Why be a necessitarian?

Because one cannot do otherwise, of course. But more seriously, I have been thinking about this question in the case of Spinoza. It’s clear that he took himself to be a necessitarian — “I have shown clearly enough that from God’s supreme power all things have necessarily flowed by the same necessity and in the same way as from the nature of a triangle it follows that its angles are equal to two right angles.” He never flinches from the label, though many of his correspondents pester him with all of the ugly consequences this view entails (no contra-causal freedom, seemingly no moral responsibility, sin backsplashing on God, etc). The problem is that, throughout his works, he never completely explains exactly how God’s nature is supposed to necessitate all things, and even goes so far as to demonstrate that from God’s nature alone you cannot derive the existence of any particular finite thing. So it’s puzzling why he should insist on being a necessitarian while at the same time not buying the whole hog and making each and every single thing flow out of God somehow.

I don’t really believe that someone becomes a necessitarian solely from philosophical arguments. There has to be something else attractive in it. So what is it? Is it that you can forgive yourself of all the stupid and mean things you’ve done? Is it so that you can comfort yourself for all the things and people you’ve lost, since you know that nothing could have been otherwise? Or is it an aesthetic attraction: that whatever makes people love math or geometry also makes them want to see it in the cosmos as a whole? I tend to think that is what pushed Spinoza in this direction. Good lord, no one (except maybe Euclid himself) can imagine loving geometrical proofs more than he did.

Is it true that anyone who is drawn to necessitarian is also drawn in the direction of Stoicism? What might this imply? Is it a kind of fear of the emotions, and the compromising positions they can put us in?

I think what Sp really loved about the geometrical method was its mechanical necessity and unshakeable firmness. And why love that? Maybe because he saw around him so many insistent intellectuals who disagreed violently with one another — the Jews, the Calvinists, the Catholics, the Remonstrants, and so on. Maybe he thought that by taking on the geometrical form he could secure, if only for himself, a set of beliefs which would stay strong against all attacks. Temperamentally, he couldn’t handle the rough-and-tumble marketplace of ideas — which, in the 17th C., was far rougher and tumblier than any intellectual sphere is today. Maybe his adherence to the form, and his attraction to Stoicism, both stemmed from a fear of other people, and the ways they can truly mess you up.

Here’s Nz’s psychoanalysis of Sp’s attraction to the geometrical form in which he cast the Ethics (BGE 5):

… that hocus-pocus of mathematical form in which, as if in iron, Spinoza encased and masked his philosophy — ‘the love of his wisdom’, to render that word fairly and squarely — so as to strike terror into the heart of any assailant who should dare to glance at that invincible maiden and Pallas Athene — how much personal timidity and vulnerability this masquerade of a sick recluse betrays!

Yeah, probably.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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6 Responses to Why be a necessitarian?

  1. What’s the difference between (classical) fatalism and necessitarianism (other than the “genealogy” of the relevant necessities)?


  2. Huenemann says:

    The genealogy may be the key difference. Fatalism usually involves the gods or the Fates. And the forces of fatalism are typically more mysterious — such as the will of the gods, or something dark and unknowable by mortals. Interestingly, fatalism is sometimes coupled with free choices. So Achilles is fated to be loved by his children and grandchildren if he chooses not to fight at Troy, and fated to be remembered for thousands of years if he does fight. But his choice itself, it seems, is not fated.

    Necessitarianism, on the other hand, is typically impersonal. It could result from gods’ decisions, but necessitarians usually link the necessity to the necessary nature of God or of the universe. The key is that no one can will something other than what is actual into being. And so the necessity covers absolutely everything.


  3. Rob says:

    Is it so that you can comfort yourself for all the things and people you’ve lost, since you know that nothing could have been otherwise?

    I wonder if there might not be another aspect to this deep charm. More than, or at least a further development of, a stoic attitudinal preemptive indemnification against unavoidable loss, but the sense that, from a proper altitude, there’s no such thing as loss. If everything is as it must be, there’s no time past at which one really had anything or anyone, and no time ahead in which one will have or lose what one has. There’s no having or losing of anything, because there’s no time. There’s just what is (whatever that is), with everything in its inscrutable place, interconnected by necessity. Of course, this seems be just what Nietzsche diagnosed in GM 3.17.

    Or is it an aesthetic attraction: that whatever makes people love math or geometry also makes them want to see it in the cosmos as a whole?

    Nietzsche has some related remarks in sections 7 and 8, p. 118, Writings from the Late Notebooks (Cambridge, 2003).

    By the way, which translation of Spinoza do you recommend? That invincible maiden and Pallas Athene has repeatedly scared me away from the Ethics, so I’ve only yet read some letters and the Emendation of the Intellect, but I’d to eventually give it another try.


  4. Huenemann says:

    Something in Rob’s remark reminds me of Chrysippus’s chilling remark about what the man said when he was told his son had died: “But I already knew I had given birth to a mortal.”

    The best translations of Spinoza are Curley’s no doubt. But, for starters, you might enjoy Jonathan Bennett’s “retranslation” of the Ethics at earlymoderntexts.com.


  5. Rob says:

    Yeah, I wish there were a secular equivalent to Prosblogian, where philosophers would devote their intellectual energy, dialectical finesse, and hair-splitting to proving the non-existence of loss. Now that would be sophistry I could believe in.


  6. “But I already knew I had given birth to a mortal.”

    That is the best line I hope I never have the opportunity to use.


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