Natural Rights and Virtue – Lecture 4

August 7, 2016

SpinozaSo far in this course we have looked at the traditional philosophical arguments for morality: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue theory. We have seen that the first two, though at first glance might appear to totally oppose one another, have, as their object, actions. Morality is a subset of rational activity. We are moral because we are rational. In the first case, consequentialism looks at, as the name implies, the consequences of an action, and in the second, deontology, the intentions behind an action. Virtue theory is different because it does not examine moral activity itself, deciding which action is moral or not, but the character of the moral agent themselves over a life time. The question is not whether such an action is honest, but what does it mean for me to be honest, which might differ in different situations.

There is, however, a more fundamental question, which we shall examine over the course of the next two lectures, whether the philosophical justification of morality is itself an illusion. Levinas asks at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, whether we are ‘not duped by morality?’ (1969, p. 21) The aim of this question is to make us think about the status of moral justification. When we observe people’s behaviour we might think the last thing we observe is morality. Is not the world exactly the opposite of the one described by philosophers? Deeper than this suspicion, we might also wonder whether the morality of philosophers themselves is as universal and rational as they portray. At one and the same time as Kant is defending the universality of the categorical imperative, he is declaring in his lectures on anthropology that Black people and Native Americans are congenitally lazy and incapable of real work.[1]

One way to respond to these criticisms is to say that Kant is merely repeating the prejudices of his age and that it is possible to salvage a rational core, but another response might be that morality is really a secondary phenomenon of a more fundamental aspect of human history, which is power. Kant conceives of Native Americans and Blacks as secondary human beings because of colonialism. The moral abrogation of their status as human beings is secondary consequence of this fact. What better way to justify slavery and genocide than a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of human races, but also we might notice how neatly this pseudo theory fits the actual actions of the European powers at the time in their systematic plundering of wealth and resources, which was fundamental to the rise of capitalism.

Morality, then, is not a subset of rationality but of power and we ought to be more critical of its supposed claim to universality that merely acts as screen concealing its true ideological function. There is a whole other history of philosophy, however, which is far more realistic about morality and power, and that is the theory of natural rights which has its source in ancient philosophy but has its modern form in the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza.[2] Before we come to this tradition, let us describe how we normally think about rights (and this too has its own long history). We normally think of rights in terms of the essence or definition of something. We define what it is to be human being, for example, and then from that follows certain rights, which might be different from the rights of animals. Indeed, we have seen from our own history that how we consider the definition of people will change how we think about their rights (if we define women to be equal to men, then what we mean by this is that they have the same rights).

This way of thinking about rights goes back to antiquity. The Roman philosopher Cicero would argue that a thing is defined by its essence, which is the law of its nature.[3] Natural right does not refer to a state prior to nature but what conforms to an essence in a good society. A good society is one in which a man might realise his essence, which is his true nature. What is first is one’s duty. One only has rights to the extent that one has obligations, since it is these obligations or offices that allow me to fulfil my essence. It is the philosopher or sage who knows what essence is, what the best society would be to fulfil this essence, and what offices or duties, therefore, that would bring this realisation about.

Christianity repeats this doctrine of natural rights. The difference between the Christian version and the ancient theory is who has the authority to define what essence is, what the best society would be, and the offices and duties therein. It is no longer the philosopher who does so, but the church. How does one reverse this account of natural rights? Not by coming up with a different definition but by completely rethinking what we mean by ‘right’ altogether, and the first philosopher to do so is Hobbes. What he is doing is also saying that morality has to do with politics, which is not that different from Cicero, who is appropriated by Christianity, but he adds that when it comes to politics we need to think of power not essences. Not what is something, but what can that thing do, what is it capable of. Thus it is within the right of a small fish to eat the larger one (Spinoza, 1951, p. 200). This sounds abhorrent to us because we still think of rights in terms of schema of antiquity and Christianity, where a moral action conforms to an essence.

If natural right is defined in terms of power, then the state of nature precedes society. This means for Hobbes that human beings are not born social but have to become so. This is directly against the Christian tradition where Adam existed without sin prior to the fall. Without sin, he conformed to the natural essence of man and it was the adventures of existence that caused him to lose it. In Hobbes’ eyes it is the other way around. One is not born social and reasonable, rather one has to achieve it. What is first is not obligations or duties but rights. One limits rights in order that one can become social and responsible, but it is rights that are first. At the level of rights everyone is equal. Everyone does what they can in terms of their power. Difference arises at the level of the social, which limits people’s rights. What is important here is that it is not at the level of natural rights that we can speak of the differences between people. This means that there is no competent authority who can say what anyone is capable of or what their essence might be (it is up to them to decide what they are capable of and not an external authority). If rights come before obligation or duties that are decided in advance by an authority, then the question becomes why should I limit my rights in order to become social. In other words, what are the benefits of society to me? If a society does form, then it does so as an agreement of persons of equal rights because as a collective each increases the power of the other that would be less if they existed alone. It is we who decide to come together because it is in our best interests to do so and not because of any external authority. Here we have two very different conceptions of politics. The Antiquity-Christian model, which is juridical, and this new theory of politics that is based on power.

Just as much as we can view rights in terms of power, then so too can we redefine virtue, which would give a different meaning to virtue theory. In Machiavelli’s The Prince, virtue (virtù) does not necessarily mean moral virtue, as we might mean it, but strength or power. Thus he speaks of skill of an archer who can hit the target of from a long distance because they know the ‘strength’ of their bow.[4] The word that he uses in this context is virtù. In this way, when he speaks of the virtue of the prince, he is not listing their moral qualities, but their power to influence events and their ‘fortune’.

Spinoza, who read both Hobbes and Machiavelli, too thinks of ethics in terms of power. ‘By virtue and power,’ he writes, I understand the same thing (E4 D8). At the heart of Spinoza’s ontology is conatus. What determines the singularity of a being is not its conformity to a universal essence, whereby we might claim it is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, such that we might say of someone that they are not rational enough once we have defined all human beings as ‘rational animals’, but its power to exist. Every individual thing, be it a stone, plant or animal, strives to preserve its existence and will continue to exist as long as something more powerful does not prevent it from so doing. I am nothing more than my power to exist, as you are, and our power to exist, conatus, is individual to each one of us. Universals, like ‘humanity’ are only abstractions that do not exist as such. I can have an encounter with you on the street, but I cannot encounter ‘humanity’.

When we normally think of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we do so through moral values. So we might think of ‘good’ as morally good, and ‘bad’ as morally evil, but for Spinoza these are retrospective justifications for something much deeper. What is good is everything that I find useful for me; that is, what increases my power to exist. What is bad is everything I find not useful to me; that is, everything that decreases my power to exist. What is good or bad for me will be determined by my nature. Thus what is good or bad for a stone, is not going to be good or bad for me, what is good or bad for a plant is not what is going to be good or bad for me, and what is good or bad for a lion is not going to be good or bad for me, and equally, since being is singular for Spinoza, each of us are an individual expression of the power to exist, what is good or bad for me is not necessarily going to be good or bad for you. ‘We do not desire,’ Spinoza writes, something because we say it is good; rather it is good because we desire it’ (E3 P9sch.). Thus, it is not bad for the lion to eat the gazelle, since that is what lions do, but it is not good for gazelles to be eaten by lions, so generally gazelles try to avoid lions. What Spinoza would say is that we don’t need to add a moral language to understand it. Moral judgements, as we might suspect are irrelevant.

Now we might say that is alright for lions and gazelles but not for beings like us, since we, as consequentialists and deontologists would say are special and unique within the animal kingdom because of our capacity to make moral judgements. It is at this point that Spinoza’s ontology meets his ethics (and that there is no difference between them is central point of his thought, unlike Kant, for example, who saves ethics by separating them into two distinct worlds). For Spinoza, all beings, stones, plants, animals and human beings are expression of one and the same being to a certain degree. There are no exceptions, or as Spinoza says, human beings are not ‘a dominion within a dominion’ (E3 Pref.). No doubt a plant is more complex than a stone, and animal more complex than a plant, and a human being more complex than a lion, but this does not mean, ontological speaking, that human beings are a completely different kind of being. No doubt because we can speak we can confuse words with ontological reality. So because we have the word ‘evil’ we think there are evil things that transcend our own interests, but this does not mean that evil exists as such exterior to these interests. Human beings act just as lions do, the only difference is that they try and convince the gazelle that they are good for them as well. It might be true that I would lock the serial killer in prison, because such an encounter would seriously undermine by power to exist, but why, as with the example of lions and gazelles, do I need to add a moral language of judgement on top of this to justify it?

Ethics is ethnology. Just as I can study the behaviour of a lion, then I can study the behaviour of human beings. We can just as much talk about an ethics of fleas as we can of human beings, though of course the life of a flea is simpler. How is this different from the normal way that we talk about morals? Normally we talk about morality in terms of norms and values. We say that if you want to be a good person you should behave in such and such a way. ‘Ought’ is not the same as ‘is’. This brings us back to essences that we discussed before, because you can’t have a norm without an essence. I can’t act in the right way if you don’t tell me what it is to be such a person. Thus if there are norms about what it is to be a woman then this follows from the definition of woman. This essence of course is an ideal. In this way no individual woman could ever live up to what it would be to be a woman. All women would fail from the beginning.

Spinoza’s ethics has nothing at all to do with norms because he understands essence in a completely different way. An essence is not an abstraction or definition, but the individual existence of a singular being. We can speak of the essence of ‘William’ as the individual existence of someone called ‘William’, but there is no essence of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ as such. Ethics is a way of being, rather than a norm. When I speak about my ethics (and there can only be an individual ethics for Spinoza), then I am speaking about my individual way of being.

Throughout my life this essence is to be understood as a variation. Sometimes my power to exist increases and at other times it decreases. This is because my body is always in contact with other bodies, and since I have a very complex body, then this means that these relations are numerous and complex. If this contact increases my power to exist, then I experience it as joyful, and if it decreases my power to exist, then I experience it as sadness. These are the two primary affects of existence for Spinoza, which correspond to my conatus. Ethics, then, for Spinoza, is understanding those encounters that bring you joy and those that bring you sadness, and learning to avoid the latter. I know that coffee increases my power to exist in the morning, but drinking too much gives me eczema, so I shouldn’t drink too much. I know speaking to Paul makes me happy, but Peter really depresses me (perhaps it is the other way around for someone else), so I should avoid him. What really surprises Spinoza is that people seem to go out of the way to make themselves sad, and moreover we appear to live in societies whose only function seems to be to make the vast majority of people unhappy and miserable (the two source of this are the two great normative tyrannies, which are religion and politics).

It might appear on first sight that Spinoza’s ethics is egotistical and individualistic. If all that matters is my own power to exist why should I care about others? This would be to ignore human nature, though. Human beings are by nature social beings. The more I compose my power to exist with others, then my own power to exists increases. It would belong to my own interests to create a society in which the greatest amount of people would be capable of expressing their own power to exist. What best serves my purpose is another person who increases my power to exist and this would be the same for them, and so on to the next person. This is why he will argue, in the Tractatus Politicus, that democracy is the best form of government (Spinoza, 1951, pp. 385–7). ‘Nothing,’ he writes in the Ethics, is more advantageous to man than man’ (E4 P18 Sch.).

Works Cited

Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980 [WWW Document], n.d. URL http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=20&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 (accessed 4.9.16).

Levinas, E., 1969. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Machiavelli, N., Mansfield, H.C., 1998. The prince. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.

Mikkelsen, J.M., Kant, I., 2013. Kant and the concept of race: late eighteenth-century writings. SUNY Press, Albany.

Spinoza, B. de, 1951. A theologico-political treatise and a political treatise. Dover, New York.

Ward, J.K., Lott, T.L., 2008. Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays. John Wiley & Sons.


[1] Kant writes in his unpublished notes, Reflexionen, that ‘Americans and Negroes cannot govern themselves. Thus are only good as slaves’ (Mikkelsen and Kant, 2013, p. 8). See also Bernasconi’s essay ‘Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism’ (Ward and Lott, 2008, pp. 145–66).

[2] An excellent and concise of this history can be found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza (“Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980,” n.d.).

[3] Cicero is useful for us, because he sums up the ancient Greek tradition of ethical thought in Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, but also his own work was influential on the ethical theory of Christianity and especially Aquinas.

[4] ‘He should do as prudent archers do when the place they plan to hit appears too distant, and know how far the strength of their bow carries, they set their aim much higher than the place intended’ (Machiavelli and Mansfield, 1998, p. 22). It is interesting to note that the translator, Mansfield, feels that he cannot leave virtù translated as ‘virtue’ in this context, since it has such a moral overtone for us.

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Spinoza, Freedom and Democracy – Lecture 4

November 11, 2013

Perhaps one of the most difficult ideas to grasp in Spinoza is freedom, for his metaphysics seems to run counter to it. If we are modes of an infinite being, then this being is the cause of everything that we do and think, otherwise we would be separate from it, and this is clearly not possible for Spinoza (man is not a ‘dominion within a dominion’ as he writes in the preface of part 3). And yet, throughout the Ethics he talks of the rational man as a free man, and indeed that the highest goal of human life is freedom. How can this possibly be when we are totally dependent and therefore determined by God?

This contradiction, however, is only a surface one because it is the result of our misunderstanding of what Spinoza means by the word ‘freedom’. What we mean by freedom is freedom of choice. That I am free to do what I wish to do, and whatever I wish to say or think. This is not what Spinoza means by freedom. For Spinoza, freedom is freedom to be oneself, but to be oneself is to follow the necessity of one’s nature. The difference between these two conceptions of nature can be found in letter that Spinoza writes to Schuller:

That thing is free which exists and acts solely from the necessity of its own nature and I say that that thing is constrained which is determined by something else to exist and to act in a fixed and determinate way. […] I place freedom, not in free decision, but in free necessity. (Spinoza 1995, pp.283–4)

This difference, of course, reminds us of the difference between passive and active affects. In passive affects and I am affected by an external body that is outside of me and which I have an inadequate idea of, whereas in active affects I am the determining cause because I understand both the nature of my body and how it relates to other external bodies. Since everything seeks to preserve its own existence, by the principle of conatus, if I were only to follow my own reason, then I would only seek those external bodies that brought me joy, and avoid those that brought me sadness. But what has active affects to do with free necessity, and why would the free man, so to speak, always be the joyful one?

The key, as we have already suggested is the difference between inadequate and adequate ideas. A rational person for Spinoza, which is the same as a free person, is someone who has adequate ideas. I have an adequate idea of something when I know its cause. What does Spinoza’s mean by cause? He does not just mean the narrow sense of cause that we might use in scientific explanations, when we say that something causes something else. Rather, ‘cause’ has a much broader meaning as ‘explanation’. It is to know the cause of why something exists. Clearly a finite mode, which we are, cannot know every cause (this is why for Spinoza it is not possible to free ourselves from inadequate ideas completely and thus passive affects), but we can know some things. To know the cause of something means the explanation ends in self-evident truths. Now a self-evident truth is a necessary and eternal truth. How do we distinguish between inadequate idea and adequate ones? Inadequate ideas are those ideas that I can never know because they belong to an infinite series. Such a series is always a historical, temporal one for Spinoza. Thus if I ask why did such a thing happen to be at this time, then I will never know because I cannot know all the circumstances. Adequate ideas, on the contrary, are ideas of things that I can know, because they are explanations that end in self-evident truths that are eternal. I can know the same thing inadequately or adequate. Thus if I ask myself why did I write the word ‘triangle’ at this moment, rather than ‘square’, then I cannot know this. But if I ask myself ‘what is a triangle’, then I can. It is a three sided figure whose internal angles add up to 180 degrees.

It is inadequate ideas that give us a false idea of freedom, because we confuse freedom simply with the impossibility that we can know the cause. Thus I might say to myself if only I hadn’t made that choice then I wouldn’t be unhappy now. But I have no idea whether that is true or not, or all the reasons why I made that choice or not. It is the fact that I cannot explain it that gives me the illusion there were hidden possibilities that I could have chosen. Because I get fixated by that choice, I then become enslaved to it. I end up isolating a particular cause, but this can only ever be a partial cause and thus an inadequate idea. Indeed for Spinoza this is how most people live, a slave to their passions. They are attached to one cause or another, one object or another, that they either love or hate, but this cause or object can only be a partial cause or object in infinite network of causes and objects that they cannot know. This is what Spinoza means by slavery and it is a slavery of the understanding. My ideas are attached to objects or causes that begin to dominate them. Thus the only way to escape this enslavement is through the natural power of the understanding itself.

