16 Nov Baruch Spinoza: the fundamental questions (ROGER SCRUTON)
Spinoza wrote in Latin, adopting medieval and Cartesian technicalities, and forging his own style, which was sparse and unadorned, yet solemn and imposing. The occasional aphorisms jump from the page with all the greater force, in that they emerge from arguments presented with mathematical exactitude. There is space here to consider only Spinoza’s greatest work, the Ethics, whose argument, however, is of such intrinsic relevance to us who live three centuries after its publication that thinking people have as much reason as they had in its author’s day to acquaint themselves with its main conceptions.
The Ethics is divided into five parts, each of which is set out in the manner of Euclid’s geometry, beginning with definitions and axioms, and deducing theorems by abstract proofs. The axioms are supposed to be selfevident, and the theorems valid deductions. If this were so, then the entire philosophy would be not merely true, but necessarily true – in the way that mathematics is necessarily true. The unlikelihood of this should not deter us. Even if the proofs are shaky and the axioms obscure, there is a great intellectual treasure to be mined from them, and – judged as a whole and in terms of its underlying agenda – Spinoza’s philosophy is nearer to the truth than any other that has addressed the same barely fathomable questions. These questions are just as important for us as they were for Spinoza. The difference is that we are seldom aware of them. Here they are:
1. Why does anything exist?
2. How is the world composed?
3. What are we in the scheme of things?
4. Are we free?
5. How should we live?
Our modern inability to answer these questions accounts for our modern reluctance to confront them, which in turn accounts for our deep disorientation. What is fashionably known as the ‘postmodern condition’ is really the condition of people who, having given up on their fundamental anxieties, find it easier to conceal them. Such people no longer know what to hope for or how. There is no better therapist for their condition than Spinoza, and no greater advocate of the spiritual life to those who have lost the desire to repossess it.
The five questions that I have listed are philosophical: they cannot be answered by observation and experiment, but only by reasoning. Cosmologists dispute over the ‘origins of the Universe’, some arguing for a Big Bang, others for a slow condensation. But both theories leave a crucial question unanswered. Even if we conclude that the Universe began at a certain time from nothing, there is something else that needs to be explained – the ‘initial conditions’ which then obtained. Something was true of the Universe at time zero – namely, that this great event was about to erupt into being, and to generate effects in accordance with laws that were already, at this initial instant, in place. And what is the explanation of that:
This is a version of the first question listed above. No scientific theory can answer it. Yet, if it has no answer, nothing really has an explanation. We can describe how the Universe works, but not why it is there. Indeed, the existence of a universe that works, a universe that admits of scientific explanations, is an even greater mystery than the existence of random chaos. What immortal hand or eye could frame this fearful symmetry? Or did it just happen? And if so, how and why?
Spinoza lived at a time when modern science was beginning to emerge from the hinterground of theological speculation. He was an accomplished scientific thinker, who anticipated many aspects of modern physics and cosmology. But he recognized no absolute divide between science and philosophy. For him, as for Descartes, physics rests upon metaphysics, and a scientist who ignores the fundamental questions does not really understand what he is doing. These fundamental questions cannot be answered by experiment; it is reason and not experience that is our guide to ultimate reality. It is because he thought in this way that Spinoza is described as a rationalist (rather than an empiricist, i.e. one who founds all knowledge on experience). And that is why he adopted the ‘geometrical method’, since reason knows no other. All the truths of reason are either self-evident or derived from self-evident truths by chains of deductive argument.
The adoption of the geometrical method means that Spinoza’s philosophy appears at first sight intolerably austere. It is normal for philosophers to begin from local puzzles, and thereafter to advance by degrees towards an abstract picture of reality. Thus Descartes began by asking himself whether there is anything that he could not doubt, and went on to construct a metaphysical theory that would bring his doubts to an end. Spinoza begins from the point where other thinkers end – from the axioms of an abstract theory. He then descends by degrees to the human reality, and to the problems that his theory is supposed to solve. To accomplish this at all is a great achievement; to accomplish it in the manner of Spinoza, so as to provide solutions to the perennial questions, is little short of a miracle.
The Great Philosophers: Spinoza