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

Socrates says in Plato’s Gorgias that there’s nothing more serious than “the question [of] how we ought to live.” We may aspire to live a good and happy life—but what does such a life consist in? Good in what way? And happy how?

We may aspire to live a good and happy life, but does Spinoza’s love of God remain a viable path to it?

For a pious Jew or Christian, perhaps, the answer seems simple: a life in line with God’s will as expressed in the Bible. But what about the rest of us who have turned our backs on revelation? One of the first to do so was the Dutch Portuguese Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza in the seventeenth century. The prophets had no wisdom, he claimed, and the Bible’s picture of God was utterly wrong: there is no creator God who performs miracles and reveals his will to Moses, let alone records it on tablets. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Spinoza was excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1656 for “horrible heresies.” He was twenty-three.) Spinoza had to find a new answer to that most serious question. Forget revelation, he argued, and follow reason, which will lead you to peace of mind and lasting joy. If you want to be “blessed” and “saved,” let the philosopher guide you, not the prophet.

This may strike some as hubris, but Spinoza was in good company: from Socrates to the skeptics, all ancient philosophers advertised their teachings as gateways to eudaimonia—a happy and flourishing life. They didn’t just ponder philosophical questions but also campaigned for philosophy. If you want to succeed in life, they argued, don’t seek advice from priests, poets, politicians, businessmen, or celebrities. It’s the philosopher’s job to investigate the true nature of things, including that of happiness. Plato dismissed Homer and Hesiod long before Spinoza dismissed the Bible.

In a new book on Spinoza’s ethics, Steven Nadler argues that Spinoza “fits well in this broad eudaimonistic tradition.” Over the centuries Spinoza has been many things to many readers: an atheist, a God-intoxicated man, a master metaphysician, a revolutionary, the founder of the radical enlightenment. But his “overriding goal,” according to Nadler, is to show us “the path to true wellbeing.” Nadler’s account of this path is clear, engaging, historically informed, and philosophically nuanced. But his ambition goes further. He suggests that the path Spinoza traces is one we can still walk on, as it provides “valuable insights about how to live today.”

It would be wonderful if Spinoza could show us a philosophical path to “blessedness” and “salvation.” It is “very hard,” Spinoza concedes in the Ethics, his philosophical masterwork, but “it can yet be discovered.” Nadler agrees; I don’t. Spinoza’s path is inseparable from his concept of God. As laid out in the Ethics, it starts with demonstrating God’s existence and nature, and ends with demonstrating that the best life consists in the intellectual love of God. That’s the God of the philosophers, to be sure, established by rational argument, not revelation. But it is still a God I doubt we can embrace.

• • •

There’s now a cottage industry of books that peddle philosophers, from Socrates to William James, as life coaches and therapists. The target audience is a secular, urban, often highly educated crowd eager for some form of “spiritual” guidance. Recent titles in this genre include John Kaag’s Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (2020), Edith Hall’s Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life (2018), and Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (2017).

Spinoza may well be the best bet for moderns seeking a philosophical guide. He suggests that we can have our cake and eat it too: attain blessedness and salvation in a disenchanted world.

Nadler doesn’t explain why we should prefer Spinoza over others, but what he describes as Spinoza’s “bleak picture” of the world and of human nature offers a powerful argument for it. For Spinoza, no transcendent God designed the world, watches over it, and gives our lives purpose and meaning. Everything, moreover, is strictly determined, including our will. (If you believe that you freely chose the merlot over the cabernet sauvignon, that’s because you ignore the causal chain that determined your choice from all eternity.) Human beings are selfish, seek their advantage, and strive to increase their power. No wonder Friedrich Nietzsche applauded Spinoza as a precursor!

And yet, Spinoza thinks he can carve out a space for a free and joyful life in which we rise above the rollercoaster of fortune and emotions to attain peace of mind. If we pursue our advantage rationally, moreover, we’ll care for the well-being of others as much as for our own. Given Spinoza’s ostensibly “bleak” outlook, this sounds pretty cheerful.

Nadler duly lists echoes of ancient philosophers in Spinoza’s work, especially of Aristotle and the Stoics. But what makes Spinoza so intriguing isn’t that he picks up the “eudaimonistic tradition.” It is that he reinvents it. Spinoza not only breaks with the God of the Bible; he also breaks with untenable versions of the God of the philosophers that underpin the ancient concepts of the good life—Aristotle’s unmoved mover, for example, or the Stoic divine mind that providentially orders the universe. That’s why Spinoza may well be the best bet for moderns seeking a philosophical guide. He suggests that we can have our cake and eat it too: attain blessedness and salvation in a disenchanted world.

