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God is not a puppeteer

They sat silently for a long time. Then Sophie spoke, trying to get Alberto\'s mind off what had happened.

"Descartes must have been an odd kind of person. Did he become famous?"

Alberto breathed deeply for a couple of seconds before answering: "He had a great deal of significance. Perhaps most of all for another great philosopher, Ba-ruch Spinoza, who lived from 1632 to 1677."

"Are you going to tell me about him?"

"That was my intention. And we\'re not going to be stopped by military provocations."

"I\'m all ears."

"Spinoza belonged to the Jewish community of Amsterdam, but he was excommunicated for heresy. Few philosophers in more recent times have been so blasphemed and so persecuted for their ideas as this man. It happened because he criticized the established religion. He believed that Christianity and Judaism were only kept alive by rigid dogma and outer ritual. He was the first to apply what we call a historico-critical interpretation of the Bible."

"Explanation, please."

"He denied that the Bible was inspired by God down to the last letter. When we read the Bible, he said, we must continually bear in mind the period it was written in. A \'critical\' reading, such as the one he proposed, revealed a number of inconsistencies in the texts. But beneath the surface of the Scriptures in the New Testament is Jesus, who could well be called God\'s mouthpiece. The teachings of Jesus therefore represented a liberation from the orthodoxy of Judaism. Jesus preached a \'religion of reason\' which valued love higher than all else. Spinoza interpreted this as meaning both love of God and love of humanity. Nevertheless, Christianity had also become set in its own rigid dogmas and outer rituals."

"I don\'t suppose these ideas were easy to swallow, either for the church or the synagogue."

"When things got really tough, Spinoza was even deserted by his own family. They tried to disinherit him on the grounds of his heresy. Paradoxically enough, few have spoken out more powerfully in the cause of free speech and religious tolerance than Spinoza. The opposition he was met with on all sides led him to pursue a quiet and secluded life devoted entirely to philosophy. He earned a meager living by polishing lenses, some of which have come into my possession."

"Very impressive!"

"There is almost something symbolic in the fact that he lived by polishing lenses. A philosopher must help people to see life in a new perspective. One of the pillars of Spinoza\'s philosophy was indeed to see things from the perspective of eternity."

"The perspective of eternity?"

"Yes, Sophie. Do you think you can imagine your own life in a cosmic context? You\'ll have to try and imagine yourself and your life here and now ..."

"Hm ... that\'s not so easy."

"Remind yourself that you are only living a minuscule part of all nature\'s life. You are part of an enormous whole."

"I think I see what you mean ..."

"Can you manage to feel it as well? Can you perceive all of nature at one time--the whole universe, in fact-- at a single glance?"

"I doubt it. Maybe I need some lenses."

"I don\'t mean only the infinity of space. I mean the eternity of time as well. Once upon a time, thirty thousand years ago there lived a little boy in the Rhine valley. He was a tiny part of nature, a tiny ripple on an endless sea. You too, Sophie, you too are living a tiny part of nature\'s life. There is no difference between you and that boy."

"Except that I\'m alive now."

"Yes, but that is precisely what I wanted you to try and imagine. Who will you be in thirty thousand years?"

"Was that the heresy?"

"Not entirely ... Spinoza didn\'t only say that everything is nature. He identified nature with God. He said God is all, and all is in God."

"So he was a pantheist."

"That\'s true. To Spinoza, God did not create the world in order to stand outside it. No, God is the world. Sometimes Spinoza expresses it differently. He maintains that the world is in God. In this, he is quoting St. Paul\'s speech to the Athenians on the Areopagos hill: \'In him we live and move and have our being.\' But let us pursue Spinoza\'s own reasoning. His most important book was his Ethics Geometrically Demonstrated."

"Ethics--geometrically demonstrated?"

"It may sound a bit strange to us. In philosophy, ethics means the study of moral conduct for living a good life. This is also what we mean when we speak of the ethics of Socrates or Aristotle, for example. It is only in our own time that ethics has more or less become reduced to a set of rules for living without treading on other people\'s toes."

"Because thinking of yourself is supposed to be egoism?"

"Something like that, yes. When Spinoza uses the word ethics, he means both the art of living and moral conduct."

"But even so ... the art of living demonstrated geometrically?"

"The geometrical method refers to the terminology he used for his formulations. You may recall how Descartes wished to use mathematical method for philosophical reflection. By this he meant a form of philosophic reflection that was constructed from strictly logical conclusions. Spinoza was part of the same rationalistic tradition. He wanted his ethics to show that human life is subject to the universal laws of nature. We must therefore free ourselves from our feelings and our passions. Only then will we find contentment and be happy, he believed."

"Surely we are not ruled exclusively by the laws of nature?"

"Well, Spinoza is not an easy philosopher to grasp. Let\'s take him bit by bit. You remember that Descartes believed that reality consisted of two completely separate substances, namely thought and extension."

"How could I have forgotten it?"

"The word \'substance\' can be interpreted as \'that which something consists of,\' or that which something basically is or can be reduced to. Descartes operated then with two of these substances. Everything was either thought or extension.

"However, Spinoza rejected this split. He believed that there was only one substance. Everything that exists can be reduced to one single reality which he simply called Substance. At times he calls it God or nature. Thus Spinoza does not have the dualistic view of reality that Descartes had. We say he is a monist. That is, he reduces nature and the condition of all things to one single substance."

"They could hardly have disagreed more."

"Ah, but the difference between Descartes and Spinoza is not as deep-seated as many have often claimed. Descartes also pointed out that only God exists independently. It\'s only when Spinoza identifies God with nature--or God and creation--that he distances himself a good way from both Descartes and from the Jewish and Christian doctrines."

"So then nature is God, and that\'s that."

"But when Spinoza uses the word \'nature,\' he doesn\'t only mean extended nature. By Substance, God, or nature, he means everything that exists, including all things spiritual."

"You mean both thought and extension."

"You said it! According to Spinoza, we humans recognize two of God\'s qualities or manifestations. Spinoza called these qualities God\'s attributes, and these two attributes are identical with Descartes\'s \'thought\' and \'extension.\' God--or nature--manifests itself either as thought or as extension. It may well be that God has infinitely more attributes than \'thought\' and \'extension,\' but these are the only two that are known to man."

"Fair enough, but what a complicated way of saying it."

"Yes, one almost needs a hammer and chisel to get through Spinoza\'s language. The reward is that in the end you dig out a thought as crystal clear as a diamond."

"I can hardly wait!"

"Everything in nature, then, is either thought or extension. The various phenomena we come across in everyday life, such as a flower or a poem by Wordsworth, are different modes of the attribute of thought or extension. A \'mode\' is the particular manner which Substance, God, or nature assumes. A flower is a mode of the attribute of extension, and a poem about the same flower is a mode of the attribute of thought. But both are basically the expression of Substance, God, or nature."

"You could have fooled me!"

"But it\'s not as complicated as he makes it sound. Beneath his stringent formulation lies a wonderful realization that is actually so simple that everyday language cannot accommodate it."

"I think I prefer everyday language, if it\'s all the same to you."

"Right. Then I\'d better begin with you yourself............
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