Victor Nuovo on Spinoza: Being human

Editor’s note: This is the 14th in a series of essays about the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and his thoughts concerning nature, God and politics.
What does it mean to be human? Previous essays have given answers to this question or hinted at it. To be human is to be animal, a part of nature, mortal and perishable; it also means being a creature driven by desire, passionate in its pursuit of multiple satisfactions, deluded by fantasies and false hopes or afflicted with horrific visions that cause harm to oneself and to others.
Being human also means being intelligent, having a capability to discover one’s place in the nature of things, devising rules to direct one’s life, fashioning virtuous human characters to which to conform one’s life, and creating or discovering values that become the end or purpose of life: truth, beauty, happiness and justice; endowed with a capability to make promises and keep them, and to covenant with others to found and sustain societies that foster welfare and provide security and comfort for all of its members.
If we follow Lucretius and Spinoza, being human is in one respect not being anything special. All natural things are accidental, and that includes us, because we were fashioned for no purpose, but evolved consistent with the order of nature, which lacks any intelligent design.
Plato also did not think much of human nature, because it was material and animal. He separated intelligence from these changeable parts of nature and supposed intelligence and value to be eternal things, established in a transcendent realm, never changing, indifferent to whatever happens below — he was mistaken.
Plato, Lucretius and Spinoza are in agreement that the human species has no special place in the nature of things, no special destiny in universal history and certainly no dominant or central one — rather it is a passing moment in the history of nature. Being human, therefore, is not to be anything special; rather, it is to be a mere particular.
But, in our particularity resides our equality with others. Recall Darwin’s definition of a species: a species is a dominant variation; all natural things differ from each other in minute ways, but all coalesce in families and are identified by family resemblances; no two are alike, but some have likenesses to each other that enable us to classify them into species. The human species is a great family. That’s what it’s like to be human from a purely naturalistic standpoint.
But like ants and bees and sparrows, and many other species, we propagate and survive only by joining together in societies. And to do this well, Spinoza realized that it becomes necessary to fashion a model of being human, a social animal, unique in its particularity, but joined with others through reason and affection into certain types. Civil society, which is so necessary to peace and security, emerges out of this effort. But its basis, human equality, resides in nature.
I am reminded of the familiar line in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  I suspect that some of the framers and signers of our Declaration were Naturalists, that most of them had read Spinoza, and that all had heard of him and were familiar with his opinions. For them, the Creator was not a transcendent deity, but Nature itself.
To be human is to take yourself as you are in all your particularity. “I am that I am” becomes the primary assertion of our individual existence. If you are curious about the origin of this expression, go to the Exodus 3:14. This was God’s answer to Moses, when he asked about God’s name. It is an expression of pure individuality, of perfect uniqueness.
“I am that I am, I cannot be any other.” What is civil society but a union of particular individuals, who, professing equality, accept each other as they are, in their very particularity, acknowledging their differences, inclusive of all the variations: of gender identity, sexual preference, and the curious habits that make one individual different from another, in mutual respect cognizant of these differences, a perfect toleration of equals for each other. This pledge, this covenant is the only sure basis of a civil society, and where it is lacking, the possibility of violence and cruelty remain — these are not bestial vices; they are the consequences of a malformed society and a perverse social conscience.
So what is the model of humanity that Spinoza proposes? What is it to be human from a social standpoint? I’ve observed in a previous essay that Spinoza identified two general qualities: tenacity and nobility. Tenacity is the affirmation of life, implied in the declaration, “I am that I am.” A healthy society is one that accepts all individuals as they are, fosters them in their differences, and hence encourages an affirmation, acceptance, and above all a love of one’s own life.
A society whose values cause certain individuals to hate themselves is dysfunctional and sick. Nobility is the class of all those virtues that sustain living together: charity, including kindness to strangers and care for the afflicted, justice, a fair distribution of the wealth of a particular society, and toleration presiding over all. I think that’s enough material for us to begin to fashion in our minds that work of art which is the civil state, that whole which is the totality of its equal parts, inclusive of all, and therefore greater than any of them — the whole that is greater than its parts; if we make a good beginning, more of the same should follow, and true nobility will increase until it becomes the enduring form of our life together.

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