Spinoza’s Ethics, Part IV: Of Human Bondage

[13,000 words]

OK! Let’s get right to it!

Preface

Man’s lack of power to moderate and restrain the affects, I call bondage.

For the man who is subject to affects is under the control, not of himself, but of fortune, in whose power he so greatly is that often, though he sees the better for himself, he is still forced to follow the worse. 

In this part, I have undertaken to demonstrate the cause of this, and what there is of good and evil in the affects. But before I begin, I choose to say a few words first on perfection and imperfection, good and evil.

Book IV Preface

So let’s do that!

Perfection and Imperfection

This is how he describes it. 

Someone has an intention. Let’s say, to draw a square.

They draw one side. That’s imperfect.

They draw two sides. That’s still imperfect.

They draw the third side. …also still imperfect.

Aaaand they draw a fourth. Their creation has now been perfected!

This must have been the original meaning of the word, surmises Spinoza.
“Perfect” or “imperfect” basically means “finished” or “unfinished”.

So far, so good. In this sense, it basically works. 

There is a process happening (a person trying to draw a triangle), and we correctly understand what that process is, and can tell when the process is still ongoing, and when it has been completed.

Even then, though, we have it backwards. It’s not as if there is a “purpose”, or “end”, to which the person is drawing the square. 

It’s that there is a “beginning” — a desire, or appetite.

The person, at Point A in time, pictures a square, and wants to draw it. And then, at Point B in time, the square is completed.

As a quirk of our imagination, we can sometimes look at that as if it’s Point B that somehow summoned Point A. 

…but then, of course, we run across these two things:

  • People form universal notions (from Part 2)
  • People judge things by their own affect (from Part 3)

In other words, people make generalizations — and they make them based on what makes them feel good. Specifically, what makes sense to them — what they are easily able to imagine.
(Cus having difficulty imagining something is a case of the weakness of the mind… and the mind exists to assert its existence, and power of acting. So failing to understand something is painful. So, by its nature, it will tend to gravitate towards things it is easily able to imagine, and deny things it has difficulty imagining.)

So, rather than sticking to “OK, this particular person wants to draw a square, and when they do, then this process has come to a neat close and another one can be said to have begun… but every single person drawing something is a unique occurrence, with a different end-point”, they make the move to “the correct thing to draw is a square.

And so, when they see someone drawing a triangle, they say “this is an imperfect drawing”. 

…this is silly.

And so, people will come up with a model, in their head, of what a building is supposed to look like. And, due to the process of past associations we discussed in Part 3, they will prefer one model to another. And buildings that come out looking like the model they have in their head, they call perfect, and those that don’t are imperfect.

At this point, we’re seriously starting to depart from reality. The process in Nature (person wanting to build a house) has actually been perfectly completed — they just had a different model, a different desire, to us. 

But then they apply the notion to natural events. And there, they go really wrong.

So, they see trees, and the property they notice about them is their straightness. And so, they form the universal notion that trees are straight.

…and one day, they see a gnarled and twisted tree. And they think “what a weird tree. Nature has messed this one up.”

Whereas… no. I think you’ll find that God, in fact, wanted to generate precisely this shape of tree in precisely this location, and has — as per usual — succeeded perfectly. What has happened is that this tree departs from our notion of what a tree should be, and thus is judged imperfect.

And… OK, let’s say they see a cartoon drawing of a turd, and notice that it’s all nice and curly. And they form the universal notion about turds, that they are curly. 

But then they see a turd like this lying around and… eeehh. That’s not a proper turd, is it?

Or, you know. The classic one.

Everything in Nature is directed towards human ends, because we are the centre of the universe… so when an earthquake happens and destroys a bunch of buildings, Nature has sinned. Something has fundamentally gone wrong. Or, if you think Nature can’t sin… then, we have sinned, and that’s why things have gone wrong. Or something.

And it’s, like….. Nope. Sorry folks. That’s what God ““wanted””. And, as usual… It nailed it.

OK. So that’s what happens when we take these disparate events in Nature — different trees — and lump them into a single category, or genus. And then we form a universal notion of them, with a particular model of perfection, and then compare them to each other. And so, some trees are perfect, and some aren’t.

…hopefully that all makes sense. 

Now for the slightly weird bit.

Just like we took all the tree-like-things and lumped them into the genus “tree”, and then compared them to each other…

…we take all events in Nature, and lump them into a group. 

And those which, in our minds, involve some sort of negation, we consider imperfect. 

So, if, in our minds, we ascribe a limit to anything — an end-point, a lack of power — then this thing is less perfect.

This is why he says that “by reality and perfection I understand the same thing”. 

A fish is not less perfect because it can’t walk, talk, or do mathematics.

Just so, a human is not actually less perfect if it can’t walk, talk, or do mathematics.

It’s just that we’ve lumped it into a genus of which we’ve formed the universal notion “human can walk, can talk, can do maths”… and it fails to do that. So we ascribe to it a limit — a lack of power — in our minds.

The only actual, substantive, objective limit, or lack of power, that it truly, objectively has is existing, or not existing.

That’s the only commonality between all events in Nature — the only criterion we can legitimately set before everything. And thus, the only measure by which something can be fundamentally more perfect than something else is that.

Everything other kind of judgement is fundamentally subjective.


Good and evil 

So, obviously, it’s the same with good and evil. They’re entirely relative terms. 

“As far as good and evil are concerned, they also indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another. For one and the same thing can, at the same time, be good, bad, and also indifferent. For example, music is good for one who is melancholy, bad for one who is mourning, and neither good nor bad to one who is deaf.”

Book IV Preface

Things are not good. 

Things are not bad.

Things are things.

And they affect us in different ways.

And based on the way they affect us, we perceive them as good or bad.

…all this is why people, for hundreds of years, have called Spinoza a dirty atheist nihilist scumbag. 

…..so now let’s watch him walk it all back — reconstruct the whole edifice of our lives from the rubble he has reduced it to.

But though this is so, still we must retain these words. For because we desire to form an idea of man, as a model of human nature which we may look to, it will be useful to us to retain these same words with the meaning I have indicated. 

In what follows, therefore, I shall understand by good what we know certainly is a means by which we may approach nearer and nearer to the model of human nature we set before ourselves. 

By evil, what we certainly know prevents us from becoming like that model. Next, we shall say that men are more perfect or imperfect, insofar as they approach more or less near to this model.”

Book IV Preface

…you see?

He’s flipped it.

It’s not as if there’s some objective standard which it’s good for people to reach and bad for them to fail at.

Just the same way that there’s not some objective standard for how a tree should grow, or how a drawing should turn out.

It’s that we have a desire. 

Insofar as we desire to draw a square… then it’s good to draw this four-cornered thing.

And insofar as we wish to become a certain kind of person… then, precisely by that token, it’s good to do certain things and bad to do others.

And so, before we go on to further develop this project, let’s remind ourselves what model of a human Spinoza wishes to approach.

He calls it a “free human” — homo liber.

It’s someone who is driven by their own nature, and not by other things.

It’s being in touch with yourself, knowing what you really want, and then proceeding on the course which that entails.

In practice, that mainly involves avoiding entrapment by other things. In other words, avoiding addictive behaviours. Becoming obsessed with some external thing — needing someone else to love you when they don’t, or becoming fixated on someone else’s success — to the detriment of your own existence.

And the form this mostly takes is being able to emancipate yourself from the push and pull of your negative emotions, whereby you’re drawn to do something other than acting on your own interests.

And so: knowledge of good and evil is nothing but the feeling of joy or sadness, insofar as we are conscious of it, aware of its cause, and have an understanding of why we are being affected in this way.

In other words: so long as we know we’re feeling good or bad, know what’s causing us to feel good or bad, and have an accurate picture of the mechanism by which it’s making us feel good or bad, we can therefore have the power, or freedom, to stay on the course that makes us feel good, or turn away from the course that makes us feel bad.

And that’s the model of human nature Spinoza is trying to approach.
It’s when your desires align with your understanding of what’s good for you (knowledge of good and evil).

OK so get this.

  • Understanding indicates the power of your mind to embody Nature.
  • Your desires are your essence.

So.

