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Spinoza’s philosophy of freedom (the-tls.co.uk)
109 points by Hooke 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments

I find reading Spinoza's rational idea of Ethics oddly resolves around the concept of love. I find that I first read Spinoza as the source for Spock in Star Trek.

First the idea of love for Spinoza is that truly free persons actively avoid love as in love is a passion.

Second that the "rational/noble" love of doing good to others ethically is the center piece of ethics.

Proposal 43 "Hatred is increased by being reciprocated, and can on the other hand be destroyed by love."

"For by “courage” I understand “the desire by which each person endeavors to preserve his being in accordance with the dictate of reason alone,” and by “nobility” I understand “the desire by which each person, in accordance with the dictate of reason alone, endeavors to help other men and join them to him in friendship.”" Page 73 of Ethics published in 1949 (Copy on my shelf)

When i talk about Spinoza in academic worlds I have the belief that Kierkegaard (Acts of Love in specific) and Spinoza are agreeing and talking about the same ethics of love. Though they disagree about everything else about love it is love that makes us be ethical to our neighbors. I try to make my children understand that we make those around us better because we care about their well-being and that while we disagree with people we do so with the idea that we care for them also.

Is important to be aware that the word love has lost its meaning throughout the ages. Love for the ancient and medievals was akin to the word passion, which means literally suffering. Its meaning was like "suffering for someone or something else", which we would call altruistic. Modern love is more akin to "like", and has a general meaning of "mutual affinity". Like many concepts in the modern world, it acquired a individualistic connotation that didn't exist in the past.

Could you give a citation for that "love for the ancient and medievals was akin to the word passion"? My understanding of that love-to-passion link is by way of Christianity, i.e. love as the motivation for the suffering (of Jesus). Otherwise, etymology doesn't show/suggest that sort of change in the meaning of "love" (e.g. http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/110566). If anything, there's been a change in the meaning of "passion" (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/passion).

There is a lot of research around this topic, but here is an excerpt of an article from the Univ. of Oxford that touches on this change, that started to happen by the end of the middle ages:

"People in every time and culture have fallen in love, but not every culture has written about love or valued it in the same way.

'In the 12th century, romantic love became something that was worth celebrating and exploring in songs and stories - and you only have to look at modern film and music to see that legacy is still with us.'

Before the Norman conquest of England, Anglo-Saxon literature had a very different focus, said Professor Ashe.

'The world of the Anglo-Saxon warrior, at least in poetry, was based on the bond of loyalty between fighting men. Love in this world means love for your fellow warriors, and the idea of sacrificing yourself for the group."


Maybe this is my limitation, but it still looks like "love" means about the same at its core, thru the times - I don't see a "lost meaning" to it. But I do see "flavors" for love, if you will - motivations or contexts for the love. And I accept the point that "not every culture has written about love or valued it in the same way."

Yet the cited article does not indicate "love" as meaning "suffering for someone or something else" or anything like that. Instead, we get something about "tragic love" (an apparent "contradiction in terms"): "In the Middle Ages, the idea that suffering was in some way productive was very widespread."

Earlier in that article: "So what changed in the Middle Ages? 'There was a transformation in culture,’ said Professor Ashe. ‘A series of church reforms in the 12th century took Christianity from a rather austere view of God the Father to a new focus on Christ's humanity. 'The spiritual lives of ordinary people were recognised, and people were encouraged to have a more emotional and personal relationship with God as individuals. And romantic love - giving yourself to another person - provides a justification, in the medieval moral compass, for the pursuit of self-fulfilment as an individual."

And from there, I would argue, "passion" took on a definition of "love" (and not the other way round).

Spinoza clearly makes definition statements of love. The love for neighbor was different than an emotionally based love.

I have studied Ancient Hebrew, classical Greek, Aramaic, German, and Danish (WOWZ) and there isn't a time when the word love couldn't be translated. Sometimes with more then one word but love has always been a varied meaning word.

Just as fear, sad and angry are translated love also is pretty clearly different categories within that emotion.

From the article: "Love in this world means love for your fellow warriors, and the idea of sacrificing yourself for the group."

The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis [1] is about four different Greek words that are usually translated as "love" in English: storge, philia, eros, and agape. The self-sacrificing love, agape, is what the GP is talking about.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Four_Loves

I love C.S. Lewis he is a good philosopher but a horrible Theologian or Biblical Scholar.

