Atheists and Agnostics Compendium

Conversation with SPINOZA

INTERVIEWER — Good afternoon.

SPINOZA — Good afternoon.

INTERVIEWER — What is your name please?

SPINOZA — Benedict Spinoza.

INTERVIEWER — (looking at his notes) But, that's not the name you were born with.

SPINOZA — That is true. I was called Baruch de Espinoza.

INTERVIEWER — You changed your name? Why?

SPINOZA — After I left the congregation I felt I had left my Jewishness behind me and so I took the Latin equivalent of my name.

INTERVIEWER — I understand that you did not leave the Jewish congregation of Amsterdam. You were officially cursed and excommunicated on July 27, 1656. I didn't know that excommunication was part of the Jewish tradition.

SPINOZA — It is rarely invoked.

INTERVIEWER — Why was it done to you?

SPINOZA — The reasons are complex. I would rather not talk about it. In any case it compelled me to do nothing that I would not have done on my own.

INTERVIEWER — (pressing) But what did you do? Why were they angry with you?

SPINOZA — They were not angry with me, nor I with them. They offered me an annuity if I would stay and just continue my studies… (pause) and be silent.

INTERVIEWER — What were you saying that upset them?

SPINOZA — It was not what I said then. It was the questions I asked.

INTERVIEWER — You were the pride of the synagogue. The brightest student there. What was wrong with you? What were you questioning?

SPINOZA — I read everything. I knew the Talmud intimately. I read the scholars – Maimonides, Idn Ezra, Hasdai Crescas. I was particularly arrested by Crescas' idea that the universe might be the body of God.

INTERVIEWER — I understand you learned Latin.

SPINOZA — I had to learn Latin. It was the international language of scholars and scientists. It enabled me to read modern writers like Giordano Bruno and Descartes. Bruno, the poor priest – they burned him because he looked at the heavens and said an infinitely powerful God could make an infinity of worlds. And Descartes – how I envied the rigor of his thought. But everywhere I found more questions than answers. Yes, I asked the rabbis if angels weren’t only hallucinations. I questioned the immortality of the soul. I questioned the reality of miracles.

INTERVIEWER — Is that what frightened them? Those questions?

SPINOZA — It was more than that. They were concerned about how it would appear to the Dutch if they harbored a heretic. We were new comers in the land. When our grandfathers fled the Spanish inquisition the republic of Holland took us in. Made us welcome. How would it appear if, from the steps of the synagogue, I questioned the reality of Christian heaven and their resurrected Jesus?

INTERVIEWER — And did you?

SPINOZA — Oh, yes.

INTERVIEWER — On what basis?

SPINOZA — On the basis of reason. The masses think that the power of God is most clearly displayed by events that are extraordinary and contrary to nature. Like the halting of the sun in its course over Jericho. They suppose that God is inactive so long as nature works in her accustomed order. Thus they imagine two powers distinct one from the other, the power of God and the power of nature.
This idea seems to have taken rise among the early Jews who saw the pagans round them worshipping the sun, the moon, water and air. Now in order to inspire the conviction that such divinities were weak and inconsistent the Jews told themselves they were under the sway of an invisible God.

INTERVIEWER — One that could work miracles on their behalf?

SPINOZA — Yes, in the bible they narrated those miracles, trying further to show that the God whom they worshipped arranged the whole of nature for their sole benefit: this idea was so pleasing to humanity that men go on to this day imagining miracles, so that they may believe themselves God’s favorites and be the final cause for which God created and directs all things. What pretension will not people in their folly advance!

INTERVIEWER — You're being pretty hard on them, aren't you?

SPINOZA — I suppose I am. But the nonsense I have heard about the reality of another world somewhere out among the stars and the people's cry for miracles – as if the laws of nature would change for their benefit – it is all to much to countenance. When something seemingly miraculous happens it is only because the law or rule of nature that causes it is not known to us. God does not contradict his own essence.

INTERVIEWER — Do you mean that God is the laws and rules of nature?