If

  • you actually understand what’s good for you

and

  • your desires derive from that

then

  • your essence is determined by your own nature.

That’s the goal, folks.

…alright!

Preface, over!

I’m now going to cover three points from the beginning of Book IV.
Then I’m going to run through his basic vision of what constitutes our rational self-interest in one extended swoop.
And lastly, I’m going to pick out the Best Tips’n’Tricks from the latter half of the Book.


You can’t escape Nature

Book 4, Proposition 4:

It is impossible that a man should not be a part of Nature, and that he should be able to undergo no changes except those which can be understood through his own nature alone, and of which he is the adequate cause.

So.

In the Spinozist framework, you can’t become unconditioned. The best you can hope for is to be relatively self-caused. If you are thirsty and want to go get some water, then a minute later when you’re drinking water, you’re doing that, conditioned by your desire of a minute ago, which arose directly from your nature.

But what’s more, you can’t be perfectly self-caused. Only God — Natura Naturans — is perfectly self-caused. Every part of Natura Naturata is interlocked in a web of existence which includes an infinite range of things more powerful than it.

I dunno if this comes across as depressing to you, but I think this should be quite helpful.

Firstly, because it should undermine any guilt you feel for having been triggered or obsessed by things or people. This is not only to be expected, it’s inevitable. It’s part of the nature of mutual embeddedness that we participate in, when we participate in the universe. At any given moment, you’ll come across something which will, in Spinozist terms, assert its existence over your existence, and thus pull your mind in like a tractor beam. 

But it’s also helpful on a more… um… spaced-out level.

On my Quixotic quest to plumb the profundities of every possible spiritual approach, in order to find the highest good one can attain to in this life… I’ve come across some pretty out there stuff. To understand something, you kinda have to give yourself over to its worldview. And this has resulted in… some significant mental disturbance. So this denial of total liberation has actually supposed, for me, a liberation of its own. 

I’ve still got an ounce or two of fight in me — and more to the point, I’m still young. So I’ll probably give it another go in a bit. 

But for now — both my sense of logic and my personal psychic exploration has led me to the provisional conclusion that Spinoza is right — you can’t totally emancipate yourself from external causes. You’re part of the universe; trying to rip yourself out of it is going to leave you either deluded or in agony.

Another effect of this: you will, at some point, necessarily cease to be. If nothing else, in ten trillion years, when Cthulu comes out and eats this pocket of Spacetime for his afternoon snack.


It’s not Reason > Emotion; it’s Emotion > Emotion

Book 4, Proposition 7.

An affect cannot be restrained or taken away except by an affect opposite to, and stronger than, the affect to be restrained.

This is a departure from the Stoic model, and it’s very important. 

You can’t, like, force yourself out of an emotion.

You can’t just tell yourself to stop feeling this way — that it’s illogical or something.

The only way to stop feeling something is to feel a different thing that overpowers it, so to speak.

So, when you reason your way out of a negative emotion, what you’re doing is directing your mind to something that elicits a positive emotion — either a new thing, or a new way of looking at the old thing. And it’s that positive emotion which overpowers the negative emotion.

It’s like… a card game, say. 

Your opponent plays a card.

You can’t just reach over and take that card off the table.
The only way to beat that card is with another, stronger card. 

So you look through your hand and play the highest card you have… or go to the deck to pick up a new one, until you find one that works. 

That is what is in your conscious mind’s power to do.

It can’t snap its fingers and stop feeling pain. 

But it can indirectly lead itself from pain to joy, by switching or reinterpreting the contents of its awareness.


Our basic conundrum

Proposition 15

A desire which arises from a true knowledge of good and evil can be extinguished or restrained by many other desires which arise from affects by which we are tormented.

Propositions 16-17

A desire which arises from a true knowledge of good and evil, insofar as this knowledge concerns the future or contingent things, can be quite easily restrained or extinguished by a desire for the pleasures of the moment.

So, that’s our problem.

There’s something we figure is best for us.

But we don’t do it, because… 

  • We are overpowered by negative emotions.
  • Things which are currently present affect our mind more than things could happen now, or will happen in the future.

That’s largely why we don’t follow our knowledge of good and evil.

Our other problem: excessive joy.
Joy that is to our detriment overall.
The basic image is the one I discussed in the last part: something is good for one part of the body, but bad for the others.
Good for the tongue, bad for the gut.

To sum it all up, Spinoza takes the famous Latin phrase:

Video meliora, proboque, deteriora sequor

I see the better, but follow the worse

In the rest of Book 4, he traces out his assessment of “the better”.
Thus, the rest of this post will go through his observations on the subject.

And then in Book 5, he spells out the things our mind can do to shift us from “the worse” back onto “the better”.


Spinoza’s Basic vision for what’s best for us

At this point, I think it’s the right time to reiterate his view of the world, insofar as it leads directly into what’s best for us.

Alright.

So, imagine you’re lying on your back, under a large, opaque pane of glass.

On this pane of glass, someone is dripping drops of coloured water. 

A red drop hits the glass… and then fans outward into a splotch.

A green drop hits the glass… and then fans outward.

A yellow drop… etc.

OK. So, that pane of glass is Natura Naturata — the world.

And beyond it is that bit of Nature which generates the things in the world — Natura Naturans.

Each drop of coloured water is a thing in the world.

Now. Left to its own devices, each thing would fan out forever. It is a process in Extension which will keep spiralling onward until it can’t anymore. In Spinoza’s terms: “the essence of things involves no certain or determinate time of existing”. Because they derive from an infinite and eternal drive to exist, their basic core is a drive to exist.

So, for Spinoza, that’s the fundamental foundation of virtue — the core principle guiding our actions: self-preservation.

Not mere survival, though — not just continuing in existence, but also maintaining your nature. “For”, he says, “a horse is destroyed as much if it is turned into a man as if it is changed into an insect”. 

It is remaining in existence, as you.  

Everything we do, insofar as we are active, rather than passive, is an elaboration of this principle.

So, to put it technically: anything that “brings about the preservation of the proportion of motion and rest of the human body’s parts have to one another is good; anything that disturbs it is evil”. (P39)

In other words… your bones are currently staying still, and the blood is zooming around your body.

If you drink water, it will be digested and go into your veins so it can keep moving along smoothly. So drinking water is good. Your proportion of motion and rest is maintained.

But if something stops your blood flowing and moves your bones around… that’s bad.

And it’s the same thing with your brain.

There is a “flow” of neurons activating in a certain pattern which constitutes your conscious experience. 

You want that flow to keep going on its course.

For example: say you like making bread. You wake up every morning and bake bread. You eat some of it; you sell some of it. You are happy. You have just heard about a new kind of bread, and are excited about trying it out tomorrow. 

And let’s say something can come in and change the arrangement of your neurons such that you hate bread and want to fill people’s mouths with sand instead.

This that can change your body’s proportion of motion and rest in a way that destroys what you are — like turning a horse into a gnat.

That’s bad.

OK.

So that’s self-preservation.

Then there’s self-expansion. You try to fan out. You try to grow.

So, anything that gives our body a greater range of motion is good — anything that allows it to interact with the world in more ways,is useful to you. 

So, for example… tools. A shovel. A pen. That’s good. It allows your body to do more things.

And… well… cybernetic implants that allow you to perceive X-rays and gamma rays and stuff… would presumably be right up Spinoza’s alley.

Congratulations, Transhumanists!
Now you too have an old Latin book backing you up.

You add these two together, and you get your advantage.

Insofar as you’re governed by reason — that is, insofar as you have an accurate understanding of yourself and the world, and insofar as you’re able to stick to that understanding — you will act in accordance with your advantage. 

You will do what’s good for you. 

That is Spinoza’s foundation for virtue — for the right way to act in the world.


A quick word of commentary here. 

See — this is a bit where many people have recoiled against him. He’s arguing that the foundation of goodness and kindness is actually self-interest. 

Now — I opened the introduction to this piece by pointing out that his name means “Blessed Thorny”. And this has always been one of the thorniest bits for readers.

But this has always made just made me want to kiss him. 

I’ll make two quick observations on this point.

Firstly.

So, I’m not going to go so far as to declare absolutely that morality is based purely on self-interest.

