“Spinoza on the Value of Humanity”

In Nandi Theunissen (ed.), Re-Evaluating the Value of Humanity. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 74-96 (2023)
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Spinoza is a hardcore realist about the nature of human beings and their desires, ambitions, and delusions. But he is neither a misanthrope nor in the business of glorifying the notion of a primal and innocent non-human nature. As he writes: Let the Satirists laugh as much as they like at human affairs, let the Theologians curse them, let Melancholics praise as much as they can a life that is uncultivated and wild, let them disdain men and admire the lower animals. Men still find from experience that by helping one another they can provide themselves much more easily with the things they require, and that only by joining forces can they avoid the dangers that threaten on all sides. Indeed, Spinoza’s Ethics is a book whose aim is to lead us toward human blessedness and freedom. The question I will try to answer in the present study, then, is the following. Given his sober attempt to rid humanity of its self-aggrandizing illusions and to offer a naturalistic account of human nature, what does Spinoza see as the source of the value of humanity (if it has any)? In order to address the various aspects of this question, I will begin by examining the value of human friendship. Then, in the second part of the paper, I will consider the thorny question of whether Spinoza’s deflationary view of humanity’s status within nature allows for any notion of human dignity. In the third and final part, I will examine the value Spinoza ascribes to rationality, and the implications of this issue for his understanding of the value of humanity.

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Yitzhak Melamed
Johns Hopkins University


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