Sunday, August 10, 2008

Machiavelli and Humanism

This is a quite neglectful piece, another in a long line of "I haven't quite figured out what I want to say." In retrospect, and as my interest in what we now call "Early Modern European" studies increases, Machiavelli is interesting for his very use of the prowess/fortune distinction, which I spent only a paragraph on but is clearly the only thing I found interesting at the time. Humanism and the initial recovery of our Greek past and flowering of literary and scholarly work is pretty well neglected in philosophy departments, and it's too bad. The creation of the dialectic between rationalism and empiricism that Descartes initiated is interesting, and certainly provides something more easily taught in classrooms, but the work of the humanists is the kind of optimism about human potential that the pragmatists had in our ability to change our fortunes.


When Machiavelli wrote during the Renaissance, the intellectual landscape was shaped by individualism and a growing optimism for mankind’s potential. This landscape is best characterized by the humanist movement. While the humanists preached of man’s limitless potential, Machiavelli wrote of man’s self-centeredness and life-long game of king-of-the-hill: “One can make this generalization about men: they are ungrateful, fickle, liars, and deceivers, they shun danger and are greedy for profit… The bond of love is one which men, wretched as they are, break when it is to their advantage to do so.”[1]

Machiavelli can best be seen as synthesizing the humanist’s optimism in the form of the potential of the Prince with his own cynicism of mankind. In this way, Machiavelli ends up being pessimistic of human nature, but optimistic of individual potential.

When Machiavelli’s cynicism of mankind and his optimism of the Prince show they seem to be just that: cynicism of mankind and optimism of the Prince. When Machiavelli makes sweeping generalizations about mankind he seems to be describing either the default nature of men or possibly some sort of herd mentality. For instance, when Machiavelli makes his great generalization about men (being ungrateful, fickle, liars, etc.) he does seem to be stating that all men are like this. But he also gives us a laundry list of qualities that men can hold: “Some are held to be benefactors, others are called grasping; some cruel, some compassionate; one man faithless, another faithful;…”[2] and on and on. This would imply that some men actually do hold these qualities, in spite of Machiavelli’s own generalization. On the other hand, to describe the herd variation of Machiavelli’s generalizations, he says, “…the populace by nature is fickle;…”[3] and he describes mercenaries as being “disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined, and disloyal;…”[4] Here he seems to be describing how men act in these particular groups.

The main thing to draw from this is that Machiavelli seems to consider the individual and the mankind in general separately. When considering the general state of mankind he says “…men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you…”[5], but when considering the individual he says, “one man lascivious, another chaste; one guileless, another crafty; one stubborn, another flexible;…”[6] The key to Machiavelli’s separation is his conception of prowess.

Nowhere does Machiavelli really give prowess a proper definition, but simply fleshed out, prowess is the summation of an individual's talents and abilities. All men have the capacity for prowess, be it a tremendous lack of or profusion. Prowess is one of two things that set men apart from each other. The other, fortune, is the uncontrollable forces of nature or society. While fortune can give and take away without any consultation with an individual, prowess is at the beck and call of those who have it. Prowess is what allows individual expression.

Now, Machiavelli typically spoke of prowess in conjunction with politics, but prowess clearly seems to be Machiavelli’s expression of the humanist trend of individuality and potential. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, another Renaissance writer, wrote God as having said to Adam, “You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will, in whose hand We have placed you, shall ordain for yourself the limits of you nature.”[7] Clearly Pico saw mankind in a favorable and optimistic light. Mankind’s prowess, to Pico, is limitless and, because of mankind’s free will, so is Man’s individuality. Machiavelli is more reserved in his proclamation of mankind’s individuality and it seems centered on those with prowess, namely, the Prince. Nevertheless, he says, “All things have conspired to your greatness. The rest is up to you. God does not want to do everything Himself, and take away from us our free will and our share of the glory which belongs to us.”[8] Compared to another Renaissance writer, Pietro Paolo Vergerio, Machiavelli seems pretty well in line with humanist tradition. Vergerio wrote on education and liberal arts and said, “we call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man; those studies by which we attain and practice virtue and wisdom; that education which calls forth, trains, and develops those highest gifts of body and mind which ennoble men…”[9] Here can be seen Machiavelli’s prowess in the way of “those highest gifts of body and mind.”

So Machiavelli compares relatively well to the other optimistic writers of the time, but does that mean that Machiavelli was optimistic of human nature? On the whole, Machiavelli was not. However, he was optimistic of the large capacity that individuals held to escape that nature. All told, while Machiavelli may have believed that men were generally fickle and ungrateful, he also believed that there were individual men who could transcend this fickleness and become great men and, indeed, princes.

[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. George Bull, New York: Penguin, 1999, 54.

[2] Ibid., 50.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Ibid., 39.

[5] Ibid., 56.

[6] Ibid., 50.

[7] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” quoted in Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Volume B 1300 to 1815, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999, 343.

[8] Machiavelli, 83.