What I will say is that being uncomfortable with the notion of being ultimately self-intersested — selfish, even — is a huge impediment.

You have to be able to at least countenance the notion without major pushback.

If one’s reaction to being told the source of all goodness is self-interest is getting all defensive about it, I’d say you’re unlikely to be a very moral person. A secure moral person should be able to acknowledge the extent of their selfishness.

I’m put in mind of the following anecdote from the Pali Canon:

At Sāvatthī.

Now at that time King Pasenadi of Kosala was upstairs in the stilt longhouse together with Queen Mallikā.

Then the king said to the queen, “Mallikā, is there anyone more dear to you than yourself?”

“No, great king, there isn’t. But is there anyone more dear to you than yourself?”

“For me also, Mallikā, there’s no-one.”

Then King Pasenadi of Kosala came downstairs from the stilt longhouse, went to the Buddha, bowed, sat down to one side, and told him what had happened.

Then, knowing the meaning of this, on that occasion the Buddha recited this verse:

“Having explored every quarter with the mind,
one finds no-one dearer than oneself.
Likewise for others, each holds themselves dear.
So one who loves themselves would not harm others.”

Mallikāsutta

SN 3.8
Saṃyutta Nikāya
Sagātha-vagga
Kosala Saṃyutta

https://suttacentral.net/sn3.8/en/sujato

So, in my opinion — even if self-interest cannot be found to ground all morality, in some transcendental sense… nevertheless, in a practical sense, the examination of one’s self-interest is truly a great gateway to ethical living.

Even if it doesn’t necessarily get you the whole way, coming to terms with one’s selfishness is at the very least the first step.

Secondly.

This is yet another point where he really poignantly reminds me of myself.

I have a tendency, both personally and intellectually, to justify things in the most amoral, pessimistic ways possible.

Partly, it’s a self-deprecating thing — I could scarcely countenance justifying myself morally. Better to declare oneself evil and feign self-interest than claim to be a good person and fall in any way short of my sky-high ideals.

Partly, it’s a desire to take on the bulk of the intellectual labour. Like, if I think something is the right thing to do, I’d want to come up with an argument which will convince the widest spectrum of people possible, no matter how sceptical. So, if my thoughts would only work on the saintly or the already-converted, then I haven’t done a good enough job. It’s on me to find a way to convince the most hard-nosed opponent — someone who holds totally opposed values from me.

And I just can’t help but project this self-observation onto Spinoza, too. It’s like with Nietzsche — all this excoriation of pity and praise for war-like virtues, and then his last act before complete mental and physical disability is to throw himself in front of a horse which was being flogged. It’s like “Come on, Benny; Come on Freddy. You’re both just really, really nice guys. Why can’t you just admit it?”

And it’s similar on the intellectual plane. He’s trying to convince you of the absolute highest, most heavenly of religious approaches to life, with the most worldly and down-to-earth arguments. He’s like — “I’ve got to shoot the ball into the basket… from the bottom of this massive hole I’ve just dug myself.”

It’s a labour of intellectual alchemy — trying to turn lead into gold. The greater the gap in value between your premises and conclusions — the more profane the building blocks, and the holier the edifice they are built into — the greater the feat.

So (paradoxically, perhaps), I suppose his arguments appeal to me more on a personal and aesthetic level than anything else.

So anyway.

Does he succeed? 

…well, he does, in my opinion, get over the biggest hurdle, by showing that greed, lust, ambition, etc., are kinds of weakness and pain. You get obsessed about some external object, and lose your ability to generate joy without a complicated procedure which is often liable to failure. Before you caught the bug, you were perfectly capable of feeling good by sitting there and twiddling your thumbs; now sitting there would make you miserable, and you have to work really hard for weeks or months or years, feeling frustrated all the while, before finally feeling good once you’ve gotten this arbitrary external object. So it’s not actually to your advantage to indulge these emotions, from the very start.

In other words, he cuts the direct connection between “I want it” and “therefore, just considering my own advantage… I should go get it.”

Between those two things he interposes: “wait — what kind of wanting is it?”

And I think his case is pretty strong — you would actually be healthier and happier if you had the desire to examine and edit your own desires, and were able to consistently follow that meta-desire.

And the advantages of living with others in peace and harmony far outweigh the momentary pleasure of getting something you want and breaking the group dynamic.

But to make the point go all the way, he basically does the thing where he’s like “Reason is universal. A square is a square for everyone. So it must be the same for personal conduct — it will never prescribe something to you which it would deny to someone else.”

So, he’ll grant that lying would be to your individual advantage… but because universalizing lying would be to everyone’s disadvantage, it must be contrary to reason. 

Which is, in my opinion, a little weak.

So this is my personal response in those cases. 

At the end of the previous section, we declared the two virtues to be tenacity and nobility. 

Tenacity is sticking to your guns — holding your shape — pursuing your advantage against the forces acting against you.

Nobility is the extent to which you wish the good for others, too.

Every aspect of moral conduct which cannot be smoothly explained through tenacity, I lump into Nobility.

If it’s part of your nature to wish the good for others… then it’s just part of your nature. Your advantage lies in maintaining your shape… and to lose this nobility is to lose an important part of yourself. 

So where you cannot, in all honesty, justify a given aspect of moral conduct and selflessness as a rational expression of self-interest… well, just bite the bullet and put it down to your nobility.

You’re a sentimental sucker — a sweet softie.

Deal with it.


Back to our coloured drops analogy.

So, a coloured drop on an opaque pane of glass is a process which proceeds in the following fashion:

  • drip onto surface
  • fan out until it can’t fan out any longer
  • maintain that shape as long as possible.

So, if a coloured drop could think and form an understanding of itself, it would do those things intentionally.

And we — as body-minds — are just a more complicated coloured drop, and the world (Natura Naturata) is that pane of glass.

So, insofar as you understand this, and are able to maintain your understanding of this, you will always do those things which keep you in existence, and keep you as yourself.

Thing is — each drop will eventually be thwarted in that drive… because it is not the only thing which Natura Naturans is fusing its timeless drive to be into.

Other coloured drops will, in the process of their expansion, overwhelm it.

So what’s a coloured drop to do?

Well.

Two things.

  • Fuse with clear, uncoloured drops.
  • Fuse with drops which share the same colour.

OK, so in our terms, the first point basically means “eat food”.

We’ve gone on existing a certain amount of time. In order to continue existing, and being ourselves (thinking our thoughts, having our experiences), we fuse food into ourselves.

See, at Point A in time, there was a pie (one body in Extension), and there was us (another body).

Then we ate the pie.

So at Point B in time, there is no longer the pie — we have fused it into our body. And we have been able to go on existing, and being ourselves, doing our thing, feeling joy.

And because we have highly complex, composite bodies, we have a need for diverse kinds of food. 

Now, see… every time I read that line about needing diverse kinds of food… it was in a book. And so the inevitable thought was “hmm… food for the eyes… food for the brain regions stimulated by thoughts… a book is totally food!”

So that’s the first thing you do. Interact with things in the environment that you can fuse into yourself.

(A quick note here.

This Yuval Noah Harari cat apparently made this big splash with a book on the past — and the one point in it which I kept hearing about was:

“Wait — did we domesticate wheat, or did wheat domesticate us?!”

And every time I heard that, I thought two things:

  1. Wow. People really struggle to think about themselves objectively — as objects in the world, from an external perspective — if this is any kind of news to them.
  2. ……no one has read Spinoza, have they?

That’s the basic Spinozist question, every time you interact with inanimate objects. Because everything is equally a part of Nature, trying to persist in existence, piggybacking off other things. 

Am I consuming/interacting with this thing, because it is to my advantage, and I gain joy out of it… or is it consuming me and my limited resources of attention?

Am I wearing the suit, or is the suit wearing me?

It’s a scary question to start asking… but it’s the way you start getting better results in your life… and more importantly, regardless of anything you might wish to accomplish in the world… it’s the way you start existing more as a being in Natura Naturata. That’s what it means to “be more yourself”. Not just be a log pushed around the currents, but, in any given moment of life, just exist, as an expression of the divine nature, rather than as a pawn of some other expression of the divine nature.)


OK.

