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“For a sixteen-year-old, it is an ambitious and serious library, comprising poetry, philosophy and translated classics, mostly affordable Everyman, Oxford and Penguin editions, those early-twentieth-century projects in the democratization of knowledge. The photograph is not well lit, but the large numbers on the spines of the Everyman volumes allow the identification of several of them. The key writings of Plato, St Augustine, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Locke, Kant and Descartes are represented, as are Russian classics such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There are no English novels, nor is there any Shakespeare, but there are collected works of poetry by T. S. Eliot, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Keats. Books such as Euclid’s Elements point to Coetzee’s ambition to become a mathematician, though Marx’s Das Kapital may have been less influential. Several of these books would leave their mark on the later fictions, although important future influences such as Pound, Beckett and Kafka are not as yet present.”

— Hermann Wittenberg, Times Literary Supplement

From the introduction of Benedict de Spinoza’s ‘On the Improvement of the Understanding’ (Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione), an essay Schopenhauer recommended as ‘the most effective means known to me for stilling the storm of the passions’. The translator is unknown:
Benedict de Spinoza
Benedict de Spinoza

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.

I say “I finally resolved,” for at first sight it seemed unwise willingly to lose hold on what was sure for the sake of something then uncertain. I could see the benefits which are acquired through fame and riches, and that I should be obliged to abandon the quest of such objects, if I seriously devoted myself to the search for something different and new. I perceived that if true happiness chanced to be placed in the former I should necessarily miss it; while if, on the other hand, it were not so placed, and I gave them my whole attention, I should equally fail. (more…)

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Spinoza memorial at the New Church in The Hague. Photograph: Dan Chung
Clare Carlisle (The Guardian) outlines the philosopher’s ideas in an accessible series of articles

One of the most important and distinctive features of Spinoza’s philosophy is that it is practical through and through. His ideas are never merely intellectual constructions, but lead directly to a certain way of life. This is evidenced by the fact that his greatest work, which combines metaphysics, theology, epistemology, and human psychology, is called Ethics. In this book, Spinoza argues that the way to “blessedness” or “salvation” for each person involves an expansion of the mind towards an intuitive understanding of God, of the whole of nature and its laws. In other words, philosophy for Spinoza is like a spiritual practice, whose goal is happiness and liberation. (more…)