Nuovo on Spinoza: On inventing morality
Editor’s note: This is the 12th in a series of essays about the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677) and his thoughts concerning Nature, God and Politics.
In the book of Genesis, chapter one, it is written that God created all animals each according to its kind, and having done so, declared it good. Aristotle concurred; at least so far as it pertained to the nature of things — for he did not believe in the divine creation of the world. He supposed that there were fixed species in nature to which every particular thing conformed, and these fixed kinds were standards of perfection. Every member of a species was from its origin fitted out with a “substantial form” that did not vary from individual to individual member of the species; any departure from this formula was imperfect. This became orthodoxy, literally, the right way to regard things.
Darwin overturned this orthodoxy. He showed that there were no fixed kinds of things in the nature of things, rather there are only “dominant varieties” that emerged in the experimental course of evolution; he attached no value to them; even within a family, he observed, there are variations, one as good as the other. Indeed, every individual is unique and develops according to its particular pattern. This view of the nature of things, which is, or at least, should be our modern orthodoxy, was anticipated in Greek antiquity; Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius advanced it. So did Spinoza.
The Preface to Part Four of the Ethics, which he entitled, “Of Human Bondage,” contains a thorough refutation of the old orthodoxy. It is very well worth reading. Spinoza begins by reflecting on what it is for anything to be perfect. He observes that word “perfect” has two meanings, one primary, the other secondary. The primary meaning signifies that a thing is perfect when it is completely developed, mature, or ripe. The secondary sense relates to a thing’s conformity to some external standard: the more it conforms the more perfect it is; things that fail to conform are imperfect.
Now, apropos to the first meaning, it should be obvious to any careful observer of natural things, that no two of them are exactly alike even though they may be very similar. Each is perfect in itself. It is not the case that if you’ve seen one oak tree or one robin, or a caterpillar or a beetle, you’ve seen them all; rather, every individual is perfect in its own way and always warrants a closer look, which is, of course, just what Darwin did; it was the key to his great discovery. This applies also to artificial things also like houses, for the materials and processes of production vary enough that with however much care things are made to conform to a model, they vary ever so slightly, because however well crafted, they are still natural things.
Nevertheless, Spinoza observes, we humans have a tendency to suppose that there is or should be a model or perfect standard for things. A perfect house is one that meets the needs of a typical family in a most efficient way, or is supposed to satisfy a certain ideal of domestic life. But the model or ideal is nothing more than a codification of human desire; it is the sort of thing one finds in a sales pitch, the creation of marketers who rely on mass production.
Nature employs no models. But we fashion them and use them all the time to create objects of desire. They feed our passions, and are instruments of human bondage. Remember that we are creatures of desire; we love things that benefit us, and hate those that cause us harm; we tend to idealize the one, and demonize the other, and to fantasize about them both; we regard the former as good, and the latter as evil; we hope for good, and fear evil; our minds abound in images or models of the one or the other; none of them are true; yet we love our illusions, even illusions of things we love to hate.
This truth, that Nature employs no models, is a handy antidote to our illusions and our bondage to them, if it is carefully considered and accepted not as a dogma, but as an ordinary truth about things that any keen observer of things can verify. In this role, it functions as a principle of morality pertaining to human equality. We are all equal, not because we are the same, but because we are every of us unique creatures that each in its own way struggles to persist in being. In the nature of things, then, there is no such thing as moral privilege, no privilege of race or ethnicity or gender identity, no native aristocracy. The only laws that bind us are laws of Nature, and Nature has no favorites. True equality requires accepting each other as we are, without prejudice. On this basis, it can be said that Nature created us equal, and endowed us with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, to be realized by each of us in our own way.
Still Spinoza asks, would it not be convenient if all of us human animals could agree on an ideal or model of human nature to which we would conform our lives? Wouldn’t it be beneficial equally to us all in our common endeavor to achieve these goals, for in our natural state, we are likely to become competitors without certainty about who will prevail, and we can be sure, no one will prevail all the time? What sort of model might this be? For him, it is a rational life, or a life governed by reason, and adorned with an assortment of virtues. Two of them deserve special notice: tenacity and nobility.
Tenacity is the steadfast pursuit of life, and in this endeavor, life and liberty are joined. A life of reason, is free, unburdened by debilitating passions, prudent: wisely choosing opportunities that enrich life, increasing knowledge, facing danger, exercising caution yet unflinching, and with a cunning to overcome them, refining sensibilities so that nothing wonderful in nature and art might go unnoticed, entering into intimate relationships with like minded companions, opening our minds to each other, becoming friends, each seeking what is best for the other, caring for another’s life as much or more than one’s own; in short, a free life is full and fulfilling and never lonely. At the root of all this is a philosophical striving, a meditation on life. “A free man thinks of nothing less, than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not of death.” Spinoza’s words are a repudiation of Socrates, who imagined that death is good, for it may be the threshold of something better; that philosophy is a meditation on death.
Nobility, a virtue that Epicurus extolled, is a civic virtue or a multitude of them. It includes all the perfections of mind and body that foster living together in society, such as gentleness, generosity, gentility, gracefulness, friendliness, taking pleasure in the good fortune of another, justice, and mercy. And because there is strength in numbers, when all are committed to a common good, nobility enhances an individual’s capability to endure in life. Nobility is properly regarded as a civic virtue, because it presupposes a civil society, on which Spinoza believed the very idea as well as the practice of virtue depends.