Spinoza’s Summum Bonum

Yitzhak Melamed heeft een artikel naar academia.edu geüpload dat binnenkort gaat verschijnen. “Spinoza and Some of His Medieval Predecessors on the Summum Bonum. Forthcoming in Nadja German and Yehuda Halper (eds.), The Pursuit of Happiness in Medieval Jewish and Islamic Thought.

Daarin laat hij zien wat het begrip 'summum bonum' – het hoogste goed – dat al vroeg in de TIE voorkomt bij Spinoza betekent en hoe het zich in de Ethica ontwikkelt.

Melamed laat zien hoe Spinoza, die niet veel van Aristoteles zei te moeten hebben, toch dit centrale Aristotelische begrip overnam.
Een informatief artikel, waarvan ik het slot hier overneem.


                Spinoza was no fan of Aristotle. In a letter from October 1674, he asserts plainly: “To me the authority of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates is not worth much.”[1] Still, Spinoza’s attitude toward Aristotle was not one of complete and unreserved rejection. On some issues, such as the rejection of the Aristotelian ban on actual infinity, Spinoza’s attack on Aristotle went far beyond that of most of his contemporaries.[2] Yet, on many other issues, Spinoza critically adopted, and reinterpreted, key Aristotelean concepts and doctrines. In this manner Spinoza adopted and heavily employed the Aristotelian concept of essence while divorcing it from its original and standard association with teleology. We can discern a similar attitude in Spinoza’s reception of Aristotelean ethics. Spinoza adopts key doctrines and concepts from Aristotle and Maimonides, yet at the end of the day these elements acquire a new, and frequently surprising, meaning.

                A bit more than a third of a century ago, I recall myself as a child coming across an odd volume in the library of my father’s Hassidic shul. The title of the book, Sefer ha-Midot (Hebrew: “the Book of Ethics”), was not the reason for my surprise; most Hassidic libraries contain books on piety and ethics. The reason for the surprise was, of course, the author of this specific book of piety, namely, Aristotle.[3] In his masterly study, Steven Harvey traced the fascinating history of the Jewish reception of the Nicomachean Ethics from almost complete ignorance and indifference in the early middle-ages to the early modern period during which the book became one of the most cited works in rabbinic literature.[4] The terminology of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is today spread over much of the canonical rabbinic literature on piety. In many of these works, Aristotelean terms are put to work in a very original and surprising manner, just as in the works of our friend, Benedict of Amsterdam.

[1] Spinoza, Ep. 56| IV/261/30.

[2] See my “Hasdai Crescas and Spinoza.” For the rejection of actual infinity by self-proclaimed early modern anti-Aristotelians, such as Hobbes and Locke, see my “Eternity in Early Modern Philosophy,” 137-142.

[3] Most likely, this volume was the 1866 Lemberg reprint of Itzik Satanow’s 1790/91 edition, Sefer ha-Midot le-Aristoteles. See Friedberg, Bet Eked Sepharim, II 554.

[4] Harvey, “Influence,” 136-7. Indeed, any cursory search of Aristotelean moral terminology (such as, ‘hazlaha [happiness],’ or ‘ha-tov ha-elyon [the highest good]’ in databases of rabbinic literatures will yield thousands of hits. 

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Hieraan voeg ik graag toe de laatste paragraaf, getiteld Summum bonum, uit het hoofdstuk waarnaar ik een paar dagen geleden nog verwees:

Ger Harmsen, “Spinoza and the Geometrical Way of Proof.” In: T. Koetsier en I. Bergmans (Ed.), Mathematics and the Divine. A Historical Study. Amsterdam etc., 2005, 423-440 - deels in te zien op books,google

9. Summum bonum

When Spinoza talked about human happiness he thought primarily of God and not of happiness between people. Yet he was a proponent of a church based on the love between people. In everything, however, God is the point of departure. The love of God is man's highest happiness (amor dei intellectualis). The individual is not in the centre as in humanism. The beginning of the Tractatus de intellectus emendatione points this out. The pursuit of possessions, money, power, honour, pleasure can only give temporary satisfaction. It does not yield the true, permanent and highest happiness (summum bonum). His practical philosophy of life is thoroughly inspired by Stoicism, but without the radical "suffer deprivation so that you won't suffer deprivation".[i] He would not hear of the gloomy Calvinism that takes sinfulness as its starting point. Spinoza's maxim is: "A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death".[ii] Man is allowed to enjoy himself, although not too much.

