Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Spinoza: The Hideous Hypothesis

Scott Bradley

When one reads about Eastern philosophy with reference to Western philosophy the name of Baruch Spinoza (1634-1677) inevitably comes up in a very favorable light. His philosophy, however it might have arrived there, reflects a mystical understanding and experience of the Universe surprisingly similar to that of Daoism, Neo-Confucianism and (perhaps) Buddhism.

Knowing better than to think I could actually understand him from his own writings, I have been reading Stuart Hampshire's Spinoza, an overview of his thought. Yet even this sometimes inspires me to 'mysticism'.

Needless to say, as a free thinker, Spinoza faced the inevitable censure of his religious (or religiously inclined) contemporaries. Indeed, his conclusions were scornfully dubbed a "hideous hypothesis" and the elders of the Jewish community of which he was ostensibly a member brought down upon him the most chilling God-curses imaginable.

This "hideous hypothesis" is the belief that Reality is One. It is one which strict theism cannot endure, the understanding that if there is God, it is not other than all that is. There is no Creator with its requisite dualism. Spinoza was a "monist" and a "pantheist".

Spinoza was also an extreme rationalist; and the means by which he came to his non-dual position would seem to be completely antithetical to the approach of Daoism. No matter. Having arrived there, he admitted that all his logic rested on an intuitive knowledge, an intuitive trust in the ability of the mind to affirm the truth. "Truth is its own standard."

Spinoza was a man of incredible intellectual genius, but more importantly, he was a man of intense moral conviction. Using these words I feel as if I am negotiating a road of briars and nettles. Yet his morality was one that subscribed to no code of ethics, but rather one which recognized, as every monism must, the relative nature of our definitions of right and wrong. His morality essentially consisted in the realization, as much as humanly possible, of the harmony which is Nature, and this implied harmony with and among all other things.

It is a great irony that those who espouse the strictest categories of right and wrong are those who are most likely to do the most harm to others. These moralists decry the supposed lawlessness of the relativists, but it is they that oppress and kill in the name of truth. The reason for this is clear enough when one understands that to stake a territorial claim, whether actual or moral, is to exclude and defend against all other claims. To 'have' anything requires its defense. And when "God" gets involved, even defense is not enough; others need to be set right whether by law, or war, or condemnation, or the rack.

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

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