Spinoza and me
Baruch de Spinoza
It’s amazing how much things can change over the years.
This morning, I came across a blog post I wrote in the beginning of 2008. In it, I talked about how I struggled to understand Spinoza’s Ethics and that until I could get a firmer grasp, I’d probably stick with Maimonides’ proofs for the existence of God.
Well, I’m happy to report that this past fall I finally sat down and made my way through all of Spinoza’s propositions, proofs, corollaries and notes in Ethics. I also read On the Improvement of Understanding.
It was not an enjoyable experience (the writing is incredibly dry) but the force of Spinoza’s ideas hit me in a way that no other book has. In particular, his discussion of the emotions, how they are formed and their effect on our judgments and decisions was eye-opening. I’ve not read much in the area of psychology but I can’t help but think that Spinoza had an advanced understanding of how the mind works.
All of this comes at a time when I find myself increasingly drawn to the writings of Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Isaac Deutscher, Moses Hess, Leon Trotsky, Friedrich Nietzsche and Christopher Hitchens. No, I never said I agree with everything those folks have written but I find a lot of it to be useful.
As for Maimonides, I find him less and less useful. His proofs make for an interesting read and, like Spinoza, he presents a rational argument for the existence of God. But, from there, he tries to link this rational philosophy with belief in Torah Judaism and, in my mind, the two cannot be reconciled. I’m sure Spinoza would agree.
In fact, I find more and more of Maimonides’ philosophy to be contradictory and unsupportable. He wants to remove the irrational and the superstitious from the practice of Judaism but that leads inevitably to the uncomfortable conclusion that we must reject any faith that’s based on a belief in divine revelation. It’s really not possible to defend such a position.
In the coming months, I’ll hopefully find the time to explore this and other related themes. In the meantime, I’d welcome your comments and insights into the philosophies of Maimonides and Spinoza. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong. Just don’t expect me to believe in anything irrational or superstitious.