I feel, therefore I am

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    If anything was needed to show us that wealth isn’t success and that the wealthiest are hollow, insecure and unhappy figures, the Trump phenomena is providing us with daily opportunities to rethink what it is we should be aiming for as a race.

    Island resident and world authority on environmental law and governance Professor Klaus Bosselmann, when I said something like this during an interview with him recently, introduced me to Spinoza. “Something of a hero of mine,” he muttered.

    In the middle of the 17th century, the modest Spanish-Jewish Dutch philosopher Spinoza took on Descartes – and lost.


    “Spinoza . . . offers various exemplary figures that we may emulate or eschew (the free man, the fool, Jesus Christ) in our quest for freedom and a decent life” – Professor Moira Gatens


    Descartes is regarded as the father of modern philosophy. His starting point for existence was “I think; therefore I am” and his dualist view of the mind as a reasoning machine in pristine detachment from the physical world was considered visionary and shaped modern philosophy and the bedrock of society. It’s easy to see its endgame in neo-liberalist economics.

    Spinoza’s major work Ethics was published after his death in 1677 and laid out the rules for a conscious life to be found in harmony with the infinity of an indivisible ‘Nature’ that encompasses everything-that-is.

    He held that Descartes’ dualist, mind/body split was wrong and that emotion was not the enemy of reason, but, as he saw it, an indispensable accomplice, playing a critical role in ensuring our survival and allowing us to think.

    “Science is proving Spinoza more current,” according to pre-emminent brain scientist Dr Antonio Damasio, author of a series of books starting with the 1994 Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.

    The modest 17th century Dutch thinker intuited the “basic mechanism of the emotions” says the brain scientist who is at the forefront of what is being hailed as a scientific revolution.

    It’s heady stuff, especially since my chosen philosopher up until that point had been the ninth century medieval scholar John Scotus, the subject of one of a handful of books passed on to me by my beloved and sometimes remarkably Edwardian mother-in-law. The book disappeared but the clarity of the travelling teacher’s concept of our proper and individual relationship to an infinite God was a compelling enquiry.

    Now more generally known as John Scotus Eriugena, the Irish scholar, along with many others of his time, left for mainland Europe where his scholarship and ability to translate the classics from the original Greek made him an influential figure. He famously sat at the table of Charles the Bald and, when the monarch asked ‘What separates a drunkard from the Irishman?”, Eriugena quiped back: “Only a table”

    The scholar’s work languished until 1681 when his great De divisione naturae, was found and published at Oxford, four years after Spinoza’s death.

    With all this going on in my head, it was a short step to a last-minute registration for last weekend’s symposium on the Arts of Spinoza that was jointly organised by the School of Art and Design at the Auckland University of Technology and the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland.

    It too was heady stuff, encompassing the application of Spinoza’s speculations to art, architectural planning, philosophy, indigenous cultural beliefs, the place of reason with the citizen and the state and even film theory.

    Auckland lecturer in English, drama and writing studies, Anna Boswell, related Spinoza’s founding figure for  18th century Enlightenment rationalism to more recent claims of his point of origin for ‘deep ecology’ as it aligns to, among other conflicted settler legacies, Maori environmental knowledge and “lessons in non-anthropocentric stewardship, or what might be termed ‘the art of kaitiakitanga’.”

    Professor Moira Gatens, Challis Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney whose recent research focuses on Spinoza and George Eliot, presented a paper as part of a broader joint project to develop a Spinozistic approach to art understood in the broadest sense as the art of living.

    “Part of the art of living – as Spinoza says in the Ethics – is to nourish oneself with good food, theatre and music,” she said.  “He offers various exemplary figures that we may emulate or eschew (the free man, the fool, Jesus Christ) in our quest for freedom and a decent life.”

    As Deepak Chopra concludes in his How to Know God, “God is our highest instinct to know ourselves” and mastering the art of living is obviously our life-work, whether we want to or not.

    In terms of Spinoza’s philosophy, playing the Fool, even on the world stage, has its purpose. – Liz Waters

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