[Today's post is a follow up to this one.--ES]
In a short note -- crossing the battle-front between the forces of Louis XiV and William III -- from 1673 to the Utrecht Professor Graevius, Spinoza asks for the return of a letter about the death of Descartes. The rightful owner of the letter (ht: to Stefan Heßbrüggen) has demanded it back. Spinoza adds that if it had been his letter a hasty return would not be required. Let's leave aside the fascinating and complicated sociological fact (see here for background in Dutch) that Spinoza and Graevius, a professor of rhetoric and a classical philologist (who was very critical of Spinoza's Theological Political Treatise in his public utterances) were intimate enough to share letters. (Anybody that spends time on editing Lucian can't be all bad.) At one point in his life, Spinoza was apparently interested enough to seek out (and presumably to copy) eye-witness testimony about Descartes' death. (After his death and later Hume's there was quite a bit of such interest; how do philosophers face death when they deny the immortality of soul?) This is a bit surprising.
While Spinoza sometimes has nice things to say about Descartes (see here), he is often extremely harsh about the thinker that is often taken to be his philosophical predecessor. In the Ethics, especially, Spinoza asserts the following:
"The illustrious Descartes [celeberrimum Cartesium]... in my opinion, he accomplishes nothing beyond a display of the acuteness of his own great intellect," (Ethics 3, Preface)
"Such is the doctrine of this illustrious philosopher [“clarissimi…Viri”] (in so far as I gather it from his own words); it is one which, had it been less ingenious, I could hardly believe to have proceeded from so great a man. Indeed, I am lost in wonder",(Ethics 5, Preface; see also E, 3p2S)
Correctness of conduct (modestia), that is, the desire of pleasing men which is determined by reason, is attributable to piety (as we said in IV. xxxvii. note i.). But, if it spring from emotion, it is ambition, or the desire whereby, men, under the false cloak of piety, generally stir up discords and seditions. For he who desires to aid his fellows either in word or in deed, so that they may together enjoy the highest good, he, I say, will before all things strive to win them over with love: not to draw them into admiration, so that a system may be called after his name, nor to give any cause for envy. Further, in his conversation he will shrink from talking of men's faults, and will be careful to speak but sparingly of human infirmity: but he will dwell at length on human virtue or power, and the way whereby it may be perfected. Thus will men be stirred not by fear, nor by aversion, but only by the emotion of joy, to endeavour, so far as in them lies, to live in obedience to reason. (Ethics 4, Appendix, Chapter 25)
Spinoza is against having his doctrines be associated with his name. On his view a philosopher is modest and tactful when engaging others and s/he does not appeal to their weaknesses or fear, but flatters their abilities. As Spinoza puts it in the Treatise on the Emandation of the Intellect, we should "speak in a manner intelligible to the multitude," [ad captum vulgi loqui] and "in this way gain a friendly audience for the reception of the truth." (here) But unlike others that engage the masses, Spinoza clearly rejects stories about hell and damnation, or a terrifying Hobbesian state of nature. Rather a modest philosopher should appeal to joyful affects. As Tinneke Beeckman puts it in her forthcoming book, Spinoza rejects the doctrine associated with Socrates that living is the art of dying; life should be a joyful affair.
So, was Spinoza's momentary fascination with Descartes' death just a glimpse of his morbid curiosity? Perhaps, but I prefer an alternative explanation. Consider the following lines from the main methodological chapter of Spinoza's TTP:
Euclid, who wrote only about things which were quite simple and most intelligible, is easily explained by anyone in any language. For to grasp his intention and to be certain of his true meaning it is not necessary to have a complete knowledge of the language in which he wrote, but only a quite common and almost childish knowledge. Nor is it necessary to know the life, concerns and customs of the author, nor in what language, to whom and when he wrote, nor the fate of his book, nor its various readings, nor how nor by whose deliberation it was accepted. What I have said here about Euclid must be said about everyone who has written about things by their nature comprehensible. (TTP, 7: 67-8; quoted from E. Curley's draft translation emphasis added)
So, when a book is about things that are not quite simple and most intelligible (and easily explained by anyone in any language) then it may become necessary to know the life, corncerns and customs of the author. What kind of things are that? Well, Euclid works are about geometry--geometric enties have natures without any power. Geometric figures are caused, but by themselves they barely, if any, cause further effects. By contrast, Descartes (and Spinoza) write about considerably more complicated natures, namely those with some power (humans) and that substance with absolute power (God). So, it is possible that Spinoza thought that at least some of Descartes's works could only be properly understood if we understand Descartes' writings in light of his intellectual and biographical context.