So, the first thing you do is fuse with clear, non-coloured drops — subsume things into yourself: pies, books, etc.

The second thing you do is fuse with similarly coloured dots.

That is… you associate with other people.

And get this. The logic here is spectacular.

It’s because other humans have the same basic shape as you. 

Because they have the same basic shape, their desires and interests are most similar to yours.

And so, if you align yourselves together, you are now going in the same direction through Extension, with twice the power.

So, again, let’s look at things objectively.

If you see a single ant moving around, and only understand it as a single ant, you are going to fail to understand what’s happening in Nature. 

You’ll be totally flummoxed as to why it keeps moving to and from this lump of dirt in the ground, moving around food which it won’t eat. 

That’s like looking at each raindrop as a distinct occurrence, and failing to see the storm.

Whatever explanation you come up with will be inaccurate. This will mean you will fail to predict what it’s doing, which is bad… but most importantly, for Spinoza… you will form inadequate ideas. And the more inadequate ideas you form, the more imperfect your mind is. Having adequate ideas and perceiving reality well is the highest thing your mind can do — other than contemplation of yourself as an expression of God, it’s the purest and more consistent joy you’re capable of getting — the style of life most in accordance with the nature of your mind and body. 

And it’s the same with people.

If you look at a football match and just look at one player and ignore what all the other ones are doing, you are not going to understand that player’s actions at all. “Why did they kick the ball over there? Why are they moving in the opposite direction they were just moving in?” 

And that’s because, what is happening on a football field is that there is a composite body of different humans, all operating in congress, with a single goal. In other words… they’re a team.

The “team” is the relevant unit of Nature operating here.

See — it’s not as if they’ve fused together into a blob — like the way you fuse with food.

But they have actually fused together as a natural process. The way water molecules come together to form a river, or a cloud.

They have found a way to pursue common goals (…in this case……. literally a common goal…), to the mutual advantage of all concerned. 

These people could not have that much fun alone.

And certainly, none of them could beat the other, opposing team alone.

So that’s the second thing you do. 

You find bodies which have a similar shape to you.

In other words: other people.

And you try to find people whose shape is most similar to yours.

I don’t mean “tall people should associate with tall people”.

I mean, “their brains are in a similar arrangement to your brain”.

Specifically, you want people who are guided by reason.

That’s the arrangement of their brain that really matters. 

People who are capable of understanding the world clearly, and knowing what is to their advantage and what isn’t. People who are capable of thinking things through and changing their course of action, rather than just getting stuck in doing what immediately feels good (because it felt good at some point in the past) and avoiding what immediately feels bad.

Cus that’s the thing.

Insofar as people are subject to passions, their natures can differ accordingly.

Insofar as they are guided by reason, their natures align.

You see — if you just allow the process of association and likes and dislikes to play out by itself, then people will get stuck in whatever views or preferences they have, and that’ll be that. They’ll accept you if you happen to agree with their prejudices, and reject you the moment you disagree. If people aren’t capable of self-adjustment, then this will happen sooner rather than later — given that everyone goes through different circumstances, and have flexible brains which can respond to the same things in many different ways.

Whereas if you have someone who is capable of distancing themselves from their previous ideas, and abstracting from the immediate experience of the present moment, then you can come to an agreement, pretty much regardless of your starting points.

The fact of being able to reason and talk things through with someone makes your nature align more than the sharing of any specific preferences.

It’s overwhelmingly unlikely that you’ll find someone who always wants what you want, exactly when you want it.

And even if you do — you happen to coincide by accident. If your luck runs out and you disagree, it’s over.

Whereas those with the capacity to reason clearly and calmly will reliably, across a wide variety of changing circumstances and conditions, be able to align their desires with yours.


Anyway. So what you do is find people who are guided by reason… or who are willing to learn to be reasonable.

And then… you unite them to yourself… in this thing called… wait for it……. “FRIENDSHIP”.

That’s a partnership you establish with someone, wherein you each want the good for the other.

Aaaaaand, with that…. congratulations!

You’ve just found the single most useful thing in Nature to you. 

Cus a pie isn’t going to just cook itself, and then stroll over into your mouth.

But your friend will go over to your house, cook a pie, take it over to your room, and feed it to you if you are sick and unable to leave bed — all while making these vibrations in the air calling you a lazy sod, which distract you from the fact your head feels like a brass bell struck by an iron mallet.

So, a friend will be there to help you in times of material need.

And, thanks to the imitation of the affects… a friend will be able to help you swing your mood around much more easily than you will be able to do yourself.

…you see what has happened there?

The universe has started to move around and adjust itself, of its own accord, to your advantage. It is acting and changing the arrangement of things in Extension to suit you.

So — in terms of things other than yourself, this is the #1 thing there can be in the universe, for you.

It is capable of acting. It is like a boat, not like a log. It can set its own direction.

And the direction it acts in is the direction you want to go.

…and that’s it.

The Spinozist religion, as it were, has exactly one category: friendship.

That’s the entire ranking system. 

There’s nowhere higher to advance.

It’s not like the army, where you have privates, sargeants, corporals, lieutenants…

It’s not like Scientology, where you have Operating Thetan, Levels 1-8 or whatever.

It’s literally… OK, we’re friends now.

…cool!

…done!

Welcome to the club! I’m sorry — there’s no medals.

So, a student is a younger friend. A teacher is an older friend. A baker is a bready friend. But there’s strictly no hierarchy. A friend is a friend is a friend.

So, again… you see why I find this book so deeply amusing.

It’s literally just a way for massive nerds to convince each other to be friends. 

“Look — I’ve proven geometrically, from the very nature of God and space and time and consciousness… that it is in our interests to be friends.”

I love it.


OK. So now, you extend the logic a little… and you get the State.

This is all very 17th Century, OK? So please forgive it for sounding a little dated.

Basically, in the state of nature, everyone has the right to do anything (e.g. mess with someone if they mess with you), and judge anything based purely on their own inclinations.

But that’s overall bad for everyone.

So, using reason, they agree to set up an institution to defend the common good — because overall, everyone gains that way. 

And so, you put aside your right to avenge yourself — if you want to get back at someone, you have to do it through the existing institutions, or get their permission.

But also — good and bad are now no longer up to you to decide. You agree to follow common notions of justice, as defined by the State.

Let’s take an example from current affairs.

Say you disagree with the government’s Covid-19 policy. If you live in the UK, you almost certainly have done — because they’ve radically changed policy by the month. 

But you still follow it.

Why?

For some people, this is out of fear of punishment. 

The worst case scenario is civil war and mutual murder.

And the second-worse case is keeping people in line out of fear. This is better than the former, but still not good. It’s just the lesser of two evils. You’re being passive — you’re acting out of pain, being controlled by something outside you. The “free human” — Spinoza’s model of human nature that we’re trying to approach — does not act based on fear. (We’ll return to this later).

So, that’s not why you’re doing it.

But then, how can you be said to be rational, if you’re departing from what you know to be good?

You’re rational because you know you’ve entered a social contract, and what’s good to do is no longer a purely individual decision. So you will do things that are against your personal interests, in exchange for being part of this larger body in Nature. Because you know that the advantages of that outweigh the disadvantages.

But the key point is that Spinoza justifies public institutions by the fact that they serve common interests. In this, he goes further than hobbes, arguing for extensive freedoms of speech and thought (…though this is mostly in his Theological-Political Treatise, rather than the Ethics).

He does make a point to note that the care for the poor goes beyond any individual’s capacities, or interests… and so, that should fall on the collective institutions of the State. This shows that, for one thing, he didnt live in an age of mega-billionaires. And, for another, that it’s pretty easy to make a case for socialism from his premises.


So. Long story short: pursuing your own interests under the guidance of reason would compel you to you set your energies towards human collaboration.

On the small scale, you do this with a group of people in your local community — to band resources together in a friendship group, pool resources, take care of each other, and make it so that everyone can live a safe and happy life. 

And on the large scale, you act in such a way that all humans could come to constitute one body, united in pursuing the common good — the persistence in existence and joy of all.

…the only thing I’ll say about this is that, if we actually pull this one off………… we’ll be out of the galaxy and visiting Andromeda by next Wednesday. 

