Durant 1926: Religion and Immortality (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 4.4 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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IV.4 Religion and Immortality

After all, as we perceive, Spinoza’s philosophy was an attempt to love even a world in which he was outcast and alone, again like Job, he typified his people, and asked how it could be that even the just man, like the chosen people, should suffer persecution and exile and every desolation. For a time the conception of the world as a process of impersonal and invariable law soothed and sufficed him; but in the end his essentially religious spirit turned this mute process into something almost lovable. He tried to merge his own desires with the universal order of things, to become an almost indistinguishable part of nature. “The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole nature.” Indeed, our individual separateness is in a sense illusory; we are parts of the great stream of law and cause, parts of God; we are the flitting forms of a being greater than ourselves, and endless while we die. Our bodies are cells in the body of the race, our race is an incident in the drama of life; our minds are the fitful flashes of an eternal light. “Our mind, in so far as it understands, is an eternal mode of thinking, which is determined by another mode of thinking, and this one again by another, and so on to infinity; so that they all constitute at the same time the eternal and infinite intellect of God.” In this pantheistic merging of the individual with the All, the Orient speaks again: we hear the echo of Omar, who “never called the One two,” and of the old Hindu poem: “Know in thyself and All one self-same soul; banish the dream that sunders part from whole.” “Sometimes,” said Thoreau, “as I drift idly on Walden Pond, I cease to live and begin to be.” 

Spinoza tried to merge his own desires with the universal order of things, to become an almost indistinguishable part of nature.

As such parts of such a whole we are immortal. “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the human body, but there is some part of it which remains eternal.” This is the part that conceives things sub specie eternitatis; the more we so conceive things, the more eternal our thought is. Spinoza is even more than usually obscure here; and after endless controversy among interpreters his language yet speaks differently to different minds. Sometimes one imagines him to mean George Eliot’s immortality by repute, whereby that which is most rational and beautiful in our thought and our lives survives us to have an almost timeless efficacy down the years. Sometimes again Spinoza seems to have in mind a personal and individual immortality; and it may be that as death loomed up so prematurely in his path he yearned to console himself with this hope that springs eternally in the human breast. Yet he insistently differentiates eternity from everlastingness: “If we pay attention to the common opinion of men, we shall see that they are conscious of the eternity of their minds; but they confuse eternity with duration, and attribute it to imagination or memory, which they believe will remain after death.” But like Aristotle, Spinoza, though talking of immortality, denies the survival of personal memory. “The mind can neither imagine nor recollect anything save while in the body.” Nor does he believe in heavenly rewards: “Those are far astray from a true estimate of virtue who expect for their virtue, as if it were the greatest slavery, that God will adorn them with the greatest rewards; as if virtue and the serving of God were not happiness itself and the greatest liberty.” “Blessedness,” reads the last proposition of Spinoza’s book, “is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself.” And perhaps in the like manner, immortality is not the reward of clear thinking, it is clear thought itself, as it carries up the past into the present and reaches out into the future, so overcoming the limits and narrowness of time, and catching the perspective that remains eternally behind the kaleidoscope of change; such thought is immortal because every truth is a permanent creation, part of the eternal acquisition of man, influencing him endlessly. 

Clear thought is immortal because every truth is a permanent creation, part of the eternal acquisition of man, influencing him endlessly. 

With this solemn and hopeful note the Ethics ends. Seldom has one book enclosed so much thought, and fathered so much commentary, while yet remaining so bloody a battleground for hostile interpretations. Its metaphysic may be faulty, its psychology imperfect, its theology unsatisfactory and obscure; but of the soul of the book, its spirit and essence, no man who has read it will speak otherwise than reverently. In the concluding paragraph that essential spirit shines forth in simple eloquence: 

Thus I have completed all I wished to show concerning the power of the mind over emotions, or the freedom of the mind. From which it is clear how much a wise man is in front of and how stronger he is than an ignorant one, who is guided by lust alone. For an ignorant man, besides being agitated in many ways by external causes, never enjoys one true satisfaction of the mind: he lives, moreover, almost unconscious of himself, God, and things, and as soon as he ceases to be passive, ceases to be. On the contrary the wise man, in so far 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. 

The wise man, in so far 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. 

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