There are only two words for love in the new Testament: Agape and Philia and they are used interchangably. Anyone that tries to say they mean different things are trying to sell you something.

Exercise: Just look up the verses with the two words and read them (One difference (Many professors disagree that there is any difference)is that when Jesus and Peter had the conversation of "Do you love me." BUT I couldn't really tell you for certain why there were two words). Also same thing with rhema and logos they are used interchangeably.

People that try to split words into "atoms" into definitions just haven't studied a language for academic purposes. The more I learn the more I know that the people who did the translations are at a different league and much better then I am. I cringe when people talk Greek or Hebrew in church because 75% of the times they are just wrong. Like dunamis (power from the inside) is "dynamite power" makes me want to scream there is no way Paul knew what dynamite was or was thinking about an explosive.

I agree that some preachers misuse their little bit of Greek knowledge, but Lewis was a professor of literature and knew Greek well. Storge and eros are not Biblical words, but they are still Greek words that are often translated "love" and have very different meanings. My point of bringing this up Lewis was to show that there is support for different meanings for our English word "love".

Pope Benedict XVI, whom I believe is one of the greatest theological minds of our day, wrote about 3 kinds of love in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) [1]. He shows how these different words for love are distinct but related. (Storge is not included; some people translate it as "affection" rather than love.) Here is a quote:

3. That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called eros by the ancient Greeks. Let us note straight away that the Greek Old Testament uses the word eros only twice, while the New Testament does not use it at all: of the three Greek words for love, eros, philia (the love of friendship) and agape, New Testament writers prefer the last, which occurs rather infrequently in Greek usage. As for the term philia, the love of friendship, it is used with added depth of meaning in Saint John's Gospel in order to express the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. The tendency to avoid the word eros, together with the new vision of love expressed through the word agape, clearly point to something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love.

1: https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/do...

>The self-sacrificing love, agape, is what the GP is talking about.

Perhaps, but the GP began with "the word love has lost its meaning throughout the ages". I don't think it has. Perhaps "love" can be parsed into several "flavors" (storge, philia, eros, agape, romantic, loyalty, etc.), but at the core it means still about the same (the "flavors" give hint or detail to motivations/context/obligations for the caring/concern/nurturing/keen-interest).

In the phrase (from above) "truly free persons actively avoid love as in love is a passion", I think here passion means something like "intense emotion". "Passion" has taken on new meanings - barely controllable emotion, intense sexual love, arousing great enthusiasm, etc. Only by way of religious context would a word that meant "suffering" get linked to "charity" love (agape). If anything, its other new meanings seem to be about the kinds of suffering from unsatisfied/unsatiated/frustrated desires.

> Only by way of religious context would a word that meant "suffering"

Not true. The original meaning of the word passion was suffering, derived from Latin pati, the same root of patience. A passion in the emotional sense was suffering caused by love. This exactly shows that what was considered love in the old times was closely connected with suffering, a selfless feeling. Of course, religion had a lot to do with that. The happy feelings that we now assign to love are a conception of more modern times.

I find Spinoza more understandable when substituting 'God = Nature' with 'God = Reality'. I believe that's closest to what he meant, in modern vernacular.

That equivalence was (and still is) anyhow a reasonable (i.e 'unmystical') starting point for carving out a sliver of understanding from existence in it's totality, including religious aspects.

I was 16 when I first read Spinoza's Ethics. I didn't understand much by then, what I did though radically changed my conception of the world. It's not an easy philosophy. It creates havoc in our conception of human society. No free-will, thus no sin nor merit, for example.

Spinoza is also a great philosopher for people not used to the "canonical" philosophical methodology. The treaty looks and works like a formal mathematical proof with definitions, axioms, and propositions systematically proved by pure logic.

The sprinkling of intellectual “philosophy articles” in Hacker News have been of outstanding quality.

I take issue with this is a rather rigid classification of things, that isn't useful, and I hear a lot out of various modern scientist/philosophers.

> There is nothing supernatural; there is nothing outside of or distinct from Nature and independent of its laws and operations.

It's pretty common to associate supernatural with magical because super-natural sounds like beyond the rules of nature, when it can just as easily mean beyond the known rules of nature. If you can't explain events under natural law (rules, whatever), it's practically and effectively supernatural. That doesn't necessarily exclude a future explanation, just because people have been averse or ignorant, to investigate in the past. Straight from history, countless supernatural events have been brought in to the fold.

Otherwise, this guy sounds like he had some contemporary beliefs shared by rationalists.

