ELECTRONIC JOURNAL FOR PHILOSOPHY
(The problem of death in Spinoza's philosophy)
by Martin Hemelík
Death and dying - these are very important philosophical problems. Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza who ranks among the rationalists of the XVIIth century, solves the problem of death in the framework of his ontological schedule. The author summarizes the basic elements of Spinoza's solution: Death can play the role of evil only for such kind of people which is not able of higher forms of understanding, i.e. only for people who are called "homines carnales" by Spinoza; for people whom Spinoza called "homines sapientes", death cannot play this role. On the contrary, homo sapiens is able to overcome death because he understands himself and the necessity of things and God.
Keywords: Spinoza - death - dying - good - evil - "homo carnalis" - "homo sapiens"
At first sight, the motive of death in Spinoza's philosophy does not seem to be very important and interesting; Spinoza does not deal explicitly with this motive. In his main work "Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata", the motive of death is only marginal. Why then this theme?
Nevertheless, the reasons for an inquiry of this theme can be found very easily. First of all, Spinoza's philosophy is an ethical doctrine of the right human way to liberty, happiness and bliss (beatitudo). (In Spinoza, liberty, happiness and bliss are three dimensions of the ultimate end of human life.) With respect to this end, death would be considered as a very serious or even insuperable hindrance. In our everyday experience, dying and death are given in a very pressing way and this concerns all living beings and primarily ourselves. Spinoza as a philosopher who examines the human way to liberty, happiness and bliss cannot therefore leave out of these problems.
Moreover, the question of dying and death is also connected very closely with the ethical problem of good and evil. In his Ethica, Spinoza looks into this problem very carefully and this is why I think that in the framework of these considerations it is possible to grasp the basic features of Spinoza's treatment of the question of death.
Max Scheler called Spinoza (as well as G. W. Leibniz) "the philosopher of metaphysical optimism" because - according to Schelerøs opinion - he denied the ontological validity of suffering to such an extent that his philosophy can be held for a metaphysical justification of evil in the world.(1) In my view, this opinion seems to be doubtful. Letøs examine this "justification of evil" in Spinozism.
As early as in his Short Treatise that originated about 1660 Spinoza expresses an unequivocal judgement concerning the above mentioned problem: "Daraus folgt also - wie oben - dass gut und schlecht keine Dinge oder Handlungen sind, die in der Natur sich finden."(2) In Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata it is formulated in a more explicite way: "With regard to good and evil these terms indicate nothing positive in things considered in themselves, nor are they anything else than modes of thought, or notions which we form from the comparison of one thing with another. For one and the same thing may at the same time be both good and evil or indifferent."(3) In the definitions of Part IV of Ethica there can be found an exact specification of the terms of good and evil: "By good, I understand that which we certainly know is useful to us. By evil, on the contrary, I understand that which we certainly know hinders us from possesing anything that is good."(4)
From Spinozaøs point of view, good and evil are not important from the ontological point of view. They have no relevance to the ontological order of all being. Accordingly, their importance can be found only in relation to our human nature. It must be so because the ontological basis for all - God (Deus) - has no such characterizations. God (the Absolute) is neither good nor bad. Inasmuch as all is in God and God is the immanent cause of all, no existing thing is good or bad in itself. Thus, there is no reason for speaking about "justifying of evil" in Schelerian sense. In Spinoza, nobody and nothing is guilty.
However, the problem of the justification of evil can be treated in another way. If Spinoza understands evil as what hinders us from possesing anything that is good, then it is obvious that the very fact of the existence of this hindrance can be understood as evil. Anything (any being) arises necessarily from the essence of God. The fact that something is evil for us, must result somehow from the general order of nature or have its reason and cause in God. In this way, the existence of evil would be based upon the entire ontological schedule of being.
This consideration seems to oscillate between clarity and confusedness. To avoid this confusedness, we should try to understand again Spinoza's approach to human condition. Good and evil cannot be found in things as considered in themselves. Good and evil are constituted in the relations between our nature and these things. Nevertheless, our existence, the existence of things and, consequently, our contacts with things, in which things' goodness and badness are constituted, this all belongs to the general order of nature and has an objective and even the absolute basis. In Spinoza, human evaluation of things as good and bad takes place also in "the empire of necessity". A full understanding of things and their characters (good and evil) is not derived solely from things themselves, but also from our and their position within the general order. For Spinoza, the idea of the justification of evil in the world would be the same as if the triangle were justified by the fact that the sum of its three angles is two right angles. In accordance with Spinoza, this world is not the best world, but it is the only possible world because it is the necessary world. Only in this meaning we can understand the problem of Spinoza's justification of evil in the world. There is no other possibility.
