Scruton’s Introduction to Spinoza

I admit that as a fan of English conservative thinker Roger Scruton I was chiefly interested in Spinoza’s impact on the author’s outlook, especially in the area of metaphysics and ethics. The seventeenth century philosopher will probably remain more of an interesting curiosity than a profound influence in my own studies. That said, anything that Scruton writes, including his concise introduction to Spinoza, is lucid and enjoyable.

As a Jew in seventeenth century Holland, Spinoza was a controversial figure in an age of religious and philosophical turmoil, though today he is remembered as a secondary thinker, who ingeniously elaborated on the ideas of Cartesian rationalism. His own community considered his views heretical. Since that time, Spinoza’s philosophy has earned many labels, some of which (according to Scruton) are inaccurate. He has been called a pantheist and a determinist, due perhaps to hasty readings of his magnum opus, the Ethics.

It is interesting that for Spinoza “as for Descartes, physics rests upon metaphysics, and a scientist who ignores the fundamental questions does not really understand what he is doing.” Spinoza was fundamentally spiritual even though he eschewed traditional theology. His metaphysical and ethical studies represent an intellectual tour de force, often striking in their austere and lofty splendor. At the same time such precocious innovation may be its chief weakness. For example, in treating of morality, he argues that blessedness is “not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself; nor do we enjoy it because we restrain our lusts; on the contrary, because we enjoy it, we are able to restrain them.” An orthodox theologian would, in fact, say that both approaches are true.

Scruton also touches on some insights by Spinoza into the nature of political liberty, and its inherent limitations, which stand in contrast to confused modern notions of emancipation. Even if one disagrees with the Dutch philosopher, one cannot doubt his sensitivity and integrity. This is reflected in a letter he wrote to an acquaintance: “So far as in me lies, I value, above all other things out of my control, the joining hands of friendship with men who are lovers of truth. I believe that nothing in the world, of things outside our own control, brings more peace than the possibility of affectionate intercourse with such men; it is just as impossible that the love we bear them can be disturbed … as that truth once perceived should not be assented to.”

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