Spinoza: Old Master Philosopher of the West

There are two kinds of agnostics in the world. The first are lazy and ignorant fools; the second reject the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza.

On further consideration, maybe there is only one kind of agnostic?

Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza was one of the great thinkers in the history of the West, celebrated by his peers as a “prince of philosophers”. His work recognized a unity of the human mind and body, science and spirituality, God and Nature, in a manner more commonly associated today with Asian than with European thought.

Like the Taoist sage Lao Tzu, Spinoza was a champion of Monism. Spinoza’s God was not a bearded man dispensing favors from his cloudy fortress, but a Totality of which every perceptible thing is but an attribute. (In his posthumous book, The Ethics, Spinoza used his command of logic and reason to prove God’s existence.)

Also like Lao Tzu, Baruch Spinoza examined the topics of wisdom and virtue together. In his metaphysics, he advocated the pursuit of intuitive knowledge, towards the goal of freedom and even immortality.

There are many fascinating parallels—and some important differences—to be discovered between Lao Tzu’s Taoism and Spinoza’s Monism. For example:

Spinoza Tao Te Ching (John Woo translation)
As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things with one another. Thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance music is good to the melancholy, bad to those who mourn, and neither good nor bad to the deaf. When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness. When all the world recognizes good as good, this in itself is evil. Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other. Difficult and easy complement each other. Long and short exhibit each other.
He who would distinguish the true from the false must have an adequate idea of what is true and false. To do the killing for the Great Executor is to chop wood for a master carpenter, and you would be lucky indeed if you did not hurt your own hand!
God and all attributes of God are eternal…Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived. The Great Tao is universal like a flood. How can it be turned to the right or to the left? All creatures depend on it, and it denies nothing to anyone. It does its work, but makes no claims for itself.
It therefore comes to pass that everyone is fond of relating his own exploits and displaying the strength both of his body and his mind, and that men are on this account a nuisance one to the other. He who is brave in daring will be killed; he who is brave in not daring will survive. Of these two kinds of bravery, one is beneficial, while the other proves harmful.
The highest endeavor of the mind, and the highest virtue, is to understand things by intuition. How do I know about the world? By what is within me.
If the road I have shown to lead to this is very difficult, it can yet be discovered. And clearly it must be very hard when it is so seldom found. For how could it be that it is neglected practically by all, if salvation were close at hand and could be found without difficulty? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare. If only I had the tiniest grain of wisdom, I should walk in the Great Way, and my only fear would be to stray from it. The Great Way is very smooth and straight; and yet the people prefer devious paths.

Since his death in 1677, Spinoza has inspired many great minds, including Goethe, Kant, and Albert Einstein. Hegel famously said that Spinoza’s writings are “the essential commencement of all Philosophy”; if you don’t know them, then you don’t really know anything. 

Well, if you didn’t know Baruch Spinoza, now you do!

7 comments on “Spinoza: Old Master Philosopher of the West”

  1. Just saw this and wanted to put three points. Most agnostics are agnostic in relation to an anthropomorphic deity such as your “bearded man dispensing favors from his cloudy fortress,” not towards Spinoza’s definition of God which is essentially reality itself. Which leads on to my second point, to prove his God, doesn’t require a great leap of logic, you just have to prove reality. My final point is that linking virtue and wisdom together has a long history before Spinoza.

  2. In my opinion the comparison is not proper.
    Infact Taoism refers to the cosmos as Endless Name,
    while in Spinoza Cosmos has no name.

  3. M Kelly, I agree with anything you’ve said. But I think agnosticism towards an anthropomorphic deity is an anti-intellectual, incourageous, and perhaps meaningless act.

    jesko, “no name” is a fine name for the name that transcends names.

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