The Spinoza Challenge

Will Durant in his beautifully written and highly readable book “The Story of Philosophy” issues a challenge–to read and make sense of Spinoza’s book “Ethics,” which Durant regards as “the most precious production in modern philosophy.” You will need to read the book bite by bite and at least twice. If you succeed “you will remain forever a lover of philosophy.”

The challenge scares me: my brain is not big enough or just too decayed. But I feel I ought to have a go, and I have taken the first step of ordering a copy. If you rise to the challenge please let me know how you get on; or maybe you have already mastered the work and can report back.

Below is Durant’s challenge, which comes in the preface to the second edition; and below that is the section where he introduces his writing about the book.

Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied; you must approach him as you would approach Euclid, recognizing that in these brief two hundred pages a man has written down his lifetime’s thought with stoic sculptory of everything superfluous. Do not think to find its core by running over it rapidly . . . . Read the book not all at once, but in small portions at many sittings. And having finished it, consider that you have but begun to understand it. Read then some commentary, like Pollock’s Spinoza, or Martineau’s Study of Spinoza, or, better, both. Finally, read the Ethics again; it will be a new book to you. When you have finished it a second  time you will remain forever a lover of philosophy.

The most precious production in modern philosophy is cast into geometrical form, to make the thought Euclideanly clear; but the result is a laconic obscurity in which every line requires a Talmud of commentary. The Scholastics had formulated their thought so, but never so pithily; and they had been helped to clarity by their fore-ordained conclusions. Descartes had suggested that philosophy could not be exact until it expressed itself in the forms of mathematics; but he had never grappled with his own ideal. Spinoza came to the suggestion with a mind trained in mathematics as the very basis of all rigorous scientific procedure, and impressed with the achievements of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. To our more loosely textured minds the result is an exhausting concentration of both matter and form; and we are tempted to console ourselves by denouncing this philosophic geometry as an artificial chess game of thought in which axioms, definitions, theorems and proofs, are manipulated like kings and bishops, knights and pawns; a logical solitaire invented to solace Spinoza’s loneliness. Order is against the grain of our minds; we prefer to follow the straggling lines of fantasy, and to weave our philosophy precariously out of our dreams. But Spinoza had but one compelling desire—to reduce the intolerable chaos of the world to unity and order. He had the northern hunger for truth rather than the southern lust for beauty; the artist in him was purely an architect, building a system of thought to perfect symmetry and form.

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