This is a slightly modified extract from chapter four of Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die, by Steven Nadler, @2020 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. All Spinoza quotes are from his Ethics.
Spinoza died on February 21, 1677. That same day, his landlord in The Hague, Hendrick van der Spijck—a painter who owned the house on the Paviljoensgracht in which Spinoza lived—drew up an inventory of the late philosopher’s rooms. The document, now in the Notarial Archives of the Municipal Archives of The Hague, lists some (but not all) of Spinoza’s possessions. It includes furniture, linens, clothing (including “two pairs of shoes, black and gray, with silver buckles”), and even a painting: a small tronie, or anonymous head portrait. The short document also mentions “a bookcase with various books.”
A week and a half later, at the request of Spinoza’s sister Rebecca and their nephew Daniel de Caceris, a new inventory was ordered. Rebecca and Daniel, who was now also her stepson, were looking to get a full accounting of Spinoza’s goods. They wanted to see whether their sale might bring in enough money to pay for the funeral and to cover Spinoza’s debts (including funds owed his landlord, who had generously advanced some money to Spinoza’s creditors), with perhaps something left over for themselves.
At the request of Rebecca Espinosa and Daniel de Caceris, the supplicants are hereby authorised to have an inventory of the estate and goods left behind by the late Baruch Espinosa conducted; and it is ordained that Mr. Spyck, in whose house the said goods are currently sitting, allow and permit this, so that, it having been done, the said goods might be disposed of as appropriate.
This second inventory was conducted later that day, and it is much more detailed than the earlier one. This time, among the more personal items (including seven shirts, two sets of “underclothes,” and two towels), and immediately following the list of “linens” and just before the list of “wood work” — an armoire, several small tables, a chess game, “some telescopes in bad condition” — there is a catalogue of 160 books. They are ordered by size — folio, quarto, octavo, and duodecimo — and recorded in various ways: sometimes only a title is given, sometimes just an author’s name, and sometimes both; in a few cases, neither title nor author is listed, but only a description of the book’s subject matter (such as “French dialogues”). In many but not all cases, there is also a date.
Spinoza’s library contains works in a variety of languages: the majority of the books are in Latin, but there are also books in Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, and French, as well as a number of multilingual volumes and some whose language is indeterminate from their entries in the inventory. Even more striking is the breadth of genres and subject matter: Bibles and Bible commentaries (Jewish and Christian); Talmudic and other rabbinic literature; Jewish and Christian (including Reformed and Counter-Reformation) theology; dictionaries, grammars, thesauruses, and lexicons; and works in politics, medicine, history, philosophy, mathematics, science, poetry — even Petronius’s Satyricon!
The philosophical treatises include such moderns as Descartes and Hobbes, but surprisingly few works of Greek and Roman antiquity. Aristotle is there, but not Plato. The Skeptics, the Cynics, and the Epicureans are not represented at all — Spinoza did not even have a copy of Lucretius’s popular philosophical poem De Rerum Natura (On the Order of Things). What he did own, however, were several texts by or related to the ancient Stoics. He had a duodecimo copy of Cicero’s Epistolae (along with a handy Thesaurus Ciceronianus) and a bilingual (Greek and Latin) edition of Epictetus’s Encheiridion, published in 1596. The inventory also contains two recent editions of Seneca’s Letters: one in the original Latin, prepared by the latter-day Flemish humanist and Stoic Justus Lipsius, and one in Dutch, translated by Spinoza’s friend (and Descartes’s translator) Jan Henriksz Glazemaker.
We do not know when Spinoza acquired each of the books in what was, for the seventeenth century, a relatively rich collection, especially for someone who earned his living grinding lenses. There is no record as to when he purchased or borrowed or was gifted this or that volume. Some of them he could have acquired only in the final years of his life. We can easily imagine, however, that the books on Stoic philosophy, all editions published before his herem [expulsion] in 1656, were in Spinoza’s possession around the time of—and maybe even inspired—his move away from the mercantile life; they certainly played a formative role in his philosophical development.
