By Way of Anselm and Hamlet, a Deferential Note on Spinoza’s “Ethics”

Coat of Arms of the City of Montreal

Coat of Arms of the City of Montreal

Having yesterday finished Charles Dickens’s difficult The Uncommercial Traveller, with its 37 separate essays, I have returned to Spinoza’s Ethics, which recent return was re-induced by re-reading, in August, Daniel Barenboim’s Music Quickens Time. I find myself now thinking all the way back to my university studies of Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, an argument I continue to reject, but also not able to dismiss. It must even then have concerned me enough intellectually, if not religiously, so that I took a course in theology, supplementary to several of philosophy (at Carleton University, in Ottawa), at Montreal’s Loyola College, which later merged with Sir George Williams University in the creation of Concordia University, whose name derives from Concordia salus, “salvation through harmony,” the motto of the City of Montreal.

Seal of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury

Seal of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury

I also find my thought returning to Will Durant’s exposition of Spinoza, in his 1926 The Story of Philosophy, which I received as a gift in the same year that I encountered Anselm, and which I have not read since 2003. Durant advises reading Ethics in “small portions in many sittings,” and I concur, especially as my mathematical apex was reached in a liking for the logic of algebra, and was systemically dismantled by Euclidean geometry. In discussing Spinozan and Cartesian determinism, Durant comments that “[b]ecause we act for conscious ends, we suppose that all processes have such ends in view; and because we are human we suppose that all events lead up to man and are designed to subserve his needs. But this is an anthropocentric delusion, like so much of our thinking.”

Spinoza: Ethica

Spinoza: Ethica

It says something about our current society that what Durant terms the “most precious production in modern philosophy” was nowhere available on bookstore shelves in Edmonton when I sought out a new translation of the book in August. So I ordered it through Audreys, whose staff went to rather a lot of trouble to find the preferred translation, and, when it arrived in the store, nonetheless gave me an author’s discount on my purchase.

Says Hamlet to Horatio, at the end of the first act of the play: “Touching this vision here, / It is an honest ghost…. / And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy…. / The time is out of joint.”

The substance of the ghost

The substance of the ghost

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