[9] Pietro Paolo Vergerio, “Concerning Character,” quoted in Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Volume B 1300 to 1815, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999, 343.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

God: Now 100% All-Natural

I'm not sure I understand my train of thought here anymore. I think this paper is an attempt, like many an undergrad's, to say both something interesting and concrete. The problem is that undergrads usually don't have a good bead on what is interesting yet, nor do they have enough understanding of the concrete to back up something interesting anyway. But you do have to start somewhere, so professors get papers like this--clumsily handled details and arguments sandwiched between intimations of something not yet fully seen.

Spinoza is a fascinating figure in the history of philosophy because he is constantly hailed as canonical by our doxagraphers (like a Copleston), but in many of the more interesting tales about the westering of the human spirit, he's almost entirely neglectable. Or at least, that's been my impression in reading. It's strange, really. My suspicion is that he does deserve to be canonical and, like Bloom's verdict about our inability to truly understand Shakespeare, we simply haven't gotten our heads around why we feel he's important and how to fit him centrally into our stories. But perhaps I need to read more about Spinoza.


In the Western tradition, God and Nature have perennially been described as separate entities. God has typically been described as the personal, creative agent that exists outside of and in addition to what He creates. Nature has then typically been considered everything else. Nature, in this sense, has been used interchangeably with Universe. One problem with this is that Universe implies “everything,” the totality of existence. The way it is used with God is that there is God and then the Universe. God exists outside the Universe and then everything else exists within the Universe. This seems to contradict the meaning of Universe, but this is the way the two words are commonly used.

The break that Spinoza took from this is proving deductively that God is the totality of existence. Everything exists within God. For Spinoza, God could be used interchangeably with Universe. In this sense, Spinoza can be seen to be “naturalizing” God. Instead of God existing outside of the Universe, outside from us, we in fact exist inside of Him. This makes God, in a sense, more accessible because no longer is there God and Universe. There is just God, for which we are all a part of. But is this “naturalization” important or even necessary?

Spinoza’s contemporary, Leibniz, who also formed a proof for the existence of God, didn’t think so. In his writing, Leibniz had already proved the existence of an external universe. With the existence of the Universe, Leibniz stumbled into an age-old problem: infinite regress. The problem of infinite regress consists in looking for the cause for everything. In finding one cause, you then must find the cause for the cause and then the cause for the cause for the cause, ad infinitum. One of the earliest replies to the problem was from Aristotle. He posited the existence of a self-causing Prime Mover. This Prime Mover was the cause of everything, like the finger that pushes down the first domino. Leibniz followed Aristotle’s footsteps and offered a proof for the existence of the Prime Mover, whom Leibniz called God.

Spinoza and Leibniz do agree on one thing: God is self-causing. In this way, both Spinoza and Leibniz address the problem of infinite regress. Leibniz, though, attempts to prove one more thing than Spinoza does: the existence of something in addition to the Universe, namely God. No philosopher has ever denied all existence. Even in Cartesian skepticism, possibly the most radical beginning of a metaphysical system, the Universe consists of you thinking. So both Leibniz and Spinoza start with the Universe. Spinoza goes on to prove that the Universe is, in fact, God, thereby making the Universe self-causing. Leibniz, on the other hand, starts with, in addition to the Universe, God.

At this point, somebody would certainly object to the way I was about to describe Leibniz’s proof of God. At this point I have Leibniz owning up to a Universe (proven as the existence of an external world) and God, but his proof of God mentions nothing of the Universe, only the material world. There is no sleight-of-hand being performed here to entrap Leibniz. The point of this comparison is to show that by the time he gets to Spinoza’s position, Leibniz has one proof for his Universe and another separate one for the material world and God. Spinoza has all that in a single extended proof, making his “natural” God much simpler in form.

The trouble in Leibniz’s proof of God arises in his proposition that the material world is contingent, not necessary:
…the existence of the world, which is the whole assemblage of contingent things….[1]
This can be seen as saying that the world is set, by default, to non-existence. But why could the world not be set by default to existence? Leibniz’s argument can be summarized in an analogy of a classroom. Say you walk into a classroom with chairs and desks organized in some fashion. You know that the chairs and desks didn’t get there by themselves, so somebody must have put them there. Thereby you know that there exists somebody else that puts chairs and desks in their place. But this argument is faulty. How do you know that the chairs and desks haven’t been that way for all of time? You are presupposing the existence of somebody to organize the chairs and desks, when the only thing you can really know when you enter the room is the simple existence of the chairs and desks. So Leibniz, in saying that the world must be contingent, is presupposing the existence of “somebody” to put the world together. Spinoza bypasses this entire hazard by proving that God is the Universe. What is unclear to me is why Spinoza even needed God. Why couldn’t you just have the Universe?

In naturalizing God, Spinoza made God and the Universe synonymous. But why continue with the title of God? Why not dispense with it and simply call the totality of existence the Universe? Spinoza, in effect, still has something extra: God, being the Universe, rather than just the Universe. The significant difference between what Spinoza is calling God/Universe and what I’m calling Universe is that God is a being and the Universe is not. Spinoza is indeed positing the existence of one thing: God. Whereas most other philosophers and theologians start with God and the Universe, Spinoza got rid of one and was left with God. This, of course, led Spinoza to pantheism so that there was still some form of existence for you and I.

