Spinoza, Virtue, and American Ideology
from Larval Subjects. One by one, Spinoza challenges the root claims of traditional theology and organized religion, showing how these claims are in contradiction with God’s essence. In developing these arguments he institutes a thorough-going immanent naturalism sans any dimension of transcendence or vertical being.
Spinoza is crafty and devious. What makes his arguments so ingenious and devious is that unlike the materialistic atheist that simply denies the existence of God on materialistic grounds, Spinoza works within the theological tradition, drawing on definitions inherited directly from Aristotle and Medieval Jewish and Christian theology, painstakingly demonstrating that when these definitions and axioms are followed through logically, they entail these conclusions and no others (granting, of course, that his arguments are sound). In other words, Spinoza shows that it is theology itself that leads to these conclusions. As a result, there is something of the uncanny in Spinoza. Just as Freud’s unheimlich is a sort of effect of the heimlich, the homely, the familiar, such that what is familiar suddenly presents itself in a completely unfamiliar way– for example, your image in a mirror begins speaking to you and moving about when you are not –Spinoza takes the familiar concepts of theology, retains them, and completely inverts them in a way that renders them thoroughly unfamiliar, unheimlich, and even a bit terrifying...
However, if there is one thing the free market ideologues in the United States have never understood or admitted, it is that socialism never was and never has been about altruism, but has always been about self-interest. One does not pursue regulated economies, re-distribution of wealth, worker management, collective struggle, unionization, etc., out of some special love or selfless altruism directed at one’s fellow humans, but precisely out of the desire to maximize the conatus or ἀρετή of one’s own being. Nothing is more beneficial to humans than other humans. And through combining my body with the bodies of others, I am able to form a collective assemblage, a common, that enhances both my own power of acting, and our power of acting. My freedom is therefore deepened and enhanced. It is enhanced through a distribution of labor that frees up time for all those involved so that other ends might be pursued. It is enhanced through increased protection from those more powerful than I, who would exploit me and the system to their own benefit. It is enhanced through companionship through which I build with others, explore ideas, and with whom I create.
What Spinoza presents is thus not an altruism, but an enlightened egoism… An egoism that is cognizant of our complex relations to the world and others as both constraints and conditions for our freedom and power. Far from the abolition of individualism and freedom, collective assemblages are the condition for individualism and freedom insofar as the create the space and time whereby it might become possible for me to cultivate and develop myself according to the virtual singularities or tendencies of my own conatus or essence, and by protecting me from my fellow man who might exploit and oppress me. My freedom or power is grounded in an increased mastery of my world around me which can only be achieved collectively through reason. Does it come as any surprise that an ideology like neoliberal economics, that produces a squalorly life for so many and such limited freedom and opportunity for the majority, can only sustain itself by filling the heads of the multitudes with superstitious mythologies, and convincing them that what is in fact in their interest is instead a matter of an implausible altruism that would be contrary to their interest? As Spinoza remarks,
“…he who seeks the true causes of miracles and is eager to understand the works of nature as a scholar, and not just to gape at them like a fool, is universally considered an impious heretic and denounced by those to whom the common people bow down as interpreters of Nature and gods. For these people know that the dispelling of ignorance would entail the disappearance of that sense of aw which is the one and only support for their argument and for the safeguarding of their authority or power” (Part I, Appendix).