So maybe it’s not too bad of an idea to take it a little slow.


To sum up: no matter how FUCKING ANNOYING other people are… try to keep patient, and guide them steadfastedly towards a life guided by reason and common interests.

A couple of choice quotes to cap off this section. Hopefully these eloquent passages will console you in times of frustration and hurt.

Still, it rarely happens that men live according to the guidance of reason. Instead, their lives are so constituted that they are usually envious and burdensome to one another. They can hardly, however, live a solitary life; hence, that definition which makes man a social animal has been quite pleasing to most. And surely we do derive, from the society of our fellow men, many more advantages than disadvantages.

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 and 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 they require, and that only by joining forces can they avoid the dangers which threaten on all sides.

IV.P35.S.

It is especially useful to men to form associations, to bind themselves by bonds most apt to make one people of them, and absolutely, to do those things which serve to strengthen friendships.

But skill and alertness are required for this. For men vary — there being few who live according to the rule of reason — and yet generally they are envious, and more inclined to vengeance than to compassion. So it requires a singular power of mind to bear with each one according to his understanding, and to restrain oneself from imitating their affects.

But those who know how to find fault with men, to castigate vices rather than teach virtues, and to break men’s minds rather than strengthen them — they are burdensome both to themselves and to others. That is why many, from too great an impatience of mind, and a false zeal for religion, have preferred to live among the lower animals rather than among men. They are like boys or young men who cannot bear calmly the scolding of their parents, and take refuge in the army. They choose the inconveniences of war and the discipline of an absolute commander in preference to the conveniences of home and the admonitions of a father; and while they take vengeance on their parents, they allow all sorts of burdens to be placed on them.

Though men, therefore, generally direct everything according to their own lust, nevertheless, more advantages than disadvantages follow from their forming a common society. So it is better to bear men’s wrongs calmly, and apply one’s zeal to those things which help to bring men together in harmony and friendship.

IV.Appendix.XII-XIV.

Great!

So that’s Spinoza’s basic idea of what constitutes your advantage, and how that informs how you act in the world!


Understanding

So, we’ve just talked about the two external things which are most useful to you: food and friends.

But there is one thing which is, in an absolute sense, more useful to you than that. And it’s something you have right inside you.

The thing that is most good is Understanding.

If we’re gonna get right down to it, I suppose I’d say that that’s true… by definition.

The best thing for a meat grinder is meat. The best thing for the ear is sound. The best thing for the eye is sight. 

Just so — the best thing for the mind is understanding.  

It is the object which agrees the most with its nature. Understanding is pretty much what the mind does. It takes in mental objects… and then, rather than have them float around in a meaningless jumble, it tries to snap them into place.

You are a mind. 

So the best thing for you is understanding.

……but that aside, let’s get to the ‘proper’ reasons. 


The first reason is quite simple. 

Things are bad or good insofar as they affect you in a way that causes you joy or pain — that enhance or diminish your power. 

So, depending on how you’re disposed at that moment, pretty much anything can be bad, or can be good. 

Water is good if you’re thirsty, bad if you’re drowning.

The thing about Understanding is that it allows you to tell the difference

So it is absolutely good. 

It is the thing that allows you to enjoy other things. Without it, you’re entirely subject to fortune — external causes, and prior associations and instincts. You’re just being pushed around by random urges, like the log in the ocean — and when you feel joy, it’s basically down to luck. The only way to make a difference in how much joy you’re going to have in your life is through understanding.

So, understanding is necessarily good for you, because it is that which allows you to distinguish what else is good for you.


Secondly, it is the very faculty of understanding that allows us to act on the insights it gives us.

OK. So. Understanding is the result of Reason — of thinking clearly and distinctly. It is seeing things as they really are — and forming common notions between them which build up into a picture of the world.

So, through this frame of mind, we are able to understand what’s good and bad for us.

But also — when operating in this frame of mind — we are also spontaneously able to act in that direction. 

Your mind, insofar as it understands, will be disposed to do what you know is best.

Insofar as it is subject to affects which are passions, it will be disposed to do something else.

So, basically — when you are in that clear, untroubled, sober frame of mind which is characterized by alertness (vigilantia — mindfulness, basically), you will act according to the understanding developed through that frame of mind. Your emotions will be in accordance with your picture of the world, and its “knowledge of good and evil” — common notions for what will bring you joy or pain.

So:

  • The question of time: through reason, we’re equally affected by the past, present, future. We will prefer a greater future joy to a lesser present one.
  • When you act, insofar as you understand, pleasure cannot be excessive. You won’t follow an immediate pleasure to your detriment.

So, the best possible thing for you, in addition to building the contents of your understanding, is to empower that part of your mind that understands, as against the rest of it.

As with the previous point, Understanding here stands in a different category to other things. You could have a bunch of valuable things to hand, but without Understanding, they may not be put to use. Think of Understanding as the soil, and everything as various seeds; the latter does not amount to much without the former.

But, as we discussed, that calm, controlled faculty of mind is often shaken — that’s “human bondage to the affects”, through which we are vulnerable to outside forces. Spinoza’s strategies for how to recover and reinforce that faculty of mind are the subject of the last section — of Human Freedom.

Still — it is important to state the point here.


The third point is social.

I mentioned that the two basic actions an individual body in Nature can do is structurally incentivized to do is eat food of various kinds and form associations.

And then I mentioned that the best people to establish relationships with are those capable of reason and understanding.

So that’s another reason why understanding is so good. It facilitates social bonding, which is 50% of the task before you.


Fourthly, understanding is ultimately what reconciles you to the most difficult and unpleasant things in life.

Following on from the lineage of the Stoics, a key part of what constitutes Spinoza’s notion of a liberated human being is the acceptance of the natural order as it is, and the resultant ability to bear whatever happens with equanimity.  

When something bad happens, and you accept it simply because you were told to, without understanding the reason why yourself, the acceptance can never be complete. It will be flimsy, easily shaken; nothing has been definitively resolved; your unwillingness is just on indefinite hold. But when you actually understand why it happened, there is a sort of “clicking into place”; the mind settles, and stops resisting what’s actually happening by asserting increasingly desperate and incoherent delusions.

What’s more, there is a silver lining when you understand it — you may have failed in some desire, but you have succeeded in your desire to understand. You, as an entity, have some actual power here. Even as you are destroyed, you stand in a different relation to reality than a leaf which crumbles unaware.

Here’s the key passage, from the very end of Book IV:

But human power is very limited, and infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes. So we do not have an absolute power to adapt things outside us to our use. Nevertheless, we shall bear calmly those things which happen to us contrary to what the principle of our advantage demands, if we are conscious that we have done our duty, that the power we have could not have extended itself to the point where we could have avoided those things, and that we are a part of the whole of Nature, whose order we follow. 

If we understand this clearly and distinctly, that part of us which is defined by understanding, that is, the better part of us, will be entirely satisfied with this, and will strive to persevere in that satisfaction. 

For, insofar as we understand, we can want nothing except what is necessary, nor absolutely be satisfied with anything except what is true. 

Hence, insofar as we understand these things rightly, the striving of the better part of us agrees with the order of the whole of Nature. 

IV.App.XXXII.

For such reasons as these, Understanding is the single best thing for you.

Therefore, anything that aids your understanding is good; and the best lifestyle is one conducive to understanding.

If your lifestyle is one which is conducive to other things, you will almost certainly be unhappy even if you get them. In the pursuit of these things, you will constantly be putting your emotions — the very wattage of your existence — in the hands of such a variable thing, which never gives you any completed satisfaction. Once you have it, you fear to lose it; and to get the same rush you felt on obtaining it, you have to seek more of it. You’re on this constant treadmill, subject to your negative emotions, passive in relation to these external bodies. Your ability to maintain a balanced frame of mind, and regard things as what they truly are (rather than with the fevered gaze of the junkie whose attention is irresistably fixed on the next hit) is compromised. Without that balanced frame of mind, you will not be able to discern what will and won’t reliably give you joy; and even surrounded by heaps of money and hordes of Insta followers, you will be miserable, trapped in an imaginary universe in which these things are valuable and necessary. Whereas, seen from the outside, you’re just a confused junkie monkey, running around trying to wrangle a bunch of random objects so that it can feel OK again.

