Durant 1926: The Influence of Spinoza

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 6 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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VI. The Influence of Spinoza

“Spinoza did not seek to found a sect, and he founded none”;  yet all philosophy after him is permeated with his thought. During the generation that followed his death, his name was held in abhorrence; even Hume spoke of his “hideous hypothesis”; “people talked of Spinoza,” said Lessing, “as if he were a dead dog.” 

Spinoza’s name was held in abhorrence during the generation that followed his death.

It was Lessing who restored him to repute. The great critic surprised Jacobi, in their famous conversation in 1784, by saying that he had been a Spinozist throughout his mature life, and affirming that “there is no other philosophy than that of Spinoza.” His love of Spinoza had strengthened his friendship with Moses Mendelssohn; and in his great play,. Nathan der Weise,* he poured into one mould that conception of the ideal Jew which had come to him from the living merchant and the dead philosopher. A few years later Herder’s Einige Gesprache ilber Spinoza’s System** turned the attention of liberal theologians to the Ethics; Schleiermacher, leader of this school, wrote of “the holy and excommunicated Spinoza,” while the Catholic poet, Novalis, called him “the god-intoxicated man.” 

*Nathan, the wise
**Some discussions about Spinoza’s system

But the great critic Lessing viewed Spinoza very favorably and restored him to repute.

Meanwhile Jacobi had brought Spinoza to the attention of Goethe; the great poet was converted, he tells us, at the first reading of the Ethics; it was precisely the, philosophy for which his deepening soul had yearned; henceforth it pervaded his poetry and his prose. It was here that he found the lesson dass wir entsagen sollen*—that we must accept the limitations which nature puts upon us; and it was partly by breathing the calm air of Spinoza that he rose out of the wild romanticism of Gotz and Wertker to the classic poise of his later life. 

*that we should renounce

When brought to his attention, Spinoza’s Ethics was greatly appreciated by the great poet Goethe.

It was by combining Spinoza with Kant’s epistemology that Fichte, Schelling and Hegel reached their varied pantheisms; it was from the conatus sese preservandi*, the effort to preserve one’s self, that Fichte’s Ieh was born, and Schopenhauer’s “will to live,” and Nietzsche’s “will to power,” and Bergson’s elan vital. Hegel objected that Spinoza’s system was too lifeless and rigid; he was forgetting this dynamic element of it and remembering only that majestic conception of God as law which he appropriated for his “Absolute Reason.” But he was honest enough when he said, “To be a philosopher one must first be a Spinozist.” 

*attempts to preserve

Appreciation by other great names followed.

In England the influence of Spinoza rose on the tide of the Revolutionary movement; and young rebels like Coleridge and Wordsworth talked about “Spy-nosa” (which the spy set by the government to watch them took as a reference to his own nasal facilities) with the same ardor that animated the conversation of Russian intellectuals in the halcyon days of Y Narod. Coleridge filled his guests with Spinozist table-talk; and Wordsworth caught something of the philosopher’s thought in his famous lines about 

Something
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, 
And the round ocean, and the living air, And the blue ~ky, and in the mind of man;- 
A motion and a spirit, which unpels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. 

The influence of Spinoza then spread abroad to England and Russia.

Shelley quoted the Treatise on Religion and the State in the original notes to Queen Mab, and began a translation of it for which Byron promised a preface. A fragment of this MS. came into the hands of C. S. Middleton, who took it for a work of Shelley’s own, and called it “school-boy speculation … too crude for publication entire.” In a later and tamer age George Eliot translated the Ethics, though she never published the translation; and one may suspect that Spencer’s conception of the Unknowable owes something to Spinoza through his intimacy with the novelist. “There are not wanting men of eminence of the present day,” says Belfort Bax, “who declare that in Spinoza is contained the fulness of modern science.” 

Eminent men thought that in Spinoza is contained the fullness of modern science.

Perhaps so many were influenced by Spinoza because he lends himself to so many interpretations, and yields new riches at every reading. All profound utterances have varied facets for diverse minds. One may say of Spinoza what Ecclesiastes said of Wisdom: “The first man knew him not perfectly, no more shall the last find him out. For his thoughts are more than the sea, and his counsels profounder than the great deep.”

Spinoza’s wisdom was so profound that people found more riches in every reading.

On the second centenary of Spinoza’s death subscriptions were collected for the erection of a statue to him at the Hague. Contributions came from every corner of the educated world; never did a monument rise upon so wide a pedestal of love. At the unveiling in 1882 Ernest Renan concluded his address with words which may fitly conclude also. our chapter: “Woe to him who in passing should hurl an insult at this gentle and pensive head. He would be punished, as all vulgar souls are punished, by his very vulgarity, and by his incapacity to conceive what is divine. This man, from his granite pedestal, will point out to all men the way of blessedness which he found; and ages hence, the cultivated traveler, passing by this spot, will say in his heart, ‘The truest vision ever had of God came, perhaps here.'” 

Two hundred years after his death, Spinoza was truly loved all over the educated world.

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