Schopenhauer and Spinoza, a brief comparison

I took a hard fall in a parking lot while running with the dogs last night. My elbows took much of the impact, but my upper abdomen still felt as though someone had driven his fist into it. I lay audibly gasping for air and wondering what to do. I remembered that Houdini had died from peritonitis after a blow to the stomach, and I wondered which of my organs might already be spurting blood.

After finally catching my breath, I stayed on my back in the drizzle inventorying my body parts. Bonnie sniffed me with concern, while Baxter barked at an approaching stranger. I expected the man to help, but he was drunk and probably accustomed to waking up flat on his own back in parking lots.

I reflected that, just moments before, I had said goodbye to my lodge brothers, and was hurrying home to watch a PBS program about terrorism in Europe. Now, I felt quite alone in an uncaring universe. Not that my dogs didn’t care, or not that most people wouldn’t care, but that the universe is unaware of itself as a whole or of the state of its parts. Schopenhauer defined the force that is the universe as blind yet driven. He called this drive will, and he believed that it propels the behavior of people in the same way that it propels trees, rocks, gravity, weather, and all other things. He argued that the real source of all movement lies behind the scenes, invisible and as soulless as the waves that batter a shoreline hour after hour, millennia after millennia. He considered existence pointless, life a mistake.

I agree with him until his conclusion. Whether life is good or bad is subjective; because a purposeless, insentient universe would be incapable of error. Spinoza said that all that is must be as it is, and he called all that is “god.” Worship, to him, meant embracing reality. Spinoza was expelled from his synagogue for atheism, although he was later referred to as “god-intoxicated” because he lived in continual awe and worship. This is where he differed, positively, I think, from religions in which worship offers a payoff to the worshipper.

Spinoza’s worship was as natural and unerring as leaves moving with the wind. He could have worshipped as fully while lying on his back in a parking lot as while listening to a symphony. His was a happier outlook than Schopenhauer’s, although their basic interpretation of the universe was similar. I think that Spinoza came as close to living a life of beauty as is possible. He could have risen high in academia, but chose to spend his life grinding lenses for the intellectual freedom it offered.