Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Thanksgiving Weekend Plea

“All happiness or unhappiness depends solely on the quality of the object to which we are bound by love.”

Spinoza wrote those words in one of his earliest works, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect.  But this morning, I’d like to tweak them a bit.   Here’s my version:  “So much happiness or unhappiness depends solely on the quality of the object to which we are bound by hatred.”

You have to pardon me, but I spent part of the last couple of days putting the finishing touches on my newest essay, entitled “Spinoza on Love and Hate.”  In my research, it became clear that of these two emotions, love took the lead role for Spinoza.  But it was also clear that Spinoza believed that hatred is both more ubiquitous and more important than most of us would like to believe.  I didn’t have to be convinced.  I’ve always thought that people are in denial when it comes to the prevalence and profundity of hatred.  

Here are some snippets from the sage of Amsterdam:  “It is rarely the case that men live by the guidance of reason; their condition is such that they are generally disposed to envy and mutual dislike.” “Men are prone to hatred and envy, and this is accentuated by their upbringing.  For parents are wont to incite their children to excellence solely by the spur of honor and envy.” “Men are far more inclined to revenge than to repay a benefit.” “Men are by nature enemies, and even when they are joined and bound together by laws they still retain their nature.” 

All of those words were written more than 300 years ago.  Do they remain true?  Or has the arc of the moral universe bent so far toward justice in the past few centuries that these statements seem antiquated?  Personally, I take some of those quotations to be a tad exaggerated, but only a tad.  It is certainly the case that envy, revenge, mistrust, bigotry, and violence are alive and well.  It is also the case that when Spinoza painted a portrait of the human condition characterized primarily by insecurity and competitiveness, he demonstrated how slowly indeed the arc of the moral universe bends.   Just turn on the television – news, drama, whatever you prefer:  are you likely to see a profile in love or in hatred?  Security or fear?   Anger or compassion?

Even the voices of “progressivism” right now are obsessed with their enemies.  For a while, it was the NRA.  Then, it was Netanyahu.  Now, it’s the xenophobes and the other bigots.  So there you have it – it is not enough for the progressives to be engulfed by hatred.  Now, they have to be hatefully obsessed with hatred itself.

While I have no idea exactly what the progressive’s obsession du jour will be tomorrow, I think it is safe to say that it will not be an object to which they will be bound by love, but rather an object to which they will be bound by hatred.  And needless to say, the same can be said about their political opponents, who may claim to be followers of Ronald Reagan, but don’t come close to having the Gipper’s positive vision of progress.  He traded on hope, whereas his contemporary “disciples” trade on fear.  And anger.  Such is life in 2015.

It is difficult to write the above words this weekend, which should be a time of gratitude.  We all have so much to be thankful for, and it is precisely those things – the objects that bind us by love, not hatred – that we need to take stock in more often.  As Spinoza argued, hatred is impossible to avoid altogether, for any time we feel pain, we are prone to feeling hatred.  But at least we can avoid the more grandiose manifestations of hatred, such as envy and anger, and we certainly should be able to avoid feeling the kind of inner-rage that seems to be on the ascendancy today, and not just in the Middle East. 

How do we defeat hatred?  Only by love.   That was Spinoza’s teaching back in the 17th century, and it remains true today.

This Thanksgiving weekend, please remind yourselves of the people you love the most, the institutions you love the most, the artists and writers you love the most, the qualities in yourself you love the most, the aspects of your planet that you love the most, and the vision of the future that you love the most.  Just for this one weekend, let yourself be defined by what you cherish, not by who you fight.   

And when you’re making your list, allow me to remind you not to forget about God.  Spinoza, for all his heresies, would require me to make that point.  After all, it was Spinoza – who many take to be an atheist – who wrote that the love toward God “cannot be stained by the emotion of envy, nor again by the emotion of jealousy,” and “there is no emotion directly contrary to this love by which this love can be destroyed.”  Accordingly, Spinoza added, our love toward God “is the most constant of all emotions … and cannot be destroyed except together with the body.”  

I would never say that the belief in God is for everyone, but I am heartened to say that for those who do believe, the Holy Name provides an incredibly powerful object of affection.  These days, I feel like we’re fortunate whenever such an object presents itself.  I’ve had enough with all the hatred.  

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