That definition of supernatural, as just the as-yet unknown natural, is a bit contentious and I've not seen it commonly (ever) espoused by anyone else. Most people who use the term really do seem to mean, on questioning, something beyond and different from the knowable natural world and it's forces. Sometimes they will even classify it as things by definition unknowable to science.

I do agree that many if not most 'supernatural' phenomena have been explained by science. However I don't think that it's all that useful to classify them as supernatural at a previous time and natural now. They haven't changed.

I find him closer to Epicureanism


About the enigma of why he was cursed and expelled of the jewish community:

"If we think that God is like us, an agent who acts for the sake of ends and who, by issuing commands, makes known his expectations and punishes those who do not obey, we will be dominated by the passions of hope and fear: hope for eternal reward and fear of eternal punishment. This will, in turn, lead us towards submission to ecclesiastic authorities who claim to know what God wants The resulting life is one of “bondage” – psychological, moral, religious, social and political enslavement – rather than the liberating life of reason."

.. well, if he said something like this before and in a way, that people listened to him, than this was a direct assault to the priests, the Rabbis, of the community. And also to the general foundations of jewish religion - so they probably saw it as a existential threat - therefore their harsh reaction.

Yes that's what the author said:

And yet, in light of Spinoza’s mature philosophical writings, which he began working on less than a decade after the herem, the mystery of the ban begins to dissipate.

In a letter of October or November, 1674, Spinoza writes:

Thus, I call a thing free that exists and acts out of the pure necessity of its nature; and I call it compelled, if its existence and activity are determined in a precise and fixed manner by something else. Thus God, for example, though necessary, is free, because he exists only out of the necessity of his nature. Similarly, God knows himself and everything else freely, because it follows from the necessity of his nature alone that he should know everything. You see, then, that I locate freedom not in free decision, but in free necessity. Let us, however, descend to created things, which are all determined to exist and to act in fixed and precise ways by outside causes. To see this more clearly, let us imagine a very simple case. A stone, for example, receives a certain momentum from an external cause that comes into contact with it, so that later, when the impact of the external cause has ceased, it necessarily continues to move. This persistence of the stone is compelled, and not necessary, because it had to be established by the impact of an external cause. What applies here to the stone, applies to everything else, no matter how complex and multifaceted; everything is necessarily determined by an outside cause to exist and to act in a fixed and precise manner. Now please assume that the stone, as it moves, thinks and knows that it is trying, as much as it can, to continue in motion. This stone, which is only conscious of its effort and by no means indifferent, will believe that it is quite free and that it continues in its motion not because of an external cause but only because it wills to do so. But this is that human freedom that all claim to possess and that only consists in people being aware of their desires, but not knowing the causes by which they are determined. Thus the child believes that it freely desires the milk; the angry boy, that he freely demands revenge; and the coward flight. Again, drunkards believe it is a free decision to say what, when sober again, they will wish that they had not said, and since this prejudice is inborn in all humans, it is not easy to free oneself from it. For, although experience teaches us sufficiently that people are least able to moderate their desires and that, moved by contradictory passions, they see what is better and do what is worse, yet they still consider themselves free, and this because they desire some things less intensely and because some desires can be easily inhibited through the recollection of something else that is familiar.

Because this view is expressed clearly and definitely, it is easy to discover the fundamental error in it. Just as a stone necessarily carries out a specific movement in response to an impact, human beings are supposed to carry out an action by a similar necessity if impelled to it by any reason. Human beings imagine themselves to be the free originators of their actions only because they are aware of these actions. In so doing, however, they overlook the causes driving them, which they must obey unerringly. The error in this train of thought is easy to find. Spinoza and all who think like him overlook the human capacity to be aware not only of one’s actions, but also of the causes by which one’s actions are guided.

A Philosophy of Freedom - Rudolf Steiner

>>The error in this train of thought is easy to find. Spinoza and all who think like him overlook the human capacity to be aware not only of one’s actions, but also of the causes by which one’s actions are guided.

I dunno. I see a lot of people who take sole credit for their actions and outcomes and don't give a thought to the fact that they didn't choose their parents, place of birth, genetic makeup, talents and temperaments or simply the role of luck.

IMHO. There is no error. A person who is aware of their actions but not the causes by which their actions are guided, are not free. A human may have the capacity, but it may not be exercised, and if it is not, they are not free.

I really like this distinction between necessity and decision. It's a great philosophic contrast that inspires further thought, but to ascribe necessity or decision to something so complex as a human being seems extremely difficult to me.

