This month, we discuss Benedict de Spinoza’s work on the good embodied life with Susan James, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. Click here to listen to our conversation.
Spinoza (1632-1677) was born in what was then one of Europe’s most free Jewish communities, in Holland. Perhaps thanks to that, he developed ideas centuries ahead of his time. But even for his free community, his ideas were far too forward. In fact, his ideas so impassioned his Jewish congregation that it did “excommunicate, expel, curse and damn” him for “evil opinions and acts”: “no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favour, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.” At the time, Spinoza was 23. He did not submit. Instead, he went on to produce much of today’s most studied early-modern ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
Much of Spinoza’s work probes the age-old mind-body problem. Descartes, who shortly preceded Spinoza in Holland, famously proposed that at last some parts of the mind are beyond the body (dualism). But today, many philosophers think of the mind strictly in terms of the body (physicalism). For his part, Spinoza studied Descartes, and proposed neither. Instead, he presented the mind and body as utterly different perspectives on the same thing, always with perspective influenced by passions. Thus, in his magnum-opus, the Ethics, he taught that life is best lived not by ridding ourselves of passions to reach objectivity, but rather by growing awareness of our passions, without supposing to escape them.
After his excommunication, Spinoza was attacked on his synagogue steps with a knife. His jacket was torn, and he wore that torn jacket for years hence as a sort of badge of honor to the world. The world, in turn, has never stopped learning from Spinoza. And although Spinoza began adulthood with ejection from his community, he saw the good embodied life not only as an individual project, but a collective one. So, join us as our guest continues to unpack Spinoza’s philosophy.