The following was in reply to a letter from a friend expressing some difficulty understanding Spinoza's writings:
Spinoza is a tough study at first encounter for everyone I know or have read about. They often refer to the difficulty that the geometric form presents. This is the form in which the Ethics is written where first definitions are presented, then some axioms are presented. These are offered as unprovable but accepted as true. Things like "a rod has two ends" may be set up as axioms. If you accept them you can proceed. If you doubt them then you may have difficulty but you can say to yourself, "well, ok, assuming these axioms are true, what could I infer from them". [Later, after further study you may form a more adequate idea of the axioms and be in a better position to accept or reject them.] Following the definitions and axioms propositions are "proposed" and then a proof is offered based on the definitions, axioms, previous propositions, and most importantly the operations of your own mind involving Reason. As you read the Ethics you constantly run into references back to earlier elements (as you can see that is the nature of reason, inferring new things from already known things). At first this may seem more confusing than clarifying but such is the nature of the human mind. Our imagination is so vast and our ordinary thinking is so confused that we at first have difficulty learning to think clearly. This is why we dream that life could be better "if only..." but we actually have no clear idea what our life is nor do we have any real idea how our mind works.
Spinoza, Buddha, Jesus, Gurdjieff, and many others to varying degrees seem to have found something wonderful about their own nature and its connection to a greater whole and have tried to share it with others. But how do they communicate to others -who are in a constant dream state with shifting and fuzzy images -that they are not awake and if they would only apply themselves in a certain way they would awaken into Reality. At first their expressed ideas either seem like nonsense or they seem to be confused. Kind of like if you had always seen the world through distorting lenses you wouldn't think of your world view as distorted and if the lenses were removed you would at first think something had gone wrong with your vision. In the same way we are so used to thinking confusedly that clear thinking is foreign to us.
I would recommend reading the first part of Spinoza's "On the Improvement of the Understanding" to begin with. There he lays out what drove him to search for something new and more fulfilling than what he had found in ordinary life pursuits. This lays out a good foundation for tackling the Ethics which is his most important work. The other writings are useful but might be left for later. The Short Treatise was written before the Ethics and contains many of the same ideas but in a non-geometric form. The Theological-Political Treatise was written (as he indicates in the Preface) to help the Philosopher to distinguish and keep from confusing Philosophy with Theology. It deals mostly with examining the Bible and how Theology appeals mostly to the imagination of the masses and as such has its place but not in Philosophical endeavours.
With all this said about Spinoza I might suggest, as did Gregory Grover, the founder of the Spinoza-Gurdjieff Group, that a good base for working with the advanced ideas of Spinoza is the writings of P.D. Ouspensky about the teachings of Gurdjieff. In particular "In Search of the Miraculous" by Ouspensky is very readable and I think you would find it illuminating.
I might comment here that these studies may seem like just some obscure academic pastime and to have no real value outside of the ivy-covered walls of academia. Many writers about Spinoza seem to have never even considered actually applying his ideas to their own lives which misses the whole point. Because Spinoza seems difficult at first glance it has attracted many who like to argue over the minutia of logical consequences while they totally ignore the application of the ideas to their own particular life.
I assure you that for me, though at first I was in the same spot as you and found Spinoza difficult, with persistence and the help of a few others I have found the power of his ideas (when taken in and examined by my own mind) to be beyond all ordinary life though the ideas in part involve and explain the illusion of ordinary life. Of course no matter what anyone might say in the way of assurances you have your own position and needs and may require a different introduction. Perhaps you are standing in quicksand while I've fallen down a deep hole. If I tell you about the tools I found to get out of the hole I was in they may not help you get out of the quicksand. These teachings actually begin at a level above ordinary life and once you reach that level you begin to be able to share things in common with others at that level. Remember Jonathan Livingston Seagull. At first he worked from where he found himself and this was not in harmony with those around him. Eventually he gravitated towards others who had similar ideas and they began to be able to share the new tools with each other.
Maybe next time we get together we can talk over some of the confusing parts if you'd like. I can only say that for me the effort over the years to understand and clarify these ideas in my own mind has begun to bear real fruit. I am awakening to my Essential Nature while my imagined self, which is involved with attachment to the images impressed on this physical body, is becoming less important and is seen as a mere confusion and illusion.
Yours in Inner Friendship,
The following was in reply to an email expressing some difficulty with the geometric form of the Ethics:
You are certainly not alone in finding the form of Spinoza's Ethics unique within philosophical writings and many essays have been written trying to explain why he used it. When I was in school I was attracted to Mathematics and Physics while Philosophy seemed to be meaningless ramblings. As I moved in to my twenties I began to have inner questions about Life and in my searching for something (I didn't know what) I came across Ouspensky's "In Search of the Miraculous" about the teachings of Gurdjieff and this led me to attended Gregory Grover's Spinoza-Gurdjieff Group. Mr. Grover was helping his students in coming to know more directly what Spinoza describes as "Knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature." Although the content of The Ethics was at first a mystery to me the form made perfect sense. I can still remember studying Euclid's Elements in junior high school (before I had a class in it) and it seemed so clear and such a wonderful way to present that material that it became for me a model of Reasoned thought. Academics argue endlessly that the Ethics is not logically "perfect" and I believe the problem is they are treating it as an abstract work rather than a guidebook to inner, spiritual growth. Kind of like analyzing a painting by looking at the chemistry of the pigments, etc. and never looking at what the painting might represent psychologically.
After many years of self-study [studying my nature] using Spinoza's Ethics and other writings I read Wolfson's study of the Ethics where he relates/contrasts it with earlier philosophical writings such as those of Aristotle and from this I learned something about other philosophers ideas. I have since studied Aristotle and Plato's works, and other philosophical ideas up to the present. For me Spinoza is in a class by himself and his writings have provided direction and real inner growth that I could not have envisioned when I first began my studies...
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