The Philosophy of
Benedictus de Spinoza
(1632-1677)

 
“ bene agere, et laetari ”
 
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Introduction to the Website

 

If branches of science are to be characterised by the questions they try to answer, then philosophy surely addresses some of the most fundamental ones a human being can put:

  • is there a (single) reality and how is it constituted?
  • what can I know about it, and how can I be sure of that?
  • what principles should guide my actions?

By the contributions he made to elucidating these questions and to finding some of the answers, Benedictus de Spinoza stands out among the greatest minds of the Western world, indeed of the whole of mankind. He left us only a few works modest in size, but to study them in all their breadth and depth is a lifelong endeavour that leaves little room (and need!) for the study of any other thinker about these fundamental questions.

Although the principal work written by Spinoza is entitled Ethica, i.e. it purports to be about human conduct, he himself refers to it in several places as “mea philosophia”. And indeed, it does not only concern itself with the last of the three questions listed – in this work the philosopher starts, in the most systematic and rational manner, from the basic properties of that which is, derives further properties, and discusses which of those we can know, and how; only then does he go on to describe human reactions, as dispassionately and “unmoralistically” as possible, in order to derive the precepts by which we may be guided in our personal and public life. Finally, he answers the question that, to me at least, is not so much in the realm of philosophy, as it is in that of religion, but which must occupy every thinking being and the more so when the end of their life comes in sight – what may I expect (hope)? His answer (if I have correctly understood it) is characteristically twofold: don’t look for a reward outside this life (“blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself”, Eth. P. 5. prop. 42. schol.), but then again, there is something that remains of everyone (“The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but there remains of it something which is eternal.”, Eth. P. 5. prop. 23.).

The Ethica is entirely self-contained and universal in scope. It has proven until today a sheer inexhaustible source for reflection and study. Spinoza wrote it in the manner of a geometry book, with axioms, definitions, propositions, demonstrations, corollaries (subsidiary propositions) and scholia (notes). The creative tension between form and contents, which this work exhibits, continues to intrigue scholars. My own contribution to this debate – which is still in preparation – will be firmly based on observable properties of the text’s construction. It will be published here in due course.

In any case, it was the density of internal references which is typical for the form chosen by Spinoza, that made me decide to publish a hypertext edition in Latin of the Ethica in the first place. I formed this idea before learning of other electronic editions (on the Web or otherwise) of the Latin text and decided to go ahead with my project because of the added value I could bring. The internal links, which I have provided throughout, are but one such element of added value; the Index and Glossary are intended to be just as important. The reader is referred to the editor’s preface for a detailed account of these aspects.

Although, as stated above, the Ethica is self-contained, it has been my ambition to provide the reader with as much additional relevant material as could be helpful for study and understanding. Thus I have also edited for the Web and in the same style, the Essay on the Improvement of the Understanding or Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, which provides some of the epistemological foundation, and the Tractatus Politicus, which addresses the application to public life of many of the principles enunciated in the Ethica. Many links between these works can be found through the Glossary and the Ethica’s full Index. Finally, additional explanations of certain points in both works can be found in the correspondence Spinoza had with contemporaries, both students of his and other scholars. Therefore a selection of his letters (Epistolae) has also been edited with cross-references, both as provided by Spinoza himself, and as given by the later editor, with not a few added by myself. Also here, the Glossary and the Index provide further cross-linking.

I am indebted to many individuals for inspiration and encouragement. Some have themselves created Websites with a wealth of well-presented information. A few selected ones are referred to on the Website’s main page. A more extensive catalog is found in the editor’s preface. Although I did not necessarily aim for completeness there, my aspiration is to acknowledge all other serious electronic publishing efforts that are dedicated to Spinoza. I therefore invite any suggestions for additions to my list (by e-mail, preferably).

May this work prove to be
of as much value to its users,
as it was a joy to produce.

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Rudolf W. MEIJER
 
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