So, the best lifestyle is one which is conducive towards maintaining that balanced frame of mind, and enjoying the insights it gives you.

……but… of course… that’s what a philosopher would say, isn’t it…


Anyway, here’s the clincher. 

The best thing the mind can understand is God.

This is very important. It is kind of central to his whole system.

What are the benefits of the idea of God?

  • It is the only permanent thing. It is the only thing that doesn’t change. So, if you’re a rationally self-interested actor, it is the best thing you can ever possess.

I remember my friend Sam Derbyshire speaking with such passion about a sphere. That is, a three-dimensional object, on whose surface all points are equidistant from its centre. And he was like: “I really don’t know how to express this exactly, but I feel like I have that.”

And Spinoza would say he’s absolutely right.

You’re a mind — a consciousness. 

The only thing you can truly possess are ideas — experiential content. 

And for Spinoza, mathematics offers the model for life. Once you have the idea of a sphere, you have it. You can summon it at any time. You can contemplate it at any time. Save serious brain trauma, there’s nothing anything else can really do to get between you and your sphere. Whatever joy you have of it is permanent.

And if that’s so of a simple geometric object — how much more true is it of God — the one thing which necessarily exists?

  • Can be shared equally

Money and fame, by their nature, can’t be shared equally. 

Thus, for people who love these things, “while they rejoice to sing the praises of the thing they love, they fear to be believed” (IV.P37S)

So, due to the imitation of the affects, they will wish to boast about the goods they imagine they possess… but they will do so tinged with fear that someone will be tempted to compete with them for it.

With God — Reality itself — on the other hand… there’s literally infinite of it to go around. Anyone can get a piece of that pie without taking an ounce of it away from me.

And thus, it is the prime candidate to be strengthened by the Imitation of the Affects. If I love God, you loving God will make me love it more, without taking any of it away from me.

But the key point is: 

  • It’s pure joy. 

When you think “God”, you’re thinking “Absolute existence. Absolute power. That which brings my body into existence, sustains it. That which my body is composed of. That which my mind is composed of. Pure assertion — absolutely YES.”

But that’s all just the technical Spinozist language for it. And as I ended the Introduction with — that reasoning is just a ladder with which you climb. What it’s actually like to contemplate God doesn’t involve any of those words, or any of those concepts. You just sit there, being like “WOW.” Just overcome with wonder at the fact of being at all. And sometimes swirling through thoughts of all that that an infinite being entails. But mostly just being like…. ……..wow.

Novalis famously dubbed Spinoza the “God-drunk” or “God-intoxicated man”. And that’s exactly what it’s like. It’s precisely like a drug.

And here’s why that’s important: it is by this affect that all the other affects can be restrained. 

Within the Spinozist framework, it’s not reasoning itself that overcomes negative emotions; it’s positive emotions. 

When you try to get out of an addiction, or replace a bad habit, it’s exceptionally difficult to just do it “raw”. Typically, you replace it with something else. Cigarettes with carrot sticks, for example. And it’s the same with this. Instead of spending an hour or two a day, you just lie on the floor or go for a walk and bliss out about God.

Once that starts to happen, it really changes you as a person. Your entire motivational structure changes. It’s the affective fuel powering a life of self-moderation and collaboration with your fellow humans.

Why would I go out of my way to go out and compete with people when I can just sit in my back garden, or lie down in my bed, and feel total bliss?

…which doesn’t make it the best fit for a go-getter society like ours, which relies on everyone consuming as much as possible and living lives to compete for attention and status markers and such.

Plus, no matter how abstract and de-personalized this conception of divinity is… it’s still incontestably a religious vision. It’s mysticism. Rationalist mysticism, but mysticism nonetheless. Which cuts against the grain of a society which regards religion with open contempt. 

For these reasons, this bit hasn’t really made it through into our culture, the way other bits of his Rationalism have. 

But 

  1. …this is the best bit!
  2. ……it kinda doesn’t really work without it. 

There’s not really a sufficiently good carrot to be worth the trouble of adjusting your negative emotions through reason. People have to be told that reining in your passions will make you more productive, better with the ladies, more successful… all of which are kinda just reinforcing the whole addictive relationship whereby joy is generated by external things. Leave out God — leave out the mystical union with the universe — …and the whole project is accordingly weakened.

But, look. I’ll make the concession he would never be willing to make: maybe we’re just judging things based on our own lusts. For Manchester United fans, nothing could be as good as watching Manchester United win. For gamers, nothing could be better than really getting into the flow and beating a super hard boss. Naturalist mystics will think naturalist mysticism will be best. 

So if you’re dead set against the idea of God, or Nature, or the Tao, or anything even vaguely like that, then fine. Just find something you really, really like doing on your own, and maybe that’ll work just as well.


“Positive Thinking”

This is a massive point. It is a huge part of what Spinoza thinks is entailed by Reason and accurate understanding. 

I’m going to come right out and say that I’ve never encountered anyone as committed to positive thinking as Spinoza. All those fragile evangelists of positive thinking you’ll see fleecing middle-class housewives and start-up hopefuls don’t actually come close.

Here’s my loose expostulation as to why.

Spinoza is the most radical rationalist of all time, bar none.

For him, logic is quasi-ontological — logic is the actual fabric of existence.
For something to exist is for it to be posited, the way a logician will posit “x”. 

What I’m driving at here is that for him, negation… isn’t a thing. It’s a trick of the mind.

So, like, let’s say you leave the house and don’t bring your keys.
“Not bringing your keys” isn’t really a thing.
What actually exists is “x quantity of air in your pockets”. 

Absence is an illusion. It’s just a way for the mind to navigate what really exists: we imagine something, and then negate it..

Cus, see, what’s really happening when we think ‘this thing doesn’t exist’ is that there is an affection of our body (bit in our brain), representing an idea, and then another affection of our body which denies it.

…nowhere in what I’ve just described is there any non-existence.
For us to think “X doesn’t exist” is, actually, just bits of our brain and mind existing in a certain state.

………OK, I’ve been dying to shoehorn this in somewhere, and this is actually a fairly good spot for it.

So, he actually makes an aside at one point to argue that our notion of infinity is flawed. The way the word exists in Latin and Dutch and English, it means “not-finite”. Something that’s infinite is something which doesn’t have a limit. In other words, the word “infinity” is saying “not-not”. It’s negating a negation — it’s a double-negative.

And he’s like “look, if we were doing this properly: ‘infinity’ should be the positive term, and ‘finite’ should be the negation. The concept of finitude isn’t a positive concept; it’s a negation. What’s actually real is infinity. What’s proper to the mind is to posit things, not deny them — because that is in line with reality as such. So we should really be saying something like “MEGAZOOM” and “not-MEGAZOOM” instead. But, as with most things, people are stupid and think about everything precisely backwards. And what am I gonna do, rewrite the whole fuckin’ dictionary? So, I’ll keep saying ‘infinity’. But I want you all to know I’m wrinkling my nose every time I do so.”

…what I’m basically saying is that positive thinking is baked into his ontology. 

Negation is a no-no, up from the very ground of being. 

If you’re thinking negatively, you’re misrepresenting the nature of reality. Which is the only Spinozist sin.

He’s a positive thinker on a level which annoying modern lifestyle gurus literally can’t even conceive of.

And he does it without being an annoying, uppity prick. His case for positive thinking is so extremely dry, so sardonic, so un-saccharine, so rigorously unsentimental… that it ends up being exceedingly more compelling.

…OK.

So let’s circle back to the beginning of the beginning of Part 3.

Joy is good; it is an affirmation of the body, which is in accordance with the nature of the mind, in accordance with the nature of Nature.
Sadness is bad; it is a denial of the existence of the body.
And any denial is inadequate knowledge. There is, strictly speaking, nothing to be denied; Nature consists solely of affirmation.
And to remind you: knowledge of evil is a sadness we’re conscious of, and thus know to avoid.

And so… we get Book IV, Proposition 64.

Knowledge of evil is inadequate knowledge.

It’s knowledge of what not to do.

It’s negation. That makes it suboptimal.

