“No man is an island”, wrote the 17th century English poet, John Donne, “each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”. We are all one. It is a seductive idea that needs a leap of the imagination. Bodies and souls, heaven and earth, plants and planets all linked together in a universal whole that is travelling through time. One world.
One young man who had the courage to think in this way while everybody around him frowned and cursed was Benedict de Spinoza. In 1653, at the age of 20, he was thrown out of the church and vilified for his radical beliefs. But a true genius isn’t afraid of the establishment. He feels sorry for people who are trapped by their narrow doctrines and follow each other like sheep.
Spinoza had a profound vision of the universe as an abundant life-force that must be seen as a whole. He referred to this universal reality as Nature or God, but in essence it was the same thing. The young scholar upset his family and his elders by not becoming a Rabbi and instead made a living as a humble lens grinder in Amsterdam. But his passion was to contemplate the mysteries of the universe and make sense of it through his writings.
What most shocked people at the time was the idea that humans were not individuals with free will and therefore shouldn’t be judged for their actions. Spinoza described people who believed they were free as “dreaming with their eyes open”. It follows that notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ had no place in the Dutchman’s conception of the universe.
But Spinoza’s grand ethical system doesn’t necessarily mean we have no control over our destiny. The joy of being alive comes to us when we are able to rise above our day-to-day doubts and anxieties and see ourselves as a tiny part of an infinite, expanding, beneficent universe.
Spinoza’s books were burned in public during his lifetime and his most radical ideas were deemed too dangerous to publish until after his death. His story is one of bravery and enlightenment, of someone bold enough to open his mind to the vastness of space and time. He is said to have died calmly; I imagine he had a smile on his face.
Here’s another English poet – the Romantic visionary William Blake: “To see the world in a grain of sand, And heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour”.