Nietzsche/Spinoza: Striving and the Will-to-Power

Nietzsche and Spinoza are philosophers very different in temperament, but I’d like to suggest they agree entirely on a certain sort of motivational monism.

Nietzsche famously suggests – with that vague, casual, conviction that characterises his writing – that every human desire, indeed every desire anywhere, of anything, is some version of ‘the will to power’.

Spinoza says that all desire – indeed, all action in the sense of goal-directed action – is some version of ‘conatus’, the striving for self-preservation that constitutes the essence of all ‘individual things’.

So both agree that all motivations are versions of a single basic phenomenon. But they seem, at first glance, to give quite different accounts of what this basic phenomenon is. In particular, Spinoza’s view seems to be essentially conservative – a striving for self-preservation, to continue to be what you are. By contrast, Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ seems to be essentially expansive: a “striving to grow, to gain ground, attract to itself and acquire ascendancy– not owing to any morality or immorality, but because it lives, and because life is precisely Will to Power.”

I want to argue that the two accounts really coincide, when we take into account the issue of perspectives. Here, again, Nietzsche and Spinoza might seem radically opposed: Nietzsche’s into the infinite multiplicity of perspecties, while Spinoza’s more into the single grand perspective of ‘God’ (or ‘Nature’).

But actually I think these two positions are quite close to each other – if there are a multitude of viable perspectives, then the only way to have any priority is to be the perspective that encompasses the greatest number of other perspectives (not to be, say, the perspective of us ‘civilised’ Germans, or some other superior group).

Conversely, if there is only one really valid perspective, which is all-encompassing, then all the perspectives which we could possibly frame will be radically incomplete, and so basically on a par with each other. The numbers ‘1’ and ‘infinity’ are closer to each other, in practical terms, than either is to ‘3’.

Anyway, how do ‘more power’ and ‘self-preservation’ coincide? Consider an example: a bacterium encounters a gelatinous blob of protein solution, which it absorbs through its membrane and metabolises so as to make itself larger. Suppose we’re some sort of panpsychist, or at least are willing to personify the blob and the bacterium.

From the perspective of the bacterium, this is a growth in its power – moreover, it is a triumph, a conquest of the protein solution, which is thereby made to conform to the bacterium’s organisational plan.

From the perspective of the gelatinous blob, on the other hand, this is perhaps a defeat, a dissolution of its own, viscous, organisational plan, so as to bring it within an alien plan.

But from the perspective of the protein molecules within that blob, this dissolution and defeat is actually a gain, since they come to be parts of a more organised system. And similarly, what about the perspective of the whole system, of bacterium+blob? This system has neither conquered, nor been conquered by, any external plan. It has merely undergone an internal change.

What sort of change? Well, it seems that, by any reasonable metric, the bacterium is more organised than the blob. So the growth and strengthening of the bacterium is a greater organisational gain than the dissolution of the blob is a loss. So in some sense, the whole system has gained, has become more organised, more integrated internally. Certainly, it has become more able to subordinate-and-organise external bodies.

To summarise: because the more organised system triumphed over the less, the whole that they both composed triumphed internally. Because the bacterium satisfied its Nietzschean ‘will to power’ by subordinating the blob, the whole system satisfied its Spinozistic ‘striving for self-preservation’ by internally integrating itself.

Now this requires certain interpretive claims. For instance, it requires us to interpret Spinoza’s ‘striving of each individual thing’ in such a way that the same atoms can be involved in multiple ‘individual things’ – so that, for instance, the system of bacterium+blob can be said to have ‘striving’, even while its two parts have their own oppoed ‘strivings’.

Is this reasonable? I think it’s charitable – it makes Spinoza’s doctrines more defensible. Does it risk making them trivial? I don’t think so. It’s still true that the bacterium+blob system is a much less organised system, hence one with a much more weakly realised ‘essence’, than either of its parts (at least, before the absorbtion), and so won’t be as useful for explanatory purposes. But it’s still possible to carve it out as a system, if we choose to, as long as its parts have some degree of interaction.

More significantly, of course, it requires us to accept the motivational monism, and the panpsychism, of both Spinoza and Nietzsche. That’s a big thing to accept – but I’m not arguing for its acceptance. I’m arguing that Spinoza’s and Nietzsche’s versions of it amount to the same thing, because the self-preservation of any given whole is equivalent to the struggle between its parts to subsume-and-organise each other.

This, I think, is what Spinoza is enigmatically suggesting when he says that “by perfection, I understand the same thing as reality” – what’s more perfect thing is also more real.

We could take this to mean that ‘real’ must admit of qualitative degrees, which is a weird sort of idea. But we could also take it to be quantitative degrees – to be ‘more real’ simply means to include, to organise, a greater amount of matter, a larger fraction of reality.

Does that mean that any larger thing is ‘more perfect’? No – because it’s also relevant how far it’s a ‘thing’. For low thresholds, the moon is a thing, but for higher thresholds of unity/organisation, the moon doesn’t count, and only living things do, the more so the more efficiently and flexibly they maintain themselves.

But then it follows that when such an organised thing becomes ‘more real’, in the sense of encompassing more of reality without becoming less efficiently organised, the portion of reality it now encompasses becomes more organised, and hence more perfect, than it was before.

‘Reality = perfection’ in the sense that when the bacterium takes on greater reality by absorbing the blob of protein, it makes the ‘bacterium+blob system’ more perfect. The will to power of parts is the striving for self-preservation of wholes.

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One Response to Nietzsche/Spinoza: Striving and the Will-to-Power

  1. Wolf says:

    Sorry – you really missed the mark on what ‘will to power’ means to Nietzsche.

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