We can already see what this might be. It means that I should direct my attention to eternal truths that I can understand, rather than partial causes that I cannot. I would analyse my affects in terms of those that I can understand and those that are the result of my imagination, and since I am an active thinking being, it would be the most rational thing to follow my reason rather than my imagination. A free person is therefore someone who uses the power of their mind to free themselves from the domination of the passions. To understand freedom here we have to, like every other concept in Spinoza, relate it back to the ontology of the Ethics. Every individual strives to preserve itself in its being and thus to increase its power. Such striving is what makes an individual an individual, for if they did not strive they would cease to exist and be swallowed by a stronger power. As a physical thing, I resist the physical environment that surrounds me. But human beings are not just physical things, they also think. So what does it mean to strive for existence in terms of thinking? It means to increase the power of thinking. To understand more is therefore to exist more as the very activity of thought itself. Active thinking means that thought determines itself rather than is determined by partial causes that it does and cannot know, and the more self-determining I am the more free I am; that is to say free from the passive affects that are caused by inadequate ideas.

It is this conatus, this striving for existence that determines the meaning and reality of freedom for Spinoza, which is not an ideal that lies outside of us. The more power that I have, the more freedom I have, and therefore the more reality and perfection. Virtue for Spinoza therefore means being oneself, the power to be or realising oneself, which means being an individual. My conatus is not to be a best of kind, but to preserve myself as an active individual in terms of both my body and my mind.

We should not confuse this freedom with the freedom of choice, if you mean by that freedom to choose between different possibilities. We are free to the extent we can determine the essence of our nature, but not what our nature is. The only choice is either reflectively choosing oneself, or passively ending up being who one already is. Freedom here is freedom of reflection. If I am caught up in inadequate ideas, then I will chose things that will undermine my existence. If I know the essence of things, what is truly useful and what is not, then I will not choose those things. But to know what something is, is to know it necessarily and eternally. It is not as though I can change it. Thus freedom and necessity are not a contradiction. Whether I do or do not choose has already been determined, but since I do not know this, it is irrelevant (or at least is something I am indifferent to rationally). Spinoza did not choose to become Spinoza, but he did not choose not to either.

For every belief and idea that I have there is an explanation. Every passion that I have is an idea of joy and an idea of sadness which is accompanied with the idea of the cause of that joy or sadness. I can either know this cause adequately or inadequately. To know it adequately is to know what it is in terms of its self-evident truth. To know it inadequately, is to know it only in terms of the association of ideas whose origin I cannot fathom. Freedom means don’t let yourself be enslaved by an idea or belief that you cannot or do not know, because that belief or idea will determine you rather than you determining it. Either the partial cause is the source of my affect, and then I am passive, or I have an adequate idea of that cause, and then I am active, and self-determining. What I cannot do is either change the order of things, or the order of ideas, since neither totality can be adequately grasped by me, as finite mode, nor could change, since what is cannot be otherwise than it is, otherwise it would not be infinite. If I have cancer, then I cannot change that, but what I can change is my understanding it, and in understanding it, free myself from the passive affects that might be associated with it (the idea that it might be a punishment for example). Or to use the example by Stuart Hampshire, I am angry with someone (Kashap 1972, p.321). I thus have an idea of them and that they have displeased me because of something they said or did. I become obsessed with this, and imagine that they could have said or done something different. As soon as I, however, reflect on this passive affect, I realise that there are a chain of associations that have led to this obsession, and what this person said or did is only a partial cause. As soon as this happen, then I am not longer in the thrall of this passive affect. The activity of reflection has dissolved it into an active affect as opposed to a passive one, because I realise it has nothing at all to do with them at all. In going through such a process my power of existence is increased because my understanding is.

Freedom then for Spinoza is self-affirmation and self-assertion of one’s individuality as a thinking being. The more I understand, the more I think, the more I express my power as a thinking being and the more express my individuality since I am no longer subject to the attachment to objects or persons whose partial causes I cannot explain or understand. The two conditions of freedom, therefore, for Spinoza, are detachment and affirmation. Its path is the realisation of the illusionary nature of my fantasies that have their basis in my inadequate ideas where I become a prisoner of my affects. Freedom is nothing less than self-determination. Of course this is a continual act of liberation for Spinoza, since I can always, as finite mode, because subject to other passive affects that I have not understood, but the route to understanding is always open to me.

Individuality is the highest expression of freedom that comes directly from Spinoza’s principle of conatus. It should not surprise us that this has directly a political meaning. In fact there is no separation of ethics and politics for Spinoza because both are thought ontologically. A superficial reading of the Ethics would confuse individualism as a retreat from political life, but precisely the opposite is the case. This is because at the very heart of Spinoza’s understanding of human nature is a sociability that is linked directly to conatus.