Spinoza’s first proof for the existence of God is as follows:
Prop. XI. God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists.
Proof.—If this be denied, conceive, if possible, that God does not exist: then his essence does not involve existence. But this (by Prop. vii.) is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists.[2]

This is where Spinoza commits his sleight-of-hand. He slips God right in there in place of substance. Substance has, heretofore, been the totality of existence i.e. the Universe. But Spinoza slips God in saying that the proof for the Universe is the proof for God. But why does it have to be the proof for God? Why can’t it simply be the proof for the Universe? The fact is Spinoza linked God and substance from the very beginning in his definitions. His definition of God was as a substance. It wasn’t until later that he proved God to be the only substance. But Spinoza realizes that this single proof will not suffice. There is still a question as to why you couldn’t have substance be the only substance with substance being called the Universe. Spinoza answers with two more proofs.

Spinoza’s second proof is reminiscent of Leibniz. The key phrase in it is:
If, then, no cause or reason can be given, which prevents the existence of God, or which destroys his existence, we must certainly conclude that he necessarily does exist.[3]
It seems that the default switch is set to “existence” in Spinoza. From earlier argumentation this would seem to follow, but notice that Spinoza is setting God’s default switch, while I was speaking of the material world’s default switch. Saying that God, by default, exists is like saying that Unicorns, by default, exist. There is no cause or reason why Unicorns do or do not exist, but we do not automatically then assume the existence of them. It is unclear as to Spinoza’s stance on Unicorns and other mythical beasts; maybe he did assume the existence of any number of fictional creatures. But even if Spinoza assumes the existence of every make-believe being, that still does not give him the validity to do so. Spinoza does answer later that “I am not here speaking of things, which come to pass through causes external to themselves, but only of substances….”[4] But here Spinoza simply floats back to his sleight-of-hand switch of substance and God without any apparent reason to do so. Perhaps Spinoza’s third proof will open up some undiscovered avenue.

Spinoza’s third and final proof is:
The potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power, and contrariwise the potentiality of existence is a power, as is obvious. If, then, that which necessarily exists is nothing but finite beings, such finite beings are more powerful than a being absolutely infinite, which is obviously absurd; therefore, either nothing exists, or else a being absolutely infinite necessarily exists also.[5]
The negation of power means that power is absent. Spinoza’s first step can then be rephrased as “the potentiality of non-existence is the absence of power and the potentiality of existence is the presence of power.” It does not follow then that beings with existence are more powerful then those without. The comparison of power happens when two beings have power. We can then say that one is weak (less power) and one is strong (more power). If we take the opposite comparison, comparing the power of two beings that do not have power, we see that there is no basis for comparison. Take the example of a turtle. We can say that the painted turtle is weaker than the snapping turtle because the snapping turtle’s ability to survive (read: exist) is greater than that of the painted turtle. But say we come along a dead snapping turtle. We don’t say, “Boy, that turtle is weak.” There is no basis for the observation. When the turtle is dead it isn’t weak in the existence department; it just doesn’t exist.

Spinoza might defend himself by saying that I misinterpreted him because he said that existence is a power, so that all of God’s power is negated by his non-existence, but otherwise He would have us beat. Because of the negation, God is made weaker than us. But this merely points out a discrepancy in Spinoza’s argumentation. His use of the word “contrariwise” is misleading. The contrary of “the potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power” is “the potentiality of existence is a negation of power.”[6] This is not what Spinoza said. Therefore, it must be taken that his use of contrariwise means something other than contrary. What exactly he meant is unclear. If Spinoza meant a contradiction to his original phrase it would have appeared as “the potentiality of non-existence is not negation of power.” If we take contrariwise to mean simply opposite, as I have, then the discrepancy of “no basis for comparison” still exists. The opposite of “the potentiality of non-existence is a negation of power” would be “the potentiality of existence is a non-negation of power,” non-negation meaning the affirmation of power. Thereby the negation of power comes to mean the absence of power and the affirmation of power becomes the presence of power. So whatever Spinoza meant, he didn’t follow through correctly.

What we are left with in Spinoza’s terms is substance. This substance is the totality of existence, as natural as you can get it. Things that are natural are said to exist within nature. Therefore, Spinoza did attempt to naturalize God. But the mere existence of God within nature (or as nature) still would seem to be superfluous. The naturalization is an important step in philosophy as Spinoza was branded an atheist, when really he was a pantheist. Spinoza believed in God, just not in the way that was considered acceptable. The important step was making the Universe self-causing. Many philosophers have used the problem of infinite regress as a stepping stone to posit the existence of God. Spinoza, in combining the Universe and God, gives great credence to the Universe existing by itself.

[1] Popkin, Richard H., ed. The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries. (New York: The Free Press, 1966), 335.

[2] Ibid., 252

[3] Ibid., 253

[4] Ibid., 254

[5] Ibid., 253

[6] Flew, Antony. A Dictionary of Philosophy. Rev. 2nd ed. (New York: Gramercy Books, 1979), 75.