Sunday, December 18, 2016

Jottings : slice of life - 74 ( “Ethics” - a book which transformed my thinking)

Jottings : slice of life - 74 ( “Ethics” - a book which transformed my thinking)
The year was 1656, and the young man in question was a sephardic jew twenty three years of age. The scene of this enactment was the Talmud congregation in a synagogue in Amsterdam - the sanctum sanctorum of many Jews, who after centuries of running away from one nation to another finally found peace in the enlightened and democratic country of Holland. In that glorious Dutch period of tolerance, they were given the freedom to practice their own religion, but with the caveat they were not to disturb existing Christian traditions. Jews were elated. After the Mohammedan rule in Spain centuries ago where they were treated well, this was their first taste of renewed freedom to practice their cherished religious beliefs with confidence and security. The elders of this community strictly instructed, watched, censured and guarded their fellow members from violating the accepted interpretation of the old Hebrew bible or the New testament in any way to cause discomfort to the Governing body of Amsterdam - who were predominantly Christians. After all, who would want to sacrifice well earned peace and physical security offered after so many centuries of relentless persecution. They vowed to keep a low profile. And anybody who chose to violate their tenets were dealt with severely. The worst punishment for a Jew, worse than death perhaps, was to be excommunicated, ostracized from society until deep penance was undertaken to atone for their sins of transgression. Under the shadow of this threat, not many jews in 17th Century Amsterdam dared to transgress.
But this young man in question was an exception. He was born to parents of Portuguese origin, and was trained to become a priest. But he was attending lectures by atheists, surreptitiously learning Latin and beginning to question the God of trinity. He was conversing on blasphemous topics with teachers of dubious reputation. A melancholy shy, young man, with large brown eyes, curly black hair cascading up to his shoulders , short of stature, soft spoken, reticent, not easily given to argument, yet, his intellect - soaked in the scientific environment of copernican revolution, Galileo’s stunning discoveries and Descartes rationalism -couldn’t be contained within the capsular boundaries of traditional jewish or christian pedagogy. From an young age, any kind of internal authority without reason irked him, and like great Philosophers had this tremendous urge to get to the bottom of things by himself. As he learnt more about the God of Hebrew Scriptures and the trinity of the Bible, strange stirrings of doubt arose in him, and worse, he was beginning to voice them gently to others. Jewish elders warned him few times, tried talking sense, pleaded sometimes, but the young man couldn’t be weaned away from his philosophical doubts and ruminations. There was no way but to cast him out from their fold. After intense deliberation they arrived at their decision. But, this time around, for some strange reason lost to history , their statement of excommunication was extraordinarily severe with no opportunity for repentance at all. In an assembly full of Jews, the priest read out the following curse on Baruch Spinoza or Benedito de Espinosa. It is worth quoting in full. Not many times in record history has a curse so full of vehemence, hate and dislike like this ever been pronounced on any man. Even at the distance 250 years, these words cannot be read with a shivering tingle shooting up our spine. Read it for yourselves:
“By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.
That no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”
Spinoza was not physically present when this curse was pronounced. It was relayed to him by a friend. When he heard of his excommunication, his biographer (Lucas) observes , Spinoza responded with perfect innocence and equanimity. He is reported to have said
“All the better (they cursed me); they do not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord.… But, since they want it that way, I enter gladly on the path this opened to me….”
From that day on Spinoza lived alone in rented homes, grinding lens for a living, thinking and writing on deepest human concerns till his quiet death in 1677, at the age of 42. He lived a solitary life with discipline with most cordial relation with people near him. None understood the depth of this thought or the audacity of his thinking. He was to revolutionize the way Western Philosophy understood God and Universe. His most profound work “The ethics” was published posthumously; and when the world read it - they were perplexed, confused and astonished all in equal measure. Here was the consummation of a human mind pushing the limits of intellect and rationality to arrive at spectacular conclusions. He reasoned that the entire Universe had to be derived from single “substance” and everything that happens in it has to have a casual explanation, but not necessarily decipherable by the limited human brain. He refrained from calling that substance “God” because of its anthropomorphic connotation. Divided into five parts consisting of over 80 propositions, Spinoza threw aside all assumptions and inquired afresh about the nature