Spinoza’s Lens

Tim Buck wrote, while musing on the influence of an ancient sage on the literature of the past two millenia (Poetry After Plotinus), “That wild secret of childhood is too strong for time and maybe even death.” 

When we humans pause a while in contemplation, this quiet act may create a space in which we can imagine ourselves as the connoisseurs or the keepers of secrets which are never fully ours, and yet always retain a bit of our own unique flavor, as long as they float as wisps of ideas and sensations within the envelopes of our consciousness.

Adam Zagajewski wrote these philosophy-infused lines, which partly inspired the creation of this blog:

Only in the beauty created 
by others is there consolation.

Tim Buck mentioned the philosopher Spinoza briefly in the excellent article cited above. Some intellectuals may dismiss the philosophy of Spinoza as mere Pantheism. However, such an assumption might cause one to miss a subtler subtext which lurked behind Spinoza’s writing. In his day job, Spinoza was engaged in the process of grinding optical lenses from glass, which conformed to precise mathematical calculations. It would follow that the concentration on this intricate specialization may have influenced the manner in which he expressed his thoughts.

We must investigate, I say, whether there is any other affirmation or negation in the Mind except that which the idea involves, insofar as it is an idea…so that our thought does not fall into pictures. For by ideas I understand, not the images that are formed at the back of the eye (and if you like, at the middle of the brain), but concepts of Thought [or the objective Being of a thing, insofar as it exists only in Thought]….

Baruch Spinoza, Ethics.

By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence. — Spinoza

Leaning on the gimpy (but earnest) excuse that I am not a philosopher, a cursory reading of Spinoza lends me the impression of a school of thought which brings Taoism to mind. According to those who have a more profound knowledge of philosophy, Spinoza modeled the structure of his Ethics on Euclid’s geometries.

The Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges demonstrated a wistful appreciation of Spinoza’s philosophic vision in more than one poem. Borges was a keen follower of scientific, philosophical, and mathematic concepts. Below is one of the poems in translation (I believe that Borges wrote this poem subsequent to going blind at age 55):


The Jew’s hands, translucent in the dusk,
polish the lenses time and again.
The dying afternoon is fear, is
cold, and all afternoons are the same.
The hands and the hyacinth-blue air
that whitens at the Ghetto edges
do not quite exist for this silent
man who conjures up a clear labyrinth—
undisturbed by fame, that reflection
of dreams in the dream of another
mirror, nor by maidens’ timid love.
Free of metaphor and myth, he grinds
a stubborn crystal: the infinite
map of the One who is all His stars.

(translated by Richard Howard, César Rennert)

by Jorge Luis Borges

The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable. –Borges

Joep Franssens, a contemporary Dutch composer, paid tribute to Spinoza (and Pythagoras) with his Harmony of the Spheres, a cycle in five movements for mixed choir and string orchestra (2001). These muted, taut harmonies operate as a boon and a beacon in the course of my quotidian. (Which is why I found it expedient to share this discovery.) The text of the piece below is taken from Spinoza’s Ethics:

Hominibus apprime utile est, consuetudines jungere, seseque iis vincullis astringere, quibus aptius de se omnibus unum efficiant; et absolute ea agree, quae firmandis amicitiis inserviunt. Animi tamen non armis, sed Amore et Generositate vincuntur.

Translation: Above all, it is useful for people to establish relationships, to bind themselves by those bonds which are most apt to unite them as one; and without exception, to do those things which serve to strengthen friendship. Hearts, therefore, are won not by arms, but by love and greatness of soul. – Baruch Spinoza.

— posted by Jillian Parker


2 thoughts on “Spinoza’s Lens

  1. I admire, am envious of how you present your essay topics. There is such an atmosphere of breathable space within your texts. The reader is allowed sufficient volume for his or her stimulated thoughts or impressions to accumulate, rather than being the hard target of a hectoring and too-opionated essayist (mea culpa).

    My own thoughts and impressions during your presentation stimulate me to the idea that Spinoza (and maybe other, more eccentric versions of being and substance) are profounder than Taoism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not sure whether it is actually an essay, or rather, a scattering of word-crumbs in search of an impression.

    In any case, I am glad to open up the subject to further inquiry, and am grateful to you for your thoughtful reply.


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