On the week in July the heat wave arrived in Europe, Anya and I had planned a journey by bike to Belgium. Suddenly that was off the agenda.
The heatwave – clearly the result of climate change – meant that everyone was advised to stay indoors.
Stay indoors in this normally cold little country? Where few people, including us, had air conditioning because it wasn’t needed?
It was hard to imagine, but then again, the ‘getting hard to imagine’ was rapidly becoming a way of life for us here on planet earth.
There was no normal anymore, anywhere.
I wasn’t looking forward to being confined inside our tiny flat and not being able to at least go for long walks or bike rides.
Blinds down, curtains drawn. Venture outside to go to the supermarket and that was it.
It was like being locked up in gaol cell. And for what crime?
How to pass the hours, the days?
There were certain things which were off-limits; the 24 hours new cycle for example. There was only so much I could take. Putin’s genocidal campaign in The Ukraine, along with the rest of the madness afoot in our world today.
Then I had an idea: Spinoza.
I had long been meaning to read up on the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza but it was one of those things I’d never got around to; he was credited with being the first great philosopher to challenge the idea of a divine God and as sceptic, I really should have familiarised myself with his work long ago.
In the meantime Anya focused on researching travel options to Finland. We had our hearts set on travelling to Finland and especially Lapland in the north, later in the year. But what was the best way of gettting there? Flying didn’t appeal to us given the chaos at the major airports, Schiphol included.
As the heat settled over multi-story apartment blocks of South Rotterdam and the temperature rose into the high 30’s, everything fell strangely silent. Most of the people who lived here in the area hailed from Africa and the Middle East and I would have thought were used to the heat and might have even welcomed it. But they, like the Europeans, retreated indoors. Had they become used to the normally cool temperaturs of Northern Europe?
Everywhere one looked, it was blinds down, curtains closed. The streets were deserted. An area of high density living became like a ghost town.
What were people doing with their time? Watching TV, texting on the phone?
The original texts of Spinoza were hard going. So I downloaded a couple of books about the philosophy of Spinoza (one of them an acclaimed novel called ‘The Spinoza Question’ written by an American writer and psychologist named Irvine D. Yalom). Also, I found some good sites on You Tube which presented the philosophy of Spinoza in a clear and comprehensible way.
Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in the early 17th century, at a time when The Netherlands was enterng the so-called ‘Golden Century’, its merchant ships sailing all over the world and Amsterdam being home to the world’s first multinational corporation and its first stock market – along with some of the world’s greatest painters – and also, some of its greatest scientists including Christiaan Huygens, the inventor of the microscope and a member of the Royal Society in London. It was namely, the meeting between Huygens and Spinoza which led to a profound new development: the application of the scientific method to religion.
Baruch Spinoza was a Portuguese Jew, a member of a community which had fled the inquisition in southern Europe and emigrated to the tolerant Netherlands. As a boy, he displayed great intellectual gifts. He received a good education and was earmarked to be the next chief Rabi of Amersterdam’s synagogue (which is still there today). However, there was one problem: he had a questioning mind. Instead of singularly devoting himself to the Talmud, he began learning Latin, the langauge of the Christians’ bible – but also, the international language of science.
His days as a Jew were numbered. He began openly challenging his faith, eventually leading to him being excommunicated and condemned to Hell. After an enraged Jew made an attempt on his life, he left Amsterdam and retired to a small town at the outskirts of The Hague – and changed his name from the ‘Baruch’ to ‘Benedict’.
He earned his living, a sparse one, by grinding lenses for microscopes and telescopes (and discussed the designs for them with Huygens). In the 17th century, these new inventions opened up whole new dimensions to the human mind. The telescope revealed a universe vast and complex, filled with planets and galaxies of stars. The microscope revealed another kind of universe, one filled with life forms invisible to the naked eye.
These profound new inventions had come about because of the scientific method; of observing and measuring the basic laws of physics and mathematics and on that basis drawing logical conclusions. Nothing was accepted on the basis of blind faith. The truth of the matter was decided on the basis of the reasoning mind. Using this method, inventors like Huygens were making discoveries which were changing the societies of Europe and preparing the way for the industrial revolution. However, at this point, the scientific method had remained indeed, strictly confined to science.
Spinoza changed all that. He applied the scientific method to the wider world, including most dangerously, religion. He methodically subjected the Torah and the Bible – the holy texts of Judaism and Christianity – to a relentles and logical analysis. On this basis, he argued that they were written by mortals and not God, and were essentially works of fiction. None of the divine miracles recorded in these books could have possibly have happened. In a similar vein, he rejected the notion of God as a kind of stern father figure who commanded the heavens, issued laws and judged human beings accordingly. Heaven and Hell did not exist. Spinoza proposed that could be no God unless it was something – an ‘it’ – involving the operation of the observable laws of Nature.
The scientific method was safe as long as it was used to invent things. When it was applied to religious texts, matters were very different indeed. Spinoza was accused of being an atheist, a terrible accusation at the time. In Catholic dominated southern Europe, he was declared by the church to be a heretic and therefore fit to be burnt at the stake. Even in the liberal Netherlands, several of his followers were murdered by an enraged mob.
Spinoza did not deny the existence of God. Its just that his God did not stock with the Gods of religion. The God which Spinoza envisaged was an impersonal God. The world was no more than a small part of an infinite universe and was bound by the laws of a far greater cosmos – a clear break with the mind-set whereby the world, as the creation of God, was the centre of the universe.
The implication behind Spinoza’s philosophy was that once we were liberated from the straight jacket of theology, we could view the world around us – and beyond us – with a sense of wonder. His was a spiritualism rather than a religion, it was an all- encompassing view of the natural worlds beneath us and beyond us. Inherent in his analysis was a stark implication: as long as human society believed in a God with divine powers – in Dostoevsky’s terms (from famous scene ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ in ‘The Karamazov Brothers’) a God based on Miracle, Mystery and Authority – the human race would be condemned to irrationalism, fanaticism and intolerance.
A small, quiet reclusive man, whose intellectualism bordered on asceticism, Spinoza lived a simple and sparse life – indeed, the life of a saint, except for the fact that he denied that saints could exist. He died at an early age, probably from inhaling the glass dust from his lens grinding. But he laid the groundwork for a philosophy which outlived him and had enormous influence over future generations of European philosophers and scientists, including Goethe, Nietzsche, Marx, Wittgenstein and Einstein – to name a few.
The options for travelling to Finland other than flying were these: take a ferry from The Netherlands to the south of Norway and travel north and across the border into Lapland. Or, take a train to Hamburg and from there a ferry to the capital of Finland, Helsinki.
After considerable discussion we decided that the latter option was the best. We would have to book the tickets as soon as we returned from our next bike trip.
We got through the hot days and a week later we are on our bikes with all our belongings in our bike bags.
But Spinoza is still with me as my legs pump the pedals and time passes.
Why is it, I wonder that most people in the world are religious? Subscribe to the sort of God which Spinoza depicted in terms of deep irrationalism.
Maybe it’s because we need that irrationalism; some kind of antidote to the underlying anarchy – and suffering – of life.
And I for one can hardly claim that I’d never had a problem with that.
I know only too well the dangers of Nietzsche’s abyss.
‘Those who stare into an abyss should take care that the abyss doesn’t stare into them’.
As the days pass and our journey takes us southwards through the province of Zeeland, zig zagging from one place to the next, I find myself travelling backwards in my mind, reliving the dramas over the years of being a Spinozan….. without knowing it….