But how disenchanted is Spinoza’s world, really? On Nadler’s view, it is “worthy of the most radical form of nihilism.” That’s exaggerated. Spinoza isn’t Nietzsche, for whom God is dead. For Spinoza, God is everything. True, he identifies God with Nature (“Deus sive Natura,” as he famously puts it). But Spinoza’s “Nature” isn’t the universe of modern physics: an expanding, mostly empty space that burst into existence 14 billion years ago. It is an eternal, infinite substance whose infinite power produces every possible thing. Nadler denies that for Spinoza this amounts to the best possible world—but it does. Spinoza’s world isn’t best in the sense that God has optimized it for human beings. But it is best in the sense that it includes every level of perfection from the highest to the lowest. Even the withering flowers you forgot to water on the balcony add to it. Their existence admittedly expresses God’s being and power in a very limited way, yet without them, the world would lack something. Spinoza, in short, equates being, power, and goodness. God is the best thing because his being and power are infinite. All other things have as big a share in God’s goodness as they have being and power. At work here is a version of the “principle of plenitude” that can be traced back to Plato.

If God is the best thing, he is as foundational for Spinoza’s ethics as he is for his metaphysics. Spinoza couldn’t be clearer on this in a letter to Jacob Ostens, his most forceful rejection of the charge of atheism:

Does that man, pray, renounce all religion, who declares that God must be acknowledged as the highest good, and that he must be loved as such in a free spirit? And that in this alone does our supreme happiness and our highest freedom consist?

Plainly, we can’t detach Spinoza’s concept of the best life from his concept of God. What does such a life look like, why does he think we should choose it, and why does Nadler concur?

The shape of our lives depends to a large extent on the good we aim at. Consider how starkly the lives of Giacomo Casanova, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Immanuel Kant differed: the first pursued sensual pleasure, the second power, and the third wisdom as the highest good. Spinoza, like his ancient forebears, wants us to center our life on the true good.

One of his early works, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, opens with a stylized autobiographical text that also serves as the starting point for Nadler’s book. Spinoza tells us how he “resolved” to turn away from what “men regard as the highest good”—things like “riches, honor, and sensual pleasure”—to pursue “the true good” which affords “continuous and supreme joy to all eternity.” The conventional goods have in common that they’re transient and unstable: beauty fades, children leave the house, power and honor can be lost (Napoleon died in exile on St. Helena), health decays, crystal shatters, a villa burns down, the stock market crashes.

The 'true good,' Spinoza argues, consists in intellectual activity: in particular, what he calls amor dei intellectualis, the intellectual love of God.

If the love of God could reliably offer us superior joy (which, on top of it, doesn’t cease with our physical demise), we would be fools to neglect it for the sake of “riches, honor, and sensual pleasure.” That’s a big “if,” of course, but Spinoza is confident he can prove it. His portrait of the homo liber, the “free man” who pursues his advantage guided by reason, is meant to illustrate this choice. He is, Nadler contends, Spinoza’s “model of human nature,” the ideal we all should aim at.

But on closer inspection, it is not clear that “freedom” in Spinoza’s sense is better than “bondage.” Consider children: I love mine; they’re a source of great delight. But they’re also a source of anxiety: Will they succeed in life? Fall sick or be harmed in other ways? What will I do when the nest is empty? How can I prepare for the final goodbye? If my happiness depends on my children, I’m in bondage: how well my life goes depends on “fortune”—factors I can’t fully control. The anxiety this induces disrupts my peace of mind. The “free man” is free because he is able to detach from such transient goods and connect to the true good whose attainment is entirely in his power. Unlike me, he won’t lose sleep over a child’s fever or college entrance exam.

The “true good,” Spinoza argues, consists in intellectual activity: in particular, what he calls amor dei intellectualis, the intellectual love of God. Just as all things necessarily follow from God’s nature, we can deduce all things from the idea of God. Since the idea of God is innate, not acquired, we depend on nothing outside of us. We do for nature’s rational order what a geometrician does for the properties of space: deduce them from self-evident axioms. In Spinoza’s view, the mind knows God as it knows the axioms of geometry (we know, rather than learn, that things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another). All we have to do, then, if we want to be happy, is to start deducing. And since God—in the form of his innate idea in our mind—is the cause of our happiness, we will love him in return.