In the fifth book of Ethica Spinoza indicates the road that leads to the knowledge of God and to spiritual freedom. Spinoza distinguished three kinds of knowledge.[iii] The least reliable knowledge is based on reports from others or it comes to us from random experience, without interference of the intellect. The second kind of knowledge we have when the essence of a thing is inferred from another thing. The third kind of knowledge we have when a thing is perceived through its essence alone or through knowledge of its proximate cause. Spinoza illustrated this classification by means of a mathematical problem: find x when a : b = c : x when a, b, and c are given. If we use a rule that we once learned without understanding why it works, or if we apply a rule that we have found by trial and error, we acquire knowledge of the first kind (imaginatio). If we understand proposition 19 of book 7 of Euclid's Elements, which says that a:b=c:d is equivalent to a * d = b * c, and apply it to the problem involved, we acquire deductive knowledge: the second kind of knowledge (ratio). The third kind of knowledge is intuitive knowledge and it is to be preferred. In the case of the equation 1 : 2 = 3 : x we can immediately, intuitively, without deduction see that x = 6 is the correct solution. This is the kind of knowledge that proceeds from an idea of the attributes of God to knowledge of the essence of things. It is not a matter of feeling but of reason. Is this a rational mysticism?

The nature of God is strictly deterministic and freedom is the insight in the necessity of things. There is no free will. The fifth book concerns the spiritual freedom that results from the control of passion. Mankind finds himself to a certain extent at the mercy of the lower passions: lust, the desire for esteem, riches and wealth. An intellectual elite, however, craves a higher, spiritual happiness, for "the smell of higher honey".[iv] In Spinoza the way to the eternal love for God leads in the end to such delight that in comparison all earthly enjoyments become insignificant. The amor dei intellectualis leads to a way of life that consists of laetare et bene agere (rejoice and act well, Ethica, IV, Proposition 73). W. Meijer called Spinoza the happy messenger of the mature mankind. The Christian idea that virtue would eventually be rewarded, in other words the idea that only the prospect of a reward in an afterlife brings people to live virtuously, was alien to him. The reward for a virtuous life was in the perpetration of virtue itself. According to Spinoza God loves only himself and not people; that is why he who loves God cannot desire that God should love him in return (Ethica, V, Proposition 19). This love for God cannot be defiled by envy or jealousy. The more people are joined to God by this bond of love, the stronger it gets (Ethica, V, Proposition 20). Spinoza's opus magnum, the Ethica, begins and ends with God. Proposition 21 in Ethica, V, seems to imply that the soul (mind) perishes together with the individual body. It says that the mind cannot imagine anything, nor remember past things, except as long as the body exists. Yet Ethica, V. Proposition 23 reads: "The human mind cannot be completely destroyed together with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal". Insofar as the human mind participates in the one and only substance, God, via the amor intellectualis dei, the mind is eternal. Clearly this does not concern the individual inner life (imagination, memories) but the general moment of the mind. Does not this thought remind us of the intellectus agens in the Destruction destructionis (1180) of Averroës?[v] In the end more mind than matter and no strict parallellism. This has not much to do with mathematics.

[i] This is how the Gerrnan poet Johann Heinrich Voss (1751-1826) characterised Cato's stoicism: "Damit du nichts entbehrst, war Catos wcise Lehre, Entbehre".

[ii] "Homo liber de nulla re minus, quam de morte cogitate, et eieus sapientia non mortis, sad vitae meditatio est". Ethica. IV. Proposition 67.

[iii] Ethica. II. Proposition 40, Scho1.2.

[iv] In the poem "The song about the foolish bees" by the Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953) the bees leave their flowers, their houses, their gardens, their people because of "a smell of higher honey". The trip results in their death and their dead bodies return to the garden accompagnied by snowflakes.

[v] Ibn Roschd, or Averroës (1126-1198), as he was called by the Latins, was an Arabian philosopher and physician. He was very much influenced by Aristotle. His work Tehafot al Tchafot  (Incoherence of the Incoherence), or in Latin Destructio Destructiones was a refutation of Al-Ghazali's Destructio Philosophorum. Al-Ghazali had argued: Islam is true, and where the philosophers contradict it they are wrong. Averroes reproduced the text of Al-Ghazali's book and commented on it. An important question concerned the individual mind. Al-Ghazali maintained that the individual human soul survives the death of the body. Averroes found this illogical. The visible world and also human bodies are moved by the intellectus agens. It is eternal, according to Averroes. The individual human intellect is not.