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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza into the Realm of Joy and Sorrow

This Thursday - January 10 - will see wwp salon members coming together to consider those oft-twinned states of being, joy and sorrow. One aspect of our communal task on this first salon evening of 2013 is to grapple with a number of different ways that joy and sorrow have been philosophically positioned - as personal feelings, as unruly passions, as passages between greater and lesser states of perfection, as impersonal affects...to name just several of those ways! Another is to examine why joy and sorrow are so readily twinned - probing not only the relationship between joy and sorrow, but the nature of the connection and its relevance to our own lives. Yet another task is to continue our exploration of Baruch Spinoza -  a 17th Century philosopher whose unconventional approach to ethics hinged on joy and sorrow, and around whom this year's salon series revolves.

At our December salon we embarked on our journey of getting to know Spinoza...For those of you who attended, this quick recap can serve as a post-holiday season refresher. For those of you who weren't able to make it out to our introductory session, let's hope it whets your whistle!

Born in the relatively tolerant city of Amsterdam in 1632 to Jewish parents who had fled persecution in Portugal, Baruch Spinoza was a solemn and thoughtful if unusually questioning student - quietly challenging his teachers at the Hebrew school he attended when ideas presented as 'written in stone' struck him as illogical or inconsistent; leaving formal education at the age of 16 to pursue private studies with some 'free thinkers' of the time when his views about God and the Torah began to conflict too radically with the 'Truth' as presented by those responsible for his education. Accused of betraying Judaism and labelled a heretic, he was ex-communicated in his early twenties for basically, believing in nothing - notably waiting until after the death of his father (his mother had died when he was six) before going public with his reasoned deduction that "God is nothing but nature" and that "there is no world-to-come after death" so as to spare his parents the shame and humiliation that his stance, not to mention his ex-communication, would provoke. As philosophers go, Spinoza was unconventional in that philosophy was his pastime - his job as a lens-grinder providing him with his income as well as precipitating his early death from TB at the age of 44. Given the scandal that bubbled around him in life and the blacklisting of his small body of work that dogged him for centuries after his death, it is incongruous that his motto was 'caution' and his general countenance private and unassuming.

These details of Spinoza's life and the background against which it unfolded - a Europe caught between a Papist reign of terror that saw tens of thousands of Jews either killed or forced to convert to Catholicism and a dawning of the Enlightenment era characterized by rapid scientific advances and the rise of rationalist thought - were unpacked through a lively Q&A session. Bridging the life of the man with the ideas that made Spinoza what Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in her fabulously insightful and highly readable Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006), terms "the first modern Jew," we grappled with one of the tasks Goldstein sets for herself in her book: reconciling Spinoza's extraordinarily rationalist and impersonal philosophy with our personal interest in him!

Moving on, then, to the philosophy itself, we picked up on Spinoza's central concept of conatus - that is, a thing's special commitment to itself, or more simply, each individual's drive for self-preservation - to begin our look at what constitutes a 'Self'. Some small group exercises enabled us to come up with our own lists of what it is to be a Self. We compared our lists to Spinoza's list, which eshews those traditional markers of identity such as religion and ethnicity (markers which Spinoza sees as mere "accidents" of identity assigned us by history, and thus nothing more than passive yet deeply divisive impediments to creating a world made up of truly ethical Selves) in favour of a Self defined by rigourous and logical thinking - by rational activity alone. We experimented with stepping outside of our selves in order to cultivate a Spinozian Self and with it, what Spinoza sees as our place of ultimate salvation - that is, a place with a "View from Nowhere."

Pictorial depictions of what we and other things look like from this 'place' - should it be understood as a utopia? a dystopia? an atopia? none of the above? - were attempted, and briefly discussed. We are holding on to these artistic representations and plan to return to them as our understanding of Spinoza expands over the coming months. In the meantime, our task over the holiday break was to make note of those moments where joy or sorrow crept up upon us or completely overtook us or never even made an appearance...Stay tuned as we Spin off Spinoza for a second time.