Dr W Large

The Vision of Necessity and the Intellectual Love of God

Part 5 is perhaps the hardest part of the Ethics, not because it is impossible to understand the words that we read. Such an interpretative difficult probably belongs to the book as a whole. Rather, even if we can understand the words, do we really know what Spinoza means by the intellectual love of God? Is it possible to have such an experience? It reminds some of the stories in Plato’s dialogues which are there to explain the ultimate end of philosophy. I can read the words of the Symposium which describe the ‘ascent to the beautiful’, but can I really know what this means if I have never had such an experience, which as Spinoza writes at the last sentence of the Ethics, is as beautiful as it is rare. Sometime we confuse knowing about philosophy with being a philosopher, and they are not always the same thing at all.

What is the highest wisdom of philosophy? Plato and Spinoza are one is this regard: to teach you not to fear death. As Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 38:

From this we understand what I touched on in IVP39S, and what I promised to explain in this part, namely that death is less harmful to us, the greater the mind’s clear and distinct knowledge, and hence, the more the mind loves God.

But how do we get to this sanguine state so that we no longer fear death, which is probably the greatest fear of all? We do so by reaching what Spinoza calls the third level of knowledge. It has already introduced us to this level in the second part of the Ethics (IIP40), and it is worth while here to remind ourselves what the three levels of knowledge are. The first level is the stage that most people are at. It is the knowledge of opinion and belief, which his motivated by fear and hope. This level is not really knowledge at all, but ignorance and unawareness of the world around you and the network of infinite series of causes and effects that determine one’s existence. The second level is a little more difficult, but is knowledge proper. It involves, Spinoza argues, common notions and the adequate ideas of things. Thus, he will write in the second part of the Ethics that there are universal properties of bodies that are recognised by all (IIP38). These common notions are adequate ideas of things and form the basis of our scientific understanding of the universe. Now we would think that this would be the end of the matter: the distinction between knowledge and opinion, but it is not. Spinoza says that there is a third level of knowledge, which is the intuitive knowledge of God. It is this knowledge that is the proper knowledge of the philosopher, or the wise human being, which is the same thing, and is the purpose of the Ethics to convince us both that it exists and is possible, and finally can enable us to free ourselves from the worse effects of our affects.

      What is this intuitive knowledge of God, or what Spinoza will call, in Part 5, the ‘intellectual love of God’, and how does it differ from the second level of knowledge? The first matter to underline, as Lloyd stresses, is that we should not confuse this with any kind of mystical or supernatural knowledge.[1] There is no transcendence in Spinoza, no reality beyond this reality, no being beyond Being. The second kind of knowledge is an understand of things through the parallelism of the order and connection of ideas and the order and connection of things, but the third kind of knowledge is an immediate understanding of myself and my place within the universe, or to use Spinoza’s language, my place within God. My understanding of this produces the highest affect of joy in my mind (for we have to remember that there is no division between reason and affects for Spinoza), which is what he calls ‘blessedness’.

      Many find the end of the Ethics incoherent and a contradiction of the overall message of the book. The most notorious of these is Bennett, who pretty much gives up on it altogether (sometimes one thinks that Bennett doesn’t like Spinoza at all, and one wonders why he is reading him, since most of the time, in his opinion, Spinoza is wrong[2]). I think, however, that Lloyd is absolutely right in stressing that this third level of knowledge is not religious at all, but is merely a taking on board, in terms of our lives and our experiences, what is taught abstractly through definitions and axioms in part one that God is not a first part, but the reality of the universe of which we are an intrinsic part, rather than a element separate from it sustained by a fictional personal God, who in reality is nothing else than a projection of our absurd pride that the universe could have been created for us.[3]

      One way that people imagine that they have a special and unique place with the universe, rather than just a finite mode of an infinite substance, is to believe that there is immortality of our lives after death. To overcome our fear of death, we imagine that our personality and consciousness continue after we have disappeared. This is not possible for Spinoza, because my sense of myself is only possible because I have a body. My mind, as we learnt from part 2, is an idea of my body, and my body is not an idea of my mind. Without my body I wouldn’t have a mind at all, and any sense of duration, and time would cease to exist. Immortality is based on the false idea that minds can exist without bodies, and no one suggest that bodies are eternal. Combined with this false idea is the confusion of eternity with infinite duration, so that I imagine myself living together as I am now but just for an infinite time.

      Eternity does not mean for Spinoza time going on forever, but something quite different. This is why he can say that even though there is no immortality in the way that religions have imagined it, there is part of my mind which is eternal. This seems to be very strange since it implies that the mind can exist without the body, and this cannot be what Spinoza is saying since it would contradict the fact that the mind is the idea of the body. The contradiction exists for us, because we still viewing eternity in terms of duration. We are imagining that mind would continue to exist in the same way as it endures whilst the body exists.

      Again the best way to understand the eternity of the mind, as Lloyd suggests, is in relation to the third kind of knowledge.[4] I only understand myself through the affections of my body, but it is impossible that I could know the infinite network of causes and effects that lead up to this affections. I can know, however, the true status of myself as mode of infinite substance. How would this knowledge, Lloyd asks, overcome my fear of death? Not through the knowledge gained by simply reading the first part of the Ethics, but something more subtle:

What is new is the understanding of the truth of finite modes in relation to particular bodily modifications, and to ourselves as ideas of these modifications.[5]

Lloyd continues to explain that is not a matter of ascending to a transcendent vision of the universal, like Plato’s ascent to the beautiful and the vision of the one, but of understanding the ‘actual existence of these affections’. For all that exists for Spinoza are singular things and substance, or the being of singular things. To understand singular things as the expression of substance is different from understanding them in relation to other singular things, which is the basis of the 2nd level of knowledge, which compares one thing with others. This kind of knowledge, though adequate, can never be complete. As Lloyd concludes, ‘we know that we are in God, and are conceived through God; we understand ourselves through God’s essence as involving existence.’[6] Having seen this, I can understand that dying is of no consequence to me, since, in understanding myself in relation to substance which is eternal, the greater part of my mind is given over to what is eternal, rather than to what is individual and perishable in me, my imagination and memories.

[1] G. Lloyd, Spinoza and his Ethics, Routledge, London, 1996, p.110.

[2] J. Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, Hackett, 1984, pp.329-75. Surely there is a better way of reading philosophy which isn’t so sad. Perhaps Deleuze’s advice is more joyful: ‘trust the author you are studying. Proceed by feeling your way…. You must silence the voices of objection with you. You must let him speak for himself, analyse the frequency of his words, the style of his obsessions.’ Quoted from Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (London: Routledge, 2004), p.47.

[3] Spinoza and his Ethics, pp.112-13.

[4] Spinoza and his Ethics, p.121.

[5] Spinoza and his Ethics, p.121.

[6] Spinoza and his Ethics, p.122.