Since good and evil are notions which are constituted in the relations of things to our human nature, we are not able to aim at the elimination of evil. We cannot deny our nature. The general order of nature is incorrigible. We can "humiliate" the evil in such a way that the suffering which results from the existence of evil is compensated for our ability to understand evil and for our actions which are led by this understanding. This is the hard core of Spinozaøs ethical doctrine as well as the basic framework of our considerations about the question of the death in Spinozism.
Death and dying - these are the examples of evil in the world. This is a common opinion.(5) Death is often considered as the absolute or supreme evil. Is it the supreme evil also for Spinoza?
Spinoza's doctrine implies a positive answer to this question even though we cannot find it in his work in explicit form. Let's start a reconstruction of this answer in terms of the considerations which are contained in Part III, IV and V of Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata. We can use the following formulation of Spinoza: "Nothing can be evil through that which it possesses in common with our nature, but in so far as a thing is evil to us is it contrary to us."(6) Our nature (to say nothing of our basic determination which consists in our being a mode of the attribute of extensity as well as a mode of the attribute of thinking) is constituted by "the effort to perservere in its being"(7) and on the other hand "the effort by which we endeavour to achieve the life of wise man" , i.e. the possibility to become the "homo sapiens" really.(8)
Has death anything common with our nature? Of course it has not. Since death is at variance with our nature, it must be evil for us. If death is evil for us, it hinders us from possesing anything that is good. But death belongs to the "general order of nature", i.e. it is necesary. How does Spinoza come to terms with this situation?
In Spinoza's philosophy, it is possible to discern two attempts to this problem, which are connected very closely. The first attempt has led to the fact that Spinoza's philosophy is sometimes characterized as a kind of Stoic ethical doctrine. 67. proposition of Part IV says: " A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is not a meditation upon death but upon life."(9) The scholion of 39.proposition of Part V says: "Inasmuch as human bodies are fit many things, we cannot doubt the possibility of their possessing such a nature that they may be related to minds which have a large knowledge of themselves and of God and whose greatest or principal part is eternal, so that they scarcely for death."(10)
These ideas are very similar to the ideas of Stoic philosopher Epicurus. Like the Stoic philosopher, Spinoza seems to endeavour at avoiding human anxiety in a similarly simple and clever way: 'If we are here, death is not here and, on the contrary, when death is here, so we are not here.' Such ideas can be found also in other Greek and Roman philosophers.
It is necessary to become aware of the following important circumstance: Spinoza derives the main parts of his ethical doctrine from the theory of "conatu", i.e. from the idea that the human "essentia actualis" is the conscious instinct of self-preservation. Spinoza's refusal of "thinking upon death" and his emphasizing of "thinking upon life" is adequate to the human "essentia actualis". Spinoza does not imitate the Stoic philosophy, he is original.
The essence of man is related first of all to the perservation of existence. It is not "being to death". The need of "thinking upon life" as well as the refusal of "thinking upon death" can be regarded as the evidence of man's ontological constitution.
In the second attempt which can be found in Spinoza's philosophy, the problem of death is treated in another context. Namely, the question of death is always connected with the idea of the immortality of soul. Spinoza says in his Short Treatise: "Dabei haben wir nun bemerkt, dass die Seele entweder mit dem Krper, dessen Vorstellung sie ist, oder mit Gott, ohne welchen sie weder bestehen noch begriffen werden kann, vereinigt werden mag, woraus man leicht sehen kann,
1. dass, wenn sie mit dem Krper allein vereinigt ist und dieser vergeht, sie dann auch untergehen muss, denn wenn sie den Krper, welcher die Grundlage ihrer Liebe ist, entbehrt, muss sie damit auch zunichte gehen;
2. wenn sie aber mit etwas anderem, das unvernderlich ist und bleibt, sich vereinigt, wird sie dann im Gegenteil auch mit demselben unvernderlich bleiben mssen. Denn wodurch sollte es mglich sein, dass sie vernichtet werden knnte? Nicht durch sich selbst; denn so wenig als sie aus sich selbst zu sein damals anfangen konnte, als sie noch nicht war, ebensowenig kann sie auch, wenn sie nun ist, sich entweder verndern oder vergehen. So dass dasjenige, welches allein die Ursache ihres Sein, ist, darum auch, wenn dies vergeht, die Ursache ihres Nichtsein sein muss, weil es sich selbst verndert oder vergeht."(11) Similar ideas can be read in Part V of Ethica, 23. proposition: "The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal."(12) And also 39. proposition: "He who possesses a body fit for many things possesses a mind of which the greatest part is eternal".(13)
What does it mean? Is Spinoza an adherent of the idea of immortal soul? Does he think that only our body is mortal? Let's inquire this difficult problem.
