Philosopher Spotlight: Spinoza, a Joyful Heretic

            Historically, the work of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (born Baruch Espinosa), evoked controversy. In 1656 he was excommunicated, or issued a “cherem”, from his Sephardic Jewish religious community on the basis of the “abominable heresies which he practiced and taught”.[i] The larger world of Christian Europe was no more pleased with him. In 1697, for example, Pierre Bayle, a French Protestant philosopher, wrote that the philosophical system described in Spinoza’s Opera Posthuma (works published after Spinoza’s death) “is the most monstrous hypothesis that could be imagined…”.[ii]

            The rejection of Spinoza’s thought from the religious communities around him likely resulted from his unorthodox metaphysics: As many readers will know, for Spinoza, God is not an anthropomorphic figure who sits in the heavens, changing the course of the world when needed and handing out reward or punishment in light of the devotion and sins of mortals. Rather, Spinoza’s God is the universe itself, of which everything is part, with infinite power to act on itself. Spinoza’s biblical beliefs also, no doubt, contributed to his controversy in religious contexts: Spinoza held that the contents of the Bible were not historical fact, and was among the first scholars to argue that Moses could not have been the sole author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) as the Abrahamic traditions around him believed. His view is now a consensus position in Biblical scholarship.

            But Spinoza is more interesting today, perhaps, for his philosophy of life and ethics than for his positions on substance and matters of God. Spinoza held that, properly speaking, nothing is good or bad in-itself. For Spinoza, that which is good or bad is good or bad insofar as it has a relationship to something else which either expands or limits the powers of that something. When we humans eat food, for example, we find that our capacities to act on other things are increased; our energy is revitalised, and we are more able to go about doing other things which increase our power. In this sense, food is good, because it is good for us. Similarly, things may be good for rocks if they increase the rock’s power to do rock things, like change the way a sea floor develops, or whatever it is rocks do. Alternatively, if you break a rock up with a hammer, that would be bad for the rock.

For Spinoza, when we become aware of an overall increase in our power by virtue of some good, we experience laetitia, or joy in English. So, Spinoza’s philosophy of life is an ethics of joy. It is best for us to commit ourselves to striving for the most joyful possible life, for a life of gladness and merriment, and it is best for us to strive to give others in our communities a life of joy as well. A joyful friend is more able to lead to an increase in our own powers and joys, and so it is in our interest to cultivate joy in others. We are, so to speak, compelled to work together to build a community of joyful and powerful living, not just for us but for others too.

This philosophy of life, and other Spinozist positions on psychology, politics, and social life, have been the inspiration for a variety of exciting projects. The interested reader may find just some of the following recent work to be appealing: Youpa has written on living joyfully in accordance with Spinozism,[iii] Sharp has written on how Spinoza gives us a new political orientation towards human and non-human nature as truly equal parts, all of which need joy and power, especially those thrown into positions where joy is the hardest to come by,[iv] and Strawser has written on Spinoza as demanding that we live loving lifestyles with nature and with other people.[v]

Whether through Spinoza’s primary texts or through the commentary of these and other scholars, we have reason to look to Spinozism. Spinoza’s philosophy of life, which holds joy, friendship, and the empowerment of all things to be of the utmost importance, continues to be the source of lively, inspired, and beautiful work on how we can make our world a more pleasant place for us to experience life and all its features. His metaphysics may have provoked condemnation in its time, and may seem to us today to be far-fetched, but there is no heresy in living with joy. If we accept that the best life is one built on our own joy, can we still be compelled to make sure others experience joy too?

[i] See Nadler’s Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind, p.2, for a translation of the official documentation of the cherem.

[ii] From the 1991 Popkin translation/edition of Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, p296-297.

[iii] Youpa’s The Ethics of Joy: Spinoza on the Empowered Life (2019)

[iv] Sharp’s Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization (2011)

[v] Strawser’s Spinoza and the Philosophy of Love (2021)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: