Benedict de Spinoza, oil painting, c. 1665

God or Nature: Spinoza’s Ethics

The Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street New York
New York 10011

In the Latin edition of Baruch Spinoza’s magnum opus, the Ethics, he writes, “That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature, acts from the same necessity from which he exists.” This formula – Deus sive Natura, God or Nature – is the cornerstone of a radical new philosophy that Spinoza fashioned in the wake of Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Rejecting Descartes’ view, Spinoza argued instead for a monistic materialism, claiming that the entire universe was but one physical embodied substance and that all things in it were necessarily interconnected “properties” or aspects of that single substance: God or Nature. This idea was condemned almost immediately as an amoral, atheistic creed, and the epithet of “Spinozist” became an accusation of the highest order. And yet, Spinoza’s 17th century ideas not only endured, but gained increasing influence and purchase on a range of intellectual fields from the 19th century on.

In this class we will read the entirety of the Ethics, paying careful attention to the arguments that Spinoza “geometrically” outlines and to their implications, which he begins to develop within his own scholia [commentaries] within the text. These commentaries in turn serve as an important lens into the political ideas expressed in his Theological-Political Treatise. We will also examine key moments in the reception of the Ethics, from thinkers in Spinoza’s own time to Marxists like Friedrich Engels and Georgi Plekhanov to more contemporary reflections, including Jonathan Israel’s “radical enlightenment” history, Gilles Deleuze’s poststructuralist philosophy, and Frédéric Lordon’s Spinozist economics. Which Spinoza can we recognize? The Jewish heretic cast out of his Amsterdam community in 1656 for unspecified “evil opinions and acts”? Spinoza, the radical democrat? Spinoza, the physicist? Spinoza, the anarchist? Spinoza, the affect theorist? What, if any, roles did Spinoza’s life and learning as a Sephardic Jew play in Spinoza’s philosophy? This class will address these questions and more as we study the Ethics and trace its enduring legacies in philosophy, politics, science, and religion.

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-9:30pm
April 06 — May 04, 2017
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet on April 13, 2017


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