72 minutes | Jun 16, 2020

6. Nero, Oreste, Stalin, Trotsky

Spinoza is often thought of as the thinker who stated most strongly that might makes right. “By the right of Nature, then, I understand the laws or rules of Nature in accordance with which all things come to be; that is, the very power of Nature. So the natural right of Nature as a whole, and consequently the natural right of every individual, is coextensive with its power. Consequently, whatever each man does from the laws of his own nature, he does by the sovereign right of Nature, and he has as much right over Nature as his power extends” [Spinoza, Political Treatise, Collected Works p. 683). What the “might makes right” interpretation of Spinoza misses is that he doesn’t believe that we can know what exactly is possible in Nature, and that by our nature we seem to be constantly expanding that right. Spinoza doesn’t think that whatever human beings have done is right and shouldn’t be questioned. His point is rather that the action that the physical world presents us with, the arc of history, is something we only see a small part of, somewhere in the middle of it. Whatever a body can do consistent with its necessity is right, but we have no idea what all bodies can do or what is ultimately necessary for them. Whatever “the right” and “the good” are is still being striven for. Power and righteousness for Spinoza consist in humanity’s striving for a greater understanding of nature, that is for freedom. This freedom is the highest passion: it is the passion reason guides us to as we move towards a life we really want to live. The better we understand Nature, what is possible for us in it and how we want to act and exist, the closer our thinking is to the general historical act as it races on to completion in the thinking of god/nature. We’re really just repeating in a different language what we already covered in the previous discussion of Freedom, the problem of evil and WW1. What has been left out of that discussion up to now is what difference in our finite attitude or orientation is needed to progress towards that freedom. If whatever we try to do is finding its way to good, then how come it matters if we do one thing and not the other? Is just any kind of acting/living good because it's natural? Is there a good life, and a way to strive for it that is better than some other kind of living? We’re going to work towards an answer by returning to Spinoza’s discussion with Blyenburgh, and then we’re going to let this philosophical meditation on ‘the good’ inform a discussion of the Russian Revolution. For Spinoza, redemption is a matter of desire. The bad action is contrary to nature only in the sense that it displeases us. If a person can manage by circumstance or education to perceive their best interest then even grave sins should cause no regret since they worked for the greater good, or helped the repentant to better understand the good. Regret he thinks is bad for us in that it is a meditation on our limitations, something that cannot lead to us being better able to do what we think is good. Some people may be crippled by circumstance, i.e. they may be so impacted by circumstances that the good becomes unattainable, for most of us Spinoza thinks it's possible to make honest mistakes and then learn from them. The act itself is less important than the desires it enflames and is the result of. When we find ourselves captured by a passion or belief that does not serve our deeper intentions, then Spinoza says we are finding a deeper passion, the passion to not be constrained, the passion to be free. Crucially, this requires connected more strongly to the needs of the community that supports us. Here’s a quote from the Ethics: “If we can always have in readiness consideration of our true advantage and also of the good that follow from mutual friendship and social relations, and also remember that supreme contentment of spirit follows from the right way of life, and that men, like everything else, act from the necessity of their nature, then the wrong, or the hatred that is wont to arise from it, will occupy just a small part of our imagination and will easily be overcome… We ought, in the same way, to reflect on courage to banish fear; we should enumerate and often picture the everyday dangers of life, and how they can best be avoided and overcome by resourcefulness and strength of mind.” Spinoza, Ethics V, 10, Scholium p369 -Spinoza, Ethics, p363 So, when Spinoza says that might makes right, he is saying that our greatest freedom lies in building a community that lifts each of us up into being the best people we can be. Anyone who is thinking about Hobbes at this point can compare and contrast, because Hobbes on the contrary thought people were essentially animals and that a powerful state was needed to coral them. Spinoza’s claim, and I think he’s right, is that a conscience, an awareness that there is a right and wrong though the specifics may be murky, is part of human nature, part of what it means to be a person among people. Blyenburg may not have been able to understand Spinoza, or he may have chosen not to read his letters carefully. Whatever the cause, Blyenburgh accuses Spinoza of claiming that all people are animals, and not in a nice way. In this quote coming up, Spinoza claims that worship of God makes us better people, and what he means by that is that working to understand our world and place in it makes us a better person. For Spinoza God is the natural world. Notice how Spinoza is calling Blyenburgh in, trying to bring the other man back into a relationship of cooperation even as he sets some rigid barriers. He is using the language of God because that is the language that Blyenburgh understands: “I owe you many and sincere thanks for having confided in me in time your method of philosophising, but I do not thank you for attributing to me the sort of opinions you want to read into my letter. What grounds did my letter give you for attributing to me these opinions: that men are like beasts, that men die and perish after the manner of beasts, that our works are displeasing to God, and so forth?... For my part, surely I have clearly stated that the good worship of God, and by their constancy in worship they become more perfect, and that they love God. Is this to liken them to beasts?” (Spinoza L21, p.823)... If you had read my letter with more care, it would have been obvious to you that our point of disagreement lies in this alone: are the perfections received by the good imparted to them [mankind] by God in his capacity as God, that is, by God taken absolutely without ascribing any human attributes to him -- this is the view I hold -- or by God in his capacity as judge? The latter is what you maintain.” (823). Spinoza is saying that people are better, are more good and closer to their Nature, when they choose the good because it is good, rather than because they don’t they will be punished. The desire to do good is true when the heart wishes for the good, and false when the heart wishes the good not for its own sake but so as to avoid punishment. People who do the right thing out of fear of punishment will stop doing the good thing as soon as the credible threat of punishment is removed. He goes on to talk about how we are free to the extent that we affirm our actions, to the degree that our actions are intentional. I’m sure we can all think about some things we have done or from time to time still do that are not who we really want to be. The example I always give is eating Ice Cream. Most of the time I want to lose weight more often than I want to eat Ice Cream, but every now and then I’d rather have Ice Cream. Somewhere in all that its easy for me to lose sight of what food is about, which is to help me live a healthy life. Again Blyenburgh doesn’t understand, but the way he poses the question leads Spinoza on a particularly interesting path. Blyenburgh: “Let us now take for granted that God, as God and not as judge, bestows on the godly and the ungodly such and so much essence of will as he wills that they should exercise. What reasons can there be why God does not desire the actions of the one in the same way as the actions of the other?” (Spinoza, L22, p.829). Spinoza’s response gives us a clue about how the same physical action, taken with one of two different motivations, can lead a person towards the good or towards self destruction. The avatars for each tendency will be the classical figures from ancient Greece: Nero and his brother Oreste. It’s pretty typical of Spinoza in a case like this to try and engage his interlocutors' imagination. It’s as if Spinoza had to break up the tight limits in the other that constrained what was believable, what was possible. Beyond that limit is an encounter with the infinite, and that is where we find a greater freedom, though it means losing some idea we are safe with. Oreste and Nero are brothers. Oreste has been away at war with their father Agamemmnon. Nero stayed behind and ruled under the mentorship of their mother Clytemnestra. But Nero chafes under her control. When Agamemnon returns from the war, Clytemnestra kills him. The brothers then conspire to kill their mother Clytemnestra. Oreste does this out of a sense of responsibility to avenge his father’s death, and to cleanse his household of the taint of her incestuous relations with Nero. Nero wants Clytemnestra dead so he doesn’t have to put up with her domineering ways. One sees in Nero through the whole episode a confusion about what is in his best interests, a rejection of the natural order. Look, ancient Greece was a complicated place, and Spinoza isn’t trying to affirm the rightness or not of the Greek worldview, of its patriarchal values much less of the institution of Greek slavery. He’s telling a story to make a
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