Spinoza – Ethics

Book: Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics
Location: RM Gallery, 3 Samoa House Lane (off Beresford Square, Karangahape Road area)
Fortnightly, Mondays 6 pm – 7:30 pm
Begins: 6 March 2017

UPDATE: ADDITIONAL SESSIONS have been added by common agreement. Sessions will continue into June and July to allow us to finish the Ethics. Some sessions may be at St Paul Street Gallry (not RM) — check back before you travel to the venue.

The Ethics is the great masterwork by Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) that contains most of the principles of his philosophy. It can be notoriously daunting to read since large portions of it is written in “geometric” propositions rather than in paragraphed prose — but it is also one of the most rewarding books to read in the history of Western philosophy, partly because it contains so much (a whole theory of existence in less than 200 pages), and because it effectively offers a manual for human life: what it means to live well and be happy, to join forces with the other forces around us, to reconfigure our raging doubts and natural appetites into a state of equanimity, and to manage the inevitable human suffering that comes with being finite and mortal.  There are very few other comparable books in the history of Western philosophy that have the same extraordinary scope (although some have noted the resemblance to non-Western forms of thought). For those readers who make the effort, the initial sense of bafflement can turn into a transformative sense of amazement, wonder, and even gratitude, and the apparently cold and impersonal propositions of the Ethics can begin to seem like the warmest and most generous ideas to have ever been set down on paper.

Spinoza’s influence can be seen in many different fields: politics, ecology and environmentalism, literature, art, architecture and planning,education, neuroscience, physics, theology, and more. He is also often considered one of the intellectual progenitors of liberal, secular democracy —- of the kinds of free societies in which we currently live in the modern Western world — and it may be particularly important to re-read Spinoza in these dark times when democratic institutions in many countries are said to be crumbling. And becoming acquainted with Spinoza’s Ethics may confer the additional benefit of opening up and illuminating the work of other, more recent continental thinkers who followed in Spinoza’s footsteps, such as Nietzsche, Deleuze, Negri (and Hardt), Althusser, Balibar, and possibly even Marx (perhaps in the way that becoming acquainted with Latin is said to make learning French or Italian easier).

A conference on Spinoza will take place in Auckland on 26-28 May 2017, and these sessions will be a good way of getting up to speed ahead of the conference: http://interstices.ac.nz/call-for-papers-spinoza-auckland-2017/


Meet on Monday evenings 6.00-7.30 pm, mostly fortnightly (note exception on 10 April to allow for Easter), as below. Venue: RM Gallery, 3 Samoa House Lane, off Karangahape Road.

Week 1 – Monday 6 March
Part I (“Of God” aka ”Concerning God”), only up to the end of Proposition 17.

Week 2 – Monday 20 March
the rest of Part I (“Of God” aka ”Concerning God”), including the Appendix.

Week 3 – Monday 3 April
Part II (“Of the Mind”), only up to the end of Proposition 18.

Week 4 – Monday 10 April (note that this is just one week after the previous session, to allow for the upcoming Easter break)
The rest of Part II (“Of the Mind”).

Easter (14-17 April)

Week 5 – Monday 24 April (additional session added during Easter/Anzac break, by popular demand)

Anzac Day (25 April)

Week 5 – Monday 1 May
Part III (“Of Human Affects” aka “Concerning the Emotions”).

Week 6 – Monday 8 May
Part III (“Of Human Affects” aka “Concerning the Emotions”).

Week 7 – Monday 15 May
Part IV (“Of Human Bondage”)

Friday 26th to Sunday 28th May – Conference at University of Auckland and AUT (first night will likely be open  to the public; other sessions will require registration). Try to read all of Part V (the concluding part, “Of Human Freedom”) before the conference.

Week 8 – Monday 12 June
Part IV (“Of Human Bondage”) cont’d.

ADDITIONAL SESSIONS (added by common agreement — updated 20 June)

Week 9 – Monday 26 June
Part IV (“Of Human Bondage”) cont’d. RM Gallery.

Week 10 – Monday 10 July
Part V (“On Human Freedom”). Venue TBA.

Week 11?
Week 12?

One additional session after June might be a possibility if there is demand and to make sure that we are not left hanging after reading the staggering Part V of the Ethics.


Participants should try to get a copy of either the Edwin Curley or the Samuel Shirley translation of the Ethics.  (Unfortunately the Auckland Public Libraries have got neither translation, only older and more outdated ones.) Edwin Curley’s translation is available from Princeton University Press or in a cheap Penguin paperback edition, and is considered the definitive scholarly translation. Samuel Shirley’s translation is published by Hackett, and is also excellent. At time of writing, a PDF file of Shirley’s translation of the Complete Works of Spinoza is available here (8.6 MB; note that we are only reading the Ethics, which is pp. 213-382 of this PDF file).

The course is open to anyone who wishes to participate and is free of charge. We encourage you to forward this invitation to your networks. We will be reading and discussing specific sections of the assigned book each fortnight, progressivelymoving through the text. The group will be facilitated by Eu Jin Chua who will be convening the Spinoza conference and who first began reading Spinoza ten years ago at an intensive summer school in the US.

Thanks to RM for hosting us.



Rebecca Goldstein on what it can be like to participate in a class on Spinoza:
“I would witness, year after year, the transformation that would come over the class as they slowly made their way into Spinoza’s way of seeing things, watching the entire world reconfigure itself in the vision… One’s whole sense of oneself, and what it is one cares about, tilts — in a direction that certainly feels like up. Year after year, I’ve watched what happens with my students when Spinoza begins to take hold, and it’s always moving beyond measure” (Betraying Spinoza, 2006).

Two book reviews that give something of the flavour of reading Spinoza’s Ethics:
Michael Dirda, Washington Post
Laura Miller, Salon

Nietzsche on his experience of reading Spinoza: “I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza… Not only is his over-all tendency like mine—making knowledge the most powerful affect—but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself; this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil. Even though the divergences are admittedly tremendous, they are due more to the difference in time, culture, and science. In summa: my lonesomeness, which, as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and made my blood rush out, is now at least a twosomeness.” ( Postcard to Overbeck, 1881, in The Portable Nietzsche, 1976, p. 92)

Bernard Malamud’s fictional character Yakov Bok on what it was like to encounter Spinoza’s Ethics: “I didn’t know who or what he was when I first came across the book – they don’t exactly love him in the synagogue, if you’ve read the story of his life. I found it in a junkyard in a nearby town, paid a kopek, and left cursing myself for wasting money hard to come by. Later I read through a few pages and kept on going as though there were a whirlwind at my back. As I say, I didn’t understand every word but when you’re dealing with such ideas you feel as though you were taking a witch’s ride. After that I wasn’t the same man.” (in  Malamud’s novel The Fixer, 1966; also quoted in Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, epigraph)

Deleuze on Spinoza: “Take the most remarkable case, Spinoza: the absolute philosopher, whose Ethics is the foremost book on concepts. But this purest of philosophers also speaks to everyone: anyone can read the Ethics if they’re prepared to be swept up in its wind, its fire […] The paradox in Spinoza is that he’s the most philosophical of philosophers, the purest in some sense, but also the one who more than any other addresses nonphilosophers and calls forth the most intense nonphilosophical understanding. This is why absolutely anyone can read Spinoza, and be very moved, or see things quite differently afterward, even if they can hardly understand Spinoza’s concepts” (Negotiations 140, 165-66).

Drawings by Maira Kalman, featuring Spinoza, from The Principles of Uncertainty:

Two poems about Spinoza by Jorge Luis Borges:

George Santayana’s introduction to Spinoza:

Monoskop portal page on Spinoza: