looking at or experiencing the world. For Spinoza, time is a human invention, as is the belief that parts of the whole can suffer in isolation. Learn to see yourself and your suffering from a God’s eye perspective and you will be soothed and calmed.

Einstein once again provides a good example of this. Trapped in a storm at sea, he wrote in his diary on 10th December 1931, “even more than usual, one feels the insignificance of the individual, and it makes one happy.” He also agreed with Spinoza that time was a human invention. When his friend Michele Besso died, Einstein wrote to Besso’s family that “the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

Finally, it should be said that attempts have been made to forge a new kind of religion based around Spinoza’s pantheism. Inspired by Spinoza, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess developed something he named Deep Ecology. For Naess, if you can identify with the living world so completely that you lose your sense of being a separate self, you will find peace. Of course, what inspires and consoles one person may leave another cold and empty. But for anyone who cannot accept organized religion, and yet longs for something to replace it, such ideas are at least worth exploring.

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