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Chance & Human Error in Spinoza and Lucretius

Melissa Shew chances to wonder about the influence of doubt and human error in our lives.

The Roman Epicurean philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus (c 99-55BC) lived seventeen centuries before Baruch Spinoza, and at first glance they seem almost complete opposites. Lucretius’ universe began with a ‘chance swerve’; he wants human beings to desire and experience pleasure; and he writes what amounts, in essence, to a cosmological poem. Spinoza’s universe is generally taken as well-ordered; he urges human beings to an intellect unified with the whole of nature; and he writes the opposite of poetry, such as the dry and mathematically-arranged Ethics. We may push the contrast even further: for Spinoza, doubt – along with error and wonder – is fundamentally a privation of knowledge, signifying something that must be actively overcome through the intellect to achieve a better understanding. On the contrary, Lucretius urges us to doubt (and wonder, though not so much to err) so that we might see for ourselves the truth of things in our very doubting, or to discover something about the nature of human beings. In his great poem De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things) Lucretius writes: “It is more effective to gauge a person in times of doubt and danger, and to learn what they are like in adversity. For then at last real voices are extracted from the bottom of the heart and the mask is ripped off: reality remains.” (III 55-58)

Let us explore the roles of doubt, wonder, and human error as they relate to a particularly obscure idea in philosophy: the roles of chance or fortune in human life. By looking carefully at the twofold role that chance plays in Lucretius’ cosmos, as both the generative principle of the universe and a possible source for human error, we can better understand the suspicions that Spinoza harbors about chance and fortune in human life. Thus we can see error, doubt, and wonder positively in Spinoza, for it is in these moments that he speaks perhaps most profoundly about the human condition.


Lucretius’ poem deals with at least two kinds of chance. The first is a cosmological ‘principle of creation’, without which “nature never would have created anything” (II 224). This principle is the clinamen, or chance swerve. The clinamen denotes when something moves just slightly off a determined course to create something else – in the original case, the universe. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Lucretius’ poem is the relationship between the swerve and human activity, and freedom. What is the relationship between the chance motions of the universe and human action? Consider what Tim O’Keefe says: “The swerve is not involved directly in the production of free action; it is not supposed to secure the agent as the arche [source] of either his character or his actions; it is not needed to protect the emergent self from the threat of reductionism” (in Epicurus on Freedom (2005), p123). Our minds, rather than a chance swerve, carry us where we want to go because we desire certain pleasures (p31). The mind moves itself independently of the rest of the universe, letting pleasure be its guide.

Against this reading of Lucretius as proposing the separation between human action and the chance swervings of the universe, Walter Englert argues in Epicurus on the Swerve and Voluntary Action (1987) that the swerve “is the source of motion within us, and is involved in every action” (p66). Located within human beings as much as in the whole of the cosmos, the swerve sets everything in motion, from our bodies to our minds; everything is bound to the motions of the swerve as it originates both externally to human beings and internally as well.

The second, less familiar, type of chance at work in Lucretius’ poem is found in his references to how we experience both the universe and the poet’s own words. He believes that our own ‘swerving experiences’ spill into the task of interpretation, or how we encounter the flux of the cosmos. Roughly half of the references to chance in On The Nature of Things concern themselves with this second type of chance. Thus, during his discussion of the void, he says that “if someone by chance should happen to think that this occurs when the bodies leap apart because the air compresses itself, he errs” (I 391). Or we might “by chance… think that souls make their escape” during sleep (IV 37); this error would be grave, according to Lucretius. And he says “If by chance you believe that the same things existed before” that exist now, and that there is stasis in the universe, then this is also an error (V 338-9).

From these examples, we might be tempted to agree with Englert’s reading of Lucretius in saying that chance, in fact, causes us to err, as if the source of our erring in determining the nature of the universe stems from an ‘errant principle’. However, we do not know how these errors occur, ie, how it is that one can go awry in considering the cosmos and its creation, especially since the cosmos itself admits of detours of the clinamen, as Lucretius explains. Are we not part of this creation? And as for interpretation, how are we to understand the poem itself, as Lucretius urges us to trust his words, while paradoxically noting throughout that words themselves are impoverished (I 138), that we create new words for many things (I 137), and that language must adapt to the changing ways of nature?

