Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction
Prices for book: Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction
Book ISBN: 9780192803160
Author(s): Roger Scruton
Document type: Trade Paper
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A Pleasurable Read
Despite Scruton's so-called shortcomings in regard to the one star reviews his VSI is not a waste of time. It is a pleasurable read. It prompted me to purchase Spinoza's Complete Works by Hackett Publishing to know more about the depth and breadth of his thought. But surely, Scruton misrepresents what Nietzsche really thinks about Spinoza. Scruton says Nietzsche dismisses him as a 'sickly recluse' and pretty much leaves it at that (p. 88). Nietzsche considered Spinoza among the best. He praises him as a 'precursor' for having an 'over-all tendency' like his own, 'even though the divergences are admittedly tremendous' (Selected Letters by Middleton 177). Nietzsche lists Spinoza among his 'ancestors' describing him as 'the purest sage' (Human All Too Human 175) as a 'genius' (Daybreak 202-3) and his work 'a passionate history of a soul' (Daybreak 198) that is written in a 'simple and sublime' manner (Gay Science, sec. 333).
Randy M. Herring (Amazon.com)
Interesting and insightful
This is an interesting and insightful interpretation of Spinoza. Contrary to another reviewer's assertion, a careful reading of the text reveals that Scruton is not referring to Spinoza when he employs the phrase "false prophet of atheism". In fact, Scruton seems to consider Spinoza's system to be an ususual form of theism. Whether Spinoza's vision is actually theistic, pantheistic or atheistic is a matter of debate among commentators, but Scruton's book is generally well thought-out and presented.
J. A. Kramer (Amazon.com)
Scruton piles his own concerns onto Spinoza
The OUP Very Short Introduction series generally produces excellent books introducing complex subjects in a terse, intelligent and accessible way.
I recommend this one on Spinoza, though be aware that it is slightly different from some of the other books in the series as it very much couches Professor Roger Scruton's voice set up within a consideration of Spinoza's work, especially the Ethics.
Scruton is a perplexed soul in modern philosophy - a traditional conservative, who rejects much about the liberal mores of modern western culture, he nevertheless finds it hard to cross the intellectual Rubicon and actually believe in an interventionist God.
This divide rears its head here as he uses Spinoza as a way to try and bridge this chasm between a Medieval and post Enlightenment world view. On the God section, Scruton struggles to breathe life into what is a necessarily doomed project of Spinozas - to revive the ontological argument for the existence of God, based on the fallacy that what can be conceived must exist.
Scruton is much better in the chapters on man and freedom which demonstrate how Spinoza tried to show how man can attain happiness through an awareness of the necessity of the laws of the universe and his contingent place in it. The ideas are elegantly illustrated in places with art - Brueghel's Fall of Icarus to show how man should focus on the nearby tasks rather than far flighted fantasy (a picture replicated on the cover of Scruton's 'News from Somewhere') and Rembrant, invoked to show that the free life involves the translation of passion into reason.
Very valid philosophy for our contemporary times.
Slash through Spinoza's metaphysical jungle...
Anyone who has dove into the bowels of Spinoza's most famous work, "The Ethics," without adequate preparation has probably felt similar to a cat thrown into the deep end of a pool. After all, doesn't the title suggest that the book will discuss how to live "ethically?" Instead a tidal wave of abstruse metaphysics washes over the reader of Section One, called "Of God." And what about Spinoza's chosen format? Oh boy. Definitions that lead to propositions and quasi-mathematical conclusions? Not to mention all of those somewhat humorous "Q.E.D.s." A few pages in, the uninitiated may slam the book shut, curse the name of philosophy, and return to the familiar, and almost equally arcane, world of online gaming. So what's the big deal about Spinoza's magnum opus? How could such a strange book, replete with such strange thoughts, survive as a masterpiece of philosophy? Shouldn't such a seeming anachronism have gone the way of alchemy? Or does this poo conceal a golden treasure trove?
