Among Spinoza’s many notorious views is his necessitarianism: the view that everything that happens happens necessarily. Clearly, the view flies in the face of how we usually think. The coin comes up heads, we’re late for that appointment, we brake just in time to avoid the speeding car, and we think things might have gone some other way: it might have come up heads, we might have made the bus, we could easily have been t-boned and killed. Not so, though, Spinoza argues: nothing whatsoever could have been otherwise than it is.
Of course, most will reject this idea out of hand. And, the reasons for doing so are likely to run deeper than any commitment to abstract metaphysical doctrines, or even to simple common sense. The notion that all things that are are necessarily so doesn’t merely contradict many of our common beliefs. More than this, it can seem downright horrific. That is, a world in which all things are necessary can easily seem like one in which we’re utterly helpless, unable to make a difference: simply buffeted around by forces that are utterly indifferent to our efforts.
At this point, though, Spinoza will object. To put his point in anachronistic terms, such reflexive horror presupposes a libertarian view of freedom. As this term is used in contemporary philosophical parlance, it has nothing to do with its more common political meaning. Rather, it refers to the notion that in order for me to have done something freely, it must have been possible for me to do otherwise. And, Spinoza thinks this view of freedom is wrong. So to speak, our agency consists, not in doing what might have been otherwise, but rather in the necessities of Nature bringing something about through us—in his terms, in such a way as to be explained more through our own essence than through the essences of other things. Thus, a necessitarian world isn’t one in which we’re helpless at all.
However, all of this can easily strike one as mere intellectual parlor games. Very few philosophers —let alone laypersons—these days are likely to take necessitarianism seriously. Thus, while Spinoza’s criticisms of libertarian views of freedom might be of interest to some philosophers—since, that is, whether freedom is libertarian is a live issue in contemporary philosophy—the view in defense of which Spinoza raises them might seem like a mere historical curiosity.
I would like to shift focus, though, to a different element of Spinoza’s views on these matters—one that can to some extent be prised apart both from his views about freedom, and from his necessitarianism itself. That is, Spinoza doesn’t merely argue that horror at a necessitarian world is grounded in mistaken presuppositions about freedom. More than this, as he so often does, he considers what many of us would find to be nightmarish, and argues that, when properly understood, it is, quite the contrary, the source of the profoundest joys.
The key passage here is Ethics Vp6, where he argues that “insofar as the mind understands all things as necessary, it has a greater power over the affects, or is less acted on by them.” Later in part V, it becomes clear that by achieving the highest such kind of understanding (which he calls intuition), we can enjoy a special kind of joy, which he calls, using traditional religious language, beatitude. Before we get there, though, here in p6 he says a bit more about what he has in mind:
For we see that sadness over some good which has perished is lessened as soon as the man who has lost it realizes that this good could not, in any way, have been kept. Similarly, we see that no one pities infants because of their inability to speak, to walk, or to reason, or because they live so many years, as it were, unconscious of themselves.Ethics Vp6s
What leads us to sadness over goods we long for but haven’t enjoyed is, he thinks, nothing more than confusion—the confusion that other ways for the world to be are possible:
But if most people were born grown up, and only one or two were born infants, then everyone would pity the infants, because they would regard infancy itself, not as a natural and necessary thing, but as a vice of nature, or a sinIbid
In other words, if we were to see the absence of any goods from our lives as in the strongest sense unavoidable, we’d be freed from the burden of such sadness. Those goods, we would know, were never in the cards, and this knowledge would empower us to cast off the suffering that has come from our knowledge of having been deprived of them.
In his essay “The Two Eyes of Spinoza” Leszek Kolakowski summarizes what he takes to be the spirit of Spinoza’s view. When we acknowledge the necessity of all things,
we can attain the position of disinterested observers, untouched by human passions, indifferent to quarrels, despair, suffering or injury, able to contemplate them with the same dispassionate equanimity that characterizes the chains of our logical reasoning about abstract geometry. The effort required to achieve this state will have been well worth it: no more absurd regrets, grudges against the world, railings against fate that it has not treated us as we think we deserve; no more bitterness at failure and thwarted ambition; no more outrage at human wickedness or horror at the sight of evil; no more vain and fruitless pity. All this we shall rise above, to enjoy the happy certainty that we are part of an infinite whole, with whose timeless, eternal existence we can to some extent identify, since we have grasped it. We shall no longer be afraid of death, oblivion or damnation, for in a world whose necessity we truly love we shall see death as an inevitable part of a perfectly coherent wholep.7
Now, in some ways Kolakowski’s diagnosis accords with what has by now become an oft-repeated bit of folk wisdom—an idea one finds in pop psychology, self-help manuals, and on the lips of many laypeople during difficult times. Its most famous statement is perhaps Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, especially as it’s been popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The kind of serenity many have taken to be suggested here is that of acceptance. The thought seems to be something like this. When we accept what is past, we free ourselves of those torments that come from regret and resentment. When we accept the present, we face what is, for better or worse, really there before us, without flinching away and losing ourselves behind a veil of fantasies of what might have been, or being drawn away from the present moment by anger, despair, or self-recrimination. And, when we face the future with acceptance, we make peace with the prospect of failure in our efforts. We think to ourselves that what will be will be, ready to forgive ourselves and others of the many ways in which human powers are finite—often, that is, simply not sufficient to allow for the achievement of those things for which we strive.