These problems notwithstanding, Lucretius’ emphasis on the possibility of error can help us understand Spinoza’s suspicion of chance in his Theological-Political Treatise and Spinoza’s initially puzzling indictment of wonder as error in his Short Treatise on God, Man, and his Well-Being. As we shall see.


In his Theological-Political Treatise, Baruch Spinoza casts people’s reliance on chance or fortune as superstition, seeing it as a reaction to our human inability to manage our own affairs or understand the true nature of the universe. In the preface Spinoza writes, “If men could manage all their affairs by a certain plan, or if fortune were always favorable to them, they would never be in the grip of superstition” (III/5). But since “all men by nature are liable to superstition,” this superstition takes the following form: “If, while [people] are tormented by fear, they see something happen which reminds them of some past good or evil, they think that it portends either a fortunate or unfortunate outcome, and for that reason they call it a favorable or unfavorable omen, even though it may deceive them a hundred times.” The reason for believing or trusting in chance or fortune, then, is that we generally vacillate between hope and fear, and our “immoderate desire for the uncertain goods of fortune” tends to give us hope. Such hope, however, seems as misplaced as expecting that one can – and will – win the lottery.

It is worth spending time on these opening passages, however, to investigate how our misplaced trust in turns of good fortune ultimately leads to our being deceived about the nature of the universe. About these opening lines, Spinoza translator Martin Yaffe writes, “What is bad about [superstition] is that it is so deceiving. It deepens our worries instead of lifting them. According to Spinoza, people turn to superstitious behavior out of a mixture of overconfidence and desperation.” In other words, when we long for goods we can’t or don’t have, or when we suffer and wish we didn’t, then wishing and hoping for good fortune follows.

But how should one respond to such human concerns? To understand Spinoza in these passages, it might be helpful to pay attention to how we hear Spinoza’s words: If human beings could see the future, secure the goods they want, and achieve soundness of heart, free from worry, then trust in chance, reliance on fortune and, ultimately, belief in superstition wouldn’t be necessary. While one could take this as setting the stage for his ‘real’ concern (religious belief and the superstition it often entails), it might be helpful to understand the emphasis on the ‘if’ and ‘then’ as an ‘if’ and a ‘then’ which very well might reveal Spinoza’s own hope for human beings.

As counterfactuals, ‘if’ and ‘then’ can denote wishful thinking. If I had won the lottery, then I wouldn’t be driving to work. If I win the lottery, then I will be happy not driving to work in future. Neither of these statements is any more realistic than the idea that human beings don’t hope for good things to happen to them or don’t trust in things unseen or unproven. We might respond to Yaffe’s interpretation, inspired by Spinoza’s own hopes in his On the Improvement of the Understanding (Tractatus De Intellectus Emendatione), and say instead that Spinoza’s interest in these passages is not so much in how we wish to be free from worry as in how we may attend to the truth, and in so doing realize the union that the mind has with the whole of nature. As is often the case with Spinoza, his high-minded goals of finding something true in nature – a certainty that the intellect can affirm – might override his concerns about human beings finding themselves in the grips of superstition because of our desire to be free of worry and suffering.

My suspicion is that in his prefatory remarks, Spinoza speaks less about superstition per se than he does about the role that chance plays in our lives, not by some cosmic force but through our emotions and imaginations. Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd say, “Where the Stoics saw hope and fear as resting on false beliefs about the importance of what lies beyond human control, and freedom as residing in a retreat to reason, Spinoza’s way of ‘conquering fortune’ rests on the use of reason to understand the operations of imagination and the passions. His version of the life of reason acknowledges the inevitability of hope and fear, along with the other passions. The power of reason resides not in shedding them but in understanding them and, to that extent, becoming free” (in Collective Imaginings: Spinoza Past and Present, p32). That is, if we can understand how ‘fortune’ operates in human thinking, then we can be free from our indebtedness to it by virtue of the intellect.

