The Dutch Maimonides

” Consider This Description Of Baruch Spinoza Essay, Research Paper

The Dutch Maimonides: how ironic that this epithet, a name `synonomous with virtue, respect and religious devotion, should be `directed at a man villified and ostracized by the Dutch Jewish `community for heretical tendencies, and left to die in `circumstances bordering on the ignominious, among Gentiles. In `this essay we will give a brief overview of Spinoza’s life and `character then go on to examine his conception of God and then `evaluate whether a comparison with Maimonides is justified, or `indeed, warranted. `Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) grew up in Amsterdam at a `time when scientific discovery, religious division and profound `political change, were coursing through the very fabric of Dutch `society. His antecedents, wealthy and respected merchants in `Portugal, had finally fled from the oppressive tyranny of the `Inquisition and gravitated naturally towards the secular and `tolerant Northern Provinces of the Netherlands. His father, warden `of the synagogue and pillar of the Jewish the community, gave his `only son a fine education in Hebraic Law and orthodoxy, in `preparation for becoming a Rabbi. However, Jewish orthodoxy, like `Christian orthodoxy, had been deeply shaken by the new ideas of `the Renaissance, and such luminaries as Galileo, Bacon and `Descartes. In was in this atmosphere of revisionism and fierce `debate that Spinoza found himself increasingly dissatisfied with `the biblical interpretations he received from the Rabbis. His `contacts with the unorthodox Christian intellectual community grew `and he found himself attracted towards the natural science’s and `teachings of Descartes. At the age of twenty four, three years `after his father’s death, Spinoza’s scepticism of the `compatibility of Biblical doctrine with natural science and logic, `led to the Rabbinacal authorities excommunicating him in 1656. As `might be expected, the young Spinoza took this philosophically and `set about earning his living in the highly skilled field of lens `grinding. Spinoza chose to live a quiet ascetic life, and was, by `all accounts, a dignified and tranquil man of great personal charm `and kindness. Spinoza’s perceived atheism, however, ensured his `notoriety; he had the reputation in Europe of being a mysteriously `subversive thinker, with whom it was dangerous to associate. These `perceptions were compounded in 1670 with the publication of his `’Theologico-Political Treatise’ in which Spinoza advocated `tolerance, secularism and the ways of peace. The Treatise was `described as being “forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the `Devil” (Scruton:P.12) and was condemned by various religious `authorities and formally banned in 1674. After this, despite the `promptings of his close circle of friends and admirer’s, Spinoza `gave up the idea of publishing his seminal work ‘Ethics’ believing `that the hostility engendered by its publication would cloud its `real meaning: the possibility of freedom of thought in a secular `state. Spinoza died at the age of fourty four, peacefully and `without public notice. The subsequent publication of his `manuscripts by his philosophical friends, was met with `incomprehension and abuse, and were generally neglected until the `end of the eighteenth century. In this secular age it is `difficult to even come close to comprehending the furore that the `perceived heresy of Spinoza stirred up. It these notions and `hypotheses that will we will now examine. `Spinoza embraced the new learning of the age with all `the customary zeal of the converted. Revelation had to be `displaced by Reason and Science. In his determination to `construct a complete picture of life and the world, subjected to `the scientifuc principles of ordered law and reasoned analysis, `he went further than any philosopher or theologian before him, `and applied his rigid logic to the Divine nature, and traditional `concept of God, thus breaking with the fundamental tenet of `Judaism. He believed that philosophical truths should be capable `of exact and certain demonstration no less fully than the truths `of mathematics and geometry. The universe, which he calls `indifferently Substance or Nature or God, is there because of `necessity; it exists because of its own intrinsic nature, not by `chance or for some purpose of its creator. “In Nature” he writes `”there is nothing contingent, but all things are determined from `the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in a certain `manner.” (Levine:P61) Therefore, Nature or God is the ultimate `cause from which all effects flow, there is only one Substance, `everything else becoming attributes. There are no differences `between the physical and mental modes of existence, everything is `part of a fundamental unity, and exists and behaves from `necessity. Spinoza insisted God could not be independent from `this fundamental unity because to do so would be to admit that `things could be ordered differently: “To imagine God acts for the `sake of the Good is to set up something outside of God which is `independent of Him, a model or goal. This is indeed nothing else `than to subject God to fate, the most absurd thing which can be `affirmed of Him.” (Levine:P.66) By definition, God could not be `distinct from the world but immanent within it. `A natural progression of this line of reasoning, the `affirmation of necessity and cause and effect, is the negation of `’free will’. Human behaviour is subject to the same laws of `science and nature in that it is predetermined by a ’cause’, which `in turn becomes an ‘effect’. All emotions, passions and desires `are as mechanical and inevitable as all that happens in the `physical world, they are a necessary attribute