Philosophy and happiness

Spinoza - 1632-1677AD

"There is only one substance, and that substance we can conceive of as either Nature or God."

Baruch de Spinoza, also called Benedict de Spinoza, was a Dutch philosopher who only published two major works. His Theological-Political Treatise was published during his lifetime, but his greatest work Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Manner, or simply Ethics, was published after he died. Ethics is now considered by many as one of the classics of modern philosophy.

"The world would be happier if men had the same capacity to be silent that they have to speak."1

Spinoza earned his living as lens grinder and spurned all opportunities for affluence or high-status. He died of a lung illness at the age of 44, his death probably being related to the dangers associated with his chosen profession and the inhalation of dust particles.

Spinoza believed that all our actions are determined by prior causes. Several hundred years later in the late 20th century there was some empirical support for his beliefs. In a series of famous experiments Dr Benjamin Libet demonstrated that brain activity initiating a movement, of say the hand, precedes awareness of the movement, thus suggesting that consciousness is not causal. If this is so, free-will is a delusion.2, 3, 4

Dr Libet measured the response time between the moment the brain of a patient was stimulated and the time the patient became consciously aware of the stimulus. He found there was a consistent half-second delay between the patients' unconscious reaction and their conscious awareness of the stimulus.

Others supported Spinoza'a belief and Dr Libet's findings, adding support for the contention that our actions are determined by prior causes. Alice Miller, in her book 'The Drama of the Gifted Child' and Norman Doidge in his book 'The Brain that Changes Itself' both gave examples of decisions made by adults throughout their adult lives which were taken based on their previous experiences when young.

Prior experiences

They demonstrated that decisions are made routinely by the unconscious mind based on prior experiences, meaning that, in effect, our lives are governed not by our conscious decisions but by decisions made by our unconscious.

But Spinoza took this one large step further. He believed that everything that happens in the universe is determined by prior causes, believing that God alone can be truly free because only God's activities do not have prior causes. It is difficult to find support for this contention as attempts to prove the existence of God have failed, but equally there is no empirical evidence that God does not exist.

Spinoza appeared to believe that God was part of the human make-up. In the absence of sufficient knowledge the human being has a desire to relate to a higher being; and as such God lives internally in the mind of everyone, not externally, not outside the totality of the minds of the human race. The need or desire to relate to a higher being is an inevitable consequence of birth - coming from another being.

In regard to happiness Spinoza said, "All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love." Thus he appeared to recognize the stoic philosophy of not getting too attached to anything that would cause you pain if you were to lose it; this was the basis of the stoics belief on how to achieve happiness (or eudaimonia). On the other hand he did not subscribe to the view of the stoics that reason could overcome emotion.

For more information about the great philosophers and their views on narcissism and happiness, read Finding Happiness.

1 Spinoza
2 Libet, Benjamin (1978), Neuronal vs. subjective timing, for a conscious sensory experience, in Cerebral Correlates of Conscious Experience Editors: P A Buser, A Rogeul-Buser (Amsterdam/New York: North Holland), pp. 69-82.
3 Libet, Benjamin (1985), Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action, Behavioural and Brain Sciences, Vol. 8, pp 529-566.
4 Libet, Benjamin (1999), Do we have free will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 6, pp. 47-58.