For beginners, Roger Scruton's microscopic book, slim as an iPod, goes a long way towards answering such questions. The bulk of its 54 pages focuses on "The Ethics" and concludes with his own interpretations of what this strange book could mean for twenty-first century people. In essence, Scruton characterizes Spinoza's Euclid-inspired work as comprising a system that encompasses all of reality. That's a big claim. Not only that, "The Ethics" does not philosophize for its own sake. Spinoza was a lens grinder, not a professor, and thus not shackled to the "publish or perish" hamster wheel of academia so familiar today. He didn't write "The Ethics" to secure tenure. In fact, it was so controversial that it wasn't even published until he died ("publish and perish" probably describes those religiously volatile times). This bizarre work instead delineates a metaphysical system and then, based on the implications of this system, deduces how humans should live. Only after taking a machete to Spinoza's metaphysical jungle does the work's title become evident. This book helps sharpen the blade.
Scruton delves into Spinoza's definitions, an understanding of which necessitates comprehension of the whole system. He pulls away the goo adhering to such terms as "cause of itself," "finite in its own kind," "substance," "attribute," "mode," and even "God." In under twenty pages the book gives a suitable high-level outline of Spinoza's metaphysics. Of course, given the space limitations, much detail gets ignored. Scruton does not discuss Spinoza's voluminous proofs, for example. After examining the idea that human beings remain finite modes of the self-existing substance ("God"), the discussion turns to Spinoza's theory of knowledge, views on individuality, and free will through internal "conatus" (or essence of being). Human beings, according to these ideas, are deterministic beings constrained by external and internal forces. Since all causation derives from the self-existing substance (again, "God") our "mission" becomes seeking and finding the infinite ("sub specie aeternitatis") amongst the finite ("sub specie durationis"). This unbinds us from the knots of time. Ultimately, reason becomes the prime mover to help human beings achieve both happiness and a sense of the infinite cause. We can do this by mastering our emotions and enhancing our understandings. Don't let impulsive passions predominate. Think. "A free man" recognizes the limitations and determinations of our human nature. Freedom then comes from the realization that we are not free. We find bliss in the rational contemplation of the self-existent, all-causing substance. As such, we have an impassionate relationship with this impassionate substance Spinoza calls "God." This path leads to views of God that contradict our traditional notions, namely, that God neither hates nor loves anything, God feels neither joy nor sorrow. God seems wholly impersonal, but nonetheless the object of our contemplation. No such system has ever existed in the western philosophical tradition. No wonder it wasn't published during his life. Spinoza doubtless remained aware of the dangers of doing so.
The book does not include much detail about Spinoza's life. It does not examine in depth the historical charges of atheism or heresy. Elucidation of Spinoza's philosophical system remains the focus throughout. Scruton summarizes, rather ominously, that "Spinoza undertook what has rarely been attempted, and never so boldly or arrogantly achieved: he gave a description in outline of all that there is, and a guide in detail as to how to live with it." In other words, Spinoza took on the big questions of existence (Scruton depicts post-modernism as the rejection of these questions) and at the very least presented a relatively comprehensible philosophical framework. Though not everyone will agree with the conclusions Scruton draws in the book's final section, the book as a whole nonetheless provides a good introduction to a very notable and unique metaphysical and ethical system.
There is much to learn from this insightful introduction
Scruton provides an excellent short biography of Spinoza's life and a good description of the world in which he lived. He invokes the biographical memoir of a contemporary and friend of Spinoza, Colerus. Scruton says " From this we learn of the simplicity and naturalness of Spinoza's life and character, and of the high esteem in which he was held by acquaintances and friends. The seclusion of Spinoza's life was necessitated by intense labour and intellectual discipline , and his frugality expressed independence of spirit rather than meanness of self- concern."
Scruton speaks of the magnificence and ambition of the last great Latin masterpiece, Spinoza's 'Ethics'. He has chapters on Spinoza's view of God, of Man, of Freedom,and one on his legacy.
This is a rich work from which much can be learned. As Scruton says for Spinoza "scientific objectivity and divine worship " are the two forms of freedom.
Spinoza for Will Durant was the one philosopher who lived as he wrote. This short work gives evidence of this congruence between work and life.
Shalom Freedman (Amazon.com)
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