Last Tuesday I taught a course on Spinoza for the first time. It is part of the course on Modern Philosophy, starting with Descartes and supposedly ending with Kant. Spinoza figures prominently in this story, and his thought is the most interesting of all the philosophers in the modern period, or in any period for that matter.
We read Spinoza’s Ethics together in the class, trying to understand what is meant in Spinoza’s terse, geometrical language. As one who has only a little familiarity with Spinoza’s thought and writing knows. Spinoza presents his masterpiece “in geometrical order” meaning that he emulates the style of Euclid when he presents his philosophy. This is perhaps the only piece in the history of Western philosophy which is presented as axioms, definitions, propositions, and proofs. And the subject matter is not about points, lines, triangles, or squares, but God, substance, attributes, modes, human emotions, in short everything dealt with in any other substantial philosophy.
Spinoza’s most startling insight is his idea that God is everything. He does not say this as a metaphor; there is no place for metaphors in the Ethics. He means this literally. A standard theistic understanding of God is that he is the creator of the world, so he cannot be everything because that would mean that he is one and the same as his creation, but that is exactly Spinoza’s point. God is a “cause of itself” — he creates himself, and he is the only one entity in the whole universe who does this. In fact it is the universe itself that is God himself, or it is God himself who is the universe. Being a cause of himself God in fact has no beginning because that would mean that there has to be something that exists before God which acts as his cause, but that would contradict the statement that God is the cause of himself. Since God has no beginning, he does not have an end either.
I told my students that if God is indeed everything, then we ourselves are God. Not merely parts of God, but God himself. So I am God, you are God, and so on. This is so because God has infinite attributes, and Spinoza says that an attribute expresses an essence of God. Since there are an infinite number of attributes, that must mean that I myself am an attribute of God also, so are you, and so is everybody else. An attribute expresses God’s essence, so in a sense I am God’s essence, or in other words I am God. (How else can one count the infinite number of the attributes without sooner or later coming across myself or each of my students in the Modern Phil class? You can list the standard properties commonly attributed to God such as benevolence, omnipotence and so on, but after a while you will run out of these and have to start counting properties such as “being Soraj Hongladarom” and others.)
Heady stuff, huh? Western interpreters tend not to interpret Spinoza so as to make him appear a mystic, but in the context of Thailand and other Asian cultures Spinoza makes for a very interesting, if very difficult, read. People naturally tend to compare his thoughts with the major philosophies both in India and in China. We talked about Brahman and the Tao as something comparable to Spinoza’s God. In Buddhism we can certainly compare him with Emptiness. Emptiness is everything too. Well, it is both everything and nothing at the same time, but Spinoza’s God is like that too.
We also talked about Spinoza and the pre-socratic philosophers, most notably Parmenides, with whom Spinoza shares a lot of things in common. God is certainly one, and for Parmenides the substance of everything is, well, “The One.” Scientifically minded western philosophers tend to make fun of Parmenides, saying things like “Oh, Parmenides taught that everything is one, and that I am not it.” We can certainly say the same thing about Spinoza’s God. Someone might say, “Spinoza says that all is one, that is God, but I am not He.” But as I said before Spinoza has an answer to this in his view about the infinity of God’s attributes.
But you might wonder how can God be one if I am God and you are God and that I and you are not one? But in Spinoza’s vision you and I are one. You and I only appear separate from the point of the view of the finite intellect, but from the infinite point of view you and I are certainly one. This is the Buddhist perspective too. Each of us expresses God’s attribute in a different way, but deep down we are both a part of the infinite whole that constitutes God, or nature. As the infinite whole has no real parts, there is absolutely nothing that separates you from me, or me from you.
Spinoza uses his vision of God here as a basis for his thinking on ethics, especially on how we humans could achieve “blessedness” in our lives. But that will take us too long. So let’s wait until I talk with my students again next Tuesday.