For Spinoza a right is an expression of power. Thus all things have rights to the extent that they have power. Yet since every individual thing is a finite mode, these rights are always limited. I have a right to the extent I have the power to assert that right and no more. This political realism is very explosive because it means that no state has absolute power over individuals. It can rule by consent or violence, but violent states will eventual fail when the power of individuals exceeds them (as we see in the recent example of Libya). The most powerful state would have the most right, because it would have the most power. We should not confuse that we tyranny and violence, however, since it is the most reasonable state that would have the most power, because it would be the one that would compose most with the individuals that made it up. To say that everyone is individual is not to say that everyone lives in isolation, for what makes an individual individual is the relation to other individuals. I am nothing but the encounters that form me.

The key proposition here is proposition 37 of part 4. To be guided by reason is seek what is useful to oneself. What is most useful is other people, because associating with others is what increases my own power to exist. This sociability is not based on equality but on difference. Each with our different abilities combines with others and therefore increases each other’s power. To desire others as useful to me is not to desire them to be the same as me, but exactly the opposite: to desire them in their difference; that is to say, as the individuals that they are. Such a collective individuality is what Spinoza calls friendship. But he knows that isn’t why most people end up together. There is also the affective genesis of a collectively which is not based on the rational idea of utility, but the fact that we love or believe in the same object. Such is the basis of patriotism, for example. In this case it is passive affects that are joining is together. If we were only rational creatures then we would live only in rational cities, but because we are not, we also live in affective ones. This isn’t a distinction between two cities, as though the rational one were ideal, and the affective one, real, which would be to read Spinoza as though he were Plato, but that every political institution is a combination of both. The political problem for Spinoza is to make sure that the affective does dominate the rational, because it will essentially unstable and conflictual. It is the state as such which has to ensure that this does not happen.

It is in his two political writings, the earlier Theologico-Political Treatise [hereafter TPT], and the later, shorted, and unfinished, Political Treatise, that Spinoza thinks about these ontological ideas in terms of political reality as such. In other words, what would be the best state to exist in? In the earlier work, there is no doubt that Spinoza’s writing reflects his own situation. The best state is the democratic one, which reflects the Dutch republic at the time under the De Witt brothers. Why would democracy be the best state? Because it instantiates the highest level of freedom that we have just described in that it allows the freedom of thought. The particular political problem is whether this freedom can also be granted to religion, which is more affective than rational. Spinoza’s solution is that one should separate private from public belief. In private, everyone should have the right to believe whatever they want, but in public worship should be regulated by the state. But reality was to show that Spinoza’s solution was a false one. As Balibar suggests, there were two reasons for this.(Balibar 1998, p.114) One, that the Dutch republic was not democratic at all, since it was founded on social inequality, but secondly, and more importantly, it was an illusion to think that the masses would be open to rational argument, and thus that the democratic state could negotiate between the rational and affective.

The Political Treatise was a response to these real problems, and initially it might appear that Spinoza was giving up on democracy as an ideal, but this is only apparent. The real difference of the approach is that Spinoza now sees the purpose of the state as security (this ties in with the principle of conatus in the Ethics). A state that could embody the collective security of individuals would be absolute or most perfect state. It is clear that a democratic state might not ensure this at all. The real problem is how one would reach a consensus about what would be security for all. It is here that Spinoza sees that what is fundamental is the question of the multitude or the masses. In the TPT, the masses were what was regulated by the state, but now Spinoza sees that the state is the masses, and the masses the state. Desire is always already collective. The key political question is how the passive affects of the masses can be transformed into active ones. We already know the answer to this and that is knowledge and understanding. So effective political power would always be the power that increases the knowledge and understanding of the masses. Such a power, again following Balibar, we might call democratisation as opposed to democracy, since even democracy require democratisation. It would the increasing of knowledge and communication because that increases knowledge and understanding generally and therefore the security of the state, because the majority would know what their common interest would be and would not be attached to the partial understanding of external objects and thus the violence and vacillation of passive affects.

Works Cited

Balibar, E., 1998. Spinoza and Politics, London: Verso.

Kashap, S. ed., 1972. Studies in Spinoza, Critical and Interpretive Essays., Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spinoza, B., 1995. Spinoza : the Letters, Indianapolis Ind. ; Cambridge: Hacket.


Spinoza’s Ethics – Lecture 1

October 4, 2013

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.