In his doxographical account of the origins of the Stoic philosophy, Diogenes Laertius, writing in the third century CE, relates that Zeno of Citium and his followers claimed that “between virtue and vice there is nothing intermediate.” Virtue is an all-or-nothing affair. One is either virtuous or one is not. The paragon of virtue is what the Greek Stoics called the sophos, “the wise man.” It is characteristic of one who has reached this virtuous condition that “he does all things well.” He always acts the right way, for the right reasons, and with the right sort of feelings. Although the wise man is “free from vanity,” he is also “ever vigilant for his own improvement, following a manner of life which banishes evil out of sight and makes what good there is in things appear.” The wise man possesses only knowledge; he is not given to mere opinions and never assents to what is false. Nor will he feel envy, hatred, or even grief, “seeing that grief is irrational contraction of the soul.” The wise man also exercises his wisdom in practical affairs. He neither hurts nor gives offence to others, but he also never shows pity or indulgence. He honours his parents and the gods. Indeed, wise men are themselves godlike, “for they have something divine within them.” Above all, “the wise man alone is free, and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action.”
Zeno’s sophos, who will reappear among the later Roman Stoics as the sapiens — often translated from Latin as “the sage” — is not exactly Spinoza’s free person (homo liber). The Stoic sage is said to have achieved complete freedom from the passions, whereas Spinoza’s free person is subject to the passive affects, albeit while always remaining in full control of them. Spinoza explicitly criticises the Stoics on just this point. Still, much of Spinoza’s moral philosophy shows that his reading of the ancient (and modern) Stoic sources was not without great effect. Above all, the life of his free person resembles, to a remarkable degree, in both its general contours and in its details, the life of the Stoic sage.
As the free person goes about living virtuously, he acknowledges and follows the “dictates of reason” without exception. These rational prescriptions for a good life — what to do and how to think and feel—are grounded in the individual’s conatus and represent a kind of enlightened propositional expression of that natural striving for perseverance and power. In their most general form — and Spinoza says that he wants first to present these things “briefly, before I begin to demonstrate them in a more cumbersome order” — the dictates of reason demand
that everyone love himself, seek his own advantage, what is really useful to him, want what will really lead man to a greater perfection, and absolutely, that everyone should strive to preserve his own being as far as he can.
These broad directives, and the practical guidance that reason provides on how to pursue such ends, is objectively and universally valid for all human beings. Reason takes no account of this person’s particularities or that person’s passionate preferences. Like Immanuel Kant’s categorical (moral) imperatives, the dictates of reason transcend personal differences and offer universal prescriptions on human behaviour.
Among the first of reason’s commands is that “we ought to want virtue for its own sake, and that there is not anything preferable to it, or more useful to us.” Virtue is pursued not because of some reward to be gained, either now or in a hereafter, but because, as our optimal condition, it is its own reward — virtue is what we are ultimately striving for. But reason would naturally command this because acting from reason is the same thing as virtue. “Acting absolutely from virtue is nothing else in us but acting, living, and preserving our being (these three signify the same thing) by the guidance of reason, from the foundation of seeking one’s own advantage.”
Of course, no one is born free. The model life of the free and rationally virtuous person is an achievement. And what is good (and bad) is to be judged according to how well (or poorly) it aids us in reaching that goal. If virtue — successful striving to persevere — is good in itself and pursued for its own sake, there is nothing more essential to that condition than the possession of what Spinoza calls “adequate ideas.” Knowledge, then, insofar as it is both a means to and constitutive of virtue, is also the true good. This is why the person who is guided by reason strives for understanding and does not consider anything else of value except what leads to understanding. “What we strive for from reason is nothing but understanding; nor does the mind, insofar as it uses reason, judge anything else useful to itself except what leads to understanding.” What the free person wants for himself is
to perfect, as far as [he] can, [his] intellect, or reason… Perfecting the intellect is nothing but understanding God, his attributes, and his actions, which follow from the necessity of his nature. So the ultimate end of the man who is led by reason, i.e., his highest desire, by which he strives to moderate all the others, is that by which he is led to conceive adequately both himself and all things which can fall under his understanding.
Knowledge, unlike finite, transient material goods, is an infinitely renewable, infinitely shareable resource. It is something that any individual can pursue and obtain without limit and without prejudice to another person’s acquisition of it.
However, man cannot live by knowledge alone. Insofar as we are necessarily always a part of Nature and unable ever to bring it about “that we require nothing outside ourselves to preserve our being, nor that we live without having dealings with things outside us,” reason also prescribes that we should strive to possess the “many things outside us which are useful to us.” The free person is not an isolated, asocial human being, a kind of rational hermit shunning relations with others and ascetically avoiding engagements in the world. One of the important functions of reason in the life of the free person is to prescribe ways of dealing with things “outside us.” Since external things can be a source of joy—when they are the cause of an increase in an individual’s conatus or power — reason prescribes that we seek out such good things that actually help preserve our being and increase our power. These would include both social intercourse with other human beings and the objects and activities that are ordinarily a source of sustenance, enjoyment, and fulfilment.