Enlightenment Ideology

Note 11: Spinoza: Ethics. 9/9/99.

As noted elsewhere, and in every way possible, a central feature of Eurocentric creationist ideology is the notion that one thing must be superior to another, and that the inferior member of the first pair must in turn be superior to some other lesser being or thing over which it also must exercise dominion. This system of thought creates and arranges everything in an endless chain of hierarchical structure that stratifies virtually the whole of all perceivable and conceivable reality. Spinoza, in Part II of his Ethics (Corollary to Proposition 11), argues that

"the human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God; thus when we say, that the human mind perceives this or that, we make the assertion, that God has this or that idea, not in so far as he is infinite, but in so far as he is displayed through the nature of the human mind, or in so far as he constitutes the essence of the human mind; and when we say that God has this or that idea, not only in so far as he constitutes the essence of the human mind, but also in so far as he, simultaneously with the human mind, has the further idea of another thing, we assert that the human mind perceives a thing in part or inadequately."

In this statement, of course, the idea of creationism finds its clearest expression in the notion that the "infinite intellect of God," which always already places It on a higher plane than finite human intellect can ever hope to achieve, "constitutes the essence of the human mind" by virtue of the fact that the inferior member of the pair (human intellect) is contained in, and is created or determined by, the superior and higher form of the same thing (God's intellect). Spinoza makes it perfectly clear that God's mind is superior to the human version of intellect by noting that "the human mind perceives a thing in part or inadequately," while God perceives it in whole and perfectly.

The concept of perfection in Spinoza's thought assumes a position of primary importance in his argument for the existence of God. In Part 1, Proposition 11, for instance, Spinoza argues that "the perfection of a thing does not annul its existence, but, on the contrary, asserts it." The idea that the perfection of a thing asserts it existence is contrasted to the opposite point that a thing's imperfection tends to "annul" its existence. A weakness in this argument concerns the fact that a thing which is perceived as existing, even if it has an obvious flaw or imperfection in its constitution, must be granted, in one sense or another, the quality of perfection, since its existence would be nullified if it were perceived as having a flaw or an imperfection. Spinoza connects this concept to the existence of God in these terms:

"we cannot be more certain of the existence of anything, than of the existence of a being absolutely infinite or perfect--that is, of God. For inasmuch as his essence excludes all imperfection, and involves absolute perfection, all cause for doubt concerning his existence is done away, and the utmost certainty on the question is given."

As noted earlier, of course, since the human intellect is capable of perceiving things, including God, only "in part or inadequately," any definition or conceptualization of God's infinite or perfect being is necessarily always going to fall short of the perception that God has of Himself. That human intellect can approach a realization of God as infinite and perfect at all depends on the fact that it is capable of displaying God "through the nature of the human mind." In other words, since we can think "infinite" and "perfect," even if we cannot fully grasp what either of those things actually are, we can be certain that they exist because there can be no "cause for doubt" about the existence of God, whose essence embodies both absolute infinity and absolute perfection.

In the Appendix to the first part of his Ethics, Spinoza addresses the problem of why God did not create all men (and presumably women also) with equal capacities for the use of reason. This question arises, of course, out of Spinoza's assertion that there can be no flaw or imperfection in anything that exists and, since men (or women) who do not use proper reason might be considered by some to be flawed creatures of God's creative activity, there must be an acceptable way to account for people who do not seem to occupy the same hierarchical level that the ones who use proper reason do. In answer to the question, Spinoza says that

"because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or, more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence."

Spinoza suggests here that brute "matter" itself, before God fashioned any of it into anything at all, already existed in a state of hierarchical order, "from highest to lowest," as it were, and that, by using it to create everything that exists, God simply mixed and matched the substance that constitutes reason in different proportions according to whether the person thus fashioned was destined to use reason more or less in the conduct of his/her life. This sort of argument seems to predispose Spinoza to arguing that some people, those who receive more of the essence or substance of reason, as opposed to those who receive less, are better, more prone to the good, than are the ones who receive less. While that kind of argument is standard fare for most Christian perceptions of hierarchy, leading to the notion that some people are naturally better than others, as we have seen in the writing of several early church Fathers, Spinoza rejects this perception on the ground that previous thinkers, none of whom he specifically identifies, have suffered from misperceptions about the nature of God and creature alike. He uses most of the Appendix to outline the substance of this argument.