SPINOZA — Of course. (passionately) You see, the total universe is all that there is. There is nothing outside it. It contains all matter, all relationships - laws of nature - all thoughts. It is Nature in the widest sense — the infinity of everything. That is what God is — the totality of everything. God is not some monarch on a throne sitting outside the world – judging and rewarding. There is nothing outside. The greatest power in the universe is the universe itself. That power alone is worthy of our love.

INTERVIEWER — I see why later philosophers called you a God-intoxicated man. And I see why Jews and Christians would call you an atheist and a danger. But is this intellectual love of God or Nature enough? After all you can't expect the universe to love you back.

SPINOZA — I never expected it to.

INTERVIEWER — But how did you live?

SPINOZA — (with a wry smile) I managed.

INTERVIEWER — I mean cut off from your people? They were forbidden to talk to you, to write to you or read anything you wrote. They were forbidden to come within six feet of you. And you surely would be unwelcome in a Christian home. Where did you live? How did you earn a living? Who were your friends?

SPINOZA — I found some gentle Christians who were themselves of a sect considered somewhat unorthodox. I lived in their attic and worked downstairs. I learned to grind lenses. I found the work very suitable. As I moved the glass over the grinding block I could think. And my lenses helped others to see more clearly.

INTERVIEWER — What of friends? Of love?

SPINOZA — There was a small group of men who gathered about me. Leibnitz the philosopher and mathematician, the inventor of calculus, you know, visited me. He thought well of my ideas, although he never referred to me in his writings. Still, I had a wide correspondence. Henry Oldenberg, secretary of the Royal Society of England often wrote to me. As did Christiaan Huygens, the famous Dutch physicist and others.

INTERVIEWER — And what of human love?

SPINOZA — That was too perishable a commodity to be dependent upon. I reserved that emotion for the adoration of those glorious things my mind could apprehend.

INTERVIEWER — Yet there were those who must have cared for you. Didn’t a rich Amsterdam merchant propose to leave his fortune to you?

SPINOZA — Simon De Vries, yes, he was a devoted friend. I refused his offer. It would have left his brother destitute. When I explained my refusal — that the care of a fortune would only produce anxiety and bondage — those very things I was trying to free myself of, he understood.

INTERVIEWER — Was that important to you? That others should understand as you did. Did you look on your efforts as those of a guide, or teacher?

SPINOZA — Yes. (hesitates) But the benefit of others was never my objective. I acted out of selfishness.

INTERVIEWER — Selfishness? I don't understand.

SPINOZA — It is all very simple. The search for happiness is the goal of all human conduct, don’t you agree?

INTERVIEWER — Yes, certainly.

SPINOZA — And happiness is the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain.

INTERVIEWER — (warily) Yes…

SPINOZA — (slowly) But pleasure and pain are relative, not absolute; and they are not states but transitions. Pleasure is man’s transition from a lesser state of perfection, completeness, or fulfillment to a greater one. Joy consists in this, that one’s power is increased. Now the best way of increasing my power of acting is to enlist the aid of my fellow man. You see reason demands nothing against nature. It concedes that each man must love himself, and seek what is useful to him. But since my well-being is dependent on the well-being of others I desire nothing for myself which I do not desire for other men. If I wish to live in peace I will not disturb my neighbor, if I want justice for myself then I must act justly, if I treasure freedom I will work for the freedom of all. I do all this for myself — for my own gain.

INTERVIEWER — (enlightened) I think I understand.

SPINOZA — You see, when the mind is rational it perceives that helping others is best for itself.

INTERVIEWER — To love thyself is not one of the ten commandments though, is it? That’s not what religion teaches.

SPINOZA — Religion is all well and good but if its morality springs from fear of punishment by a judgmental God it is a burden. In my book I show that emotions are the burden of mankind. Necessity impels us to act according to our emotional natures. Yet our natures are, to an extent, governed by reason. To the extent that our natures are governed by reason we are free. A bird in the air is not free. It has no ability to choose. Only reason can make us free. Freedom is the ability to make choices and to act on them. Too often we are slaves in bondage to our emotions.

INTERVIEWER — And so you wrote your book to show us the way out of such slavery?

