Spinoza’s Ethics – Lecture 1

Ancient philosophy sought to understand the power of emotions through the division of the mind against itself, like Plato’s famous image of the chariot in the Phaedrus, where the irrational part of the mind fights against the rational part. Spinoza, on the contrary, like Descartes, wants to understand emotions through the relation of the body to the mind. The human mind for Spinoza is only the idea of the body. We only have a limited understanding of what the body can do, and how it interacts with other bodies. Ethics, for Spinoza, is knowledge of our bodies. To truly understand ourselves is therefore to understand our bodies. As Spinoza writes at the end of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, ‘I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies.’ (EIII preface)

When we normally think about ethics, we assume there is some kind moral system that would prescribe our actions in advance. This moral system would be based on, and defend, some kind of moral ideal that separates human beings from the rest of nature. Only human beings are capable of moral action, because only human beings can have moral ideas such as responsibility, freedom and duty. To be moral is not to follow one’s nature, but quite the opposite; it is to go against nature. For Spinoza, on the contrary, ethics is only possible by understanding our own nature. There is no fact/value distinction for Spinoza. What is good is what follows our nature, and nature is to be understood in terms of our desires or appetites (thus it is perfectly possible to think that animals are capable of ethics in this sense).[1] We do not desire something, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 9 in part 3, because we say it is good, rather we say something is good because we desire it:

We neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it. (EIIIP9Sc)

Such a statement is precisely the opposite to any kind of idealistic morality that believes in the existence of moral ideas in advance that determine how we ought to act. There is no ‘ought’ for Spinoza if we imagine this to be the contrary to our desires, since what we are is our desires and nothing more. We have to see ourselves as part of nature and not, as Spinoza writes at the start of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, a ‘dominion within a dominion’ (imperium in imperio) (EIIIpref). This is just the case with morality as it is with any other sphere of human activity.

It is in Deleuze lectures on Spinoza that we might find the best explanation of the full scope of Spinoza’s ethics (Deleuze 1978). Why does Spinoza call his ontology an ethics? This is very peculiar, since we normally think of ethics and ontology being very different things. First of all we have to ask ourselves what is Spinoza’s ontology. It is the unique infinite substance which is being. This means that individual beings, singular things, including ourselves, are only modes of this one infinite substance. What does mode mean in Spinoza? Deleuze replies that we should understand the word ‘mode’ as meaning ‘a way of being’ or a state, in the way that we say that green is a state of grass (as opposed to brown). So a tree is a way of being of substance, just as we are ‘a way of being’ of substance. He writes: ‘Et un mode c’est quoi? C’est une manière d’être. Les étants ou les existants ne sont pas des êtres, il n’y a comme être que la substance absolument infinie’ [And a mode is what? It is a way of being. Beings or existents are not being; there is only being as an infinite absolute substance] (Deleuze 1978). He adds that if we are to think of ethics in a Spinozist sense then we have to sharply distinguish it from morality. Ethics has to do with our ‘way of being’ as a mode of infinite substance. As a ‘way of being’, it is better to understand ethics in the same way that we understand ethnology; that is, the study of human behaviour, in the same way that we study the behaviour of other animals for example.

How is this different from a morality? Morality, Deleuze answers, has to do with knotting of two key concepts, essence and value. Morality indicates what our essence is through values. This has nothing to do with ontology, since values are meant to point beyond being (think of the idea of the Good in Plato, which is ‘beyond being’). They indicate what being should be rather than what it is. The aim of every morality, he continues to explain, is the realisation of one’s essence. This means that one’s essence, is for the most part, not realised; something is always lacking or absent. Thus Aristotle, in book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, will define our essence to be eudaimonia and the object of ethics is to reach this essence. The reason that we do not realise our essence is that we don’t act in a rational way, since we lack knowledge of what it means to go beyond our being in order to reach its moral realisation. This moral end, which allows us to reach our essence, what it means to be a human being, is supplied by our values. Thus we see how in morality essence and values are ultimately tied together.

When we come to Spinoza’s ethics, Deleuze says, we have to stop thinking in terms of essence and value. An essence is not a general definition of something, like the definition of what it means to be a human being; rather essence always means a singular thing. As Deleuze says, there is an essence of this or that, but not of human beings in general. Another way of thinking of this change in the meaning of the word ‘essence’ is to say that what really interests Spinoza is existence not essence understood as a general term. For what is general is only the unique infinite substance, everything else is a mode, which is a determinate mode of infinite substance. Thus what truly differentiates one thing from another is existence not essence, since there is only one essence, strictly speaking, which is the infinite substance itself. An ethics, then, Deleuze argues, as opposed to a morality, is interested not in general abstractions, but the existence of singular things. But why is this different from morality? Deleuze gives a concrete example.

