Spinoza: The Power of Clear Thinking
By George ter Wal
Publisher: New Delhi: Science of the Soul Research Centre, 2021.
Spinoza: The Power of Clear Thinking presents the thought of Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher. Exploring the connection between each individual and the all-encompassing reality, Spinoza came to believe that nothing exists but one supreme good, one substance, one reality, whether we call this God, Nature, or the Universe. He further sought to understand this reality, to know God, which for him required a deep intuition of truth, one by which, in his words, “the soul is changed.” He taught that the human being could achieve conscious communion with God: that “it belongs to the essence of the human mind” to gain knowledge of “the eternal and infinite essence of God” and to share in understanding the universe as God does, “from the viewpoint of eternity.”
Born into a Jewish family, Spinoza challenged both the Jewish and Christian religious orthodoxy of his day, and was eventually condemned as an atheist by theologians of both faiths. His ideas were radical for the culture in which he lived because he did not rely on revealed scriptures or religious rituals as the path to God. Further, according to the predominant thinking of his period, whether Jewish or Christian, God is understood to be transcendent, that is, apart from the creation and human beings. Yet, as the author describes it, for Spinoza
God… is not a person or a sovereign nor anything like a person or sovereign. God is an infinite being with an infinite power to act. God is an expression of perfection: of what is. Therefore everything that is, is in God. Every extended thing as well as every thought is in God, expressed by God, and conceived by God.
Though offered a university position that would have secured him wealth and status, he declined it, preferring freedom to work on his ideas and writing, earning his living as a lens grinder. To avoid controversy, he directed that his books be published only after his death. They were thereupon immediately banned, but still circulated. Despised by theologians, he was much loved by his friends, followers, and students. Because of the way in which he explained his spiritual beliefs, people who had lost faith in religion, and even some who had become atheists, were inspired to follow the path to truth he delineated.
In describing Spinoza’s ideas, the author of the book likens the connection between human beings and God to a ladder:
One end of the ladder rests in our heart or being and the other end of the ladder is in God, or Nature. For Spinoza, there are three rungs to this ladder which are levels of knowledge or understanding. The lowest rung of the ladder is ill-informed opinion, the middle is reasoning, and proper reasoning will eventually culminate in [the highest rung,] intuitive knowledge of God.
As the author explains, for Spinoza the ultimate human objective is
to reach that understanding that will bring us peace of mind. And when we realise – really realize – that all is in God’s hand, that all is as it is meant to be, and when we realise that a better understanding of God means a better understanding of ourselves, this love of God occupies our whole mind and this love is the most constant of all emotions.
Spinoza wanted people to move away from cherished misconceptions toward accuracy and clarity in their thinking. In the manner of geometric proofs, he led his followers systematically through a series of logical arguments that, in his view, proved his theses.
Unlike many other philosophers, Spinoza believed that, in addition to logic and reasoning, emotions are necessary for understanding God. He thought that emotions follow universal laws of nature like everything else, and analyzed them “coolly and rationally, in the same way we analyze the three-dimensional physical world, with its lines, planes, or bodies.” Spinoza believed that because we lack understanding about how thoughts and emotions work, we are, in the author’s words, passive victims “at the mercy of external causes, … tossed about like the waves of the sea when driven by contrary winds, unsure of the outcome of our fate.” If we understand emotions as a natural process subject to science, we can be objective about them and develop a sense of being active rather than passive about the course of our lives.
Spinoza used the word conatus to describe the motivating power behind our thoughts and actions. Deep within ourselves, in our very essence, we are striving to do the best we can for ourselves. Spinoza saw this drive as a virtue that leads us to the highest level of understanding. Welling up from deep within our body, mind, and emotions, it moves us toward the state of freedom that we are trying to realize. The author writes: “Spinoza is clear that there is no virtue that precedes the conatus. The impetus for existence, for preserving ourselves, the conatus, lies at the root of everything. We could infer that the conatus is synonymous with our essence – with God.”
In a way, humanity’s path to freedom leads through clear understanding of the emotional causes of action. Our conatus – our core, our vital force – is covered with layers of emotions. For our conatus to express itself positively we have to understand these emotions. Are we really acting in our own best interest? The author states that, for Spinoza, “understanding the emotions, including recognizing which of these emotions are to our advantage, offers us a glimpse of what it is to be free.”
While Spinoza understood that we can be bound by negative emotions, he was interested in “exalted” emotions like joy and blessedness that were “positive and empowering.” He emphasized that “emotions cannot be curbed other than by opposite and stronger emotions.” Because we are emotional beings, we cannot repress our emotions; rather we must use positive emotions to cultivate a sense of agency, not passivity. Spinoza believed that positive emotions play an important role in understanding God and therefore in increasing the fulfillment and happiness that eventually lead to bliss.
Spinoza is a very positive philosopher, a philosopher who says that an increase in real knowledge goes hand in hand with joy and pleasure – and that joy and pleasure are emotions which can be sufficiently powerful to overcome negative emotions. He is a philosopher for whom the object of his philosophy is not knowledge for its own sake but the bliss that results from higher knowledge or understanding and thus stronger and better emotions, up to and including eternal blessedness.
The experience of unity with God is one of bliss but also ultimate love. As the author explains, “Love is the essence of Spinoza’s God: God may not love us as another person would, but he is … wholly and eternally loving.”
In sum, Spinoza’s goal was to search for that which is truly good and to guide his followers to that goodness. He used a logical, mathematical approach while honouring and harnessing positive human emotions. Although he was accused of being an atheist, he sought a true and deep understanding of God that transcended the religious views of his time.
I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity.
Science of the Soul Research Centre plans to publish more books on some of the world’s greatest philosophers and how they have sought ultimate truth through clear thinking and reasoning.