Nietzsche and Spinoza on Humanity and Education

The central concern of my doctoral thesis is the role of universities in supporting our vision of humanity – of how we should live. I’m interested in what both Nietzsche and Spinoza have to say about human perfectibility, and I see their ideas as having a great deal of relevance for the idea of the university.

The very word ‘should’ infers a norm beyond oneself; a frame of acceptability to aspire to. Its use implies the self as existing outside that frame of acceptability, hence why psychotherapists tend to challenge patients who tend to use the word about themselves. Both Spinoza and Nietzsche were of the view that there are no absolute morals; that good and evil do not exist, and subsequently that there is no teleology, no master plan, no obligations, no external judgement of right or wrong. As the earlier of the two philosophers, Spinoza’s proposition for the immanence of human existence was considered highly controversial (he was far ahead of Dawkins and the social Darwinists in proposing self-interest as the basis for life and our ethical progress). For Spinoza, this meant that the divine – the Nature-God – is within us rather than without us, a notion that preserves a sense of cosmic meaningfulness, order and permanence formerly provided by religion. Spinoza felt that the gaining of knowledge was inherently joyful, lending as it does to one a sensation of enhanced power. Nietzsche took this drive in a less obviously joyful direction, explaining that our quest for knowledge – critical enlightenment – liberates us, but also necessarily disillusions us. A measure of a person’s power is how much truth they can bear. Nietzsche’s Übermensch, in not allowing herself to be hampered by moral norms, is able to conquer despair and transform these painful realisations into Dionysian joy; a process of self-overcoming. This unselfconscious Dionysian ideal – what becomes in the absence of moral norms – will seem to others to be dangerously chaotic, residing beyond the borders of the known and civilised. The Übermensch is someone ‘for whom there is no longer anything that is forbidden – unless it be weakness’. She attains freedom through joyous and trusting fatalism.

If there are no transcendent moral laws, what drives us? Both Spinoza and Nietzsche stand by a strict naturalist monism; a belief in a single natural principle of existence that underlies all our emotions, desires and behaviour. Spinoza’s self-preservation drive – conatus – incorporates our common desires in combination with a drive for rational knowledge. The degree of knowledge reached, along with our personal psychology and the specifics of the context, informs the way we think and behave, whether that is with aggression, empathy, or so on. Nietzsche claims that self-preservation is merely an indirect outcome of the will to power, albeit one of its most frequent effects (BGE 13), and disproves Spinoza’s thesis by pointing out the frequency of cases where one risks one’s life in order to expand oneself. There is no sense of God or divine reason in Nietzsche’s will to power. For Nietzsche, the will does not explain life or justify death. Fate is an inescapable burden, and its acceptance acknowledges a dissonance between the individual and the world.

Spinoza argues from the opposite direction, considering the drive to enhance one’s power as subservient to self-preservation. While this corresponds with much of the discourse around a current interest of mine – psychedelic therapy – it seems to me that, overall, Nietzsche has the edge on this argument. The single natural principle of the will to power resolves questions about human motivation that are not addressed by Spinoza’s self-preservation thesis.

Spinoza was denigrated as an atheist, Nietzsche as a nihilist. Both were criticised for being socially subversive and antimoral, while in fact they were both reaching for a superior explanation of self-development. They have both been described as esoteric, an description that – despite there being several definitions of the word – I find mysterious, and perhaps applies more to their style of communication than their ideas. Can we say that both Spinoza and Nietzsche were promoting an enchanted worldview in the face of increasing disenchantment? Perhaps in some ways they were. They were certainly both promoting a view that was not widely accepted by the authorities of the day.

Spinoza held on to the idea of a nature-God, which I see as corresponding fairly smoothly with Nietzsche’s natural will to power. Nietzsche probably wouldn’t agree with me on that; why would he? That would mean his idea wasn’t new.

Nietzsche appears to be left puzzled by how will to power takes degenerate forms as well as healthy ones, while Spinoza’s theory of passive into active affect seems to provide a better explanation. In education, we would wish perhaps to transform one into the other.

I feel that it is the ethical concept of self-overcoming, key to both philosophers’ perspectives, that is the most important for a philosophy of higher education in the world we find ourselves in today, a world that is increasingly globalised with diverse values, faiths and cultures, but not yet comfortable in its diversity. Diversity has always existed; it is when diversity encounters itself, when diverse perspectives are responded to with outrage and conflict, that polarisation results. Groups close ranks for reassurance and security, validating and reinforcing their particular worldview.

