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.


    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.