This semester I have been teaching Spinoza’s Ethics to close out the course. Although I have had bad experiences teaching the Ethics and Leibniz in the past, this year, for some reason, it has been a pure pleasure. Once you are finally able to penetrate the propositions and their supporting arguments, a beautiful structure begins to emerge, where each proposition builds on the previous proposition, gradually building to greater and greater complexity and taking the reader from truths that are almost self-evident and hardly in need of proof (e.g., “Substance is by nature prior to its affections or qualities”), to surprising and disturbing conclusions (that nature and God are identical; that God is not a sovereign ruling over nature and preferring one set of beings over another, but that instead God creates everything that God can create by necessity; that values and morals are not intrinsic to things, but products of how our bodies relate to other bodies in terms of benefit; that there are no purposes or ends to nature, only efficient causes; that God cannot be compelled or persuaded to act, but only acts according to the necessity of his own being; etc). One by one, Spinoza challenges the root claims of traditional theology and organized religion, showing how these claims are in contradiction with God’s essence. In developing these arguments he institutes a thorough-going immanent naturalism sans any dimension of transcendence or vertical being.

Spinoza is crafty and devious. What makes his arguments so ingenious and devious is that unlike the materialistic atheist that simply denies the existence of God on materialistic grounds, Spinoza works within the theological tradition, drawing on definitions inherited directly from Aristotle and Medieval Jewish and Christian theology, painstakingly demonstrating that when these definitions and axioms are followed through logically, they entail these conclusions and no others (granting, of course, that his arguments are sound). In other words, Spinoza shows that it is theology itself that leads to these conclusions. As a result, there is something of the uncanny in Spinoza. Just as Freud’s unheimlich is a sort of effect of the heimlich, the homely, the familiar, such that what is familiar suddenly presents itself in a completely unfamiliar way– for example, your image in a mirror begins speaking to you and moving about when you are not –Spinoza takes the familiar concepts of theology, retains them, and completely inverts them in a way that renders them thoroughly unfamiliar, unheimlich, and even a bit terrifying.

Not surprisingly, a number of my students immediately gravitate towards questions of morality in relation to Spinoza’s thought. If, as Spinoza argues, God does not reward nor punish a person for living a moral life, and if, as Spinoza argues, values are a matter of the relation of our body to other bodies in terms of whether these other bodies increase or diminish our power of acting, and if, as Spinoza argues, God has no preference for what is or is not, for how we live our lives, then how can Spinoza have any place for ethics or morality? For example, God creates Jeffrey Dahmer and Dahmer’s existence follows from God’s nature as one of the modes that can exist following from the attributes of extension and thought. Insofar as Dahmer can exist, he therefore must exist by virtue of God’s absolute infinity and the fact that God’s activity is limited in no way. God has no preference for Jesus, Mother Theresa, or Dahmer, but creates all of these modes as they are possible variations of particular attributes (the essence of substance). Any preference for one mode over another arises not from God’s will or desire, but from relations among modes themselves. In other words, one calls Dahmer bad because he diminishes your power of acting by drilling holds in your head and eating your flesh. In short, Dahmer diminishes your power of acting.

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Spinoza’s ethical philosophy is thus closer to a branch of medicine or health sciences than to a deontological ethical theory based on normative principles. In this connection, everything follows from his concept of conatus: “Each thing, in so far as it is in itself, endeavors to persist in its own being” (Part III, Prop 6). Just as I do not eat barbecue three times a day despite the fact, as my students say, it is delicious (and therefore good in some respect for my body), because it causes me to gain weight, threatens heart disease, and makes me fatigued, I strive to act ethically in relation to others because doing so enhances my power of acting and preserves my conatus. In other words, eating well and exercising, while guaranteeing nothing, increases the probability that I will be healthy and increases my body’s capacity for acting. Pursuing knowledge and understanding of true causes diminishes my fear (by freeing me from superstition) and increases my ability to control my circumstances. And treating others well increases the probability that others will treat me well in return (though it doesn’t guarantee this), and therefore creates more opportunities for me, more harmonious relations with others, and a greater control of my existence.

As Spinoza will say, “By virtue and power I mean the same thing; that is (Pr. 7, Part III on conatus), virtue, in so far as it is related to man, is man’s very essence, or nature, in so far as he has power to bring about that which can be understood through the laws of nature” (Def. 8, Part IV). The term “virtue” comes from the Latin virtus and “virtutem“, referring to moral strength, manliness, valor, excellence, or worth. It is a translation of the Greek concept of “ἀρετή” or “arete, referring to “excellence”. Thus, far from being a set of prohibitions or limitations, virtue is instead potency or power, an excellence. The ἀρετή of an eagle, for example, is its keen sight, its swift flight, its prowess hunting, etc. The question is thus what is ἀρετή for a human being?