The immanent ethics of Spinoza and Nietzsche offer a solution for life to reshape itself, rather than being constrained by superior principles such as Kantian reason or Christian morality. This is why both philosophers avoid speaking of ‘spirit’ or ‘spirituality’, whose connotations are strongly bound to such principles. But we could reclaim the word to denote life itself and its dynamic process of self-overcoming.

Yovel (2018) argues that ‘philosophy, as a mode of life and an attitude toward it, must have an individual focus or goal. To philosophise means that a certain individual takes a stand toward life, imparts meaning to it, affirms or negates it, and thereby gives it shape.’ (p551). Philosophy is a process that is not merely intellectual; but also affective/instinctual, driven by the will to power. Life is the process of self-interpretation – the generator and the value-giver, as well as the subject matter. Karl Jaspers described ‘man as his own creator’ in the state of ‘self-being without God’.

Jaspers’ self-creative attitude to life seems to correspond with a range of other perspectives I have covered recently, from Carl Rogers’ idea of creativity as self-fulfilment, to Gadamer’s view of all understanding as self-understanding (and all education as self-education), to Sartre’s existentialism. Gadamer’s hermeneutics is implicated in Yovel’s identified need ‘to interpret oneself in order to overcome oneself’ (p551).

While Spinoza was essentially a natural philosopher who believed very much in science as a means of finding truth, Nietzsche saw himself as an artist. He felt the ideal of philosophy as a science was ‘a decadent perspective that serves the self-image, and the life preferences of an unhealthy and world-weary culture’ (Yovel p551). This ‘intellectual ascetism’ is, I think, what disenchantment means to me; a worldview that privileges self-image, values control and dominion, and sets human being apart from other beings. Nietzsche cites Spinoza: ‘not to laugh, not to lament, nor to detest, but to understand’, and contends that we can’t not experience or even bracket affect, and somehow come to understanding without it. Understanding comes from affect. Understanding reconciles our instincts. Spinoza does not of course kill the emotions, he merely tries to suspend them, to make them active through the apparatus of science. 

Jarymowicz (2016) describes the critical ability to see both sides of a situation as ‘evaluative heterogeneity’. Primary affect is a one-sided ‘gut response’ that bypasses the will, influencing cognition, evaluation, motivation etc. it is often based on implicit, tacit premises and associated with high subjective certainty. Critical or deliberative thinking can moderate our affective responses through the application of new, reasoned evaluative criteria. The resulting ‘secondary affect’ is a more nuanced appraisal of the situation; that’s the modern scientific view, in any case. But Nietzsche points out that all such mechanisms assume that there are enduring, equal ‘things’, that there is free will, that what is good for us is good in itself… etc. These assumptions are erroneous, but they build themselves into our sense-perception; biological, psychological and existential images that serve our needs. The world may be transient and indeterminate but we crave permanence and order and look for patterns in things. Only the ‘more discerning philosophers, the skeptics and critics of rational illusion, incur suffering and anxiety for themselves’. Were Nietzsche’s psychonautic explorations fundamental to his ontology, or the other way around? Hence Nietzsche criticises logic. Causality is a manmade projection, as is teleology. Gellner agrees with him on this; we make sense of the world by looking for patterns and order. Does this mean my parents’ influence on me is no more or less significant than the alignment of the stars and planets…?

So, Nietzsche believed neither in free will, nor in determinism. For Nietzsche, philosophy isn’t about how we should live, but about reevaluating the whole experience of existence. The values he proposes are not moral values but a new psychological response; a love of transience and uncertainty etc. Now, that’s a philosophy for modern life…

N.B. Yovel (p564) makes an interesting point about Spinoza believing the state could not penetrate the mind of the individual. That’s exactly what Edwin Bernays was working on; initially in war propaganda, and later on in fuelling the consumer revolution and the expectations of individual freedom. The so-called ‘free press’ has since become protected by profiteers whose business model depends on a symbiotic relationship with the holders of political power. The media are penetrating individuals’ minds on a daily basis. Do we have political stability? Well, kind of. The new ability of governments to use big data to direct their campaign resources exactly where they are needed means that voting margins are narrowing. That doesn’t necessarily mean the current government are on their way out; rather, I think it means they are becoming more efficient at campaigning; resources are no longer squandered on canvassing in safe seats. Election results are increasingly close. Subsequently, there is a great deal of resentment and a feeling that the electorate has not given their consent, but is this resentment really justified? How free are our voting decisions, really?

Yovel, Y. 2018. Nietzsche and Spinoza, Enemy-Brothers. In Della Rocca, M. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Spinoza. Oxford University Press. pp. 540–570

Jarymowicz, M. 2016. Affect and Intellect in Judgments: Factors Which Determine Level of Evaluative Heterogeneity. Frontiers in Psychology 7: pp. 569. Doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00569

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