Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Empathy, Spinoza, and the First and Greatest Commandment

Several years back, while working on a Philosophy minor degree at the Utah Valley University, I was introduced to the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza. At the time I was taking an early-modern philosophy class and learning about the prominent philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, it was Spinoza that really stuck out to me. While I never really agreed with his treatment of God (Spinoza argued that in order for God to be omnipotent, omniscient, etc. he must be a substance that contained all essences. Or, basically, in order for God to be God he must contain all things in existence. This is basically a fancy way of saying that God is in and apart of everything, rather than a physical entity) I did appreciate how he was willing to go the extra mile in order to resolve the ontological problem of evil. However, it is through his treatment of God that I was first really introduced to the idea of the expression of empathy in order to understand or better perceive God. Spinoza has heavily influenced the way I look at others, nature, and the world (or even the universe) in general, especially in relation to God.

Spinoza spoke to me on many levels. One of my favorite treatments that Spinoza offers, towards the end of his book on God, is one where he provides the scenario of a rock falling from a high place onto a passerby. He then goes on to say that men will see this happen and say that the wind was blowing in such and such a way as to cause the rock fall. If they are asked where the wind came from they will then reply with an answer possibly detailing the ocean currents causing wind to blow in such a way, etc. until they continue backwards until they are no longer able to explain the cause of an incident, where they will then say, “it is the will of God,” which Spinoza then says, is the sanctuary of ignorance.

In his second book (contained within his book Ethics) he gives an argument on how one can obtain a higher degree of perfection. Perfection for Spinoza deals with a persons ability to act outwardly in a right manner, rather than allowing things to act upon us. Acting outwardly is a conscious effort including not only thinking positively about ones situations, but acting in a way according to those thoughts. It also involves a high level of empathy and implementing that empathy in order to become more “perfect”.

And example of this that my professor at the time used in order to understand what Spinoza meant in acting outwardly involved driving in heavy traffic. When the car in front of you is driving under the speed limit you have two basic options: to let the incident act on you or to act outwardly (and rightly). To allow the incident to act on one's self would be to allow it to upset you (this is definitely the case for me more often then not, unfortunately). You are allowing the situation to determine your actions. However, to act outwardly would be to utilize empathy. While this is not how Spinoza words his treatment of actions it is heavily implied. Going back to the example of the slow driver, using empathy in this situation is to make an assumption of the persons situation. For example, rather than thinking they are some low-life sent from the pits of hell to cause you annoyance, you can rather see them as human, either making a mistake, or perhaps placing a situation for them to explain their behavior. Perhaps they were recently in an accident which has caused them to drive more cautiously, or maybe they are a new driver, intimidated by the amount of traffic on the road. Spinoza explains that in placing a method of understanding on the individual you give them their own humanity back in utilizing your own empathy.

Since my humble beginnings in an undergraduate philosophy class I have come to appreciate what I learned of humanity and our relations among one another to a far greater extent. This relationship heavily is (or can be) influenced by our understanding and utilization of empathy.

In Matt 22:37 we are told that the first and greatest commandment is to love God. But this greatest commandment is immediately followed up by a second, to love your neighbor. I find it interesting and important that these two commandments are those that replace centuries of strict practice and worship. Loving God is central to religious thought, however, it is how one loves God that had changed. Rather than showing him your loyalty and love through adherence to a set of guidelines we are given the impression that to show God our love for him we are to obey the second greatest commandment by loving our neighbors. 

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