Victor Nuovo on Spinoza: The in/sufficiency of nature
Editor’s note: This is the 16th and final in a series of essays about the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and his thoughts concerning nature, God and politics.
The ambiguity in the title of this essay requires an explanation, and I shall try to give one. My original intention was to call it “The Sufficiency of Nature.” Because it is the final piece of a series of essays about Plato, Lucretius, and Spinoza, that began appearing in this newspaper a year ago, I wanted to end with a statement that expresses what I had learned from writing them. My mind settled upon the affirmation of nature, that nature is the only reality, the cause of itself, that all things are natural however unnatural they may seem, that nature itself has no higher meaning or purpose than infinite fecundity, and that understanding nature affords us truth and consolation. This is the wisdom of Lucretius and Spinoza, and it seemed very wise to me.
However, something that I read in Spinoza led me to suspect that this was not quite right. Spinoza believed that in some respects human nature is incomplete, and therefore imperfect, which seems inconsistent with what I just wrote. Specifically, he did not believe that nature made us perfect social animals, rather he supposed that circumstances and bare necessity — the precariousness of our situation in life, our dependence on others whom we cannot always trust, not to mention our own fallibility and frailty, required that we socialize ourselves, and to that end fashion a model of being human, an image of perfection, of mankind as a social animal, an artificial creature, a fiction, appearing in the guise of a natural creature, or, better, a natural creature in artificial dress, with which we have clothed ourselves and contrived to enlist others also to wear to our mutual advantage. This makeshift costume of our souls and its accompanying fictitious countenance are instrumental to our survival as a species. Morality and civil society are the results.
It appeared that Spinoza was affirming a doctrine of human exceptionalism. This gave me pause. Surely he did not belong to that group of philosophers who suppose that mankind is an extraordinary part of nature, destined to transcend it. Unlike other creatures, who are ruled by physical necessity, these idealists suppose that we are free and rational and, hence, able at will to transcend our physical nature, that we are meant for a higher destiny. Spinoza was surely not one of these flatterers, even less was he in agreement with some Christian theologians who believe that everything is providential, who imagine that God deliberately left human nature unfinished as a sign of his special favor, of his promise of a special destiny that he foreordained from eternity for his elect. Nevertheless, Spinoza believed that, unlike other animals, human nature is not quite finished, morally and politically, and it remains to us to finish it. However, he saw in this nothing to celebrate, nor any reason to become puffed up by divine ambition.
In fact, Spinoza got the idea directly from Lucretius’ De rerum natura, or by reading Machiavelli, who was immersed in Lucretius. Lucretius also imagined that human nature was deficient, that civil society became necessary for human survival. Human nature had grown soft from domesticity, from living in shelters, seeking comfort by the fire, and clothing itself in skins. The so-called great adventure of civilization began under penurious circumstances. It had humble beginnings, motivated by selfishness, by uncertainty, fear and hope, which in time was inflated by ambition beyond all boundaries.
Lucretius wrote his poem to counteract this vain desire for power and glory. Like Epicurus he advocated a retreat from an active political life and grand ambition; he rejected Roman opulence, counseled a life in retirement, a humble existence; fire, shelter, and clothing for our bodies should be enough for contentment. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) followed Lucretius in much of this, but he took a darker and grander view of politics. He recognized that civil society was as necessary as fire and shelter if our species were to survive. Human nature is selfish, and therefore in any aggregate of our species there is sure to be envy, jealousy, suspicion, and conflict. Anticipating Hobbes, he imagined human life in a state of nature as a chronic state of war of all against all. Only a domineering sovereign power could achieve peace and security and make it last. But, Machiavelli was also a precursor of nationalism. He was a patriot; he desired great and glorious things for his homeland, the Florentine republic, and he did not worry a lot about the means to achieve it.
Spinoza agreed with Machiavelli about the necessity of civil society; he also sided with Machiavelli’s moral pessimism and political realism. He observed that “men are led more by blind desire that by reason” and “by whatever appetite determines them to act and to strive to preserve themselves.” Like Machiavelli, Spinoza believed that politics was an art that must be based on human nature, not as idealists might imagine it to be, but as experience teaches us it really and truly is. Seasoned politicians, so far as they can be trusted, are its best teachers. “Experience has taught them that as long as there are men, there will be vices.” They were realists, governed by practical sense, pragmatists, unmoved by sentiments of patriotic gore and glory. But there’s the rub.
For all political life, its policies and institutions, its chronic chauvinism, fall within the scope of nature, inasmuch as they are products of natural powers residing in human beings. But the scope of the imagination reaches beyond the limits of nature, which is evident in our irrepressible longing for a supreme destiny, our obsession with greatness, our imperial stance, our religious fantasies, our longing for perfection, and the justifications we give to excuse our cruelty, exploitation of others, and our extreme wastefulness. Civilization may have brought us domestic security and created wonders to capture our interest, and great art, but it has also created chronic conditions of political conflict, poverty, crime, war, global warming, earthquake, wind, and fire. Regarded naturalistically, we are an invasive species exceeding all others, driven by vain fantasies of power and pride in our ingenuity, blind believers in unlimited progress, creators of massive suffering, destructive determinants of our inevitable fate. Nature is not sufficient for our pursuits of greatness and our vain exceptionalism. However, in the end, it should be clear that nature will remain, with or without us, sufficient to itself. Is there any consolation in this? Please read the previous essay.
Postscript: For a very engaging introduction to Machiavelli and his influence see Maurizio Viroli, “Machiavelli’s Smile, published by Princeton University Press, in paperback. Spinoza’s “Political Treatise, which he left unfinished, is available in paperback edition, published by Hackett. It is quite readable both for its clarity and relevance. Visit your local bookseller.
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