New Jerusalem Discussions

On Sunday, July 11 we were thrilled to host two venerable speakers for our discussion:  Interfaith Views on Excommunication and Dissent. We were joined by Father John Langan, S.J. (Cardinal Bernardin Chair/Catholic Social Thought Professor, Georgetown University) and Professor Bernard Cooperman (Louis L. Kaplan Associate Professor of Jewish History, University of Maryland).

While I was able to make it over to the theater to get at least one (slightly too long-distance) shot to commemorate their time with us, I did not make it in time to take in the discussion. I’d love to hear thoughts and impressions about the talk from any of our blog readers who DID make it!

Ari Roth, Professor Bernard Cooperman, and Father John Langan, S.J.

This past Sunday, we hosted several members of Washington, DC’s Spinoza Society for a talk: A Discussion with Members of the Washington Spinoza Society, featuring Kenneth Feigenbaum (adjunct professor of psychology at The University of Maryland University College); Sidney Bailin (Composer, author, computer scientist, and Spinoza enthusiast); and Tim Beardsley (Editorial Director for BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences).

Members of the Spinoza Society with moderator Ari Roth

One subject that came up–that has been a point of discussion in several of our Spinoza panels–is the issue of Spinoza’s determinism. Spinoza put forth so many ideas that align well with modern thinking, concepts that were clearly articulated by or panelists. Tim credited him for “anticipating so many moments and developments in science”, and for raising the question of “what consciousness is; and that there is even something to be explained (there)!”. Ken looked to Spinoza for his own examination of “what it means to be a Jew”. And Sidney spoke of Spinoza’s ability to look at scripture as a historical and archeological document, while still including a more elusive “mystical experience” element when speaking about his faith.

And yet for all of this forward thinking, Spinoza’s posit that we do not have free will seems to contradict modern thinking to someone like me, a less-studied audience member. Indeed, Spinoza wrote, “Nothing in nature is contingent, but all things are from the necessity of the divine nature determined to exist and to act in a definite way” (Prop. 29). Doesn’t this go against our ideals of life and liberty? Doesn’t this dictate that humanity will never be free?

Spinoza thought of this too.

In his note to Proposition XLIX of his Ethics, Spinoza names what he sees as advantages to maintaining the doctrine of determinism:

  • [It] teaches us to act solely according to the decree of [Nature], and to be partakers in the Divine nature, and so much the more, as we perform more perfect actions and more and more understand [Nature]. Such a doctrine not only completely tranquillizes our spirit, but also shows us where our highest happiness or blessedness is, namely, solely in the knowledge of [Nature].
  • [It] teaches us how we ought to conduct ourselves with respect to the gifts of fortune, or matters which are not in our own power, and do not follow from our nature.
  • This doctrine raises social life, inasmuch as it teaches us to hate no man, neither to despise, to deride, to envy, or to be angry with any. Further, as it tells us that each should be content with his own,and helpful to his neighbor, not from any womanish pity, favour, or superstition, but solely by the guidance of reason, according as the time and occasion demand.
  • This doctrine confers no small advantage on the commonwealth; for it teaches how citizens should be governed and led, not so as to become slaves, but so that they may freely do whatsoever things are best.

Spinoza enthusiasts out there–how do you interpret Spinoza’s determinism?

And for those of you thirsting for yet more Spinoza, please join us for our final panel on Sunday, July 25 at 5:15pm: The Rehabilitation of Baruch Spinoza in Modern Jewish Culture: A Conversation with modern Jewish historian Daniel Schwartz (George Washington University) and Professor Tom Beauchamp (Georgetown University).