And this expresses itself “practically” in your emotions.
Thinking “something is bad for me” is being conscious of pain… which involves pain. It’s better than doing something that’s bad for you, and then feeling a lot more pain… but it’s still bad. 

AND SO — a liberated person desires the good directly.

You do something because you want it and it will cause you joy. That is to act.

Not because of fear, greed, or any kind of lack. That is to react, or be passive.

For example: 

The sick man, from timidity regarding death, eats what he is repelled by, whereas the healthy man enjoys his food, and in this way enjoys life better than if he feared death, and directly desired to avoid it.

IV.P63S

Thus: 

Proposition 50.

Pity, in a man who lives according to the guidance of reason, is evil of itself and useless.

He who rightly knows that all things follow from the necessity of the divine nature, and happen according to the eternal laws and rules of Nature, will surely find nothing worthy of hate, mockery, or disdain, nor anyone whom he will pity. Instead, he will strive, as far as human virtue allows, to act well, as they say, and rejoice.

IV.P50S

So, don’t help people because you feel bad for them and want to relieve yourself of that pain. Help people because you want to cause joy — to “raise the frequency of the universe”.

And:

Proposition 53.

Humility is not a virtue, or, does not arise from reason.

Also:

Proposition 54

Repentance [i.e. regret] is not a virtue, or, does not arise from reason; instead, he who repents what he has done is twice wretched, or lacking in power.

And then we get:

Proposition 63

He who is guided by fear, and does good to avoid evil, is not guided by reason.

But even hope is kind of suspect.

There is no hope without fear.
Hope involves doubt that something will happen… which involves having something in your mind which negates what you hope for.
If you didn’t doubt its outcome — that is, if it didn’t involve fear — it wouldn’t be hope, it would be certainty.
So, ideally, you woulnd’t get your joy from hope.

And finally, we get:

Proposition 67.

A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death.

All clear?

The free human… who understands Reality, and their place in it… and thus, whose mind consists of adequate ideas… will think of things in terms of positive existence.

Which, in practice, means desiring the good directly, not wishing to avoid evil… and certainly not making a virtue of sadness or pain.

There is no reason for you to feel guilt, or put yourself down, for anything.
You should only ever focus on acting well. Only then, says Jedi Master Spinoza, will the Force be with you.
Obviously, negative feelings will surface; but you are always justified in switching to positive ones.


Conquer Hate by Love

This positive outlook extends to the social realm, as well.

Proposition 45.

Hate can never be good.

Because hate, you see, is pain.

Add that to the effect we mentioned in the last part, whereby hate that turns into love is doubly strong, and we get…

Proposition 46.

He who lives according to the guidance of reason strives, as far as he can, to repay the other’s hate, anger, and disdain toward him with love, or nobility.

…alright! Final stretch. Let’s zoom through this and get home soon. 


Pride and Despondency

Let’s dip back into Book 3, real quick.

Pride is thinking more highly of oneself than is just, out of love of oneself. 

III.App.XXVIII.

Despondency is thinking less highly of oneself than is just, out of sadness.

III.App.XXIX.

Sweet. Back to Book 4!

Propositions 55, 56, 57.

Either very great pride or very great despondency is very great ignorance of oneself.

Either very great pride or very great despondency indicates very great weakness of mind.

The proud man loves the presence of parasites, or flatterers, but hates the presence of the noble.

Neat!

The key thing to explain here is that someone affected with pride is extremely susceptible to the affects.

That is because their vision of themselves doesn’t have a firm rooting in reality.

If you were to tell me that I’m illiterate or that I can’t walk… well, firstly, I’d assume you were speaking figuratively. Once I determined you were being literal… I’d be really confused. But after that, I’d simply disregard what you were saying.

Just so, if you were to compliment me on my ability to read and walk, I’d also be kind of confused… and then, in all honesty, charmed by your fresh, unjaded view of the world…… but for the purposes of this example, I’ll stick with the story and say that I wouldn’t feel a particular rush of self-esteem in response.

You see — I’m getting constant confirmation that I can both read and walk. No matter what you say, it will be very difficult for me to shake the image of myself walking and reading. Regardless of my opinion on the matter, it is something that intrudes upon my awareness every day, without fail. So the image in my mind is very stable. You denying or affirming it won’t have much of an effect. And so, since my self-image isn’t adjusted in any big way, there isn’t really room for me to be elated or devastated by your opinion of my ability to walk or read. Imitation of the affects is vastly overridden by the constant images of over 20 decades of reading and walking.

However. By definition, pride is about something that isn’t really real. Thus, the image of it is only present through fantasies and self-talk. Thus, it is extremely easy to shake. And when it is shaken, precisely insofar as one is invested in the notion, there is an accordant emotional disturbance. You call it into question, and the self-image threatens to slip away entirely. You affirm it, and I’m overjoyed; because the image was unstable, your believing it has a huge effect on my own ability to affirm it, and feel joy.

So, because of the very definition of these states of mind, and their structure… you see that someone who is proud is extremely susceptible to emotional variation as regards their self-image… and will necessarily surround themselves only by people who humour them. Also, when they come into awareness of someone who does have the qualities they believe themselves to have, their self-image is again liable to be shaken — because the person they’re observing actually does have these qualities, the image of them displaying them will very stably intrude into the mind of the proud person, and they will have to expend great effort and emotional energy to deny that image: “this person isn’t that great” isn’t enough; it’ll have to be something like “that £$%$£%%£ piece of ^&%, i hope they die in &$^%” in order to deny it properly.

Thus:

We easily conceive that the proud man must be envious, and hate those most who are most praised for their virtues, that his hatred of them is not easily conquered by love or benefits, and that he takes pleasure only in the presence of those who humor his weakness of mind and make a madman of a fool.

Although despondency is contrary to pride, the despondent man is still very near the proud one. For since his sadness arises from the fact that he judges his own lack of power from the power, or virtue, of others, his sadness will be relieved, that is, he will rejoice, if his imagination is occupied in considering the vices of others. Hence the proverb: misery loves company.

On the other hand, the more he believes himself to be below others, the more he will be saddened. That is why no one is more prone to envy than the despondent man is, and why they strive especially to observe men’s deeds, more for the sake of finding fault than to improve them, and why, finally, they praise only despondency, and exult over it — but in such a way that they still seem despondent.

IV.P57.S.

Brilliant.

I love it.


Fight or Flight

Proposition 69.

When one man performs oral sex (fellatio) on another man, who in turn and simultaneously performs oral sex on the former, then these men are said to be sixt–

Woah woah woah, sorry sorry. Messed that one up.

I’ll try again.

Proposition 69.

The virtue of a free man is seen to be as great in avoiding dangers as in overcoming them.

Corollary:

In a free man, a timely flight is considered to show as much tenacity as fighting, or, a free man chooses flight with the same tenacity, or presence of mind, as he chooses a contest.

See — when you play the scene in your head, someone fighting off assailants (action-movie style), makes us feel all these strong emotions of empowerment.

And picturing someone running away does not give us the same rush.

But take away all the pictures you see in your head. That’s not actually real — that’s just how we perceive the event.

As soon as you stop picturing it that way, you can clearly notice that the same result has been achieved: the person has preserved their body’s proportion of motion and rest.

If we go back to that notion of reality as a bunch of coloured drops on opaque glass… there’s no difference whether the body fought or fled. The coloured splotch maintained its shape, and that’s that.

So there’s another example of how things appear different if we just let out imagination play automatically or we employ reason to think things through objectively.


Avoiding favours from shitty people

Proposition 70.

A free man who lives among the ignorant strives, as far as he can, to avoid their favours. 

People judge things according to their own temperament. So, if they do a favour to you, they will value it according to their idea of how helpful it was — not by how helpful you found it. And they will form expectations of reciprocity; they will imagine you being grateful in proportion to their imagination of how helpful they were being. If those imaginations are subverted, they will feel anger towards you, and retaliate (probably by shit-talking you to others).

And so, if you wish to avoid repercussions, you will be forced to adjust your actions to their imaginations and expectations.

Thus, you’ll want to avoid putting yourself in a position where unreasonable people think you owe them something.

…that being said…

Proposition 70, Scholium.

