The Mastery of the Passions – Lecture 3

So far, in our lectures on Spinoza,  we have been speaking about how our affects determine our actions, rather than how our actions can determine our affects. We have already seen an indication of this reversal in the previous lecture when we examined Deleuze’s explanation of Spinoza’s practical philosophy as the transmutation of passive to active joy. We should not underestimate how strange this transformation is, as the phrase ‘active joy’ is, on the face of it, a contradiction. How can an affect, which joy is (one of the primary ones along with sadness and desire), which by definition must be something passive, since affects are caused (notice the passive construction!) by the effects of external objects on the body, and their interrelation with the imagination, becomes something active? The answer to this question, as shall see, is the possibility of a different relation to affects; rather than having an inadequate understanding of affects through my misunderstanding of my relation of my body to other external bodies, where I would be at the mercy of one passion following the other, I relate to my affects through my understanding.

The aim of Spinoza here is not to rid us of our affects, since this is impossible, as we are part of nature and always vulnerable to being affected by an external objects, but to have greater control and rule over them through a better understanding of external bodies. As Spinoza writes in the appendix of part 4 (4ApXXXII), human power is limited and easily overpowered by external causes, and this means that we do not have absolute power to determine the things that are outside of us. We ought to bear calmly what happen to us, even in relation to the ‘principle of self-interest’. We need to understand that we are not separate from the universe but part of it, and thus many things are outside of our control. If we understand this then we will be content, for the better part of us will be affected by this idea, namely the understanding. From the understanding we accept necessity, and thus we agree with the ‘order of nature’.

One way of agreeing with the ‘order of nature’ is to understand that there is no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in Nature itself. In the preface to part 4, Spinoza argues that people see nature as being good or evil, because they project human ideas upon it. We imagine something is perfect because it accomplishes the intention of the author of the work. Thus, if I see a house that is not completed then I will say that it is imperfect, and if it is accomplished, perfect. If I don’t know what the intention of the person who built it, then I can’t be sure whether it is perfect or imperfect. So then we form universal ideas of things, and ‘perfect’ begins to mean anything which embodies a universal idea, and this is true both of natural and artificial ideas. Thus we can call a man ‘imperfect’ because he doesn’t represent the universal idea of what a man should be. These ideas are models, and because they view Nature as having an end, purpose or function, we think that it has to fulfil these models, and if it doesn’t, then it has somehow failed, or worse ‘sinned’.

This idea of Nature being imperfect or perfect is a prejudice and does not rise from true knowledge. We will see that this is an important argument of the appendix to part 1, where Spinoza rejects the idea of finality of nature in which people imagine that God has created the world for the sake of fulfilling their desires and for no other reason. This is all part of his refusal of any anthropomorphism. The eternal infinite being (God or Nature) acts from necessity – the necessity of its action is the same as the necessity of existence (IP16). It exists for no end and acts for no end, it just is. The notion of a final cause is only the relative explanation of human desire, and not Nature or God. In the same way, good and evil are not positive descriptions. They too are modes of thought or notions, which we form when we compare things. Thus one and the same thing can be either good or bad, or not even good or bad, at difference times. These words do not indicate anything intrinsic to a thing or to Nature in general.

As Lloyd argues, in the axioms to part 4, Spinoza tells us that there is nothing in nature that cannot be destroyed by some external cause which is stronger than it, and yet guided by human reason we can become free (Lloyd 1996, pp.84–5). How can we both be dependent on the external world and at the same time be free? Most philosophers, like Descartes, would argue that true freedom is an escape from affects. It is not a contradiction because of the interconnection of imagination and the affects which were described in Part 3. Because we are finite modes of infinite substance we are subject to external causes of which we cannot have true knowledge nor can we be the origin. It is how we react to this dependence which is important. It is not a question therefore of restricting the emotions to a separate realm and acting only through reason (impossible for human beings), but to avoid the ‘determining power of the emotions’. The issue is whether one just passively undergoes the action of external causes, or whether the mind itself becomes the determining cause. And this has to do with understanding the causes of emotion; not abolishing, but understanding what causes them, and in this understanding we can have some determining power over them. We can then become the determinate cause of our affects rather than just the partial one through the inadequate idea of external things.

