As the world becomes, to all appearances, a discordant, chaotic jungle inhabited by trees with glass shard leaves and strange, growling nocturnal beasts, it might seem counter-intuitive to seek comfort and guidance from the works of a 17th century Jewish heretic who spent most of his life living quietly as a lens grinder and exchanging learned letters with European intellectuals. On the 350th year since Spinoza’s death, however, he still has much to teach us.
Comfort and insight can be gained for anyone who takes the time to understand Spinoza (1632-1677), perhaps starting with a soft entry like Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, before entering the glittering labyrinth of Spinoza’s masterpiece, The Ethics.
Spinoza is famous for several bold ideas. He equated God with nature and portrayed the universe as the eternal, rational unfolding of one Reality (called “God” but corresponding very little to the God of the Torah he grew up with). God, who is the Totality, unfolds according to the laws of its own being without choice or purpose. The unfolding is intelligent and intelligible, and all beings are either unlimited manifestations of God (like the laws of physics) or limited manifestations (like tables, human beings, and parakeets).
For Spinoza, all events unfold inexorably from the nature of God, determined by the “unlimited manifestations” of the laws of nature and the interacting “limited manifestations” of creatures and things. God does not choose things to go one way or the other, rather they unfold naturally from God’s nature. God’s only activity is to create whatever it is possible to create, marigolds, supernovas or Donald Trump.
Just as God does not choose, neither do people. According to Spinoza the only reason we think we have free will is that we don’t understand the causes of our behavior! This point has been echoed in modern times by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and many other neuroscientists and philosophers. One famous example of sciences repudiation of free will came in a French experiment in 2005 which showed that subjects only became conscious of their choices milliseconds after they had already made them. Similarly, Spinoza famously wrote, “If a rock was conscious, it would think it threw itself through the air.”
For Spinoza, whose ultimate goal was to discover how human beings can be happy, our goal should be to replace our “inadequate ideas” (partial, incorrect, emotionally loaded and distorted understandings) with “adequate ideas” (understandings which are accurate and take in the full causal complexity of the situation as much as possible). This complex understanding not only includes a grasp of all the relevant scientific facts but most importantly views all activities and events as unfolding relentlessly from the laws of Reality as the predetermined unfolding of the totality and logic of Gods being.
Spinoza argued that viewing things this way leads to two consequences. The first is peace. When we understand that things could not have been other than they are and are not the fault of either ourselves or our “enemies” or anyone else, we are freed from guilt, blame, anger, bitterness and a host of other draining and destructive emotions. What happens is coterminous with the realm of the possible- what happens is exactly what could possibly have happened. Reality is the possible. Or to put it more technically, the borders of reality are coterminous with the borders of the possible; what did not happen by definition could not have happened.
The second is that our shift moves from our emotional reactions toward understanding- if we want to change things, we need to increase the accuracy and complexity of our causal analysis, not merely rage against people, political parties, or anything else. Understanding the causality involved can empower us to effect real change when possible, as opposed to relegating us to a soap box or privately gnashing our teeth in the dark.
It is understanding alone which allows us to act more effectively and to encourage, educate and dialogue with others towards states of affairs which both advance our own interests (our human flourishing and well-being) and that of others (Spinoza:“the best thing for human beings is other human beings”).
To say that the view that everything that happens is predetermined and free will is an illusion faces popular hurdles would be an understatement. Without free will, sinners and criminals would not be worthy of blame, and any system of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or restraining them) would lose its rationale. Those of us who work hard and do right would not “deserve” our success. Although we might enjoy our accomplishments, they would not be a source of pride, and we would be unable to feel that others poverty or suffering was well deserved. Most people find these conclusions counter-intuitive or even abhorrent.
Yet this view of things might, ironically, actually increase our power to change and to change others. “A creative change of inputs to the system”, writes Sam Harris in his book Free Will, “learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention — may radically transform one’s life. Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can, paradoxically, allow for greater creative control over one’s life.”
Spinoza did not argue for fatalism or passivity. The idea that since everything is determined we should “not do anything” is based on an inadequate idea of how things work. We have no choice but to act and choose our actions as wisely as we can- according to our predetermined nature. It is impossible not to choose, as the Bhagavadgita argued centuries ago when discussing the same issue. We must choose, and deciding not to choose as well as we can would be a foolish choice. Rather what we must understand, after we have made our choice, is that in fact we could not have made a better one. This frees us from guilt and wasted energy on remorse and self-hatred.
Spinoza argues that the principal task of a human being is increasing their understanding, from which better action will follow. All Spinoza removes is the angst and with it several other rather unpleasant human emotions like anger, pride, self-loathing, and regret.
What Spinoza Accomplished
What did this quiet philosopher, this determinist, this “God-intoxicated man”, as the German romantic poet Novalis called him, accomplish? Did he tend his own garden and quietly let the world go by?
Hardly. In his quest to increase his own understanding Spinoza corresponded with the greatest minds available to him and wrote two firebomb treatises which reverberated throughout Europe and the world. The Ethics and the Treatise on Theology and Politics, both of which were banned and burned but nevertheless spread like wildfire through Europe’s underground publishing market, sparked the radical Dutch enlightenment which presaged the more moderate version associated with philosophes like Voltaire.
Spinoza is credited with creating the modern approach to Bible studies (he approached the Bible as a work of historical and mythological literature with no special claim to a divine source) helped inspire the birth of the democratic state and the embrace of liberty of speech, thought and conviction, and created a kind of free thinking, pantheistic, devotional scientism which inspired many thinkers, among them Albert Einstein.
Spinoza’s thought, so shockingly ahead of his time, tore a hole in the collective hypnosis of 17th century Europe, creating a wormhole of the imagination through which much of the Western world would ultimately follow him, knowingly or not.
Today Spinoza is more celebrated in Europe than North America. Whereas in the US his academic following is mostly Jewish and historical in nature (aside from some deep ecologists), in France and Italy he has been a major inspiration to celebrity philosophers like Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, and Etienne Balibar, all of whom have written books on his philosophy as a guide to emancipatory politics.
Raoul Martinez, in his 2016 “manifesto for thinking radicals”, Creating Freedom, is the latest to argue that the next step in our self-understanding is to move beyond the illusion of free will and its attendant blame game.
Raoul-Martinez argues that the evaporation of the myth of responsibility,when replaced with an understanding of how genetics, birth, nurture and culture shape who we are and what we do, actually leads to more empathy as well as the explosion of causal blind spots which lead some to blame the “losers” in our society for things outside of their control.
The shift of focus from the fantasia of free will to a real understanding of causality is not only comforting but empowering, argues Raoul-Martinez, as Spinoza did before him. Raoul-Martines argues that the more one fails to understand the ways that one is conditioned, the more one is enslaved to them. On a larger scale, the less one understands the sometimes hidden forces that shape our decision making and beliefs (and pertinently who sets those forces in motion and why) the less freely and democratically do we live. Paradoxically, on both a personal and political level understanding how we are determined is what sets us free.