Spinoza, Nietzsche and Living in a Material World

Charlie Huenemann, a philosophy professor at Utah State, was interviewed in April by Richard Marshall for Marshall’s “End Times” series. It’s a good interview, and I especially liked the way Huenemann compared the philosophies of Spinoza and Nietzsche.

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    Baruch and Friedrich

[CH] I think of Spinoza as a radical religious reformer. I think he was trying to say this: “There is a single entity whose nature determines the structure and existence of the universe, and that entity is the thing that people have been calling “God” for many centuries. But they got the metaphysics (or theology) very wrong, and now we’re in a position to figure out what this divine thing really is, and to see how the writers of scriptures managed to get the basic moral of the story right, while getting all the metaphysical stuff wrong. And by the way, if you understand what I’m saying, you’ll see that there’s no harm in allowing philosophers to write about such things.”

It’s surprising how explicit Spinoza is about all this in his Theological-Political Treatise. He basically says just what I said, though with greater care, and elegant Latin. And saying that was hugely radical for his day. The hypothesis that it was somehow a cloak meant to disguise a view that was even more unthinkable seems to me very unlikely. If that’s what he was up to, then he was an idiot, or at least completely out of touch with his audience. The book he wrote was seen immediately as about the most heretical thing a person could write. So it’s implausible to suspect that he was pulling any punches.

[RM] You say you pit a Spinoza naturalism against a Nietzsche naturalism. Can you sketch for us the salient elements that form this contrast and what it tells us about contemporary attitudes towards naturalism . . . ?

[CH] I should say at the outset that I myself don’t feel like I have a dog in this fight. I suspect the naturalism I would describe as Nietzschean is probably true, and that it’s sort of disappointing, and Spinoza’s naturalism is far groovier, but implausible. . . I can’t blame someone for going in with Spinoza: it’s profoundly moving to see the whole of nature as divine. On the other hand, if someone throws in with Nietzsche, they should be fully aware of all they are repudiating. In distinguishing the two kinds of naturalism, I mainly want to direct readers’ attention to the “meaning of life” consequences of these ways of being a naturalist.

Anyway, on to the distinction. Spinoza sees the universe as divine in some important sense. There is an essence to it that lives and breathes in all of its parts. We can come to know that essence through rational demonstration, but he also leaves room for a more immediate and somewhat mystical access to that essence. In his naturalism, humans are part of nature in a way that might best be called “belonging”: we share an essence with all natural things, and in virtue of sharing that essence we can come to know our universal union with all things and attain a special kind of joy in contemplating it. It’s in that sense that I’d call Spinoza’s nature a sanctuary. It’s a sanctuary from despair, alienation, and disconnection – which, incidentally, must have been significant forces in Spinoza’s own life. To be a Spinozist is to see all things, including oneself, as an expression of divinity.

But Nietzsche’s naturalism is quite different. Here I need to be careful, because I think Nietzsche isn’t perfectly consistent over his writings, and sometimes (especially when Zarathustra is speaking) nature is every bit as holy and mystical as anything found in Spinoza. But in other moods, Nietzsche seeks to establish a naturalism that is more like our modern-day naturalism, which is fundamentally a denial of any special features of the universe that might make us feel more at home. The universe itself is a product of chance; that life evolves in some parts of it is entirely accidental; humans are pushed and pulled by all sorts of blind, non-teleological [i.e. non-purposeful] forces. Nothing is inherently significant, and that certainly includes us. Clearly Spinoza agrees with some elements of this (such as denying teleology and any special human significance), but somehow Spinoza manages, at least by the end of the Ethics, to restore a sense of natural divinity and belonging.

In the parts of Nietzsche’s philosophy that might be called “nay-sayings”, any sense of belonging is obliterated as merely wishful thinking. We stand at the edge of an uncaring abyss, which is oblivion, death, and meaninglessness. This is followed by Nietzsche’s “yea-saying” part, in which we take it upon ourselves to create meaning, etc. But that challenging, never-ending project of “becoming who you are” makes sense only against a backdrop of an utterly uncaring natural world. To put the distinction into a tidy formula, Spinoza thinks we need to sync ourselves with nature, while Nietzsche thinks we need to weaponize it in the war we wage against meaninglessness. (That strikes me immediately as too tidy, but on the other hand I kind of like how it sounds, so I’ll stick with it!)

Because of their similarities, Nietzsche was enthusiastic about Spinoza early on, but I think he eventually saw Spinoza as illegitimately allowing himself a refuge under the banner of “reason”. If Spinoza had sought true authenticity, he would have torn that banner down and faced down the irrational, chaotic indifference Nietzsche saw in the natural order. (This indifference of the world was an important element in Nietzsche’s own life, too.) It’s the will to power we are dealing with, according to Nietzsche, not the reason for all being.

