Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2020. 234 pp., hardcover, $27.95.

Philosophers have explored the idea of freedom in their writings since the time of Plato, and the seventeenth-century Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza was no different. The theme running through this latest commentary on Spinoza’s Ethics specifically looks at how one can be a free person.

We all seek to be free, but few know what that entails. According to Steven Nadler, Spinoza’s is an “inner freedom that consists in choosing to do what one knows is good and in one’s own best interest . . . whereby one’s thoughts, desires and choices (and ultimately one’s actions) follow from one’s own nature and not from the effects that other things have on one.”

One important aspect of becoming a free person is conatus, the power of acting to persevere, which, Nadler explains, “is the motivational force that lies at the root of all of a person’s endeavors.” Becoming a free person involves making choices that increase one’s conatus, and that requires reason and “rational desire.”

We are free when we are living and acting from our own nature. Nadler quotes from Spinoza’s Ethics: “That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its nature alone, as is determined to act by itself alone.” The free person is unaffected by external things, because the free person is not in bondage to his passions: “I am more free if I do what I do because of what I essentially am than if I do it because some sweetly alluring object moves me.”

For us who study Ageless Wisdom traditions, the exhortation at the oracle at Delphi—“Know thyself”—resonates at a deep level. For Spinoza, knowledge is a critical element in adding to one’s conatus. In other words, says Nadler, “what matters, according to Spinoza, isn’t just what you know but also how powerful that knowledge is.” Does it change our life and increase our conatus? Does it make us a free person?

Free persons are guided by reason. Here, Nadler tells us, Spinoza takes cues from the Stoics: “The life of freedom under the guidance of reason, Spinoza says, ‘teaches us wherein our greatest happiness, or blessedness, consists.’” The free person seeks nothing for others that they do not want for themselves. They are “honest and honorable” and practice virtue, which is not only “the greatest freedom” but is “happiness itself.” Nonvirtuous actions, particularly hate, deplete one’s conatus. Therefore the “rationally virtuous person knows true peace of mind. So yes, the free person is happy in the truest sense of human happiness.”

Spinoza’s philosophy runs along some of the same threads as Buddhist philosophy. One common theme is living in equanimity and avoiding extremes (in Buddhism, attachment and repulsion) as well as embracing all as the path. “Teach us how we must bear ourselves concerning matters of fortune, or things that are not in our power, that is, concerning things that do not follow from our nature—that we must expect and bear calmly both good fortune and bad,” writes Spinoza in his Ethics.

Of course if one is to know what it means to live rightly, one must also know how to die. Given that death is in the title of Nadler’s book, it must be addressed in Spinoza’s philosophy. Even the rational, virtuous person who is free thinks about his mortality, knowing that all living things die. However, “instead of the irrational fear of death, he knows the rational joy of living.”

Nadler’s chapter on death is followed by a chapter on suicide. Many philosophers down through the ages, including Socrates and the Stoic Seneca, have looked deeply at this phenomenon, which we still puzzle over today. Spinoza asked, is suicide ever “rational” and a “virtuous” thing to do? For him, increasing conatus (self-preservation) is an aim of life; therefore “no individual can, freely and under the guidance of reason, . . . choose to end her own life,” says Nadler. The free person—“who always acts from the dictate of reason and pursues only what is truly good—would never do it.”

Given that the free person is “rational,” Spinoza addresses the “doctrine of the immortality of the soul [which] may be the most pernicious of all the irrational ideas that religious authorities and their allies encourage in their followers.” Nonetheless, Spinoza does believe that there is a part of the soul that is eternal, saying that “the eternal part of the mind is the intellect,” which Theosophists understand to be the buddhi.

Ultimately, in the final chapter of Nadler’s commentary on Spinoza’s Ethics, we learn “the right way of living.” As Nadler explains by way of conclusion, “The free person does what he knows to be good and what is truly in his own best interest (as well as the best interest of others), and not what merely appears to be good or happened to be a source of pleasure. It is also the life of true happiness. It is therefore the life we all desire to lead, whether we know it or not.”

Clare Goldsberry 

Clare Goldsberry’s latest book, The Illusion of Life and Death, will be published in 2021 by Monkfish.