Take for example a monk who has set himself on fire yet remains calmly seated on the ground. Out of necessity I would say that the average person would run around frantically while being engulfed by flames, however the monk has seemingly decided to ignore this instinctual response. But then one could counter that the monk is acting out of necessity born from years of cultivating emptiness within. Well then, did the monk decide to become a monk when he was a child, or did it happen due to the necessity of his circumstances?

I can't decide whether necessity or decision is necessarily true in a case like this. =P

off topic, but HN is the last place I'd would expect to find a reference to Rudolf Steiner :)

That was a fantastic read. Spinoza was well ahead of his time. People like him paved (and continue to pave) the way to a saner society.

Spinoza was to the medieval Europe what Socrates had been to the Ancient Greece. Their ideas came to free human mindset from the enslavement the religious. Those ideas were a threat to the establishment of their days that were using gods to prey on the masses. No wonder Socrates has to be sentenced to death. Spinoza found refuge in the then tolerant Netherlands. Coincidence or not? Spinoza middle name is Benedictus => the Title of current Pope .... Hope the latter turns a modern days Spinoza...

I never understand the idea that Spinoza was an atheist. Sure his ideas of God were not Judeo-Christian but he did believe in the super-natural that we see in action through nature. Spinoza was 100% a theist and wrote about God and advocated for the evidence of a God. I almost laugh when agnostics try to use him as their champion. They are ramming their own beliefs into this Philosopher that it is not respectful to Spignoza's writing. My example is since he saved Ethics to be released on his death why wasn't he clear on the rejection of God or place more on Deist statements?

Prop. 28

"The mind's highest good is the knowledge of God, and the mind's highest virtue is to know God. ...The mind is not capable of understanding anything higher than God, that is, than a Being absolutely infinite, and without which nothing can either be or be conceived; therefore, the mind's highest utility or good is the knowledge of God. Again, the mind is active, only in so far as it understands, and only to the same extent can it be said absolutely to act virtuously. The mind's absolute virtue is therefore to understand."

Digression: I'm suspicious of philosophy because it throws around absolutes with nothing to back them. Like 'The mind is not capable of understanding blah blah'. Really? What is this supposition based upon? Its like saying there's a highest number we can understand - but what if we add 1 to that?

Welcome to philosophy and why we are still in this mess academically in the 21st Century.

Welcome to philosophy's number one question. What can we base anything on? To Spinoza it is rationalism. Soren Kierkegaard (My son is named after him) there is nothing but faith that we must leap upon when we have no faith.

>>I'm suspicious of philosophy because it throws around absolutes with nothing to back

Bertrand Russel had a definition of Philosophy that fits your suspicion - in that he said that Philosophy is the contested no-mans land between Theology and Science.

Hence - you're probably not going to find absolutes.

but what if we add 1 to that?

He's talking about the name of that number.

Do you think that there is no limit to human understanding?

Whatever it is, it's a psychological question. The only hope of answering it would be to go around measuring how much people could understand - and if that wasn't possible (due to understanding not being defined, i.e. not really meaning anything specific, or due to it just being really difficult to measure), then you'd have no chance of ever knowing.

By your definition once 1 is added it’s not a number we can understand.

Yes, but the claim is that there is such a number, not that it can be defined.

A number is simply a state; a concept held by a state machine, such as a human. Numbers do not exist, but to the enumerator.

Then it will be especially hard to argue that an inconceivable number exists.

Spinoza didn't find refuge in the Netherlands, he was born there. His grandfather moved from Portugal to the Netherlands though.

I think this is in reference to his family moving due to religious persecution.

Edit: Pope Benedictus XVI served as Pope from 2005 to 2013. The current Pope is Francis. Bear with my ignorance of the world's current news. I don't watch TV, nor Facebook-too distractive-. I'm a Hacker News addict. I come here on average 5 times/day.

> medieval Europe

He lived in the 1600s, that is not medieval, it's Renaissance. (Sorry for nitpicking.)

:) i'm fine with your nitpicking! I read Spinoza in high school - a decade+ back- the accuracy of timing is so porous. @ University i opted for Social Anthropology instead of Philosophy. I still have some remorse about that choice today...

FWIW, I did study Philosophy, but dropped out after just one semester. However I have not read anything written by Spinoza.

He must have been an interesting person, though. In his day job, he created lenses that powered the first microscopes and the telescope(s) that Christiaan Huygens used to observe Saturn's rings. A true Renaissance man, indeed!

