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.
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.