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Spinoza's Ethics

Lecturer: Jon Roffe

Originally Taught: Winter School 2010

This course will take a detailed look at one of the great systematic works in modern philosophy. The Ethics leads the reader from an examination of the nature of substance through to a consideration of the complex interplay of reason and affect before concluding with an altogether remarkable invocation of the highest form of life, involving eternity and what Spinoza calls the intellectual love of God.  

Our goal will not be to resolve some of the important specific - but perhaps insoluble - problems of interpretation posed by this work, but to grasp the general movement that it takes us on. Three closely related questions will guide us: why is it called Ethics and not Ontology or Of God (the title of the first book of the Ethics)? How can a philosopher who adamantly and powerfully rejects the idea of free will present a philosophy that is explicitly oriented around an idea of freedom? What respective roles are played in a free life by our respective capacities to reason and be affected?

The course will begin by presenting a brief summary of the Aristotelian, Cartesian and scientific context in which Spinoza was writing, before dealing with roughly one of the five books of the Ethics each day.

Recommended Readings

A course reader with some secondary material will be provided in the first class, but I strongly recommend you get a hold of a copy of the Ethics and take a look at - for starters - the appendix to the first book. You can buy a quite inexpensive (less than $15) copy online here. In class, I will be referring to the Curley translation, but any of them will do.

Introductory to intermediate. No previous knowledge of Spinoza's thought will be presumed, but a familiarity with the general project of early modern thought (Descartes and the rise of mechanistic science) would be helpful.