The current pope is called Francis, or Franciscus.

Francis is not legit?

Yeah. It was basically like Underwood in HoC.

In other words, Objectivism.

I urge you to read Spinoza for yourself if you are under the impression that his philosophy is like Ayn Rand's. I assure you, they are worlds apart.

On the general level, Objectivism and Rationalism differ because the former is a philosophical system encompassing metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. Rationalism is a particular epistemological viewpoint, and not a system. So how does the Objectivist Epistemology differ from Rationalism? Rationalism in its strongest form is the position that reason is the only means by which to acquire knowledge. It is usually contrasted with empiricism, the view that our senses are the primary means of knowledge.


Interesting how the judeo- Christian concept of immortality is so clearly harmful, while the Greek/ eastern concept of the transmigration of souls is so socially useful. For a Christian, at least, the world is a sinking ship. But for a Hindu, you will inherit the good and bad you do in this life in the next. Though, of course, that can lead to a different kind of fatalism in terms of treatment of the poor.

> For a Christian, at least, the world is a sinking ship.

That isn't universal and as a Theological student it isn't even what is written in the scriptures. In fact you can't read anywhere in the scriptures where people go to heaven, but it talks about people living here on earth.

It's hard to make universal statements.

> It's hard to make universal statements

I feel like I've been motte and bailey'd a bit here [1].

OK, let's remain agnostic about the hermeneutics. Can we agree that the doctrine of heaven and hell is less conducive to good stewardship of the earth than the doctrine of reincarnation?

Or are you, a theology student, solely commenting on a philosophy thread to police generalities?

[1] https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Motte_and_bailey

I wasn't baiting and switching I was just stating your statement wasn't factually correct though your empirical evidence might state differently. Sorry if I came across with any attitude it wasn't directed at you or anyone on HN.

> Or are you, a theology student, solely commenting on a philosophy thread to police generalities?

No, I just was trying to be diplomatic. I also wasn't really reacting to your statement as much as I hate when Christians throw on the doom and gloom when it is based on emotions and lazy Theology. It drives me crazy how people put so much energy into their beliefs when they don't put any energy into learning about their own beliefs. That is why so many people become so

> Can we agree that the doctrine of heaven and hell is less conducive to good stewardship of the earth

I have also read hundreds of Hindu books and I can say that Christian Scriptures also has clear statements about stewardship of the Earth. People also love ignorance and are lazy. They just believe what a person says and don't investigate it themselves. BUT I still don't see where Heaven and Hell as anything to do with stewardship. The Christian Scriptures don't have a Good / Evil balance scale for who goes to heaven and hell.

> BUT I still don't see where Heaven and Hell as anything to do with stewardship

Huh, seems self-evident to me. If you have to keep a thing, you're gonna be motivated to treat it nice. If you're gonna throw that thing away after you're done with it, you're less motivated to treat it nice.

Since you are a Theological student, I'm sure you're familiar with 2 Corinthians, where Paul goes on at length about the evanescence of our terrestrial "tents": "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands."

Now this certainly sounds like it would be quite conducive to a "sinking ship" mentality. At the very least on the face of it! You might disagree for more _Theological_ reasons, but if you can't recognize the most obvious, exoteric implications of the text, then I can't help but feel that you're not considering what I said in good faith.

In another sense, it's a question of enforcement. All religions explicitly name the consequences for sin, so if abusing the environment is a sin in Christianity, what is the consequence? I mean, I assume even Christians have some vague sense that you shouldn't torture animals, but where exactly in the Scriptures is even that prohibited?

This is all rooted in Christianity's anthropocentric "ranking of souls." Since only humans are made in the image of God, we have a special status, which is why it's fine to eat the flesh of animals, which God specifically exhorts Peter to do, no?

It's hard to make universal statements because the bible is shock full of contradictory statements. Jesus says explicitly that large is the path that leads to damnation and that few will be chosen by him. So, while some will have redemption, the story goes that most of humanity will end up in despair. Of course, other texts can be used to conclude the opposite, which is the normal fashion for bible interpretation.

You're overstating how clear the contradictions really are. There's nothing close to "Ham is green, no hams are green."

It means "nobody gets it for free". Nobody gets to say "oh, but I'm the king, I'm pre-redeemed, I can do whatever". Everyone has to work hard every day for redemption, and nobody is ever done.

That is one possible interpretation of the english translation that you happen to be using.

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