It is necessary to have in mind that in Spinoza, man is the exceptional being whose existence occurs in two connections. Man functions as a whole in relation to other beings and, simultaneously, he is a part of a higher whole, i.e. a part of the Universe. This view is very significant for Spinoza's philosophy.
From this point of view it is not surprising that only man's body is mortal; it should be added that also those modes of mind, which are connected to body (i.e. imaginatio) are mortal. On the contrary, the part of mind called intellect (intellectus or ratio) as well as the one called "scientia intuitiva" are eternal because they are the parts of "the infinite intellect of God".(14) According to Spinoza, the genuine knowledge, i.e. the understanding of the Universe and of the basic ontological schedule is generated just in these parts; this is also the place where the boundary between man and God disappears. Thus, the intellectus and scientia intuitiva are the forms of our participation in the eternal and absolute God-substance. Spinoza uses here the famous concept of the "amor Dei intellectualis", which expresses a kind of the partial identification of man and God. As Spinoza puts it, "hence it follows that God, in so far as He loves Himself, loves man, and consequently that the love of God towards man and the intellectual love of the mind towards God are one and the same thing."(15)
Therefore it is not possible to say that the idea of immortal soul plays an important role in Spinoza. The eternality of the intellectual and intuitive parts of mind consists in the fact that they are able to identify themselves with the intellect of God-substance.
Let's try to sum up. From Spinoza's point of view, death is only a relative evil, namely in the relation to our nature; it hinders or can hinder the achievement of right life as controlled by our intellect. When does death become this evil?
Death can play the role of evil only for men who lack the higher forms of understanding, i.e. only for men who are called "homines carnales" in Spinoza. Homo carnalis is a sensuous man who is dragged by his passions and (confused) imaginations. He is a passive being and this is why he is not able of really acting (in the sense of Spinoza's term agere). For such a man, death is the absolute evil. Homo carnalis understands neither his own nature nor the necessity of things nor God. Therefore he is afraid of death and is unable to save himself from dealing continuously with the painful idea of death. Instead of living his life in its fulness, he steadily suffers.
For such kind of man, which is called in Spinoza "homo sapiens", death cannot play the role of evil because this man "is scarcely ever moved in his mind, but, being conscious by a certain eternal necessity of himself, of God, and of things, never ceases to be, and always enjoys true peace of soul."(16) He lives the right life, he is controlled by intellect and the main part of his mind is becoming eternal. Homo sapiens is able to overcome death. This is the way in which Spinoza solves the problem of death in his philosophy.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1) M. Scheler: Rad lasky (Ordo amoris - in Czech), Praha 1971, p. 123.
2) B. Spinoza: Kurzgefasste Abhandlung vom Gott, dem Mensch und dessen Glck, Leipzig 1874, p. 40.
3) B. Spinoza: Ethics, transl. by W. H. White, Chicago 1952, p. 423.
4) Ibid., p.424.
5) See for example C. Tresmontant: Teodicea, in: Host (The Guest - in Czech, a journal published in Brno), 7/91.
6) B. Spinoza: Ethics, Chicago 1952, p. 432
7) Ibid., p. 399.
8) Ibid., p. 463.
9) Ibid., p. 444.
10) Ibid., p. 462.
11) B. Spinoza: Kurzgefasste Abhandlung..., p. 99.
12) B. Spinoza: Ethics, Chicago 1952, p. 458.
13) Ibid., p. 462.
14) Ibid., p. 377.
15) Ibid., p. 461.
(c) Martin Hemelik
The University of Economics
W. Churchilla 4,
Prague 3, 130 00,