Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Spinoza: Knowing Thyself

Scott Bradley


Among those philosophies which have as their primary goal an understanding of reality which answers the question 'How best to live?' the dictum "Know thyself" seems always to emerge. Spinoza's was no exception.

Summing up something of Spinoza's moral philosophy, Hampshire (Spinoza) writes: "We cannot be other than what we are, and our whole duty and wisdom is to understand fully our own position in Nature and the causes of our imperfections [limitations], and, having understood, to acquiesce; man's greatest happiness and peace of mind comes only from this full philosophical understanding of himself."

As previously mentioned, as a rationalist who believed that the Universe is entirely intelligible given a magnitude of intelligence sufficient to encompass it (which is to say Nature [God] itself), Spinoza' philosophy would seem to be the antithesis of Daoist thought. Yet his conclusions are startlingly similar.

Though "acquiescence" is not my choice of words for the act of open-hearted surrender into our fundamental limitations which Daoism sees as a way of liberation, it essentially means just that. Knowing that we do not know, we open ourselves to what cannot be known. Limitations are our gateways to the unlimited.

Spinoza's epistemology led him to the conclusion that to know oneself is to know the causes of one's actions. To know these, one must know Nature. This provides one with a larger view which dissolves one’s petty subjectivity with its loves and hates of the particular, and which in turn leads to the love of all things equally.

Freedom from external causes is perhaps the most essential attribute of the "free and wise man". Spinoza recognized that nothing external to oneself is the true cause of one's disquiet. Though I may be wronged by another, any consequent disquiet is my responsibility. To know oneself is thus to know whether things external to oneself affect one's peace, and if so, why. And the answer to this always points to a failure to have surrendered into the larger view where the subjective particularities of preference dissolve. This is really little different than Zhuangzi's non-dependence where one goes beyond even Song Rongzi, who taught freedom from the opinion of others, to depending on nothing at all. It also reflects Zhuangzi's emphasis on disallowing the external to enter one's "Numinous Reservoir" and thus maintaining a pool of quiet within.

To understand one's motivations is to gain the lever whereby one can move beyond them.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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