Spinoza was, by universal recognition, one of the most influential modern philosophers, if not from the strictly professional standpoint (his legacy contained nothing that could be properly called a school), but, at least, culturally. He was seen as the principal modern exponent of the idea of God as identical with nature. But there was another idea, distinct from pantheism (though, by no means, unrelated to it) that was considered Spinozist par excellence: that of fatalism. It is to Spinoza that Denis Diderot’s Jacques (Jacques le fataliste et son maître) attributes the ideas he learned from his anonymous captain, the ideas that whatever happens, all events, past, present and future, are “written up above”, in “a great scroll” which is unrolled a little bit at a time.
But do Spinoza’s writings warrant this attribution? Was Jacques’ captain right in calling himself Spinoza’s follower? According to Jacques, the captain argued from determinism, and Spinoza was certainly a determinist. But was Spinoza a fatalist? He seems to have rejected contingency (Ethics, Proposition 29 of Part 1), but did he deny freedom? Did he equate determination and predestination?
The principal text is, of course, Definition 7 from Part 1: “That thing is called free, which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and of which the action is determined by itself alone. On the other hand, that thing is necessary, or rather constrained, which is determined by something external to itself to a fixed and definite method of existence or action” (translated by R. H. M. Elwes; italics added). Vocabulary itself indicates that Spinoza did not deny freedom. Moreover, he seems to have had no reason to deny it in the name, as was often done, of determinism, for he did not oppose freedom as something indeterminate to necessity as synonymous to determination. A free thing and a necessary thing are both determined, the difference between the two lying in the character of determination (by itself or by something else), but not in the presence or absence thereof. It is constraint or compulsion that are the opposites to freedom, not necessity.
One might argue, however, that all these deliberations only make sense when applied to God (and even to Him not without reservations – as Proposition 33 of Part 1 suggests), but are of no avail, as far as ordinary natural things are concerned. Did not Spinoza claim that “that which has not been conditioned by God cannot condition itself to act” (Proposition 26 of Part 1)? And does this not mean that there are no free things in the world (in Spinoza’s sense of the word, i.e. things that are determined by themselves alone) except God? I will not deny that this interpretation of Spinoza’s statement is possible, but I would argue that it is not necessarily the only correct one. For even if, according to Spinoza, God is the only thing (inasmuch as one may call a thing that which the sum total of all things) that is absolutely free, it does mean that it would be meaningless to use the term relatively and distinguish between things that enjoy greater or lesser freedom. For nothing in Spinoza’s writings vindicates the assumption that God is the one and only constraint of all things, that things cannot be constrained by other things, too, and hence cannot be meaningfully called free (of that external constraint), if they are not.
To show that these are not mere scholastic subtleties let us compare two situations. Suppose someone is hit by a falling brick. Is the incident necessary or contingent? If we are determinists, we would certainly assert that it is necessary, for bricks do not fall without cause (whatever it were) and, after they have started falling, do not fall randomly but “obey” laws of mechanical movement. On the other hand, neither the cause that has made the brick fall, nor the laws of mechanical movement determine the presence of the would-be victim on the spot where the brick would (has) hit him. Of course, according to the tenets of determinism, the victim has not arrived on the spot without a cause of his own, and hence his presence there is necessary, not contingent. But reference to that cause would not explain why, having arrived where he should have arrived, he has come across a brick there, for whatever has caused him to come, has not caused the brick to fall, just like whatever has caused the brick to fall, has not caused the victim to come. Is this not what we accident? And are accidents not accidental?
But the sum of two necessities is necessarily itself a necessity, one might argue. Is it? Here comes the comparison. Suppose the cause of the brick’s fall is neither deterioration of masonry, nor a gust of wind, not the combination of the two (i.e. natural events that in themselves have nothing to do with the person of the victim, his destination, his timing, etc.), but a malicious intent: suppose someone has aimed the brick to hit the victim. To an uniformed external observer the two situations might appear identical, but they are not. Whereas in the first case (of accidental hit) the two movements, that of the brick and that of the victim, are independent of each other and simply “intersect”, in the second case (of intentional hit) the movement of the brick is coordinated with the movement of the victim, so that the two movements not just “intersect”, but make up a complex pattern of interdependent processes that follows its own “logic” or its own “law”. Does not this “logic” explain the hit as something that has had to be a hit, whereas in the former case the hit has merely happened?
Now, which of these imagined situations exemplifies nature as a whole? Have we any reason to assert that all natural processes are intrinsically interdependent? Do we know something that would warrant such an assertion? I doubt. And if we do not, would it not be violation of the principle of sufficient reason to assert it? I think it would. Now, to come back to Spinoza, did the Dutch thinker see natural processes as intersecting or as interdependent? I do not know. Both interpretations seem plausible, for both imply mutual determination, albeit of characteristically different kinds. If the world is made up of intersecting but originally independent processes, insofar as these processes follow their own ways, they may be called relatively free, in the Spinozist sense of the word. Insofar as some of these processes make up an integrated whole, we have a hierarchy of independent and dependent processes; the former, relatively free; the latter, constrained; however, insofar as these complex entities are not all-comprising and there exists a number (plurality) of them, they (complex entities) may be considered as relatively free. Insofar as (the extreme case) all processes were intrinsically linked to make up one universal integrated whole, we would have (live in) a world that it would be more appropriate to call superdetermined, rather than simply determined.
One might thus distinguish between, at least, two varieties of determinism: a strong one and a weak one. Weak determinism asserts that whatever happens is caused and that cause necessitates the effect (or some other, non-causal, necessity); strong determinism is not satisfied with this assertion, but goes further to assert that whatever happens can be traced to just one universal cause (or other necessitating agency). If, speaking in causal terms, we define freedom as a capacity to start a new causal chain, strong determinism would allow for only one properly free agent; it is thus indistinguishable from fatalism. Weak determinism, on the other hand, by allowing for a plurality of free agents, preserves whatever we need to account for our possession of scientific knowledge (the notion of necessity), but evades fatalism with its characteristic identification of determination and predestination.