The key proposition in Part 4 is proposition 18: ‘A desire which arises from joy is stronger […] than one which arises from sadness.’ Spinoza explains, in the demonstration, that desire is the very essence of what it means to be a human being, or any being whatsoever, which is the striving to preserve one’s being, so a desire that is affected by joy is increased by the affect of joy, where one that is affected by sadness is decreased by it. The force that is created by joy is both ‘human power’ and the external cause, whereas sadness is defined through human power alone. It is we who make ourselves sad. In the scholium, Spinoza argues that this explains our lack of power, and why we are so stupid and irrational though we have the seeds of reason within us. What we need to see is what reason actually can give us, and which affects agree with reason and which do not. Reason demands nothing that is contrary to nature, therefore it is not against nature that ‘everyone should love themselves’, which means seek their advantage, but this means leading oneself to a greater perfection, and preserve one’s own being as far as one can. Virtue is nothing less than acting from one’s own nature, which is the same as striving for one’s own being, and happiness means nothing but being able to preserve one’s being. We, however, can never bring it about that we are not dependent on external things to preserve our being, since we cannot live without them. To be reasonable about affects is to know what one can have power over and what one cannot, but also to understand the external causes which determine the affects that we have. The point is that we must act by knowledge of what is really useful for us, and not by momentary feelings or false models of good and evil.

One way which we are dependent on external things is that we are not alone. We need to see that this is strength and not a weakness, since it belongs to our nature that we are not alone. As Spinoza continues in the scholium to proposition 18, that which is most excellent is what most agrees with our nature. Thus, if two individuals are of the same nature and they combine they would be doubly powerful. For human being there is nothing more useful for them than other human beings. We should want that all our minds and bodies ‘compose’ together. We desire to be with those people who are most like us to the extent that we could become one mind and one body. If people are governed by reason, and by reason they seek their own advantage, they would want nothing for themselves that they would not also wish for others, since this is to their own benefit.

As Bennett indicates, the issue is how Spinoza deduces a community or even common feeling from an ethics that seem so egotistical (Bennett 1984, p.299). Thoughtful egotism will make it obvious that my own interests can only be furthered if I care for the interest of others. It is not restraint or fear that makes me so desire, as though the state or some other outside force will threaten me if I do not take interests of others in regard, but I see this myself from my own reason. One source of this is that I can see that the other man is the same as me. Again reason transforms what appears to be dependency on an external cause, other people, into an active desire, the feeling for commonality and sociability. As Spinoza writes in proposition 35, we agree through reason and not through passions: ‘Only insofar as men live according to the guidance or reason, must they always agree in nature.’ In the corollary, he adds, that what is most useful for us is that we live according to reason, since what is most useful for us is what agrees with our nature, and we only act when we live through the dictates of reason and the understanding. We understand, therefore, that when we seek our own advantage what is most useful for us is other people. It also clear, according to our nature, he also writes in the scholium, that we cannot live a solitary live, since we are ‘social animals’. We thus gain more advantage than disadvantage by living with others. Let ‘the theologians’ and others despise human beings; it is only by joining forces with others that we can help ourselves:

So let the satirists laugh as much as they like at human affairs, let the theologians curse them, let melancholics praise as much as they can a life that is uncultivated as wild, let them disdain men and admire the lower animals. Men still find from experience that by helping one another they can provide themselves much more easily with the things that they require, and that only by joining forces can they avoid the dangers which threaten on all sides. (IVP35S)

Works Cited

Bennett, J., 1984. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, [Indianapolis, IN]: Hackett Pub. Co.

Lloyd, G., 1996. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics, London; New York: Routledge.


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