Spinoza and Humility before God

Humility tends to draw suspicious looks. If all it comes to is avoiding arrogance, then of course we’ll cheer it on. But anything more, and something unsavory can seem afoot. The humble concede, submit, and obey. We’re humble, yes, when absolutely necessary—to dot our moral i’s and cross our political t’s. But those who talk about making humility a fundamental life aspiration can seem as if they’ve gone too far: as if what they aspire to is groveling, and thus are on a path to self-destruction, resignation, or worse, to the betrayal of others out of slavish fear. Indeed, so much of our history has been spent trying to extract ourselves from under various boots that the aspiration to humility can thus seem positively reactionary: as if those who have it long for the ‘good old days’ when we were content to be trampled by oppressive power.

Such skepticism about humility as a positive value tends to make for a humility that’s reluctant. If an excess of humility walks us over a cliff, we must, then, only be humble with care, not letting our humility interfere with furthering our own interests, or standing in brave solidarity with others. Is the skeptic right, though? Is humility a dangerous proposition?

The idea that it is, it seems to me, comes from conceiving of it in a particular way. The humble, in one sense of the notion, are those with the knack for conceding to authority. We can call this anthropic humility. Since authority is primarily an interpersonal phenomenon, that is, such humility has to do with our lives among other people.

The skeptic’s worry concerns anthropic humility. To figure out the difference between any virtue and its corresponding vices, we must raise some particular question about human affairs. For example, to discern the difference between courage on the one hand, and recklessness or cowardice on the other; we must ask whether the ends for which we might endanger ourselves are really worth taking on the risk. The reckless are those who imperil themselves for ends that aren’t worth it, and the cowards are those who fail to do so for ends that are. Similarly, to discern the difference between anthropic humility and its correspondent vices—call them imperiousness and servility—we must ask whether an authority is legitimate. The servile are those who concede to authorities that aren’t, while the imperious are those who fail to concede to ones that are.

It’s the former possibility that worries the skeptic. Their concern, in other words, is that when we actively aspire to humility, we run the risk of hasty submission to the outward trappings of authority without sufficient justification for its legitimacy. To evoke such worries, we need only turn to the example of traditional Christianity, which views humility as one of the most important human aspirations, and—non-coincidentally, we might suspect—has a history rife with the authoritarian cultivation of servility in its followers.

However, anthropic humility isn’t the only sort of humility there is. At least, this is one lesson of Spinoza’s attempt to replace the image of God as universal sovereign with one of God as the universe itself. In the traditional image, God is portrayed on the model of a human king who issues decrees for us to obey, and who rewards obedience as well as punishes disobedience. Spinoza doesn’t reject the notion of divine law as many secularists would be happy to do. In its place, though, he offers a radical reinterpretation of the notion: most importantly, in ch.4 of his Theological-Political Treatise (TPT), entitled “On the divine law”.

In this chapter, Spinoza doesn’t contrast divine with human law by claiming that the source of the former lies in God rather than in us, as does the latter. After all, Spinoza is quite eager throughout the TPT to remind us that what comes from us thereby comes from God, the source of our being; and so, this dichotomy is false. The contrast, instead, lies in the fact that divine law isn’t the kind of law for which questions of obedience and authority arise at all. That is, it is law in the same sense that the laws of physics are. Divine law is simply the fundamental order of Nature—the structure of the world around us, which is God. This structure can be conceived, Spinoza claims, as the divine will, but only in the sense that the divine essence is the cause—the explanatory ground—of the fact that the world has this structure.

Thus, unlike decrees issued by human authorities, divine law can’t be disobeyed. In fact, although we talk about natural phenomena ‘obeying’ the laws of nature, this is, Spinoza thinks, simply a metaphor:

It seems to be only by a metaphor that the word law (lex) is applied to natural things. What is commonly meant by a law is a command which men may or may not follow, since a law constrains human powers within certain limits which they naturally exceed, and does not command anything beyond their scope. Law therefore seems to have to be defined more precisely as ‘a rule for living which a man prescribes to himself or others for some purpose.’

TPT, 58 (III/58)

How, though, can we square this with the God of the Bible, where God is clearly portrayed as a lawgiving sovereign? In TPT, as well as in his correspondence with Willem van Blyenbergh, Spinoza illustrates his view with reference to the story of the Garden of Eden—specifically, God’s declaration concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. First of all, he offers a reductio of the notion that Adam and Eve acted against God’s wishes in eating of the tree’s fruit. As we might put it in traditional terms, the notion that one could act contrary to God’s will contradicts God’s omnipotence.