of God and Universe. In step by logical step, he dissolved the dichotomy of matter and mind which Descartes, the french philosopher began in early 17th century and stopped shy of resolving. He logically proved there could be no dichotomy, or two different substances, but only one. His stunning conclusion strangely echoes the notion of “Brahman” in Advaitic philosophy. While Advaita advocates intuition and grace to discover this truth of oneness, Spinoza made a similar discovery through rigorous application of logic, using which ,he believed anyone could reach the same truth as him, provided they have the courage and tenacity to put aside inherited tradition and unsubstantiated assumptions , and stop wallowing in superstition and confusing theology. However, the difficult part of Spinoza is reading him. Many an ardent reader of the “Ethics” has put the down the book in sheer frustration after first few pages, never to touch it again. In fact, many have lost all interest in Philosophy after attempting to read Spinoza. That is natural because only if the enquirer is serious about his questions will the enquiry be serious enough. Otherwise not! And Spinoza’s ethics is not for those who wish to dabble in philosophy or read for sheer entertainment. He says “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death”. Only weak intellects are bound in traditions which console them with unaccounted theories; but the brave , free men would want to find out for themselves who they are, and where they go, and what is the secret to unbroken happiness . It is for such people Spinoza wrote. The book is written in the Euclidean format. It begins with definitions, followed by axioms, then propositions and finally proofs. Spinoza had great love for the purity of Mathematical reasoning. He believed just as angles of any Triangle will equal two right angles, no matter where and when; so too, the nature of infinite substance can also be proved to be unitary and self sustaining, if we could start from self evident truths which no need no further proofs - such as ones "being" or existence. The book is definitely not easy to read, but thats how Spinoza wanted it to be. Like the Upanishads, they need focussed study, persistent thinking and assimilation. But once, we get past the initial understanding of Spinoza’s terms, arguments and reasoning, then pages begin to lighten and steady waves of clarity break on the shores of our befuddled brains. Sudden intuition springs from within, and all of sudden the intellectual rigor of Spinozoan thought seems self evident and so simple
My interest in Spinoza stretches back more than ten years, when I first encountered his life and thought in Will durant’s wonderful book “The story of philosophy”. God knows , how many people have been inspired by Durant’s great book containing short essays on all important Western Philosophers . I certainly was one among them. Since then, I have tried reading the “Ethics” at least five times. Each time, I would plod a little deeper, but never had the energy and intellectual commitment to go though with it. During a business trip in August of 2013, I made a spontaneous resolution one night sitting in my hotel room to study this work. I had this firm conviction the book had something in it for me. Luckily, The “Half price” book store in dallas was close by, and I went in and bought a paperback copy of “Ethics” , with no commentary or annotations. Just plain Translation by WH White. From that day onwards, my love affair with Spinoza began in right earnest. I vowed not to force myself to read it within any fixed timeframe. I wanted the understanding to blossom in me. I would read a definition, an axiom or a proposition; and mull over it for a few weeks (sometimes) until it made sense to me. If I needed elaboration on a specific word or a context in which Spinoza uses it, I would consult Michel de Rocca or Stephen Nadler’s or Rebecca Goldstein’s studies on Spinoza, and return to the text again. This book always travels with me along with portable version of the Bhagavad Gita.
A few days ago, I finished my first complete reading of “Ethics”. It has taken three years and two months to make this intellectual journey. Frankly, every moment of it has been full of joy and ecstasy of understanding. Unlike a physical journey which has signposts to direct our travel, an inner journey has no such props. It is solitary, unnerving and sometimes devastating and dark. It needs self sustaining courage and commitment. The grandeur of Spinoza’s vision and the meticulous exposition of its truth in “Ethics” has convinced me intellectually and intuitively that all mystics speak the same language. When I read the Gita for the first time, a similar joy tingled through me. I felt the same rush of intuition as i journeyed through Spinoza.
As they say in Spiritual traditions, no study of a great book of truth is ever complete. We always start again with all humility and interest. The rigor of Spinoza’s logical reasoning is now part of me, and I shall open its first page again and lay my eyes on his very first definition.
“By cause of itself, I understand that, whose essence involves existence; or that, whose nature cannot be conceived unless existing”
The journey begins afresh….
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

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