Gesprek over substantie, attributen en modi in Het Martelaarsboek van Jan Rieuwertsz.

Zoals ik in het vorige blog, waarin ik Spinoza in Love van Martin Skogsbeck besprak, al aangaf geeft het boek op diverse plaatsen een aardige uitleg van Spinoza’s filosofie. Zo is er o.a. een episode met een bijeenkomst in de boekwinkel met het uithangbord "Het Martelaarsboek" van Jan Rieuwertsz. Daarbij zijn naast Rieuwertsz aanwezig, Spinoza (hier Benito genoemd), Pieter Balling, Jarig Jelles, Simon de Vries en ook de verteller Christiaan van Ermelhoven [Christiaan en Benito spreken onder elkaar Spaans]. De volgende passage met uitleg over Spinoza’s kernbegrippen substantie, attributen en modi, vind ik zo fraai passen bij thema’s die we met een aantal bezoekers op dit weblog uitvoerig bediscussieerden, dat ik die in dit blog als treffende illustratie uit dat boek wil brengen. Het geeft wellicht een wat vertekend beeld, want zulke passages zijn er maar een paar.

Spinoza heeft een notitie uitgereikt over de filosofie die hij aan het ontwikkelen is. Als het gesprek afgelopen is neemt hij die ook weer in, want het is work in progress. De deelnemers vragen nadere uitleg.

[p. 138]
Pieter Balling looked across at Benito. 'What, precisely, do you mean by substance, Benedictus? As opposed to Cartesius, you use the term as if there were only one kind of substance and everything that exists is made up of it.'

We were sitting around the oak table in the centre of Rieuwertsz's bookshop. There were six of us; everyone Benito had told me about was there except Meyer and van den Enden. Our host was a kindly looking corpulent man with a short beard and steel-framed spectacles perched across his nose. When I had arrived at the shop he had scrutinised me through a little metal grill in the heavy, ironclad door. Then he swung it open and greeted me with a broad grin. […]

'That's correct, Pieter,' Benito now answered. 'There is only one kind of substance and it embraces everything. But I prefer to express it differently than you just did. Substance can manifest itself in an infinite number of ways and everything that is, exists as one of these manifestations. I call these manifestations the modes of the substance.' I wasn't used to hearing Benito speak at any length in Dutch. It sounded unfamiliar and also a bit awkward.

[p. 139]
 'What difference does it make which way you express it?' Pieter rejoined.

'If you say that things are made up of substance it makes substance sound like something tangible, doesn't it? Almost like the flour of a cake or the glass of a lens. But the modes of substance are without limit. They comprise everything, both what is material and what is mental. You, me, our ideas, our dreams — all are modes of substance. Also things of which we are not yet aware — ocean creatures and stellar bodies still to be discovered, books and poems still to be written — they too exist as modes of the substance. '

What he said made me think of our tavern. 'It's just as impossible as a black swan' was a popular expression. Could Benito really mean that also black swans exist as modes of the substance?

Pieter Baling took a different tack. 'Books and poems that will exist, you mean,' he objected.

'No, Pieter. They already do exist because the substance of which they are modes is complete, unchangeable, infinite and eternal. If you apply reason you will perceive that all things exist under a certain form of eternity.'

'I can see that there will be nowhere to hide in your philosophical universe, Benedictus,' Pieter said with admiration. 'Not in the past, neither in the present, nor in the future. No dark corners or hidden alleyways for mysticism and miracles. You want to shine the light of your reason on everything there is, to explain it all. What an ambitious undertaking!'

Benito resumed 'Yes, substance encompasses absolutely everything conceivable by an infinite intellect. There is nothing outside of it on which it depends for its conception or creation. In other words, substance contains within itself the full explanation for its own existence. It must therefore necessarily exist. I say that substance is self-caused.'

He swept his gaze around the little group of friends. Their attention to what he was saying was palpable. Pieter spoke again.

'Now to the attributes of substance. Your note says that an attribute is what the intellect perceives concerning substance. What precisely do you mean?'

'It is the way the intellect attributes reality to the substance. Perhaps it is easier to understand if you think of an attribute as an intermediate stage between substance and its modes. Consider the idea of substance carefully and you will realise that the "everythingness" of it is also its "nothingness". It is impossible to grasp what substance contains. You cannot have thoughts about substance as these very thoughts in themselves are substance. It's like trying to describe a house from the outside without ever being able to leave it. The reality we live in ends at the door.'

This was getting horribly complex. I barely managed to follow. I had the impression that Benito added the easy-to-understand examples like the house because I was in the room. He glanced at me each time he did.

'So, you see Pieter,' he continued, 'we can call "substance" by the word "substance" but we cannot articulate what it consists of. Words are only helpful up to a point. It is the idea that matters. And the idea of substance is what our intellect perceives it as to constitute. This is what I call its attributes.' Nobody made a comment so he went on.

 'If we stand close to a window in that house, we may get a sideway glimpse of one or two of the building's outside elements. It could be a shutter or a balcony, for example. Enough for us to deduce the character of its exterior. These attributes of the house are all that is perceptible to us from within the limits of our indoor reality. Likewise, I say that the attributes of substance represent the only way for us to perceive its essence from within the limits of our intellect.'

[p. 141]
A murmur went through the room. Rieuwertsz was next to speak.

`So that is why you call the attributes an intermediate stage, Benedictus? Attributes are manifestations of the substance, and the modes that we see around us are manifestations of these attributes?'

'Exactly, Jan. And as substance is infinite, there is by necessity also an infinite number of attributes. Yet, we humans can only perceive two of all these attributes. The attribute of material objects — such as the cake and the lens — and the attribute of mental activity — like ideas and dreams. Objects extend in space, so I call the first one the Attribute of Extension. Mental matters live in our thoughts, so the second I call the Attribute of Thought. Now, if you consider....'

Benito was interrupted by the noise of falling books from an adjacent storage room. A mouse came scuttling at great speed through the half open door.

[p. 142 Now Jelles entered the discussion.]
'Benedictus, how can substance not be part of our reality?' he queried, frowning. 'Are there several realities?'

'No, Jarig, there is only one. As I just explained, I see substance itself as not being within the limited part of reality that is known to us. Only two of its attributes are. If you think about it, Jelles, many things are not part of "our reality". Even most things, I would say. Like the undiscovered sea creatures, the distant stars and all those future events I mentioned before. These things, however, may one day be known to us whereas substance will forever remain beyond our comprehension.

'We are but human beings. Our bodies and souls are fleeting modes of those attributes of extension and thought. Our lives last less than a single blink of Nature's eye. When we die, our bodies and souls fall apart but, nevertheless, remain modes of that infinite and eternal substance. "Our reality" is [p. 143] limited to what our intellect deciphers from the crude signals we receive through our senses. Only scientific research and philosophical discussions like the one we are having right now can give us a true understanding of Nature. And with each step of increased knowledge, we expand our reality a tiny bit.'

Jelles persisted. 'But Benedictus, if substance is not part of reality as we know it, how can we be certain it exists?'

There was a touch of impatience in Benito's voice when he answered. 'Jarig, I already explained that. Existence only exists within substance so by necessity substance exists.'

His answer didn't make much sense to me but it did cause Jelles to stop. Benito looked around the table to see if there were more questions. The silence was complete. Apparently, what he just said had left everyone reflecting on its meaning. He started gathering up his papers.

'Well, dear friends, now you know a little more about my metaphysical building blocks. If you don't mind, I'd like you to hand back the copies of my notes. This is work in progress. I will give you a revised version when my thinking has advanced further. Thank you so much for your interest. '