He begins by asserting that men (and presumably women also) are driven to discover in nature those things which are useful to them in their pursuit of life. He says that "they find in themselves and outside themselves many means which assist them not a little in their search for what is useful." Making a short list of such "means," Spinoza makes note of "eyes for seeing, teeth for chewing, herbs and animals for yielding food, the sun for giving light, the sea for breeding fish." Since people have always had, and made use of, the means of producing and sustaining life, they have collectively, and mostly without exception, "come to look on the whole of nature as a means for obtaining such conveniences." He goes on to assert that because (wo)man has always known that such "conveniences" are things found in nature and not made by her/his own effort, the belief arose that "some other being," "some ruler or rulers of the universe" created these things specifically for human use.

Spinoza next asserts that because (wo)men did not have any information on the true nature of the "rulers" of the universe they were forced to define them in terms consistent with "their own nature." At this point in his discourse, Spinoza begins to articulate an explanation for the appearance of religious belief among men that probably establishes the ground upon which nineteenth century philosophers and theorists mostly depend for their rationalistic views of that phenomenon. He argues that early cultures, even primitive tribal societies, about whom he is speaking, began to "assert that the gods ordained everything for the use of man, in order to bind man to themselves and obtain from him the highest honors." In (wo)man's endeavor to supply the "highest honors" to the gods,

"everyone thought out for himself, according to his abilities, a different way of worshipping God, so that God might love him more than his fellows, and direct the whole course of nature for the satisfaction of his blind cupidity and insatiable avarice."

One can argue here, and probably should, that Spinoza has executed a radical break with previous thinkers about the nature of (wo)man's relationship with God, and through Him, with nature itself. While it is certainly true that medieval theology was quick and thorough in its condemnation of cupidity and avarice, it was just as surely committed to maintaining aspects of its own ideology that encouraged and demanded the efficient exploitation of nature for the benefit of the "commune profit," especially with regard to the share of that wealth belonging by tithe to the church. The validity of this claim is everywhere apparent in the discourse that accompanied Europe's imperialist expansionism into the Western hemisphere at the end of the Middle Ages. The most committed Catholic nation at the time, Spain, never resisted the temptation to enslave entire native populations of the areas it controlled to extract the gold and silver it so deeply coveted. The ideology underlying Christian hierarchical structures was a natural expression of the differentiation between master (Christian explorer) and slave (native savage). Spinoza seems willing to question the fundamental ground of that assumption when he notes that

"the prejudice [that nature existed for human benefit] developed into superstition, and took deep root in the human mind; and for this reason everyone strove most zealously to understand and explain the final causes of things; but in their endeavor to show that nature does nothing in vain, i.e., nothing which is useless to man, they only seem to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all mad together."

In rejecting the notion that nature exists for the sole benefit of human use through (wo)man's insatiable greed and avarice, Spinoza calls into question a basic assumption that had persisted in Eurocentric thought almost from the inception of Christian ideology itself.

In general terms, then, and based on his analysis of human misconceptions at the end of Part 1 of his Ethics, Spinoza concludes that "nature has no particular goal in view, and that final causes are mere human figments." This assertion in turn brought him to the position that basic and fundamental concerns over the issues of deciding between things that are good, better, best, as opposed to those which are considered evil, has always fallen down to the level of accounting those things which are best as being the ones that are "most useful" in fulfilling human need, to the ones that have "the most beneficial effect on mankind."

From a purely native American point of view, of course, Spinoza's assertion that greed and avarice have always been the driving force behind Eurocentric perceptions of what is best for (wo)man's welfare finds full expression in the history of European domination of the Western hemisphere. Since native Americans have always been perceived by Europeans as something less than fully human, and since they occupied a natural wealth that was under-utilized for the full benefit of those who were, there was never any moral conflict involved in doing whatever was necessary to bring that wealth to the fullest possible utilization for the benefit of real human beings. Spinoza, however, by recapitulating basic concepts of creationism and hierarchy, fails to recognize the deeper implications of the ideology he critiques in terms of its built-in justifications for the commission of acts of genocide against the other.

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