But is it likely, one might well object, or even conceivable, that any single seventeenth century author, let alone an aloof, solitary figure raised among a despised religious minority who lacked formal academic training and status, can have fundamentally and decisively shaped a tradition of radical thinking which eventually spanned the whole continent, exerted an immense influence over successive generations and shook western civilization to its foundations? (Jonathan Israel, 'Radical Enlightenment')- Who is that about?
- The Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza.
- And how is his philosophy supposed to have changed the world? Is it even possible for philosophy to change the world?
- According the Jonathan Israel's detailed historical studies, it is, it did, being the primary cause of the French Revolution.
- Hard to believe.
- Before Spinoza, mind was split from body, and god was outside the world. Mind controlled body, and god controlled the whole world in the same way, made move what without him would be motionless. Authorities claimed not only had god made the world the way it was for good reasons, they knew also what god wanted from human beings. We humans were pushed and pulled by god, rewarded and punished, much like in the mechanical way we saw the world operating.
- And Spinoza?
- Turned everything upsidedown. If the conventional view saw human beings reduced to a mechanical relation to god, he instead sought to extend to the world qualities of spiritual life.
- Make the world alive?
- Make nature equivalent to god. And then say that mind and body, god and the nature were two ways of looking at the same thing. Mind and body did not interact with each other, but rather moved in parallel. Some parts of the world moved faster some slower, allowing us distinguish them from each other, like ideas are distinguished from ideas. Every part of the world strove to perfect and maintain its nature, human beings included. The movement that in the old way of looking at it was outside the world in god now is inside the world, in every part, and the striving of all the parts together is god.
- And why is that revolutionary?
- If the world makes itself, no one can claim that the god who made it made it that way for good reason so we should leave it alone. And if the world is god like our body is our mind, then there is no reason, as we attempt to perfect our minds in education, we should not also be able to bring our social relations with us.
- And Jonathan Israel claims that Spinoza helped revolutionaries to do that?
- How exactly?
- First, by making society something we strive for for our own sake, for increase of our power. Our power is greatest when we come to know how to love the world, the whole world*, to love god, in other words. As the possibility of what is best in us is in all of us, we are each other's teachers in this highest striving, and once we know this, we never can willingly leave anyone behind.**
- And so we arrive at equality, and democratic revolutions.
- Yes. But equality is not the goal, nor any definite constitution. We treat each other as equals because it is in our interest to have everyone in our lives as teacher and collaborator. But when that is not true...
- For example?
- When some acquire much more property than others, we probably will want to tax them at a higher rate, that is, unequally. If we don't we can expect the wealthy to influence government in their favor, expect those without influence to be dispossessed, and forced to abase themselves before their arrogant masters, undermining the fundamental goal of society of serving each individual's striving for perfection.
- Learning to know and love the whole world.
- Yes. What we have in common is our striving to love. It is protection of that striving, rather than of any equal condition of the world, that we base our society on. Jonathan Israel distinguishes two different enlightenments, moderate and radical. The moderates wanted equality, but not for everyone: wanted to retain privileges for aristocrats while removing advantages of kings and clergy, and denying freedom to slaves, women, and other classes. Equality offered a sort of honor among thieves, advantageous for practical results, a good example how what looks out in the world to be a virtue is nothing of the kind.***
- Would I be wrong to conclude that ideas can really change the world, for the same reason? I mean, we don't have to rely on particular new structures of society, which are not necessarily good in themselves anyway, but only turn away from seeing each other as adversaries and towards seeing each other as collaborators, and see what follows? That might have been why Spinoza was so influential. Not because of his abstract system of god being the same as nature and mind the same as body, which I can't believe drove anyone to make a revolution.
- It's something to think about.
Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre
* See Spinoza's God
** See Killer Metaphysics
*** See Blueprints & Recipes
Keeping particular arrangements in the world unchanging, as an end in itself, however virtuous appearing is the result of fear and weakness, of passivity, the opposite to the individual's striving for perfection.
- The first thing I think about all this is that I don't like god involved in politics. Why can't we just repeat to each other until it gets through, Cooperate, People!
- But cooperate how exactly?
- As you said, we'll figure it out as we go along.
- Do we cooperate in gaining knowledge for the sake of obtaining power over nature and over other people? Or do we cooperate, obtaining power for the sake of gaining knowledge?
- I understand knowledge for the sake of power, that is science, technology transforming nature and psychology, the techniques of manipulating people. What is power for the sake of knowledge? Something to do with god, I suppose.
- Supposing that you'd be right.
- So what is it?
- Technology applied not to the world of nature, or of other people, but of the relations between what we individually do, think and act, and what good and bad results follow.
- And the good result would be love, experiencing god. And the bad result?
- Hatred, fear, passivity, ignorance of self.
- God was brought into 17th century philosophy to balance technology of the world with technology of self?
- You could say that.*
* See The Technology Of Good