This is not a reading for philosophy club. It is a pitch to convince you to read the book yourself.
What is a free life? Today, our idle chatter offers us two options. The first and most common answer is the transcendence of religion, in which a creator God endows us with meaning and worth. History is directed towards the ends of this benevolant God, who remains outside history, safely guiding it through his will. Good and evil are defined against a mix of our created nature and the dictates of this God. Freedom is ultimately submission to the will of God. The second option public talk offers us is a kind of smug atheism, in which one finds satisfaction in being free from superstition and religious fervor. As Badiou points out, all that exists is in this view are bodies and language, so freedom becomes entirely identified with sexual permissiveness and free speech.
It is a dilemma. We find ourselves trapped between, on one hand, a position of transcendence with offering inherent value, but which is saddled with talking snakes, contempt for the world and authority based on mystery. On the other hand, there is a position of materialistic atheism offering the rational truth that there is no God, but which is all too often saddled with a banal smugness, contentless scientitism and a contempt for philosophical thought.
Spinoza charts a compeling and remarkably contemporary course between these two positions, ultimately rendering both obselete. He offers a world of radical immanance which has been claimed by both mystics and atheists. Close one eye, and Spinoza appears to be a complete materialist; close the other eye, and he appears to be a man wholly obsessed with loving God. Together, the two sides form a stereoscopic vision of a world where cold hard rationalism and the love of God exist side by side.
A thumbnail sketch of the coming weeks: Spinoza offers no free will, but there is freedom. There is no good and evil, but there is good and bad. Belief in free will and evil arise from the belief that some things are undetermined, even if only God’s choices – but everything is determined. Human bondage arises from being passively determined by the objects around us, while human freedom arises from being actively determined by the productive forces of God/nature.
God is not external to the world and history; rather he is immanant in all things. He did not choose to create the world; rather he was determined by his infinite nature to create infinite things in infinite ways, including everything we consider evil.
So take a few hours and read The Ethics.