But even if we buy into Spinoza’s rationalist account of knowledge, why should deducing truths from God be a source of supreme joy? Spinoza, as we saw, equates being and goodness. Since existing is good, all things hold on to their existence as much as they can (even the withering flowers on your balcony try to hang in there for as long as possible). This “strive to persevere” is Spinoza’s fundamental law of nature. Success here depends on power—the power to keep oneself going and ward off external threats. The more power the better. That’s why an increase in power is experienced as joy, a decrease as sadness. Power for Spinoza isn’t measured in the number of people you can boss around, but in the number of effects you cause. God’s power is infinite; he is the cause of infinite effects, Spinoza’s universe containing all possible things.

The 'free man' navigates the world wisely, but this is but a side benefit. The main value of knowledge lies in the joy derived from understanding.

The more effects we cause, in short, the more powerful we become, and the more our life is filled with joy. We produce the largest number of effects by deducing true insights from the idea of God in us. Intellectual activity, therefore, is our greatest source of power and joy. (On Spinoza’s scale, Albert Einstein was much more powerful than Adolf Hitler.) It also makes us successful in more conventional ways. Expertise in nutrition and anatomy, for example, helps us to efficiently preserve our health. The “free man” navigates the world wisely, but this is but a side benefit. The main value of knowledge lies in the joy derived from understanding.

All of this will be a tough sell to secular readers looking for guidance in confusing, fitful times. Even if we acknowledge that a “strive to persevere” defines us, are we also ready to attribute this to our being finite expressions of an infinite God who hold on to the portion of goodness that constitutes our existence? Do we persevere most successfully by deducing true insights from the innate idea of God? And are our fellow human beings valuable only as a means to our persevering? This doesn’t mean that Spinoza was wrong, of course (Charles Darwin’s theory also was a tough sell, and still is in some circles). But Spinoza’s view is surely not obvious, and certainly not immune to challenge. If Nadler wants us to embrace it, he needs to do a lot of convincing. There is a great deal of strange metaphysics we must take on board if we want to view the world through Spinoza’s eyes.

• • •

Though Nadler sketches the metaphysical foundations of Spinoza’s free man, he doesn’t defend them. Instead he argues that the ideal is inclusive (he translates “homo liber” as “free person” to signal that women can be free, too, despite some unflattering things Spinoza says about their intellectual abilities). And he shows that it is attainable on Spinoza’s terms. That’s persuasive enough. But what we want to know is not if the ideal is attainable on Spinoza’s terms, but on ours. Does Spinoza’s love of God remain a viable path to a good and free life?

The joy derived from the love of God can overpower whatever joy transient goods offer and whatever pain their loss inflicts. This, Nadler contends, is the key to freedom for Spinoza.

Nadler’s book is strongest when he explains what the free man’s life actually looks like. Detaching from transient goods (“riches, honor, and sensual pleasure”) allows him to be moderate, courageous, and generous, as well as to avoid hatred, envy, and vanity. He’ll also do everything in his power to promote the well-being of others—not because he is an altruist, but because he knows that a life in the company of wise people like himself gives him the best shot at focusing on the love of God. Here Spinoza builds on one of the greatest draws of the eudaimonistic tradition: making morality, including caring for others, part of seeking one’s own advantage. Spinoza even manages to rationalize Christ’s command to love our enemies: if I love my enemy, I do good things for him, which increases his power and joy. Since we necessarily love the cause of our joy, my enemy’s hostility toward me will turn into love, which, in turn, increases my power and joy. Everybody wins!

Nadler insists, correctly, that the free man remains part of, and interacts with, the natural and social world. Nobody can live from the love of God alone. As Spinoza writes in the Ethics:

It is part of the wise man . . . to refresh and restore himself in moderation with pleasant food and drink, with scents, with the beauty of green plants, with decoration, music, sports, the theater and other things of this kind, which anyone can use.

But Spinoza stresses that he does so “in moderation . . . without injury to another.” To the extent that these things are empowering, they add joy to the free man’s life. Detaching from transient goods, then, doesn’t mean rejecting them altogether like an ascetic, but desiring them in the appropriate way—as means to the true good, not as ends in themselves. What allows the free man to maintain the right measure of detachment—neither succumbing to the lure of transient goods nor despairing over their loss—is that the joy derived from the love of God overpowers whatever joy transient goods offer and whatever pain their loss inflicts. This, Nadler contends, is the key to freedom for Spinoza. Like everyone, the free man is affected positively and negatively by the things around him. But these things can’t move him to act. He won’t eat the apple because it looks tasty but rather because it sustains his intellectual activity. Love of God, not love of the apple, draws him to the fruit basket. From deducing to eating, he is always in charge of his acts.

