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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Ethics

Ethics

Spinoza

Ah, Spinoza.  What can we say about you?  What world do you inhabit?  You were born in Amsterdam, but you weren’t Dutch.  Your parents were Jews who fled Portugal in the 1630s to escape persecution.  You spoke Portuguese at home; you were called Bento by your family and Baruch in the synagogue.  Baruch, until the synagogue expelled you for your insistence on unorthodox views of G-d.  Cast our of your community, you kept company with the Mennonites, who taught you Descartes and Christian theology.  The Catholics were out of the question.  The year after your birth, they had set Galileo before the Inquisition for his support of the Copernican theory of the universe.  Besides, you could no longer be a Portuguese Jew, so why not a Dutch Protestant?  You knew where the benefactors would be.

Of course, the Protestantism didn’t really take, either.  You asked too many questions.  If God is omnipotent and infinite, how can he desire anything?  Doesn’t the human notion of ‘desire’ presuppose a lack of something?  How could an infinite being be said to have passions, sentiments like ‘love’ and ‘wrath’? So you rebuilt the cosmology of human passions in the light of a truly infinite God, a God who wasn’t something apart from the universe, but a God who was the universe.  Or rather, a universe that was an aspect of God, not a thing created by God and distinct from him.  All of the entities in that universe — you, me, aphids, the stars and planets, ice cream sundaes and the Devil — all modes of the divine substance.  Expressing different attributes of the great I AM.  You envisioned a cosmology that took the infinity of God seriously, and was rationally coherent, if not biblically literal.  You organized your premises in treatises of geometric precision, starting from definitions and axioms, then building those into propositions and corollaries.  A perfect idealist construct that fit the majesty of the infinite into the rationalist Enlightenment form.

Of course, the ruling Calvinists denounced your work as ‘evil and blasphemous’, and you died before it ever saw publication.  So much for the Dutch Enlightenment.

But I like your God, Spinoza, even if the Calvinists didn’t.  He’s not the big bearded bully in the sky who scowls when we do something naughty.  He is the First Cause, the thing that must necessarily Be if anything else is To Be.  I’m less persuaded by your take on Free Will.  “Freedom”, you would have me believe, is when a man makes choices for himself in the full light of understanding.  If you hide a coin under one of three cups and a serpent under the others and let me choose my cup, then my will isn’t truly free.  It is constrained by my lack of understanding, by my not knowing what it is that I’m choosing.  The funny thing, you say, is that understanding compels us.  Once I know which cup contains the coin and which ones the serpents, once I fully understand the choice that I’m making, rationality compels me to choose the cup with the coin.  I’m “free” in the sense of understanding my decision, but that freedom means that only one course of rational action is available to me.  “Free will”, you argue, is a non-starter.  Once we understand ourselves, our universe, synonyms for the mind of God, only one course of rational action compels us and binds our path.

It’s flimsy because you were a man of your times, and fetishized rationality.  The passions control a man and lead him astray; rationality constrains him toward inevitable truth.  Of course, it’s not so, because not all realities are rational realities.  Some are emotional realities, realities of the passions, and only by embracing and employing the passions do we arrive at those realities, those attributes of the I AM.  It’s impossible to render those methods in axiomatic and propositional terms.  Human community is never geometric, and attempts to render it so will always pervert it.  You must have known this when the synagogue cast you out, when the Inquisition threatened Galileo with torture, when the Calvinists called your work ‘evil’.  Rationality doesn’t compel the way you need it to, Spinoza.  The will resists, and we must find other avenues to complete some journeys.