Fame, money (lots of it) and sensual pleasure. These are three ingredients that are probably on most people's striving for happiness and personal fulfillment list. Who does not dream of being famous one day? Who would not like to bathe in money? Who would not like to have sensual pleasure?
If all that were true, that those three items can produce true happiness, then Brad Pitt is truly blessed. He's famous like almost nobody else out there. And he's not only a heartthrob, but a really good actor. Money he does not lack, nor will he by a long shot. And sensual pleasure? Angelina Jolie – the dream and envy of most mortal men.
But according to Spinoza, these are part of a continuing cycle and a cause for exactly the opposite reaction - unhappiness. Fame, he claims, would seem like a good thing, but it limits you. This is somebody speaking before the age of paparazzi and stardom. Stars often complain about lack of privacy, which seems a natural by-product or bitter aftertaste of fame.
Yet it also can limit and draw boundaries around who you are and how you define yourself. You may become dependent on your fan base. They do have power over you. Should they decide that you are yesterday's news, your shooting star will be down within no time. So that might be the stress felt by Britney, for example, who was forced by fame to adopt or rather project a life of virginal innocence. The fans have created you and if you do not conform to their image of you, they will drop you into the anonymous mass of faces. Worse than not being famous is becoming an ordinary citizen again.
In the case of money, people often heedlessly strive for it and do not set themselves any limits. The problem with money is the more you have, the more you crave. These are all those rich greedy folks who do not want to spend money and live in a modest manner in order to save up more and more; they merely derive joy by watching their bank accounts rise relentlessly. Or a tragic case would be the German billionaire, one of the hundred richest men in the world who, after some disastrous financial setbacks, actually committed suicide. There seems to be no point where you will feel you have reached a state of ultimate happiness when it comes to money.
What about sensual pleasure? Spinoza says that it is a motivating force ... until it becomes gratified. Once you have satisfied your sensual desire and have conquered your goddess, it is followed by a state of melancholy. You might realize that it was not as special as you thought it would be or it might be that once you scratched the itch, it becomes more difficult to find satisfaction. Hence we have a lot of “bed-hopping” people who desperately seek the initial lost spark of attraction. Everything given a certain amount of time wears itself out, becomes bland and dull no matter what the wrapping may look like.
Everything except the eternal and immaterial. That is where pantheistic Spinoza sees the root of all lasting happiness. If your counterpart is eternity and perfection itself, how can one be disappointed? All the fame and riches will not be able to produce happiness, all the sensual pleasure of the world will not fulfill you, even Brad Pitt or “Benjamin Button” is not immune to aging and mortality. The sword of Damocles is hovering over each person's head whether they acknowledge it or not.
Spinoza likens our general fate to the terminally ill patient looking desperately for a remedy. All of us, whether rich or poor, famous or unknown await the same fate. Whether you sleep in a king-size bed or on the hardwood floor, death equalizes us, and we are all one in its heedless democracy. Yet to the unassuming modest Dutch philosopher complete spiritual contemplation and immersion was a path towards everlasting peace and happiness.