Even marriage and children, Spinoza says, can be beneficial in this instrumental way. And if the free man’s child were in hospital with a severe illness, he’d behave like a good parent—do all he can to save the child, cheer the child up, and delight in the child’s love. But if the child dies, the free man wouldn’t shed a tear. The pain of the loss is eclipsed by the joy derived from the love of God.

My objection is not that I find this behavior heartless; I just don’t think that we can make it work. For a Spinozist, it makes perfect sense to choose freedom over bondage. Detaching from transient goods—including loved ones—liberates the Spinozist to wholeheartedly embrace the good he deems most worth desiring. It’s an excellent trade-off. But if Spinoza’s true good doesn’t exist, then detaching from transient goods leaves us with no good at all.

If Spinoza’s true good doesn’t exist, then detaching from transient goods leaves us with no good at all.

Grasping the order of things caused by God, Spinoza contends, provides supreme joy. But how delightful is understanding the structure of the universe, really? Can it comfort us over life’s losses? Frankly, I don’t find reflecting on the age, size, and composition of the universe and my place in it especially uplifting. I can’t see how it would help me come to terms with the death of a loved one. Nadler thinks that determinism does much of the comforting. But will parents not be devastated over their child’s death from leukemia if they recognize that it was inevitable given the system of causes and effects? I think detachment is Spinoza’s key to consolation, which, in turn, requires loving God. So unless we can make a compelling case for Spinoza’s God, or some other God who can do his job, the fleeting joy of transient goods is all we have (nights wrecked by anxiety over children notwithstanding). In the disenchanted world, we can manage our bondage more or less well, but not break the chains and attain blessedness and salvation.

Nadler’s book is an excellent introduction to Spinoza’s ideal of the free man. He shows how appealing this ideal is—but I doubt that he’ll convince many readers to adopt it.

• • •

Are we doomed, then, if we can’t find a way to God through either faith or reason? I don’t think so. For one thing, transient goods are goods, and there’s plenty we can do to make them less vulnerable to fortune: from finding cures for diseases to distributing health care, wealth, and recognition fairly.

We should, moreover, seek rational guidance to manage our attachments to transient goods, though less from metaphysics than from empirical sciences such as biology and psychology. In often surprising ways, these correct our assumptions about what makes lives better or worse. Psychologists, for example, have shown that winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic affects a person’s well-being much less than we would expect.

Attaching to a higher good that gives our life purpose adds a great deal of value as well. But we’ll have to take it down a notch: not Deus sive Natura, but contributing to an artistic or literary tradition, joining a scientific endeavor, finding meaningful work, championing a noble political or social cause. Such attachments, besides being valuable in themselves, surely also help to mitigate losses we suffer among more fragile goods.

Finally, not looking at the universe as perfect by default (even in Spinoza’s sense of perfection which doesn’t mean perfection for humans) makes it much easier to embrace one of the most distinctive ideals of our time: to make the world better (and, with increasing urgency, preserve it from destruction).

Note, also, that I’m not saying that Spinoza’s God doesn’t exist. Einstein famously equated Spinoza’s God with what he considered the universe’s intelligibility. When a cardinal charged his theories as “cloaking . . . ghastly atheism,” an upset rabbi from New York cabled Einstein: “Do you believe in God?” Einstein cabled back: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the lawful order of existence, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and doings of mankind.”

What I am saying is that we can’t have the one without the other—Spinoza’s path to well-being and freedom without amor dei intellectualis. If we want to convert modern readers to Spinozism, we need to convince them that Spinoza’s God exists and that loving him is the highest good.

Studying Spinoza, disagreeing with Spinoza's conslusions, offers a chance to critically reflect on and give reasons for our own convictions.

But if Spinoza can’t sway us, is this a reason not to study him? That surely doesn’t follow. On the contrary: What better opportunity to break out of our echo chamber than a philosopher of the past who has put together—with exceeding care and powerful arguments—a view of the world and of the good life that we disagree with? At the very least, it’s a chance to critically reflect on and give reasons for our own convictions. If we engage in conversations across religious, cultural, and ideological divides to consider alternative views and entertain the possibility that the other is right and we are wrong, why would we make a pass on as astute an interlocutor as Spinoza? We may not agree with Spinoza’s answer to Socrates’s question in the Gorgias—“the question of how we ought to live.” But he can certainly help us to avoid the “unexamined life” which, as Socrates says in Plato’s Apology, “is not worth living.”