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  • The Mind's Eternity in Spinoza's Ethics
  • Steven Parchment

In the Emendation of the Intellect, Spinoza describes how he abandoned mundane pursuits of money, fame, and sensuality for the pleasures of philosophy and, by doing so, traded in merely temporary goods for a joy which is eternal (TdIE, G II/1-II/7).1 Given this motivating quest for eternal happiness, it is ironic that the section of the Ethics most frequently condemned by critics as a hopeless muddle is just that section in which Spinoza attempts to demonstrate the possibility of the mind's eternal salvation. From the perspective of these critics, Spinoza has carefully constructed a deductive system of metaphysics, featuring a variety of intriguing theories such as the parallelism of mind and body, only to sully his achievement by tacking on a contradictory finale. In a vain effort to salvage immortality,2 Spinoza has placed himself in the embarrassing position of espousing both the mind's eternity and the body's limited duration, all the while maintaining that mind and body are one and the same thing. In the face of this and other seemingly blatant contradictions, some commentators have given up trying to make sense of Spinoza's remarks on the mind's eternity, preferring instead to speculate on how such a profound thinker could be led to such write such rubbish. Was it due to an overwhelming fear of death? Or perhaps a desperate leap into mysticism?3 [End Page 349]

Other interpreters, of course, have been more charitable and have regarded this section of the Ethics as its rightful culmination. But the diversity of their interpretations belies, if not the inconsistency of Spinoza's position, at least the difficulty of understanding how, and in what sense, Spinoza's metaphysics can support a belief in the mind's eternity. In this paper, I examine four common answers to this question and, finding each interpretation inadequate in some way, venture a fifth. The first two sections of the paper outline and criticize the four interpretations. The last three develop an alternative reading of the mind's eternityæone, it is claimed, that is consistent with Spinoza's metaphysics.

1. Interpretations of the Mind's Eternity

One pivotal point by which various interpretations can be classified is how they account for the mind's eternity in relation to parallelism. The mind is the idea of the body (IIP13). Since an idea and its ideatum are "one and the same thing" (IIP7S), the mind and the body are one and the same thing, conceived under different attributes (IIP21S). But how then can Spinoza maintain that the mind is eternal, despite the destruction of the body (VP23)? One answer is that Spinoza is not literally referring to an eternal state of being; instead, he is metaphorically describing a state of knowing that is acquired in this life whenever the mind grasps sub specie aeternitatis truths about itself and its body. Thus, the eternity of the mind is compatible with parallelism, for its "eternal" life lasts no longer than the temporally limited life of the body. This view is called the epistemological interpretation. In contrast, the ontological interpretation is the view that, for Spinoza, the mind is literally eternal. Clearly, the onus falls upon advocates of the ontological interpretation to explain why the mind's eternal existence does not contradict parallelism. Generally, three types of explanations have been advanced. 1)The Episodic Ideatum Theory: Faced with the dilemma between parallelism and the mind's eternal existence, this theory qualifies the former. The mind is the idea of the body only for as long as the body endures; afterwards, the mind possesses an independent existence. 2)The Incremental Ideatum Theory: This theory maintains that the mind is the idea of a particular body only at the beginning of its existence. By reason and intuition, the mind expands its ideatum to such a point that it no longer reflects merely one finite body but rather the whole material universe. By doing so, it becomes united with God. 3)The Double Existence Theory: On this theory, the mind has an eternal existence, because the human body itself is, in some sense, eternal...


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