Spinoza


thebirds

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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Periodically, or not so periodically, I go through a crisis, wondering what it is that I do and why it is that I do it. On the one hand, I perpetually feel as if my thought is haunted by chaos or an inability to think. Where to begin? What questions to ask? For what purpose or end? I feel as if my thought proceeds by sudden bursts of insights, perpetual new beginnings, but lacks in systematic elaboration, a guiding question, or even a sense of what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I am able to try on philosophies in much the same way that one might try on different outfits. The equivalent would consist in dressing now like a chef, now like a doctor, now like a police officer, now like a judge, now like a hippie, now like a punk, where each of these garbs implies a particular code and grammar pertaining to a social identity. On this day I am a phenomenologist, the next a rationalist, the next an empiricist, the next a pragmatist, the next a semiotician, the next a Hegelian, etc. The only constant is an abiding love of Lucretius, Spinoza, Whitehead, and Deleuze, coupled with an abiding distrust of those philosophical approaches which make the subject, language, or various cultural formations the lens through which everything else is filtered.

On the other hand, I perpetually feel crushed by the impotence of philosophy. I confess that I should know better. I confess that I should know that reason and persuasion are impotent. Yet I can’t help but yearn for these things. I can’t help but entertain the dark Platonic desire that philosophy have the power to transform the world and society through the power of persuasion and discourse. I wonder why it is that discourse is so fraught, why it seems to be perpetually so hostile and contentious. I have answers or hypotheses to these questions. I think I know why based on what I understand about the human passions, desire as elaborated by psychoanalysis and Deleuze and Guattari, and ideology. Yet I can’t quite accept my own answers. I still yearn for it not to be this way. I think of the earnest and beautiful Spinoza, that prince of philosophers who only lived for forty five years yet still managed to say so much and with such elegance and brevity. I think about the Theologico-Politico Treatise and what he was trying to accomplish with that magnificent text. I marvel at how he managed to be so naive in his ambitions with that text despite his account of the human emotions in Book III of the Ethics.

Whether in heated philosophical discussions or political discussions, the same principles can be observed everywhere. In the Ethics, Spinoza writes, “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (3p6). From this, it follows by implication that “The mind as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the body’s power of acting” (3p12). As a consequence, “When the mind imagines those things that diminish or restrain the body’s power of acting, it strives, as far as it can, to recollect things which exclude their existence” (3p13). Within these three propositions is really contained the entire comedy of “communicative reason” or its perpetual failure. Just as massive stellar objects bend and distort movement in their vicinity, intense love (Spinoza’s name for our attachment to those things we believe enhance our body’s power of acting) functions like a gravitational singularity that bends and twists thought with respect to everything in the vicinity of the beloved object. As Freud puts it, we overestimate the worth of the love object such that thought swerves in the vicinity of the beloved object, endeavoring to ignore or miss any negative features attached to that object. This would be the root principle of the criticism of those who support Obama, arguing that they are hypnotized or have fallen into a cult in their idealized love of him. Likewise, when confronted with one who does not share our love, thought endeavors to imagine those things that exclude the existence of the thing threatening the beloved object. “From the mere fact that we imagine a thing to have some likeness to an object which usually affects the mind with joy or sadness, we love it or hate it, even though that in which the thing is like the object is not the efficient cause of these affects” (3p16).

It would thus appear that thought is haunted by a two-fold unreason that perpetually undermines the possibility of dialogue from within. On the one hand, in its love it idealizes what it loves, seeking to exclude in thought those things that detract from the action enhancing qualities of the beloved object, such that it is unable to properly evaluate the beloved object. On the other hand, in its hate, thought is unable to attend to the claims of the hated, seeking instead to imagine what would exclude their existence. Often the situation is a bit like that depicted in The Sixth Sense. The boy can see the ghosts, but everyone else is blind to them. Likewise, in our love (and why would we pursue anything without loving it?) or in our hate, entire segments of the world become downright invisible, as if they don’t even exist, such that their effects is only discernible by the neutral observer, watching in perplexity at the odd behavior of those involved. One could write an entire theory of the various rhetorical techniques and informal fallacies, a physics of sorts, showing not how they are the products of the malicious and dishonest manipulator of language, but are rather effects, similar to gravitational effects on motion produced by mass, that arise from various distributions of love and hate in the Spinozist sense. It turns out that one cannot trust one’s own thought (as it is always love and hate that spur thought) nor the thought of the other, nor trust in the possibility of consensus, as thought is always plagued by its passionate (dis)attachments.

Yet if this is the case, if truth is an infinitely receding horizon by virtue of the swerves produced by the love and hate that haunt thought, what possibly can be the aim of philosophy? What is it that philosophy ought to do?

BOOK III, PROP. XL. He, who conceives himself to be hated by another, and believes that he has given him no cause for hatred, will hate that other in return.

Note.–He who thinks that he has given just cause for hatred will (III. xxx. and note) be affected with shame; but this case (III. xxv.) rarely happens. This reciprocation of hatred may also arise from the hatred, which follows an endeavour to injure the object of our hate (III. xxxix.). He therefore who conceives that he is hated by another will conceive his enemy as the cause of some evil or pain; thus he will be affected with pain or fear, accompanied by the idea of his enemy as cause; in other words, he will be affected with hatred towards his enemy, as I said above.

Corollary I.–He who conceives, that one whom he loves hates him, will be a prey to conflicting hatred and love. For, in so far as he conceives that he is an object of hatred, he is determined to hate his enemy in return. But, by the hypothesis, he nevertheless loves him: wherefore he will be a prey to conflicting hatred and love.

Corollary II.–If a man conceives that one, whom he has hitherto regarded without emotion, has done him any injury from motives of hatred, he will forthwith seek to repay the injury in kind.

Note.–The endeavour to injure one whom we hate is called Anger; the endeavour to repay in kind injury done to ourselves is called Revenge.

BOOK III, PROP. XXXIX. He who hates anyone will endeavour to do him an injury, unless he fears that a greater injury will thereby accrue to himself; on the other hand, he who loves anyone will, by the same law, seek to benefit him.

Note.–By good I here mean every kind of pleasure, and all that conduces thereto, especially that which satisfies our longings, whatsoever they may be. By evil, I mean every, kind of pain, especially that which frustrates our longings. For I have shown (III. ix. note) that we in no case desire a thing because we deem it good, but, contrariwise, we deem a thing good because we desire it: consequently we deem evil that which we shrink from; everyone, therefore, according to his particular emotions, judges or estimates what is good, what is bad, what is better, what is worse, lastly, what is best, and what is worst. Thus a miser thinks that abundance of money is the best, and want of money the worst; an ambitious man desires nothing so much as glory, and fears nothing so much as shame. To an envious man nothing is more delightful than another’s misfortune, and nothing more painful than another’s success. So every man, according to his emotions, judges a thing to be good or bad, useful or useless. The emotion, which induces a man to turn from that which he wishes, or to wish for that which he turns from, is called timidity, which may accordingly be defined as the fear whereby a man is induced to avoid an evil which he regards as future by encountering a lesser evil (III. xxviii.). But if the evil which he fears be shame, timidity becomes bashfulness. Lastly, if the desire to avoid a future evil be checked by the fear of another evil, so that the man knows not which to choose, fear becomes consternation, especially if both the evils feared be very great.

BOOK III, PROP. XXXVIII. If a man has begun to hate an object of his love, so that love is thoroughly destroyed, he will, causes being equal, regard it with more hatred than if he had never loved it, and his hatred will be in proportion to the strength of his former love.

BOOK III, PROP. XXXVII. Desire arising through pain or pleasure, hatred or love, is greater in proportion as the emotion is greater.

BOOK III, PROP. XXXVI. He who remembers a thing, in which he has once taken delight, desires to possess it under the same circumstances as when he first took delight therein.

Corollary.–A lover will, therefore, feel pain if one of the aforesaid attendant circumstances be missing.

Note.–This pain, in so far as it has reference to the absence of the object of love, is called Regret.

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