of the fundamental `Unity of Nature. For Spinoza there were no concepts of ‘good’ or `’evil’, these were relative concepts only given meaning from the `narrow standpoint of our own personal feelings. All events and `actions were a series of natural occurrences, necessary, `determined, and causally related to the rest of experience. It `was from these assertions, which on the surface appear to be `atheistic and mechanistic in substance, that the controversy `and revulsion about Spinoza’s thinking emanated. It was only in `later years, when Spinoza’s Ethics was reassessed, that the true `nature of his system of thought appeared. In these later `interpretations, it becomes clear that Spinoza had more in common `with Maimonides and the Jewish-Alexandrian Philosophy, than either `Descartes or Bacon. `The doctrine of Spinoza, for all its apparent `Mechanism and ruthless Logic, its frank acceptance of the Necesity `governing life and the world, is literally shot through with `religious intensity. Many commentator’s feel that this religious `fervour is embodied in one of Spinoza’s most famous phrases: the `Intellectual Love of God. For Spinoza, God or Nature is a single `system, and to understand any particular part of it is necessarily `to come to understand more of the whole. By seeking to understand `ourselves and the causes of our various emotions and reactions, it `inevitably follows that we learn more about Nature; and as nature `is interchangeable with God, to understand God must mean to `understand Nature; therefore the more we understand individual `things, the more we understand God. A more simple exercise in `metephysics we couldn’t ask for! However, we digress; the ultimate `goal in this process is the attainment of the third and highest `level of intuitive knowledge, whereby a person acquires an almost `ecstatic, in the religious sense, view of the world. Spinoza seems `to feel that in such an intuitive vision the world would appear to `us as a complete, unbroken expression of one Substance, in which `all divisions, all separateness, all independence, would have `disappeared. To elaborate further: “To understand God must mean to `understand Nature; at the third and highest level of intuitive `knowledge every individual detail of the natural world is shown as `related to the whole structure of Nature; the more we take `pleasure, as philosophical naturalists, in tracing in detail the `order of natural causes, the more we can be said to have an `intellectual love of God” (Hampshire:P.169) Spinoza sought to `prove, through logical deduction, that to be rational is `necessarily to love God, and that to love God is to be rational. `From this brief synopsis of Spinoza’s concept of God, we can `deduce that, contrary to being atheistic, or even irreligious, `Spinoza was in fact imbued with a quite remarkable religious `fervour. His belief in Monotheism and his insistence on the reign `of universal Law and Necessity, which advocates an attitude of `acquiesence and resignation and highlights the insignificance of `Mankind in the grand scheme of things, has parallels in Jewish `Philosophy stretching back to the Book of Job. It is these aspects `of Spinoza’s philosophy which draw comparisons with that other `great thinker of Judaism: Maimonides. `Maimonides (1135-1204) published his ‘Guide for the `Perplexed’ in 1190. Its purpose was to harmonize Judaism with `philosophy, and to reconcile the Bible and Talmud with Aristotle. `The ‘Guide’ ws intended for the sophisticated, well read Jew, `whose education made then uneasy by the apparent disagreement of `Aristoleian philosophical teaching with the ideas expressed in the `Bible and Rabbinic writings. Maimonides explained the apparent `contradictions by highlighting the use of homonymous terms, which `obscured the true meaning of the metaphor’s and allegories found `in the Bible. His approach was deliberately apologetic and `concordist in order to mitigate the storm of controversy his `conclusions would undoubtedly stir up. However, there are `remarkable similarities in both Spinoza’s and Maimonides `conception of the nature of God. Both of them sought to remove the `anthropomorphic qualities of God, for Maimonides this endowment of `God with Human attributes was tantamount to idolatry, he writes: `”thus as we shall see, it is only by a study of physics that we `come to understand that affection is a defect and must be `removed from the conception of God. It is therefore a duty to `study both physics and metaphysics for a true knowledge of God” `(Husik:P.243) Also similar was their belief in the Uniformity of `Nature, the belief that every cause has an effect and that God or `Nature was the immediate Cause of every particular event in the `world. However, it would be wrong to stress the congruence of `these general similarities; within their systems of thought lie `markedly different approaches to deductive reasoning, which the `intervening years can only partly explain. Maimonides sought to `reconcile his faith within the traditional structure of Talmudic `and Biblical teachings. Spinoza needed to go further, to break the `shackles of religious dogma in order to prove that God or Nature `existed out of necessity, a necessity that could be proved by pure `logic. Suffice to say both men trod the same path, in search `of a means to reconcile Reason with Revelation, and arrived at `different destinations but with the same conclusion: “the joyous `acceptance of man’s complete dependance on the supreme Power which `governs the universe” (Levine:P.77) ` ` `BIBLIOGRAPHY `STUART HAMPSHIRE SPINOZA 1951 `ISAAC HUSIK A HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL JEWISH PHILOSOPHY 1974 `ISRAEL LEVINE FAITHFUL REBELS 1971 `ROGER SCRUTON SPINOZA 1986


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