From Bondage to Freedom: Spinoza on Human Excellence

From Bondage to Freedom: Spinoza on Human Excellence

From Bondage to Freedom: Spinoza on Human Excellence

From Bondage to Freedom: Spinoza on Human Excellence

Synopsis

Spinoza rejects fundamental tenets of received morality, including the notions of Providence and free will. Yet he retains rich theories of good and evil, virtue, perfection, and freedom. Building interconnected readings of Spinoza's accounts of imagination, error, and desire, Michael LeBuffe defends a comprehensive interpretation of Spinoza's enlightened vision of human excellence. Spinoza holds that what is fundamental to human morality is the fact that we find things to be good or evil, not what we take those designations to mean. When we come to understand the conditions under which we act-that is, when we come to understand the sorts of beings that we are and the ways in which we interact with things in the world-then we can recast traditional moral notions in ways that help us to attain more of what we find to be valuable. For Spinoza, we find value in greater activity. Two hazards impede the search for value. First, we need to know and acquire the means to be good. In this respect, Spinoza's theory is a great deal like Hobbes's: we strive to be active, and in order to do so we need food, security, health, and other necessary components of a decent life. There is another hazard, however, that is more subtle. On Spinoza's theory of the passions, we can misjudge our own natures and fail to understand the sorts of beings that we really are. So we can misjudge what is good and might even seek ends that are evil. Spinoza's account of human nature is thus much deeper and darker than Hobbes's: we are not well known to ourselves, and the self-knowledge that is the foundation of virtue and freedom is elusive and fragile.

Excerpt

The intellectual achievements of Baruch or Benedictus Spinoza (1632– 77) cannot be reduced to any single position or work. in his masterpiece, the Eth ics, Spinoza rejects providence, identifies God with nature, and makes each human being a part of nature bound by the same laws that bind all other things in nature. These views, and especially Spinoza’s accounts of the ways in which, in our interactions with the world, human lives unfold, have been profoundly moving and disturbing to readers of the Ethics from before the time of its first publication in 1677. Spinoza’s criticism of received religion in both the Ethics and his Theological-Political Treatise has, similarly, provoked strong reaction. Distinguishing sharply between faith and reason, Spinoza denies that the Bible is a source either of truth or of God’s word and argues instead that it is a document compiled from a number of different authors, none of whom do better than to present moral truisms in an imaginative and confused, if inspiring and sometimes useful, manner. in the Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza also offers a political theory that, in its defense of the liberties of thought and speech together with its subordination of religion to state control, complements his analysis of religion. He defends democracy as the best form of the state on the grounds that it best preserves citizens’ freedom and autonomy. Together with his metaphysical ideas, his conception of the individual, and his psychological theory, Spinoza’s accounts of religion and government cemented his reputation as a formidable radical and made him an influential source of ideas for the European Enlightenment.

This book concerns Spinoza’s account of the individual human condition: the bondage to passion and the attainment of freedom. Although this account is best understood as a moral theory, it is not easily separable from Spinoza’s metaphysics, his psychology, his critique of religion, or his political theory. Indeed, Spinoza’s moral theory is so much involved with his other ideas that the benefit of a good understanding of it to an understanding of his other views would of itself justify a careful study. This connection is perhaps most evident in an early work, the Treatise . . .

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