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Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.

July 22, 2009, 6:04 am

(So, originally, this post was supposed to follow the other post by one week.  Life got in the way.  Spring turned into summer, gave autumn a miss, &c.  This post contains no camera angles or rightwing lunacy.  Part 2 of 2.)

Let me jog your memory.   A month and a half ago, I described the challenges facing the professor who wants to avoid giving the impression that Spinoza’s Ethics is really just metaphysics. I promised a solution, or at least a suggestion.  I believe this can be done in the couple of weeks normally spent on Spinoza in a history of early modern survey course.

1.  Read the text of Spinoza’s excommunication from Amsterdam.  Aloud.  Dramatically, if you are able.  Without Powerpoint!  I’ve excerpted it before, and I will do so again!  (It is the exact same excerpt!  For I cannot find my book!)

..By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation…

Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven…

… No one should communicate with him, neither in writing, nor accord him any favor, nor stay with him under the same roof, nor come within four cubits of his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.

You might want to give some background information about his life, too.  More here.  Spinoza was not kicked out for his mature philosophical beliefs, but for his early speculations on the nature of God and man (viz., that the religious teachings were wrong.)  But here we have a man who very likely could have reconciled himself to the community with an apology, who instead chose to move to the Hague and continue his philosophy.

Now you’ve stoked the interest of the students.  Now you can say a little bit about what the Ethics was supposed to be: a naturalistic, secular attempt to understand what we owe each other.

2. Teach the argument for substance monism. It’s a great set-piece, you can talk about the identity of indiscernibles, it ties into Descartes and Leibniz nicely, and it leads to a startling conclusion:  at bottom, there is exactly one substance that exists, and that is God.  Historically, this is cool because it means Spinoza’s system simply has no room for created substances, like human beings, meaning that whatever deus sive natura is, it’s not the transcendent God of Judaism or Christianity.   Spinoza is a naturalist because quite literally there is nothing else he could be.  There isn’t anything else in the universe.   There isn’t anything but the universe.

Here’s where it’s easy to lose how the Ethics is about ethics; all of the cool moves so far have been in metaphysics.   But all along you’ve been laying the groundwork.  Spinoza’s a heretic.  Spinoza’a a naturalist.   But why is he bothering?

Because if all there is really is the cosmos, then we have to ask where that leaves human beings.  We can’t be created substances like in Descartes’ system or the Scholastic system, because the only substance there is a) uncreated and b) God.  Human beings end up being modes, mere ways that thought and extension can be arranged.

And that makes human beings no different from any other thing in the world. (Well, we’re both thought and extension.  So we’re still a little bit cool.  But we might as well be trees or flowers for how special we’re not.)

This might sound depressing, but for Spinoza, it’s liberating.  If human beings are just another unremarkable bit of the natural universe, then they can be understood just as we can understand nature.

3. Teach something about Spinoza’s psychology. You have a lot of choices here, but your friend is Book III.  Spinoza here argues that each particular thing, i.e., a mode, strives to persevere in its being.  (IIIp6)  What does that mean?  Oh, that’s a fun literature.   But loosely speaking, Spinoza is offering this as a explanation of what a mode is, given that all there is really is one substance, that gives a mode some internal coherence or function.*

But the key thing here is at IIIp9:

Both insofar as the mind has clear and distinct ideas, and insofar as it has confused ideas, it strives, for an indefinite duration, to persevere in its being and it is conscious of this striving it has.

[...]

Note.—This endeavour, when referred solely to the mind, is called will, when referred to the mind and body in conjunction it is called appetite; it is, in fact, nothing else but man’s essence, from the nature of which necessarily follow all those results which tend to its preservation; and which man has thus been determined to perform.

Further, between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that the term desire is generally applied to men, in so far as they are conscious of their appetite, and may accordingly be thus defined: Desire is appetite with consciousness thereof. It is thus plain from what has been said, that in no case do we strive for, wish for, long for, or desire anything, because we deem it to be good, but on the other hand we deem a thing to be good, because we strive for it, wish for it, long for it, or desire it.

Whatever Spinoza means by striving, here you can see how it’s been applied to human beings.  A mind striving to persevere is what we call will.  If mind and body are striving together, that’s an appetite.  If the mind is aware of what it and the body are striving for, that’s a desire.

The beauty of Spinoza is that once you see where he’s headed, it’s very easy to put the pieces together.  All things strive.  When minds and bodies strive, we call that variously will, appetite, and desire.  And boom!   There’s a place in Spinoza’s system for moral psychology.  It’s just the completely natural striving of the human being.

You can go further if you want, but concluding with IIIp28 might not be a bad idea:

We endeavour to bring about whatsoever we conceive to conduce to pleasure; but we endeavour to remove or destroy whatsoever we conceive to be truly repugnant thereto, or to conduce to pain.

All the emotions and virtues and vice for Spinoza will be understood in terms of pleasure and pain.   Love is pleasure, accompanied by the idea of an external cause.  Hatred is pain, accompanied by the idea of an external cause.  Approval is love towards one who has done good to another. Indignation is hatred towards one who has done evil to another.

You’re not running a full course on Spinoza, so we can stop here.  (This last bit can probably be covered in a day.) Our original question now turns out to have something of a simple-minded answer.

How does one avoid giving the impression that the Ethics is mere metaphysics?  Teach more than Book I!!!!!

The less simple-minded answer is this:  Spinoza’s ethical doctrines build on his metaphysical doctrines.  What he’s done with his metaphysics is lay the groundwork for a completely naturalistic (one might say… atheistic?) understanding of human nature, and he thinks how we are meant to treat each other falls naturally out of that understanding.  Without the metaphysics, his ethical project has no basis, and we might as well go back to thinking of ourselves as created substances commanded to behave in a certain way by a transcendent God.

But if we’re modes, mere ways the universe can be arranged… we can have an Ethics without a God.


*I keep talking sloppily as if Spinoza is a priority monist (one who believes there is one fundamental thing) instead of an existence or substance monist, and I am talking that way because existence monism is too hardcore.

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