I say as far as he can. For though men may be ignorant, they are still men, who in situations of need can bring human aid. And there is no better aid than that. So it often happens that it is necessary to accept favours from them, and hence to return thanks to them according to their temperament.

To this we may add that we must be careful in declining favours, so that we do not seem to disdain them, or out of greed to be afraid of repayment. For in that way, in the very act of avoiding their hate, we would incur it.


Wanting people to like you

The love of esteem which is called empty is a self-esteem that is encouraged only by the opinion of the multitude. When that ceases, the self-esteem ceases, that is (by P52S), the highest good that each one loves. That is why he who exults at being esteemed by the multitude is made anxious daily, strives, acts, and schemes, in order to preserve his reputation. For the multitude is fickle and inconstant; unless one’s reputation is guarded, it is quickly destroyed. Indeed, because everyone desires to secure the applause of the multitude, each one willingly puts down the reputation of the other. And since the struggle is over a good thought to be the highest, this gives rise to a monstrous lust of each to crush the other in any way possible. The one who at last emerges as victor exults more in having harmed the other than in having benefited himself. This love of esteem, or self-esteem, then, is really empty, because it is nothing.

P58S

The self-esteem that isn’t empty is a rational assessment of abilities which derive from your own body and mind, not the minds of other people. You are able to walk, talk, read, write, reliably carry out some craft to some level of competence. This is a self-esteem which can’t just be shaken willy-nilly, at whim.

And, of course, the highest form of self-esteem is knowing yourself to participate in God. Knowing that your body is capable of generating a mind which feels joy, and thus participates more fully in the divine nature. Knowing that your mind is capable of apprehending the totality of everything that ever is, was, will be, and can be — through your intuitive grasp of the necessity of the divine Being.

The highest self-esteem is understanding that your body is capable of generating a mind which is capable of generating the idea of God, and knowing that it is One with It.

The highest self-esteem doesn’t have anything to do with any particular goals or desires in the world — to do this or that with him or her. It’s in contemplating the fact of your own consciousness, and realizing that, by virtue of being conscious, you can know Ultimate Reality, as well as any mind that can ever be. Unlike animals, you are able to extricate yourself from the world of your senses — your mind is capable of knowing that the phenomenal world of your experience is its own construction. And, thus, you can liberate yourself, to some extent, from your immediate sense of what’s good or bad for you; reflect; and do something different. But, more importantly than that, you can understand what lies beyond your senses; once that break has been effectuated, you can understand intuitively that you are, in fact, participating in pure, infinite existence.

So true self-esteem is realizing and being pleased with that power of your mind — rather than how pretty other primates find your face or how nicely you can string symbolic throat-sounds together or whatnot.

…anyway. A bit more on at that stuff in the Conclusion of Part V. For now — a conclusion to Part IV!


The Balance

…OK. 

So.

Let’s say you have enough to eat and a place to sleep and no one’s attacking you or anything.

At this point, the only thing that can be existentially wrong for you — the only thing that can make your life bad — is the presence of painful emotions, and your inability to stop feeling them.
That’s human bondage.

Contrasted with human bondage is human freedom.
That’s a life defined by understanding — your mind has an accurate sense of what’s going on. For Spinoza, if you accurately understand what’s going on, you’ll act in accordance with your desires — which is your essence; the thing that determines how you pass from one moment to the next.
And you’ll do so in a way that engenders joy, or pleasure.
And the more well-established your understanding, the more your desires will derive from your own nature, and the less you’ll be caught up by external objects via your imagination of them as inherently good or bad — and thus, the more reliably and sustainably it will experience joy.

Key to this approach is disentangling yourself from excessive joy.
That’s short-term joy that is to the detriment of other parts of your body in the present or future. Like, you know — heroin. It’s joy — but it prevents you from carrying out your desires other than taking heroin, like participating fully in family and community life. And over the course of weeks and months, the pleasure you get diminishes radically.

And it can be the same with your relationship with other objects and people. You have to step back, analyze it clearly, and think to yourself: am I being active here? Am I acting based on negative emotions? Am I going towards this person or thing because I’m feeling bad at not having it? Cus insofar as I understand that that’s what’s going on, I know that the way to feel joy, and have active desires, and thus exist more as myself, is to disentangle myself from my obsession with this thing. 

…OK.

Now.

I hope what I’m about to say isn’t going to sound like backtracking. I don’t want this to come out looking like a “…nevermind! Just go about your business as before.”

But I do kind of have to establish this point, despite the risk of backsliding.

Many religions and philosophies teach this basic break with ordinary life; a distance from worldly concerns and affairs. Taken to an extreme, this becomes asceticism. But even without that, actually attempting to live one’s life in light of these kinds of insights is liable to lead one into serious confusion and self-doubt; you’ll find yourself looking at the can of coke in your hands with a little too much intensity sometimes. 

“Is this a can of coke… or is this… an alien invader trying to steal the essence of my soul?!” kinda thing. 

So, really, the point has to be made.

Spinoza does not preach a disengagement from worldly concerns or sense pleasures.

It’s also not about being constantly caught up in a mystical union with God.

That’s why I say he’s the gentlest of the gurus. 

His truly is a Middle Way.

The key idea here comes in Proposition 59:

To every action to which we are determined by an affect, we can be determined by reason, without that affect.

He uses the example of closing your fist, raising it, and bringing it down. 

In and of itself, there’s nothing bad about that action; on the contrary — purely in and of itself, it indicates a power of the body, and is thus good. 

The thing that changes that action is whether it is accompanied by this or that image in your mind. But the actions of the body can be accompanied by any image whatsoever — so there isn’t any neat way to say: these actions are passive, and bad; whereas these actions are good!

If swinging your fist is tied to the image of this bad person, whom you hate, because you’re envious… then that’s not good. You’ve been caught up in a lame Revenge Movie, and lost track of your sense of what’s truly going on.

But if you’re just doing it to hammer a nail in… or even defend someone, that same action is perfectly in accordance with reason and nobility.

To take the logic further, let’s employ the example of money:

Money has provided a convenient instrument for acquiring all these aids. That is why its image usually occupies the mind of the multitude more than anything else. For they can hardly imagine any species of joy without the accompanying idea of money as its cause. 

But this is a vice only in those who seek money neither from need nor on account of necessities, but because they have learned the art of making money and pride themselves on it very much. (…) Those, however, who know the true use of money, and set bounds to their wealth according to need, live contentedly with little.”

IV.App.XXVIII-XXIX.

So, it truly is about using the things around you wisely, not about living in splendid metaphysical isolation.

I leave off with this beautiful and inspiring passage.

I recognize a great difference between mockery and laughter. For laughter and joking are pure joy. And so, provided they are not excessive, they are good through themselves.
Nothing forbids our pleasure except a savage and sad superstition.
For why is it more proper to relieve our hunger and thirst than to rid ourselves of melancholy?

My account of the matter, the view I have arrived at, is this: no deity, nor anyone else, unless he is envious, takes pleasure in my lack of power and my misfortune; nor does he ascribe to virtue our tears, sighs, fear, and other things of that kind, which are signs of a weak mind. 

On the contrary, the greater the joy with which we are affected, the greater the perfection to which we pass, that is, the more we must participate in the divine nature. To use things, therefore, and take pleasure in them as far as possible — not, of course, to the point where we are disgusted with them, for there is no pleasure in that — this is the part of a wise man.

It is the part of a wise man, I say, to refresh and restore himself in moderation with pleasant food and drink, with scents, with the beauty of green plants, with decoration, music, sports, the theater, and other things of this kind, which anyone can use without injury to another. For the human body is composed of a great many parts of different natures, which constantly require new and varied nourishment, so that the whole body may be equally capable of all the things which can follow from its nature, and hence, so that the mind also may be equally capable of understanding many things at once.

This plan of living, then, agrees best both with our principles and with common practice. So, if any other way of living [is to be commended], this one is best, and to be commended in every way. Nor is it necessary for me to treat these matters more clearly or more fully.

IV.P45.S.

Great!

So, join me next time as we finally reach the culmination of the EthicsBook V: Of Human Freedom — in which Spinoza lays out the five ways in which we can consciously work our way out of the pull of negative emotions, and back onto the course he has laid out for us here!

Til then, keep well!



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