If, for example, God said to Adam that he did not wish him to eat of ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’, it would entail a contradiction for Adam to be able to eat of it, and therefore it was impossible that Adam should eat of it; for that eternal decree must have contained an eternal necessity and truth.

Ibid, 62 (III/63)

What, then to make of God’s statement that “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (ESV)? Spinoza reads this, not as the expression of a command, but as a simple description of cause and effect:

Therefore the command given to Adam consisted solely in this, that God revealed to Adam that eating of that tree brought about death, in the same way that he also reveals to us through our natural understanding that poison is deadly. If you ask to what end he made this revelation, I answer that his purpose was to make Adam that much more perfect in knowledge.

Spinoza 2002, 810 (Letter 19)

Since the vicissitudes of cause and effect are part of the order of Nature, God’s admonition here is an expression of divine law, understood, though, not in the usual sense (a network of imperatives) but rather in Spinoza’s: as the web of causality—the explanatory relations that constitute the structure of Nature. It was only through a confusion, then, that Adam perceived God’s utterance as a command, and God as a sort of sovereign issuing it:

Adam perceived that revelation not as an eternal and necessary truth but rather as a ruling, that is, as a convention that gain or loss follows, not from the necessity and nature of the action done, but only from the pleasure and absolute command of the prince. Therefore that revelation was a law and God was a kind of legislator or prince exclusively with respect to Adam, and only because of the deficiency of his knowledge.

TPT, 62-3 (III/63)

In terms of traditional Christian theology, Spinoza’s view of divine law amounts to a radical re-interpretation of New Covenant Theology. That is, he picks out Christ as a transformative figure who replaces the old Mosaic conception of divine law with a new one. However, for Spinoza, Christ doesn’t replace Mosaic Law with a different commandment: the so-called Great Commandment directing us to cultivate love of God and of neighbor. Rather, Christ reveals a vision of divine law as law in a totally different sense from Mosaic Law: not as the decree of some supernatural authority, but rather the order of the world as a whole, of which we and everything we do are manifestations.

This might be taken to suggest that Spinoza has thereby drained divine law of its ethical significance, and, in particular, undermined the aspiration to humility before God. However, we will only be led to think so by conceiving of such matters according to the traditional Christianity conception. That is, on this conception, humility before God is anthropic in character: God is portrayed as the sovereign who commands all other sovereigns: whose authority to command us, in other words, is absolute, such that even the slightest disobedience of God’s decrees is arrogant.

However, Spinoza would decry this way of conceiving our proper relation to God as a mere superstition. Still, though, he doesn’t dismiss the aspiration to humility before God. Rather, his views suggest a different vision of what this could come to: that is, not as anthropic humility writ large, but humility in another sense altogether. As in many other cases, Spinoza here appropriates a traditional way of describing the ethical role of divine law, but radically reinterprets it. Divine law is that in light of which we must lead our lives if we’re to achieve our own highest good—the knowledge and love of God.

However, the sense in which we do so isn’t a matter of obeying the divine law. In the metaphorical sense in which anything obeys this law, we, like rocks, trees, galaxies, and everything else, can’t help but do so. Instead, Spinozian humility before God is what we might call a cosmic humility: living our lives in full recognition of such obedience—in other words, of our inescapable dependence on and vulnerability to the world around us. Whatever there is to speak for or against this form of humility, it isn’t subject to the above form of skepticism.

In a previous post, I mentioned Lewis Feuer’s condemnation of Spinoza’s views here. “A slave is a slave,” Feuer worries, “even if it is to God, not man, and a slave is a slave even if he is a metaphysical, rather than a political, one” (Feuer, 241). But this criticism, it should be clear, is based on a conflation of anthropic with cosmic humility. We aren’t enslaved to Nature in being manifestations of its structure. Nature gives us no commands to that we might choose to submit to or defy. To think that it does is borne of the same confusion that Spinoza attributes to Adam—a childish and futile longing to escape our embeddedness in the world.

Works cited

  • Feuer, Lewis Samuel. Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism, New York: Routledge, 2017.
  • Spinoza, Benedict de. Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
    • Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Michael L. Morgan. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002.

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