About the Ethics

The most widely read book on philosophy in history is Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy." (1926 -and still in print) In it he called Spinoza's Ethics "the most precious production in all of modern philosophy." Durant goes on to say that every line requires a extensive commentary. Ethics could never be a popular read. Its form is unique. Spinoza chose to follow Descartes' suggestion that to make a philosophical system consistent it should be constructed the way geometry is presented. Spinoza sought to make his writing impervious to misinterpretation by casting it in this geometrical form with definitions, axioms, propositions and proofs. He thought that as they flowed one into the other his conclusions would then be logically consistent and no rational person could then deny the truth of his ideas.

But written in this form makes the Ethics very difficult to read. Nit-picking philosophers have triumphantly announced faults in the logical sequence but in the study of philosophers it is more instructive to examine their ideas rather than the arguments they have made to support them. This in especially important for Spinoza whose ideas are so revolutionary.and whose logical proofs are so difficult to follow. As Woodbridge said in a lecture on Spinoza, "Sometimes even when the argument fails to support them some ideas do not lose their power to change our lives."

Above is a reproduction of the original title page of Spinoza's main work. It reads....... "ETHICA - Ordine Geometrico demonstrata" and below that are the five parts of the book.
• I. of God
• II. of the Nature and Origin of Mind
• III. on the Nature and Origin of the Emotions
• IV. of Human Bondage; or the Strength of the Emotions
• V. of the Power of the Intellect; or of Human Freedom
Written in Latin (the language used by scholars throughout Europe at the time) the sub-title in English translation reads "Demonstrated in Geometrical Order." An Internet copy neatly arranged is available at here.

The trajectory of the book is clear. Ethics is the way of living and Spinoza would take us on a living journey, leading us from knowledge about his God, through an examination of the human mind, to an understanding of our emotions and the binding strength of those emotions; and, lastly, to human freedom. A goal worth reaching for.