Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, and Benedict de Spinoza, would be my picks to represent Baroque rationalism. They all loved geometry and mathematics generally and judged it to represent a fundamental structure which also underlay nature, thought, and language. Language and mathematics belonged together as logical structures which extended into nature and into rational thinking. In fact it was unity with the logical structures of nature and mathematics which made thinking especially powerful for those philosophers. Language competence was inseparable from logical competence, and logic was a foundation common to extended substance or nature, as well as rational thought, mathematics, and even music (music of the spheres). However, language competence and the voice it enabled were also inseparable from an enduring and individual thinking entity, a person.

Although Baroque rationalists worked to undermine or overthrow the power of Christianity, they retained a basically Christian world view which included the dualism of body and soul. None of those philosophers would have questioned the presence and power of a bestial aspect in human motivation. The bestial was considered to be both compulsive, slavish, and urgently self-interested, without any sense of bonding to a collective or to mutual relationships. These impulses endured as the lower aspects of human nature, but they were not the whole story. Mathematics, and especially geometry represented a higher level.

There is very little sense of human freedom rising above nature in the work of Baroque rationalists. The effect of philosophical rationalists was to push thinking and objective nature closer together. These philosophers did not doubt the existence of the ‘spiritual’ entity assumed to be the individual human person or subject, and they did not doubt the importance of thinking and individual intelligence. They were professional practitioners of higher levels of human nature, and respected those powers. Yet, they did not have a profound sense of the transcendence of intelligence. They sensed that nature was flexible enough to include intelligence, and so they made efforts to describe how that might be conceived. These philosophers make an interesting contrast to the Hellenistic humanists (Sophists, Epicureans, Skeptics), also a variety of rationalist, since those humanists were achieving a mental state of ‘being in the world without being of it.’ By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries people were much more interested in being in and of the world, and they weren’t convinced that intelligence could do much more than engage with nature, figure it out, and create a better life by controlling and exploiting it.

Nature as Clockwork

For rationalists, nature was no longer spooky and frightening but possibly rewarding. It was no longer a realm of spirits but merely extended substance, dead clockwork, and as such measurable, chartable, available for painstaking study. That created an urgent need for “freedom to philosophize” which was not available under Christendom.

The Baroque and Enlightenment sense of philosophy was the application of individual thinking, modeled on geometry, to achieve an accurate understanding of nature which would exclude beliefs inspired by superstition and fear of the unknown. That was different from the Stoic tradition, although still based on the power of rational thinking. Baroque philosophers aspired to transcend nature not through indifference to it but by understanding the principles of its determinism. The old philosophical idea of a separation of eternal reality from ephemeral appearances was evolving into the relationship between natural law and particularity. An intense gaze into the clockwork of nature, a calculating and measuring embrace of nature, would enable human control. That aspiration to control nature at the foundation of science was another transcendence of nature by intelligence, and yet it was a vision in which humans belong in nature instead of outside it.

There is still a whiff of transcendence in the Baroque attitude to math, especially geometry, a sublime realm available to pure reason. Yet that transcendence is relevant mainly in the service of science. There is also a whiff of the taint of original sin on human nature, seen as mainly selfish appetites and ambitions. For Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), humans are selfish atomic egos in a war of all against all. Hobbes envisioned a distinction between that “state of nature” and the social contract, which shows awareness of cultural contributions to individuals in everyday activities, especially from institutions of sovereign power: law enforcement and courts, and also other symbols of national belonging including warfare. Hobbes understood culture, in the form of enforceable law, as a gift from secular sovereign power, and so represents the movement away from Christian theocracy.

Both lower and higher natures are clearly present in Hobbes’ account of civil society. The innate force of natural self-preservation or self-interest acted as a centrifugal force that tended to prevent formation of, or to break down, social attachments. This is very similar to Augustine. Hobbes gives the impression that social attachments are fragile and difficult to achieve, “unnatural” in a certain sense and so not to be engineered into experimental forms once civil society is established. Hobbes did not deny the importance of rationality in these self-preserving atoms, and argued that rationality enabled people to agree to a contract to create civil society by establishing a sovereign with the power of life and death over his subjects. The egoistic force could be controlled by a rational fear of death imposed by a sovereign. Rational self-interest was taken seriously because rationality could be conceived as the region of self-interest which searches for relevant facts, and judges their strategic meaning.

Philosophers have always been dealing with the agonies of being in a life in the world. (Agony and misery are markers of individuality. Each individual must supply his or her own way through.) The world is dangerous on a biological/ natural level, a political/ cultural level, and on a conceptual level. In the history of philosophy, concern over the misery of the objective world was gradually replaced by concern over nature’s brute determinism. Development of science in the seventeenth century contributed to a shift from the focus on misery to a focus on determinism, and the Baroque rationalists were part of that. It makes a difference because to transcend misery you seek tranquility and calm, you rise above passions which are the turmoil of experience, and in doing so establish a more authentic self-possession. In the struggle against misery, calm and strategic rationality look like transcendent freedom. By contrast, to transcend determinism you need a richer sort of freedom. Stoic rationality was not free enough to transcend scientific determinism. To transcend determinism, freedom needs to be conceived as unpredictability or whimsy as it is in romanticism.

Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.