For Spinoza this is, of course, an open question as “the human body can be affected in many ways by which its power of activity is increased or diminished; and also in many other ways which neither increase nor diminish its power of activity” (Post. 1, Part III), and “…nobody as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities; that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do…” (Prop. 2, Schol.). In other words, there is a sort of Olympian athleticism to Spinoza’s concept of virtue or power, involving the exploration of the body’s power or what it can do (something that would be explored through art, science, reason, politics, friendship, love, engineering, sport, etc.). At the very least, however, social relationships will necessarily be a part of human ἀρετή. As Spinoza puts it,

…nothing is more advantageous to man than man. Men, I repeat, can wish for nothing more excellent for preserving their own being than that they should all be in such harmony in all respects that their minds and bodies should compose, as it were, one mind and one body, and that all together should endeavor as best they can to preserve their own being, and that all together they should aim at the common advantage of all. From this it follows that men who are governed by reason, that is men who aim at their own advantage under the guidance of reason, see nothing for themselves that they would not desire for the rest of mankind; and so are just, faithful and honorable. (Prop. 18, Schol.)

One need only watch Cast Away with Tom Hanks or an episode of Survivorman with Les Stroud, to see the truth of this. Les, for example, spends the vast majority of his time searching for food, often failing, leaving little time for anything else. Thus, as I argued in “Towards a Critique of the Politics of the Void“, perhaps the burning question of political philosophy is not that of how a subject of the political is possible, but rather that of how it is possible to form a collective assemblage is possible. This question becomes especially crucial in an age of commodity fetishism, where our relations to others are masked or recede into the background (like Heidegger’s “worldhood of the world”) and take on the appearance of being relations to things or objects, thereby generating a sense of abstract individualism where we experience ourselves as being independent of collective relations. The question here is one of freedom and bondage, or what increases my power of acting and what diminishes that power. Collective relations are, in this connection, crucial to promoting the possibility of ἀρετή.


Much to my delight, the student (who is quite bright) who raised these concerns immediately responded with the exclamation “But that is socialist! Humans are sinful by nature and capitalist!” Here, I think, we encounter one of the fundamental ideological maneuvers in America. In The Usual Suspects Verbal remarks that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. This is certainly the case with arguments for capitalism and against socialism in the United States.


The unspoken premises of this claim are clear. Setting aside the fact that Spinoza lived in Amsterdam during the flourishing of the early rise of capitalism (and, as Negri points out in The Savage Anomaly, appearing to whole-heartedly endorse this economic system), the stark alternative the student is drawing is between altruism as a motive of action on the one hand and egoism or self-interest on the other hand. The claim that humans are, by nature, egoistic is the claim that they only act on behalf of their own personal self-interest, are therefore naturally competitive, and are therefore naturally prone to corruption and deceit. On the one hand, the position seems to be that socialism is impossible because humans are naturally prone to corruption. It is odd that this argument is made again and again, despite the fact that, as Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine aptly demonstrates in spades (everyone, really, should read this book), neoliberal economic policies again and again lead to rife corruption and brutality, contrary to democracy, despite protestations to the contrary. The idea is that the only thing that could compel me to live ethically is a fear of punishment or damnation by God, thereby leading me to the conclusion that moral life is in my own selfish self-interest. Virtue cannot be, as Spinoza argued, “blessedness”, where “blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself. We do not enjoy blessedness because we keep our lusts in check. On the contrary, it is because we enjoy blessedness that we are able to keep our lusts in check” (Prop. 42, Part V). On the other hand, the argument seems to be that since humans are not altruistic, our only alternative is “healthy” capitalism.


However, if there is one thing the free market ideologues in the United States have never understood or admitted, it is that socialism never was and never has been about altruism, but has always been about self-interest. One does not pursue regulated economies, re-distribution of wealth, worker management, collective struggle, unionization, etc., out of some special love or selfless altruism directed at one’s fellow humans, but precisely out of the desire to maximize the conatus or ἀρετή of one’s own being. Nothing is more beneficial to humans than other humans. And through combining my body with the bodies of others, I am able to form a collective assemblage, a common, that enhances both my own power of acting, and our power of acting. My freedom is therefore deepened and enhanced. It is enhanced through a distribution of labor that frees up time for all those involved so that other ends might be pursued. It is enhanced through increased protection from those more powerful than I, who would exploit me and the system to their own benefit. It is enhanced through companionship through which I build with others, explore ideas, and with whom I create.


What Spinoza presents is thus not an altruism, but an enlightened egoism… An egoism that is cognizant of our complex relations to the world and others as both constraints and conditions for our freedom and power. Far from the abolition of individualism and freedom, collective assemblages are the condition for individualism and freedom insofar as the create the space and time whereby it might become possible for me to cultivate and develop myself according to the virtual singularities or tendencies of my own conatus or essence, and by protecting me from my fellow man who might exploit and oppress me. My freedom or power is grounded in an increased mastery of my world around me which can only be achieved collectively through reason. Does it come as any surprise that an ideology like neoliberal economics, that produces a squalorly life for so many and such limited freedom and opportunity for the majority, can only sustain itself by filling the heads of the multitudes with superstitious mythologies, and convincing them that what is in fact in their interest is instead a matter of an implausible altruism that would be contrary to their interest? As Spinoza remarks, “…he who seeks the true causes of miracles and is eager to understand the works of nature as a scholar, and not just to gape at them like a fool, is universally considered an impious heretic and denounced by those to whom the common people bow down as interpreters of Nature and gods. For these people know that the dispelling of ignorance would entail the disappearance of that sense of aw which is the one and only support for their argument and for the safeguarding of their authority or power” (Part I, Appendix).

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