A common man marvels at uncommon things; a wise man marvels at the commonplace. ~ Confucius
Men employ their reason to defend conclusions arrived at by reason, but conclusions arrived at by the passions are defended by the passions. ~ Benedict de Spinoza
Realizing that the drug culture was no path worth following, I turned to Hindu philosophy and learning meditation and yoga practices. Alan Watts was the bridge to this; the brother of a friend of mine used to hand out his The Book, which I eventually read. I read all his books, finding I preferred his early books, promoting a sort of Vedantized Christianity. That is where I first encountered the name of “Rene Guenon”. However, his books were unavailable and he was otherwise quite obscure. The name was filed away for quite some time.
Hence, I studied Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Nisargadatta, Aurobindo, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, as well as westerners such as Bubba Free John. I noticed that those around me would adopt Indian ways, such as manner of dress and diet. These superficial aspects were much easier than penetrating into the heart of the Vedanta. This was opposed to my goal of incorporating the metaphysics of the Vedanta into the West. I also reasoned along these lines, since it coincided with the beginning of the Neo-Christian revival. If I were an Indian, I would most likely be unable to distinguish these TV evangelists from the deepest of Western thinkers. So, of all the visiting Gurus, how could I tell the most authentic? Unlike Miguel Serrano, I couldn’t go to India to visit these men.
That is when I turned to Benedict de Spinoza. As someone how had written his 10th grade term paper on Russell’s and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, the claim that the foundations of man, God, and the universe could unfold logically from first principles was quite appealing. I spent some time going through the Ethics line by line. This, in itself, was a transformative process. Obviously, no one today can agree on what Spinoza actually meant. As I am writing from memory, I won’t try to defend my own rather mystical interpretation, although it does seem to have its supporters. Rather, the subjective impact is what counts.
First of all, Spinoza was admirable as a man, so I modeled some of his character. There was his commitment to logic and reasoning, but he didn’t preclude a higher form of knowledge. He worked independently as a lens grinder. So I, too, valued my economic independence and sought a technical career. When a man is forced to deal with the material world, affect it, and transform it, he is usually protected from the airy impractical ideas of the so-called intelligentsia. It appealed to me, too, that Spinoza was described by some as an “atheist”, yet by others as a “God-intoxicated man”. That perhaps is as it should be.
If I was reading the Vedanta into Spinoza at that time, I probably now read Guenon into him. This is not without justification. Spinoza can be read as one of the early moderns, or else as one of the last medievals, incorporating the rich philosophy of Moorish Spain into his own system, or even a Cabbalist as some claim. The Italian writer, Piero di Vona, whose book Evola Guenon De Giorgio is an invaluable resource, claims that Guenon was influenced by Spinoza in significant ways. That Guenon was familiar with Spinoza is true enough, since he is frequently mentioned, but not in a positive way. Nevertheless, there are points of contact. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate di Vona’s monograph on the topic for a full treatment of the question.
Stanislaus de Guaita was one of the leaders of the French Hermetic revival and was well known to Guenon. In The Temple of Satan, he wrote:
It is the High Science, what Spinoza magnificently defined as regarding objects sub specie aeternitatis [under the aspect of eternity].
So we see that that circle regarded Spinoza highly, and “regarding objects sub specie aeternitatis” is a fundamental point for Guenon.
In Spinoza’s teaching, God is the fundamental reality, in which essence and existence coincide; this does not really differ from the Western understanding. God has an indefinite number of attributes, but only two of which—Thought and Extension—are known to us. But what we experience are not the attributes directly, but their modes, or modifications. Oddly, Thought and Extension have no interaction between them. Hence, we can know the world entirely through its material processes, or else through the interplay of ideas. Either would be correct.
In conformity with Western metaphysics and Tradition, Spinoza recognized three forms of knowledge; opinion, or knowledge of sensual things; reason; and intuition, the direct grasp of things understood from God’s perspective. There are three types of men corresponding to the three ways of knowing: the ignorant [ignarus], who only have opinions, the free man [homo liber], guided by reason, and the sage [sapiens], who understands through intuition.
In this schema, “reason”, for most men, is a higher state of consciousness, well worth pursuing. Intuition does not contradict reason, but moves beyond it. This differs from New Age thinking which wants to dispense with Reason, hence intuition can mean any old thing. A woman recently told me she has “hunches”, which she regards as access to higher knowledge.
For Spinoza, God is known through the laws of Nature. Unlike common people, who can only understand God through the miraculous and the unusual, the sage knows him through regularity. The same applies to man, as Spinoza devotes much of the book to the understanding of the emotions or passions. Now a “passion” is passive, something undergone. When a passion is understood intuitively, i.e., from the aspect of eternity, one is conscious of and above that passion. This is a skill to be learned: when faced with a strong emotional experience, say of Anger or Anxiety, try to remain conscious of that experience, detaching from it, watching it as one would the clouds passing overhead. The bad experience will often dissipate.
In the third state of knowledge, there is the emotional experience of the Intellectual Love of God. Unlike the passions, this is an active state of Joy. Such a being “is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possess true peace of mind”. This is the same as the experience of Brahman, or Sat-Chit-Ananda, or Being (God), Consciousness, joy or peace of mind.
Like Guenon, Spinoza says there are possibilities of manifestation and non-manifestation. What is possible must also be actual. Hence that which can be rationally conceived must also happen; this is consistent with the independence of the two attributes. But, on the other hand, not every passing thought represents a possibility of manifestation. This is more difficult to grasp than it seems at a quick look.
A very intelligent friend recently told me it is conceivable that a wealthy man, tired of life, would commit suicide; but prior to that, he would have put my friend in his will, thus making him rich. I challenged him, so he tried to put together a coherent narrative. Yet the devil is in the details, the holes in the narrative. A real possibility necessarily will manifest.
How can Spinoza be improved? Perhaps, we can regard the Attributes as gross and subtle manifestation. Then we could understand the other unnamed attributes as higher states of non-formal manifestation as Guenon does.