Ethics - Baruch Spinoza, Edwin M. Curley, Stuart Hampshire, Edwin Curley I’ve never been so ambivalent about a book before. It’s infuriating, but hints at brilliance. It’s fundamentally flawed, but an attempt at perfection. It’s just better than me.

Spinoza uses Euclid’s geometric proof process. He applies it to Descartes’ foundation to demonstrate God’s existence and what that means for our lives. As with Euclid, Spinoza begins with definitions to each book, sets some axioms and then proceeds to make his proof through propositions, definitions, demonstrations, corollaries and scholiums. Though just shy of 200 pages, it is an incredibly dense book and any comments on the substance have to be accompanied with the disclaimer that they are summations of disciplined arguments and, quite frankly, I may have just got it wrong. Reading Spinoza is not fun. It’s not easy. It’s math homework. And most people who read Spinoza are probably liberal arts majors. And they are liberal arts majors for a reason.

But the fundamental problem I had with Spinoza was his literal attempt to prove metaphysical ideas through geometric proofs. Geometry is set up for it. There are physical characteristics which, by definition, set the terms of a proof. A line has infinite points. The sum of a triangle’s interior angles equals 180°. He attempts the same with ideas much less definable. He makes definitions which in turn lead to proofs which prove his definition.

For example, in Book 1, Spinoza begins with his definition that a “thing is said to be finite in its own kind that can be limited by another of the same nature.” (D2). This leads to the proposition that any substance which exists must necessarily be infinite (P8) because it is the essence of a substance to exist (P7). Since two substances of the same nature cannot exist (P5), there is one infinite substance of that nature. Existence is the essence of that substance (P7, Schol.2) and all attributes must come from this substance (P10). Therefore, infinite attributes comes from an infinite substance, which, by definition exists. (P11). Spinoza defines God as that absolute infinite substance consisting of an infinite number of attributes (D6). By defining “finite” in a way that requires an “infinite”, he creates God before he even has to prove it. Thus, by page 7, Spinoza gets to his homerun proposition, Proposition 11, that God exists and is infinite.

Anyway, this is a Goodreads review and not an attempt at a Philosophy 101 paper. Spinizoa’s purpose is to get to the title of the book: ethics. How are we to live our lives? By Books IV and V, Spinoza lays out his understanding of Human Bondage and Human Freedom. It’s ultimately a stoic vision reminiscent of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius with some Cartesian additions. A good life consists in understanding the reality of God and overcoming emotions. The closer we come to understanding our reality, we gain an intellectual satisfaction deeper than mere emotional happiness. Ideally, we train ourselves through rational thought to understand God through our intuition.

Spinoza and Descartes both believe intuition is the way to true understanding. Descartes asks the reader to meditate on clear and distinct truths which open the door for this understanding. Spinoza uses Spock-like deduction to train the mind to reach intuitive understanding. Though I was put off by Spinoza’s convenient definitions, it is still a masterful rational effort at defining and building a way to understand our world. Just don’t expect it to be enjoyable.