Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Connection with Spinoza

Matthew Gerstbrein
Dr. Adam Johns
3 September 2014
English Comp 0200
“The Connection with Spinoza”
            Edward Abbey, the author of “Desert Solitaire”, is part philosopher. While he almost received accreditation for philosophy, he did not complete the work. However, he is still part philosopher in his ideology. This connection can be seen in the book “Desert Solitaire” when Abbey references philosophical ideas and historical figures. One reference in particular that stands out is that of Spinoza’s. There are a few reasons why this is relevant, which I will discuss further.
            The first reason why the reference to Spinoza is relevant is because of Spinoza’s relationship with philosophy. Baruch Spinoza was a prominent historical figure of the 17th century. The reason for this was his work in philosophy. While his profession as a lens-crafter was what provided an income for him, it was his philosophical writings that granted him respect and moderate renown, though that came posthumously. If there can be a single reason that Spinoza became a well-known philosopher, it can be pinned on his writing called “Ethics”. This gave him the respect of many other philosophers of that time, and thereafter. It is due to Spinoza’s respectable work in philosophy that he is referenced. Abbey, part philosopher himself, feels a connection with Spinoza. He wants to include a fellow philosopher in his writing, as a way to cement in his own position as a philosopher. The second reason is more strongly tied to Spinoza’s beliefs, outlined in “Ethics”, and can present another strong argument.
            In “Ethics”, Spinoza asserts that “two substances, whose attributes are different, have nothing in common”. Another assertion made is “things which have nothing in common cannot be one the cause of the other”. A final example is “there cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute”. All three of these examples are known as propositions in “Ethics”. These particular propositions are excellent examples for summarizing Spinoza’s belief regarding the nature of separate entities. It is Spinoza’s belief that anything that does not share the same exact qualities as another substance is completely unrelated to it. This is a rigid line he has drawn, clearly stating his idea, leaving no room for ambiguity. However, I along with Abbey, question its correctness. We can tell that Abbey questions Spinoza’s philosophy when he cleverly writes “All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred (Abbey 25). This paragraph, especially the last sentence, goes directly against what Spinoza thought. The incredibly clever part of the paragraph comes earlier, when he connects protozoan to Spinoza through the evolutionary line. By using the evolutionary line, Abbey is implying that all organisms actually are related. Evolution means that all living organisms are branches of a tree, which all stem from a single source. Just as the branches all stem from the trunk of a tree, so too do all organisms stem from an earlier predecessor. And just as the branches are all related because they are all part of the same tree, all organisms are related because they all stemmed from the same source. All of this is in contrast to what Spinoza says, and yet he is the person that is used to end the evolutionary line, and support Abbey’s point! Spinoza and his ideology are utilized in an argument that goes directly against what Spinoza believed. This makes Abbey’s argument even stronger, and this is the main reason why I believe he picked Spinoza instead of any other person.
            One final, and simpler interpretation of the reason as to why Abbey uses Spinoza is related to the first reason, and is that perhaps since they were both philosophers, Abbey held Spinoza in such high regard that he used Spinoza as the end to the evolutionary line. Whereas protozoan are amongst the simplest living organisms on the planet and are on the “bottom rung”, Abbey may consider Spinoza as the highest rung. Spinoza could be considered the most complex and intriguing living (or once living) organism to exist. Abbey using Spinoza in the text could show the high level of respect that he has for Spinoza. After all, they were both philosophers, and shared a common bond. However, this reason does not seem as powerful as the second reason, and does not reveal Abbey’s high degree of cleverness as a writer. I believe that Abbey used Spinoza to prove his own point.

Works Cited
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Ballantine, 1971. Print.
"The Ethics." The Project Gutenberg. Trans. Elwes. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Sept. 2014.
"Baruch Spinoza." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 03 Sept. 2014.


  1. Hello! You have presented several different arguments that are very insightful. It is important that you grounded your thesis in the fact that Spinoza and Abbey are primarily connected by philosophy. The textual examples used to support your second argument, that Spinoza is paradoxically used by Abbey to prove a point opposing Spinoza's philosophy, were validating. The many different perspectives brought up so well in your essay would have been even more supported by a conclusion elaborating on the last sentence. Maybe developing your belief "that Abbey used Spinoza to prove his own point" earlier on in the essay would allow the reader to more coherently follow the complexities of your arguments.


  2. Your first paragraph doesn't really do anything, nor does the 2nd - these two paragraphs could have been replaced with two sentences. The third paragraph could/should have been split into multiple paragraphs, and edited mildly for clarity. Also, it's excellent. There are other relevant facts about Spinoza which could take another reader in different directions, but that's not the point - the point is that you have understood and unpacked the importance of Abbey's brief reference. The fourth paragraph is an interesting speculation, and could be used as part of a longer essay on the importance of philosophy in Abbey's thought, even though he seems to be dismissive of it. You could have more effectively connected the third and fourth paragraphs.

    Overall: Lots of this could have been cut, especially at the beginning, but once you get down to business, you do quite well. I would have liked you to do more than you do in the fourth paragraph to begin tracing the larger consequences or implications of the way Abbey uses Spinoza.

    p.s. If you revise this, you might look up Spinoza and pantheism.


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