SPINOZA — No. I wrote my book to please myself. You see, my pleasure is sharing what I have learned. If you learn anything from my work that gives me satisfaction. I benefit. [He spreads his hands in a "you see" gesture] Selfishness.

INTERVIEWER — You spoke of your book. Is that the Ethics?

SPINOZA — Yes, that is what I called it. I wanted to show how a person governed by reason acts. I wanted to show that only the improvement of the mind can help us discern the real good. It is a matter of perspective. The image of a distant good is always weaker than that of an immediate lesser good as today’s candy is better than tomorrow’s health. The improvement of reason helps us see more clearly.

INTERVIEWER — You locked you book in your desk and left instructions for it to be published after your death.

SPINOZA — I thought it would create too much of a stir in the community and bring too much attention to me.

INTERVIEWER — You thought highly of the book.

SPINOZA — It was my life's work.

INTERVIEWER — As you said, it’s about human bondage and human freedom and yet you start with a section on God. Why did you start there? It seems to me that difficult topic would come at the end.

SPINOZA — But God, or Nature is the easiest thing known to us. It is all around us. That is to say that the universal laws of Nature are the same as the eternal decrees of God. God and the processes of Nature are one. Nature herself is the power of God under another name, and our ignorance of God is our ignorance of Nature. As we perfect our intellect we get to know God better.

INTERVIEWER — This sounds something like pantheism to me.

SPINOZA — Pantheism is a vague term. I do not mind if you wish to call my philosophy pantheism as long as you recognize that I am not saying that God is a spirit or a power that is in this tree or that stream. God is not in things. Nature's laws and processes govern the universe and they are fixed and unchangeable — they are God and describe his essence. To say it another way— God is the order and connection of the universe and therefore knowable. The will of God is the sum of all causes and all laws. The intellect of God is the sum of all mind.

INTERVIEWER — That is a concept of God that is very different from that of the bible.

SPINOZA — Yes. There are Christians and Jews who try to relieve their anxiety about life by cultivating a belief in a god who will be well disposed towards man if he is properly worshipped and propitiated. This is superstition that leads to religious bigotry and persecution. It is even worse, for it makes of God a whimsical person moved by human likes and dislikes, a jealous god who takes revenge, a judicial god who punishes and rewards, a changeable god who is flattered by attention. This is menial concept; demeaning of human reason and the majesty of the universe.

INTERVIEWER — (slight pause) You said your book was to show the way to human freedom and that we are enslaved by our emotions. How can we master them?

SPINOZA — We cannot. (He speaks slowly) Human beings are ever in bondage to their emotions. We are the slaves of the love of something and it makes for discontent. The ordinary surroundings of life which are esteemed by men are riches, fame, and the pleasures of the senses. With these the mind is so absorbed that it has little power to reflect on any different good and they do not last. We must care for what we love and want, and that care becomes anxious care. We are in daily danger of losing all that our hearts are set upon, love, health, friendship. A mind without anxiety, a mind at peace would be free. Everything depends on the nature of what one loves. A love toward a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy. Devotion to this greater love — in which all humans may participate without diminishing it — is the way to freedom.

INTERVIEWER — How does one find that way?

SPINOZA — Through the perfecting of human reason, through discovery of how nature works, through understanding the origin, nature and strength of human emotions, and increasing the power of the intellect to free us from their bondage. Then we will see things truly, sub specie aeternatatis, in the light of eternity. Reason will show us the way.

INTERVIEWER — And that eternity you speak of is God or Nature — the universe? (Spinoza nods) That's a pretty hard thing to love.

SPINOZA — If the way which I have shown seem difficult, it nevertheless can be found. All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) His analysis of the Bible was the beginning of modern biblical criticism. On politics he wrote that democracy is the form of government that is most true to humanity. His writings on human nature find favor with today's neuroscientists.

Rejecting the dualism of Descartes, Spinoza declared that the universe is all that is and that the rules and laws of nature are equivalent to God.

A century after his death Spinoza's ideas began to wield great influence in philosophy, an influence that still widening.