Spinoza and the spiritual quest.6 min read

“ After experience had taught me that all things which frequently take place in life are vain and futile … I determined at last to enquire whether there might be anything which might be truly good and able to communicate its goodness … whether I might discover and acquire the faculty of enjoying throughout eternity continual supreme happiness.’’

These words of Spinoza, occurring at the beginning of his unfinished treatise ‘On the Correction of the Understanding’, introduce this great 17th century philosopher’s brief account of the inner conflict which finally determined his life of self-dedication to the quest for the highest good. In this personal record are clearly defined the various stages in the gradual dawning of spiritual consciousness.

The first sign of man’s spiritual awakening is the growing sense which experience forces on him of the inability of the ordinary objects of human desire to give that deep and abiding satisfaction which his soul demands. Spinoza tells of his early discovery that the good which is generally sought in external things does not, in fact, reside in them but is purely a subjective experience dependent on the way in which the mind is related to them, since the same object which causes pleasure at one moment may cause pain at another. It is evident that anything towards which we are indifferent is powerless to affect us either favourably or adversely ; but it is the objects of our devotion or desire which are responsible for our joy and pain.

Hence Spinoza reflected :

“ The whole of happiness or unhappiness is dependent on this alone : on the quality of the object to which we are bound by love.”

The happiness which is derived from love of finite objects must inevitably share their characteristics of changeability and impermanence. And conversely :

“ The love towards a thing eternal and infinite alone feeds the mind with pleasure which is free from all pain.”

Thus was engendered a feeling of dissatisfaction with all that is transient, and a yearning for some fixed and eternal principle which alone would be capable of giving real and enduring peace and joy.

Then followed the second stage of spiritual development : an effort to arrive at certainty of the existence of this infinite principle before making any essential change in the ordinary way of life; Spinoza confesses that although he was convinced of the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of the things which are generally considered to be good, principally wealth, honour and pleasure, yet he found it impossible to abandon immediately all interest in them in favour of what might prove to be a fruitless quest, since he felt that they did give certain advantages.

“ No-one ”, he says, ” ever neglects anything which he judges to be good except with the hope of gaining a greater good.”

But he soon found that love of the world and love of the infinite cannot go together. The search for the absolute cannot be undertaken by a mind engrossed in pleasure or distracted by desire for wealth and fame. He had to choose between them.

The stage of indecision lasted for some time, owing to the fact that the mind continually evaded a subject which it instinctively felt to be opposed to its own interests ; for it appeared to be madness to deprive it of all hope of temporal joy for the sake of pursuing a fixed good which it might never attain. But when, after long and repeated application, Spinoza succeeded in deliberating deeply on the matter, he became aware that in fact he had no choice—he was in the position of a sick man who, tired of the many ineffective palliatives offered to him, knows that his illness will soon prove fatal unless he can find a cure and so is prepared to devote all his resources to that end.

Gradually the worldly attractions waned and he began to experience fleeting glimpses of real peace and joy hitherto unknown as his mind became more and more engrossed in thoughts of the supreme goal, the existence of which he no longer doubted. For how could man become aware of the limitations and inadequacies of this life were he not at the same time conscious of a greater life which transcends it ? Not only this, but the very recognition of an infinite principle by an apparently finite being implies that he must in some way share in that infinitude.

Just as a wave is considered to be finite when defined and limited by other waves and yet in its essence it partakes of the nature of the infinite sea, so, reasoned Spinoza, man essentially is an integral part of the whole and, as such, free from all limitations ; whereas the idea of his finitude, with its attendant sufferings, stems from an incidental relationship with other finite things. Thus, Spinoza concluded that man’s highest aim should be so to direct his thoughts and endeavours that he may finally triumph over his finitude by acquiring an intuitive realization of his essential identity with the infinite—and, he added : “to endeavour that many also should acquire it.“

For he held that : “ men who are good by reason (i.e. men who under the guidance of reason seek what is useful to them), desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.”

For the rest of his life Spinoza’s main efforts were centred on creating a method by which his goal could be achieved and in expounding that method in a rational form for the benefit of other seekers of truth. In order that he might not be deflected from his purpose by worldly attractions, he made it a rule to seek only sufficient money for his needs and to enjoy only those pleasures which he considered to be necessary for health.

He was friendly and considerate to all and did everything in his power to help his fellow-men and to follow the general customs of his day so long as his spiritual endeavours did not suffer by so doing. His spiritual quest, though following intellectual lines, was nevertheless conducted with an attitude of reverence and devotion and brought him to a state of great peace and serenity in all circumstances. Hence he came to be known as “ Blessed Spinoza ” ; and he was described by Novalis as “ a man inebriated with God ”.

Spinoza held that man’s passions and emotions enslave him and prevent him from obtaining true knowledge by overpowering his reason. But when he learns to understand and guide them, his purified intellect can lead him to true wisdom. He ends his Ethics in these words :

” The wise man, insofar as he is considered as such, is scarcely moved in spirit. He is conscious of himself, of God and things by a certain eternal necessity; he never ceases to be and always enjoys satisfaction of mind. If the road I have shown to lead to this is very difficult, it can yet be discovered. And clearly it must be very hard when it is so seldom found. For how could it be that it is neglected practically by all if salvation were close at hand and could be found without difficulty ? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare.”