Descartes and Spinoza are tough reads. I was hoping to have something online about both of them by now, but I spent a good chunk of tonight trying to get a provisional understanding of “formal essence” and “objective essence” in Spinoza’s early “Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect.” Usually the rule I have for myself when I don’t understand something is look it up. But I’m hesitating to do that in the case of both the Discourse on Method and the Treatise because 1) I’ve already consulted Richard Kennington’s “On Modern Origins” and read about Descartes and Spinoza generally and 2) both works are meant to be popular. On that last point: if I’m getting stuck somewhere, fighting through it and getting some kind of rough start is fine because that’s probably what both modern philosophers wanted from their readers. What I struggled to see with Machiavelli last semester is how the intended audience of his work was supposed to react to it. I confess I still struggle to see this, but what little progress I think I made has been rewarding.
What makes both Descartes and Spinoza so tough is seeing what of the tradition (Plato/Aristotle/Aquinas) they understand and what themes they emphasize/deemphasize. On the surface, this seems simple. One example: Descartes’ primary passion is “generosity,” and it looks like it is meant to contrast with Aristotlean “magnanimity.” The latter belongs to would-be gentlemen (aristocrats?) who demonstrate virtue through their great (magna) souls (anima). Descartes’ “generosity” lends itself to something much more democratic. But that “political” explanation doesn’t get at nearly the depth people like Descartes had. The very order of the Discourse concerns the question of the priority of metaphysics and physics. There are passages which look lifted out of Machiavelli’s Prince about the foundations of the political, except now they are employed in a work explicitly about the sciences.
There’s not a lot I understand, but I have some kind of feel for how Plato and Xenophon establish more humanist philosophical concerns while exploring the love of wisdom and the limits of the conventional. That feel is lacking when I read Descartes and Spinoza. I can isolate and interpret some of their more esoteric points. But I can’t quite get at the questions and concerns that are driving them on the deepest level.