I certainly don’t always live up to it, but this quote of Spinoza’s, like Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be”, or the Bible’s “love your neighbor”, is also a taut summing up of one aspect of existence, the intellectual life:
Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere: Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.
Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be”, the Bible’s “love your neighbor”, and Spinoza’s beautiful formulation all lay out tensions inherent in human existence. There are always temptations to give up on life, to abuse neighbors, to despise those who do not share your worldview. And there is always the effort that must be made to, in the midst of adversity, nevertheless live, love, and understand.
One reason Spinoza’s quote might strike you with such force—if it does at all—is its pleasant structure: three musically rhythmed negative clauses (“not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse”), followed, as it were, by a “lowering of the boom”, a holistic resolution: “but to understand.” And Spinoza’s quote is structured like so many other pleasurable and memorable phrases:
“. . . that this nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
But there is, obviously, an objection to this quote that might run as follows: Internalizing Spinoza’s quote might have the effect of making the intellectual life wishy-washy. The intellectual life, the life of reason, is a sword, an acid. It must be more prickly—more devoted to truth—than Spinoza’s quote implies. And I do not necessarily disagree with this. There are contexts for which Spinoza’s quote is ill-suited to the moment (as when one confronts a murderous ideology, such as that of fascism in Germany in the 1930s, or Al Qaeda today). But given the strong human impulse to readily demonize others (Freud called it the narcissism of small differences), Spinoza’s quote deserves a strong place in the arsenal of the human intellect’s rhetorical and psychological defenses against its own aggressive impulses. In an age of instantaneous global communications and nuclear weapons, perhaps it ought to be a 21st century golden rule for the intellect. We all need to make at least some effort to keep our heads about us. And I would note that Michael Shermer’s Skeptic magazine, from it’s very inception, has flagged Spinoza’s quote as part of the Skeptics Society’s mission statement (which can be found toward the beginning of any copy of its magazine):
With regard to statements, hypotheses, theories, and ideologies examined by the Skeptics Society, the organization adopts the view of 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”
Perhaps this is why, in part, Michael Shermer recently had a run-in with one of the New Atheists, Jerry Coyne?