I wrote a review on Spinoza’s Ethics a while back. I was so disappointed in it that I didn’t even finish it. This could be considered unfair and someone made some scathing comments on my inability to comment adequately or fully understood the philosophy. My disappointment stemmed from the introduction I had to Spinoza from the author Durant as well many general statements from a variety of sources. Durant promised that if I gave it my full attention, I would love the work. Others have agreed. Others also rarely discuss his dependence on their being a perfect being, called God. Most mention that he is a pantheist but few deal with how he reconciled his pantheistic philosophy with his religion.
Bertrand Russell, in History of Western Philosophy is quite clear about all of this and praises Spinoza for both writing a well thought out piece like Ethics and for living its precepts. He also notes how unacceptable his conclusions are for today’s mind. In his time, his biggest problem was being called an atheist. Many find him interesting for this very reason and I think fail to see that he wasn’t one because they are too enamored with how he so confounded the authorities of his day.
That he forwarded not only philosophy, but the human condition is unquestionable. That he still has something to offer to the discussion of ethics today is less apparent. That he lived a life free from argument and handled adversity well is evident. That we should all apply his philosophy and do the same for no other reason than it worked for him is to make a choice with no basis. That we should even suffer through a comprehensive study of his works and attempt to fully embrace his mathematical system of precepts and corollaries is doubtful. Bertrand flatly states that you shouldn’t.
Whereas Durant suggests three passes through Ethics, Russell suggests skimming the ideas Spinoza has about how the mind works and focusing on his summaries and applications. Spinoza felt that a person could, just by sitting and thinking about it, come to conclusions about how human beings function and how the universe is structured. By doing that, you may come up with something that is internally sound but it will most likely also be wrong. With the limited science he had to work, Spinoza did an amazing job, but we have significantly more science available to us today and if you have to choose, your efforts would be better focused on the more modern.