With morality the following operation always ensues: you do something, you say something and you judge yourself. Morality has always to do with judgement and it is a double system of judgement: you judge yourself and you are judged by someone else. Those who have a taste for morality always have a taste for judging themselves and others. To judge, Deleuze insists, is always to have a relation of superiority to being and it is value that expresses this superiority. But in ethics something quite different happens. In ethics there is no judgement at all, however strange that might appear to be. Someone says or does something. You do not refer this to a value which is superior to it; rather you say ‘how is this possible?’; that is to say, you only refer the statement or activity as a way of being in the same way that one might refer the activity of a lion hunting a gazelle – you don’t judge this being bad or good in relation to a value that is superior to it. The question of ethics, then for Spinoza, is not is this good or bad, but ‘what am I capable of?’ Which really means, ‘what is my body capable of?’ ‘Qu’est-ce que tu dois en vertu de ton essence, c’est qu’est-ce que tu peux, toi, en vertu de ta puissance’ [what you have in virtue of your essence, is what you are capable of, you yourself, in virtue of your power] (Deleuze 1978).

The most important aspect of the existence of any singular thing is the desire to preserve its existence, which Spinoza calls conatus and defines as follows in IIIP6: ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to preserve in its being.’ This is not just a definition of human existence, but all existence as such, whether we are talking about a stone, a plant or even a human being. To the extent that nothing prevents it from existing, everything that does exist will strive to preserve itself in its existence. Thus, to use Curley’s example, if doing X preserves its existence, then it will desire to do X unless a more powerful external cause prevents it from doing so (Curley 1988, p.108).

Spinoza’s argument for believing that this is case follows from his definition of essence. We tend to understand the meaning of essence, as we explained via Deleuze above, from Aristotle as the general definition of a thing which defines its nature in advance, but this is not how Spinoza understands ‘essence’. For him essence does not just define what something is, rather a good definition ought to be able to tell us how a thing is produced. Thus, if I want to properly define a circle what I have to be able to do is not just say what a circle is, but how a circle might be constructed. So again to use Curley’s example, the proper definition of a circle would be ‘a figure produced by the rotation of a line around a point’ (Curley 1988, p.111). The essence of something tells me how it and why it exists, and also why it continues to exist. It is, so to speak, its power of existence. We can see why, therefore, conatus, the striving to continue to exist, would be the same as the essence of something and any activity that went against it could not be properly speaking an activity at all, but caused by some external cause, and therefore passive.

How do we apply this conatus doctrine to ethics? The answer is that everything which helps me to preserve my existence I take to be good and everything that goes against my existence I take to be bad. What is good is what is useful, relative to my existence, and what is bad, is what dangerous, relatively speaking, to my continued existence. This striving is not only a striving for self-preservation, but also, as we shall see in the next lecture, an increase in the power of action, since in relation to the external causes that would extinguish my existence, all I have is my power to act against them.

What then is an affect? An affect is not a feeling for Spinoza, but a representation. My mind represents my body and states of that body. My mind is nothing more than this, nor is my thoughts anything more than this representation. Of course states of my mind can be caused by things outside of my body, but my body can only represent these external things through the states of my body itself. Since effects, for Spinoza, represent causes, in representing these effects, I represent the external things in some way through the power of my body to be affected by them.

As we saw above, the essence of something is its power to act. But just as much as a body has a power to act (I can swim ten lengths of a pool) so does a mind. The mind’s power to act is contained by what it is capable of representing. But remember what the mind contains for Spinoza is the representation of the body and states of the body, so that the more that the body is capable of the more it can think. Thus, for Spinoza, the reason why the human mind has more power to act than the cabbage’s mind (and Spinoza argued that all bodies have a mind to some extent) is that the human body is capable of more. So an affect is the representation of the body whose power to act has either increased or decreased as he defines it in the third definition of part three:

By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections. (EIIID3)

Every individual being strives to exist. Such a striving is a desire. I desire that which preserves my being. To preserve my being I must increase my power to act, since power is my essence. Every time I increase my power to act, I experience joy, and conversely, every that my power to act is decreased then I experience sadness. So what we mean by emotion is the power of the mind to be affected from within or without. All the emotions or affects that we speak of are merely modifications of these three fundamental affects. To understand or affects, then, is to bring them back to joy and sadness and how my existence is increased or decreased in relation to them. The aim of the Ethics is to show how using our reason we should be able to promote the former over the latter.

What is decisive, however, in Spinoza’s understanding of affects, is that they are representational. They are representation of the body and states of the body in the mind. If the origin of the transition for joy to sadness is external to my mind, then it is a passive affect. If it is internal to the mind then it is an active affect. The aim of life, therefore, is to replace passive affects with active ones, which means to understand the true origin of our affects, which is to understand that the idea in my mind is also an idea in God’s or my mind is nothing else than an idea in the mind of God.

Works Cited

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed September 30, 2012].


[1] This is not to say that animals have rights for Spinoza. Not even human beings have these, at least not in the normal way that we think of them. A right is a power for Spinoza and so we have a ‘right’ over something to the extent that we have power over them.

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