If Niebuhrian serenity of this sort were all Spinoza has in mind, this would, for many, be a reason to find his view appealing. However, it would be hasty to interpret his view in this way.
First, when people talk about ridding themselves of regrets and resentments, they typically mean those that are unreasonable. Thus, they have in mind that there’s a contrast to be made between unreasonable regrets and resentments on the one hand, and reasonable ones on the other. For example, most people will think that someone who fails to feel guilt at having done things that are genuinely wrong has veered off from Nieburhian serenity and has instead become a sociopath. And, someone who fails to feel indignation at others who’ve done them or others wrong them doesn’t enjoy an enviable form of individual contentment, but is, instead, merely a doormat, or blind to injustice. Of course, guilt and indignation can become counter-productive: they can, for example, consume us to the point of needless suffering, or even make us helpless to transform ourselves and the world to avoid future wrongs—the grudges, bitterness, and self-pity that Kolakowski mentions. Nevertheless, such feelings have their proper place in human life. Niebuhr’s prayer, understood as I think most people do, proposes that we give them that proper place. In other words, it expresses an ethos of moderation rather than elimination.
However, if, in Spinoza, the recognition of what cannot have been avoided calms regret and resentment, then it calms all responses of those kinds. And this is because, on his view, nothing that has happened in the past could have been avoided.
Similar considerations bear upon our attitudes toward the present and the future. That is, acceptance of what is present can, when universalized, seem to veer off into complacence, as well as cold indifference to moral wrongs and to our own flaws. And, unbridled acceptance of what is to come can seem to veer off into dark fatalism. But this is what Spinoza seems to be offering us—at least, on Kolakowski’s view. Niebuhrian serenity is, at its most plausible, a corrective to the suffering that comes from an attitude toward the world in which we’re tormented by the past, unable to face the present, and, to quote the famous lines of Dylan Thomas, in which we “rage, rage against the dying of the light” to the point of despair as we face the future. But Spinoza seems to Kolakowski to go further—much too far, in fact. His philosophy here is a that of a ‘resigned mystic’:
…the philosophy of a mystic who has clothed his personal mysticism in Cartesian concepts and categories. An escapist philosophy; a theory of freedom attained through the spiritual denial of the finite order of the world.p.8
For, Kolakowski asks just before this:
[w]ho else could find joy in the boundless indifference of the absolute world, a source of happiness in loving with an unreciprocated love, a cause for rejoicing in an order of things that destroys us as inevitably as the wind shakes the leaves off trees, eternally imposing its irresistible force on our frail powers?pp.7-8.
Now, first of all, what we have here is an ethical objection against Spinoza’s view. That is, it isn’t a metaphysical one mounted in defense of the reality of counterfactual possibilities. In fact, Spinoza’s necessitarianism is only the objection’s target indirectly. Kolakowski’s worry is more directly about the ethos he thinks Spinoza is suggesting: that it’s an ethos of resignation—a kind of cold indifference that only a privileged few with great intellectual powers (and, we might add, the material luxury for armchair philosophical reflection) can even hope to attain.
Because of this, the problem doesn’t depend on necessitarianism. One could, that is, adopt the Spinozistic ethos without embracing that view. As Kolakowski seems to detect, the key idea here is that we take joy in a world that ‘imposes its irresistable force on our frail powers’, and one doesn’t have to think of such a world in necessitarian terms. All that’s required is an acknowledgment of the fact that we are beings who posses fragile, incredibly limited powers to understand and affect the world—powers that, in turn, are only ever granted to us in the proportion that we have them by forces of Nature over which we have no power at all. Spinoza would have us find joy and contentment in this fact, and in doing so, by Kolakowski’s lights, proposes an ethos of complete resignation.
Is Kolakowski right? I’ve spent some time dwelling on his charges against Spinoza because I think he puts his finger on a crucial theme in the latter’s thought. For someone like me, who wants to defend Spinozian religion, this theme is crucial indeed, since striving for what Spinoza calls beatitude is, for him, the core of an authentically religious life. Here, then, I’ve tried to articulate one important angle of attack against Spinozian religion.
- Kolakowski, Leszek. “The Two Eyes of Spinoza” from The Two Eyes of Spinoza & Other Essays on Philosophers, trans. Agnieszka Kolakowska and Frederic Fransen, e.d. Zbigniew Janowski. United States: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004, pp.1-15.
- Spinoza, Benedict de. Ethics, from Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Michael L. Morgan. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002.