Victor Nuovo: Spinoza: Our place in nature
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of essays on Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza.
In the previous essay, I described how Benedict Spinoza exalts Nature by equating it with God. In the same vein, he attributes to it the power of thinking. God or Nature is an infinite thinking thing. Nature is not only the sum of all things, but it is also the sum of all ideas of things brought together in what might be called Nature’s Idea. And this very Idea encompasses the whole of reality in thought, its ideas perfectly matching real things, or as Spinoza put it: “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.”
Nature is matter, or body, but it is also thought. As an aid to understanding what this means, I refer to the previous essay. There I introduced the analogy of Music as the totality of all musical things. Now suppose that Music is not only the sum of musical things, but also one grand Idea of Music comprehending the ideas of every musical event and artifact, and of all of them together in their manifold ways of being connected — call it omniscient Music.
Like Aristotle, Spinoza conceived of Nature as an eternal universe, and as an embodiment of thought, intelligible. And also like Aristotle, Spinoza regarded Nature’s Idea as the most exalted object of intellectual desire, yet unlike him, he conceived of Nature’s Idea, not as a beautiful abstraction, but as all-encompassing, the standard of all truth down to the smallest detail, the Whole Truth of all things as they are in themselves and as they are regarded or causally connected in a myriad of ways to each other. Nature’s Idea is neither selective nor judgmental. And in this grand Idea there is no special vantage point for any one of its species to be exalted over the rest. Nature does not play favorites.
Remember Hegel’s definition of truth: the Truth is a whole in the form of a system. The system reflected in Nature’s Idea is not a mere abstraction; rather it reflects the ordered disorder of the universe, and it excludes nothing.
And just how do we fit into this universe? Spinoza’s reply is as succinct as can be: “Homo cogitat,” that is, “Man thinks.”
He says this without fanfare, unlike most of his contemporaries, who went about declaring that this thinking capacity sets us humans apart from all other species, exalts us over them, justifies our dominion over them, and promises us a special destiny in this world and an even better place in a world to come.
To Spinoza, this is all delusion. His tone is satirical, and he makes clear that, notwithstanding our possession of this capacity, when compared to the whole of nature, we are of no moment: “from the order of Nature it can happen equally that this man or that man exists, or that he doesn’t exist.” It makes no difference who we are. Nature has no special purposes.
Now it is by thinking that we come to discover what Nature is and our true place in it and thereby are able to empower ourselves to act advantageously. Spinoza supposes that we, like all active creatures, plants and animals, seek our own advantage, and are by nature motivated by a desire to promote our individual welfare. But he also observes that we often misinterpret this natural motivation, so that, burdened by anxiety and overwhelmed by longing for we know not what, we seek refuge in seductive fantasies, as if reality could after all be Disney World.
“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you …”
Thinking may be a capability to discover truth, but it is no less a capacity to create images of desire, to dream longingly, to hope against hope, to believe anything.
Spinoza titled his major work “Ethics.” His purpose in writing it was to show us, once having discovered our true place in the world, how to conduct our lives in it. But the success of this great venture depended on overcoming our credulousness and rooting out false beliefs. So he begins with a natural history of human credulity.
Every human being enters the world ignorant of the natural causes of things, but also with a strong selfish desire to have things its own way, to seek its own advantage. Thus, from the very start, they act purposively, as does every animal. As they proceed on their way in life, they discover in themselves and all about them, many things that assist them in this endeavor — eyes to see with, fruit that appears “good for food” and “pleasant to the eyes” and hands to pick the fruit, and from all this they come to the conclusion that all these things were created for their use and their advantage. They imagine that the rulers of nature, or the gods, did all this for a reason: to oblige them out of gratitude to honor the gods, to worship them, so that the gods might continue to favor them above all others.
They even supposed that nature does nothing in vain, that everything has a purpose and that humankind is the beneficiary of this divine purpose, so long as they persist in honoring the gods. If untoward events occurred that seemed to contradict this faith, they attributed it to their own divine ignorance, for they assumed the ways of God surpass human understanding, which is a well-worn theological device to conceal ignorance.
Spinoza concludes, “This alone … would have caused the truth to be hidden from the human species to eternity, if mathematics, which is concerned not with ends, but only with essences and properties of figures, had not show men another standard of truth,” and by this he meant a standard of impartial truth, not deformed by our self indulgent fantasies.
He is speaking of his own time, of the new methods and discoveries that had revolutionized learning, especially with respect to nature. What the world had learned and was learning was that Nature had no purpose, that all of its operations were perfect in so far as they resulted according to laws of nature. On this foundation: Nature’s Idea, and on it only, could justice and true happiness be founded.