Such a premise sounds promising: simply understand that we only wish good things for ourselves through the imagination and the passions, not the light of reason, and we can free ourselves from the shackles of chance, thereby gaining control of our lives, or at least warding off deceit. For Gatens and Lloyd, “fickle fortune and implacable fate both dissolve in the reintegration of reason, imagination and emotion” (p65). Through the interplay of reason (which attends to the truth of things), imagination (which itself contains no error), and emotion (which tells us ways we are affected by the world), we can see hope in chance for what it is: a privation of knowledge about the truth of things.

It may be so. It could be that our dependence on wishful thinking comes from our inability to understand the world around us through the keen use of our intellect; or it may be that our hopes for good turns of fortune arise from a deeply rooted need to alleviate the worries that we have in life. However, what troubles me is not Spinoza’s scorn about how we mistakenly trust in things we don’t or can’t know, but that he himself seems to trust what he can’t see or know in other ways. I have in mind here Spinoza’s letter to Oldenburg, in which he says that while he can’t ‘prove’ that the universe and our roles in it are akin to the relationship between the worm and the blood, he is led to believe that our relationship to reality is similar to what the worm itself sees: we must trust in something in order to get to the truth of things.

No Wonder

More perplexing than Spinoza’s question about how we come to have knowledge about the universe, are his remarks about wonder and how it signifies a lack of knowledge. In the Short Treatise, Spinoza writes, “Many Philosophers… have deluded themselves into thinking that beyond this plot of ground, or little globe, on which they are, there is nothing more (because they have seen nothing else). But there is no wonder in him who draws true conclusions” (p157/5). In this passage, we could see wonder either way: as a positive thing for those who are mistakenly convinced that their ‘plot of ground’ is all that there is; or as something to be disparaged in favor of a kind of certainty drawn from true conclusions. A few pages later, Spinoza seems to prefer the latter reading, saying that wonder “arises either from ignorance or from prejudice [and] is an imperfection in the man who is subject to this emotion,” although Spinoza does qualify this to say that wonder “through itself does not lead to any evil” (p161/25), and thus is not itself evil. Spinoza nonetheless maintains that one who wonders is not experiencing joy (as it’s called in the Short Treatise), or happiness (as it’s called in the TIE), or Spinoza’s grand goal, the unification of the intellect with the whole of nature. Wonder, in this sense, is a kind of error that must be overcome to get to the truth of the matter.

And so it is that we have at least two kinds of ways in which human beings err – either through mistakenly placing trust in things like chance and good fortune, which is dangerous because it deceives us into thinking things are probable when they’re not; or through the act of wondering, which also denotes a lack of knowledge or keenness of intellect. If we depend on unforeseen things or turns of events, then we err; if we wonder, then we don’t know the true state of affairs, and our intellect is impoverished. If so, then most human beings are undergoing privations of intellect, for surely most of us don’t know the true nature of the universe or our place in it.

I’d like to resist this reading of Spinoza as seeing human beings as impoverished, unknowing, and fundamentally lacking in significant ways – not because it seems unfair to the human condition, but because of the extent to which Spinoza would thus seem to undermine his own project to reject a mechanistic view of nature and of human life, by not giving enough credit to any of the potentially misleading passions: hatred, sadness, disdain, fear, etc. These passions are seen as potentially destructive by Spinoza, by and large, but they shape and guide our lives.

Spinoza is himself not immune to hope and error, try though he might to resist them in his quest for a good that leads to joy and eternity. In the TIE he describes his task to reach a certain good and how he must relinquish certain evils as follows: “I saw that I was in the greatest danger, and that I was forced to seek a remedy with all my strength, however uncertain it might be – like a man suffering from a fatal illness, who, foreseeing certain death unless he employs a remedy, is forced to seek it, however uncertain, with all his strength. For all his hope lies there” (II/7). I do not take this to be simply poetic; rather, it is an apt response to the human situation. That is, even Spinoza hopes against hope for a remedy for what ails him, however uncertain it may be. He does not decide the nature of this remedy any more than he ensures that one exists; rather, hope itself propels him to find it.