So, if we want to be naturalists, we might ask ourselves just what it means to be purely natural beings. Is it to be inconsequential by-products of an meaningless process of generation and destruction? Or do we somehow attain an important kind of peace (or even salvation, in some sense) by coming to understand our place in nature? The people who popularize science tend to suggest something uplifting like the second view: human glory consists in coming to understand the vast cosmos, etc. Few people allow the first view any air time, except maybe dystopian sci-fi authors. I realize it’s no fun to mope about in existential despair, and it’s pointless to be pointless. Still, the real character of Nietzschean naturalism . . . needs to be seen clearly for what it is, and we’re guilty of false consciousness when we pretend that anything of alleged intrinsic value survives it.

[LF] With all this in mind, is there any doubt that Spinoza, Nietzsche, Huenemann and Marshall would agree that the current American president is a disaster and we should vote him and every other Republican out of office in November?

No, there isn’t any doubt. If you’re willing and able to support Democratic candidates in addition to voting for them, please consider doing so.

Religion and I (Continued)

Somewhere along the way, I got interested in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, the great rationalist thinker of the 17th century. Spinoza argued that “God” and “Nature” are two names for the same thing. That one thing is the universe as a whole. It’s the only thing that truly exists. Everything else (atoms, thoughts, you, me) is a mode or modification of that one infinite substance, God or Nature (Deus sive Natura).

Reading Spinoza made me try to think about the universe (the whole of nature) in a religious sense, as a sacred thing, a worthy object of worship. Obviously, there have been nature religions since prehistoric times. But the idea didn’t work for me. The universe is totally amazing and the Earth is our treasured home, but I never got close to thinking of nature in religious terms.

Neither of us being drawn to any of the standard religions, my wife and I began attending a local chapter of what’s often called the Ethical Culture Society. That was in the 1980s. The organization’s actual name is the American Ethical Union. It was founded in New York City in 1877 by a former rabbinical student named Felix Adler. Here’s an explanatory paragraph from their site:

Ethical Humanism, also called Ethical Culture, is an evolving body of ideas that inspires Ethical Societies. Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity (Humanist Manifesto III). For Ethical Humanists, the ultimate religious questions are not about the existence of gods or an afterlife, but rather, “How can we create meaningfulness in this life?” and “How should we treat each other?”

We didn’t stay in the neighborhood long enough to become serious followers of Ethical Culture, but some years later, in the 1990s, we began attending our local Unitarian Church. We both felt at home there. The minister was a scholarly man and an excellent speaker. He also doubted that Jesus was a real person, let alone the son of any god. Like the American Ethical Union, the Unitarian Universalist Association welcomes those who believe in God and those who don’t, because its principal focus is on ethical behavior. From the UUA site and the organization’s bylaws:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person; 
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; 
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

… Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The high point of my time as a church-attending Unitarian was ten years ago. The church offered a class called “Building Your Own Theology” (the perfect title for Unitarian adult education). The culmination of the class was supposed to be a personal statement from each of us regarding our fundamental beliefs, which we could then present to the congregation as part of a regular service. I think only two of us chose to address the congregation. The minister helped me with some editing, I put my blue suit on and one Sunday morning I gave it a go. It made me happy that it was well-received.

Here’s some of the conclusion (rearranged a little – consider it a theology that’s still being built):

Is there anything sacred, anything I might revere instead of God? The answer is yes: personal ideals like rationality, curiosity and courage; ethical ideals like generosity, honesty and kindness; and political ideals like justice and democracy. Our ideals and actions, insofar as they exemplify our ideals, can be sacred.

My view is that, if a god existed, it would be a middle-man between us and what is truly sacred, the ideals we hold dear.

I fell away from the church as the years passed. I didn’t feel like I was getting much out of it anymore, especially after my favorite minister retired. But I still love some of the jokes:

Q: How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

Q: Why can’t UUs sing very well in choirs?
A: Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse.

The children in a UU church school class were drawing pictures. The teacher asked one, “What are you drawing a picture of?”
“I’m drawing a picture of God,” was the reply.
“But nobody knows what God looks like,” objected the teacher.
“They will,” said the child, “in a minute.”

And, finally, from the comedian Lenny Bruce: “I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad they burn a question mark on my front lawn.”

Again, almost certainly next time: I found a label for what I believe, and have begun reading the New Testament in a way I never thought of before.