You are not free

There are a great many things that are perplexing about Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy. If were so inclined, I could fill a book with what confuses me about his world view, and wouldn’t be the first. That honor undoubtedly goes to Spinoza himself, who wrote a few of them.

But among the hardest concepts of his to grasp is the idea that there is no such thing as free will*. Sit and think about that one a minute.

OK – are you back? Did you think about it? That’s because it was in your nature to do it. Did you not do what I asked? It was in your nature to rebel against the request of a stranger.

According to Spinoza — and again, I am far from a philosophy major here, so feel free to phone in and correct me if I get this wrong — everything that exists was created according to the laws of nature, which is in turn synonymous with god (and that’s something for another post). Therefore, nothing can behave contradictory to the laws of nature. Everything is true to its nature.

What we might see as free will is just an illusion, Spinoza says. If people were capable of understanding more, and could see the true cause of things, they would see that what they thought was their choice was merely the rational outcome that was necessary all along. 

There are many more components to Spinoza’s philosophy, and I can’t get to them all in one post. But even from this one idea, you start to see how he became such a controversial figure so quickly.

It’s not that the Dutch society he lived in was hostile to the idea of determinism. Quite the opposite. More specifically, Spinoza was surrounded by people who were profound believers in predestination — the idea that god has already decided who is destined to be saved and who will be damned, and that no act of faith or good works can change it. 

I’ve often wondered if Spinoza would have arrived at the conclusions he did if he lived somewhere else, where the major religious flavor favored Catholicism or a different strain of Protestantism that held out in favor of free will. Spinoza, no doubt, would say he reached his conclusions as he was meant to all along. 

But even the strictest Calvinist, doctrinally speaking, doesn’t hold that men and women don’t have free will of their own. In that religious context, discussion about free will pertains specifically to a person’s personal relationship to a personal god (something Spinoza ridiculed, by the way), and not a person’s ability to make choices about all matters great and small.

Worse, Spinoza ran afoul by insisting that god was not a corporeal, knowable entity — the being children are taught about in Sunday school. Instead, Spinoza talked about god as a vastly impersonal … thing … that may have started off the universe but took no notice of us now. There was a word for a person that said such things: heretic.

But what can we make of Spinoza’s assertion that free will on all matters is just an illusion. Am I really just here typing this sorry essay way past my bedtime because that’s my nature, and not because it serves some greater purpose. How depressing.

Or is it?

My dad, of blessed memory, once told me that my only real job in life was to make myself happy. “Because no one else is going to do it for you, kid, and they couldn’t, even if they wanted to.” Turns out the man might have been smart after all, because Spinoza said pretty much the same thing: “Happiness is not a virtue but its own reward.”

In fact, Spinoza’s goal was to see people increase the happiness in their lives. In his paper “Spinoza on the Right Way to Live,” which I highly recommend as an approachable way to understand Spinoza’s main themes, University of Massachusetts-Boston philosophy professor Gary Zabel writes:

“In his book, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, the 20th century French
philosopher, Gilles Deleuze grasps the political significance of
Spinozist joy. According to him, Spinoza is an enemy of the “sad
passions,” of everything that makes us despise, curse, and reject life.
Hatred, anger, contempt, envy, indignation, fear, despair, shame,
cruelty, revenge, and remorse are passive emotions, and have in
common the fact that they weaken our power of existing and acting.
The highest good by contrast demands that we master and vanquish
these sad passions, and that we substitute for them powerful, active,
joyful, affirmative modes of being.”

Rejecting free will helps do this because it can free us from things like duty, shame, embarrassment, fear and other things that hold us back. When you accept that you are made to live according to your nature, and not according to expectations set before you by your family or society or peer group, you are suddenly free from all they have put on your shoulders.

And that can be intoxicatingly liberating. Ask anyone who found the courage to come out. Or to pursue a career more aligned with their desires rather than the one their parents had pressured them to take. Or to finally seek a divorce to end a bad marriage after fears of what it might mean socially.

Sure, sure. I hear you. You’re saying, “Hold up. You just said ‘decide to …’ when you just said there’s no free will.” And you’re right. You’re goddamned right. And that’s one of the things that makes this philosophy so very difficult to understand.

That’s because Spinoza’s assertion that there is no free will comes with a big asterisk*. There is, actually, a way in which people can achieve a manner of freedom. It starts when you, dear reader, begin to understand that you are but the smallest part in an ordered universe created by an infinite substance. Then you realize that there is no personal god making deals with you against your rivals, or divine entity seeking to punish you for that one thing you did. In short, the more you understand the universe, the less you can feel personally persecuted by it. Because, really, it just doesn’t take notice of you like that. 

Moreover, the you start to see that other great human forces you might imagine to be stacked against you likely are not. Even when people do try to thwart you, you can see they are acting out of their own limited understanding, their own fear, their own ignorance.

Freedom starts when you can climb above those emotions and see things as they really are. Freedom starts when those fears and shames and that call of duty no longer rules your life.

It’s not a task that comes easy. In fact, Spinoza writes that it often takes people who have seen their way through it to guide others to the distant shore of autonomy. But once you have found your way out of being controlled by emotions, you are capable of thinking rationally. Instead of doing what you felt you had to do because of duty, or because you were afraid of being shamed if you didn’t do it — now you have the ability to reason and make a choice.

Aha, you may be saying. Now you are exercising free will. Well. Yeah. No. Maybe. Spinoza would say you’re just now finally acting according to your nature, whereas before, you were being constrained by duty or fear or whatever else was holding you back. So in a paradoxical way, this is both freedom and a lack of free will. 

Honestly, it’s not easy stuff. If I think about it too much, my head starts to hurt.

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