We might be tempted to say that this passage demonstrates a trust in something unseen or unproven, as a reliance on chance or the experience of wonder does. In this way, then, we might be tempted to hold Spinoza accountable for relying on what he simply does not know. Or we might return to Lucretius. If Lucretius is right in saying we can gauge a person in times of doubt and danger, for it is in these moments that she is uncovered and reveals reality, then we might be able to use this passage to resist readings of Spinoza that demand perfection from us and nothing else. The moments in which we hope for good things and fear that they may not happen might not be too far from Spinoza’s own experience either.

A Chance To Reflect

To be honest, I am uneasy with Spinoza’s thinking about chance and wonder. I’m not sure whether this is because I am so fond of the Greek thinkers whose sustained and provocative treatments of these matters are compelling, or because I myself have from time to time relied on chance or experienced wonder. I can’t quite get to the bottom of it, but something is fishy here: Spinoza simply can’t maintain the disapproving view he seems to hold about our relationship to fortune in the Theological-Political Treatise; for while the rest of the text admonishes us to apply our intellects and thereby discover our misplaced trust in things we hold dear, the fact remains that we live with little insight into the nature of the universe. While I’m not advocating surrendering to blind faith in chance, or willingly allowing oneself to be deceived when the truth is painful, I do think that the ways in which we lack knowledge through (what amounts to) trust and wonder speak clearly about human reality. As Spinoza admits, we do indeed hope for that which is beyond our grasp. He knows this first-hand.

We could see this hoping as being at odds with the intellect, and thus hope to overcome the deprivation of our intellect through the life of reason. However, even in saying “hope to overcome” here, we can see that hope may be necessary in our endeavor to be more reasonable, not anathema to it. As for the role of chance in the universe, Spinoza might say to Lucretius that there is no good reason for him to agree that the clinamen is the generative principle of nature; but neither should Spinoza completely dismiss this thinking, either.

Taking Lucretius and Spinoza together leads me to conclude that, while Spinoza certainly does aim for an enlightened intellect that can deduce the truth of things, he also very much understands Lucretius’ impetus to a life of pleasure. It’s the kind of pleasure that’s questionable, however – for unlike Descartes, who seeks certainty in the sciences, Spinoza seeks a certain kind of joy, and hopes with all of his might to discover it.

As I was finishing this article, a professor at Marquette University, where I’m currently teaching, gave me a book to return to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where I am also teaching. He didn’t know what I was working on, nor did he know the nature of the questions I’d been investigating, but I opened the book at random and was confronted with this passage: “Strongly hinted at in Descartes, valiantly resisted in Leibniz, and most uncompromisingly proclaimed in Spinoza, there is the recognition that man has to live in an inconceivably vast and inscrutable universe which operates largely without reference to the concerns of mankind. It is the universe which we can recognize as our own” (John Cottingham, The Rationalists, p185). These words resonate with me in thinking about Spinoza and Lucretius: while we may never know the true nature of the universe, while we may lack knowledge and be deprived of a sufficiently keen intellect, and while we may mistake chance for a cause which ultimately deceives us, I think that Spinoza would agree that such is our human plight: it is what we recognize as our own.

At the beginning of his poem Lucretius says: “I am afraid of one thing in all of this: that you might think that you are starting on the first steps of an unholy system of thought, and are walking the path of a crime” (I 80-82). This fear is why, a bit later, he hedges his bets, saying that “these little traces are enough for a keen intellect, and by their means you are able to discover the rest on your own” (I 402-403). These little traces: are they enough for one’s intellect, however keen it might be? We might say that perhaps we could discover the rest on our own if we heed not only Spinoza’s warnings concerning superstition and our own propensity for error, but also the ways in which these errors shape our lives, as Spinoza knows; and if we heed the way our ignorance reminds us, as Lucretius does, of the necessity of wonder as preparation for, and proper to, philosophy.

© Melissa M. Shew 2008

Melissa Shew is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Marquette University. She has just completed a PhD thesis on the phenomenon of chance in Ancient Greek philosophy at Oregon University.

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