Victor Nuovo on Spinoza: The Passions
Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of essays on Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza.
I begin with a reminder of some themes from the previous essays. According to Spinoza, Nature is the only thing that can rightfully be said to exist, because it depends on no other thing but itself, whereas whatever else there is depends on it and inheres in it. It is the only substance; all other things are modes or finite modifications of it, just as a simple tune or a symphony are modes of music, not the thing itself.
It’s not hard to find confirmations of our dependency. I find it every day in myself. I am in constant need of what only Nature can provide: clean air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat, and even the availability of filtered water from my refrigerator, food on its shelves, and the many household fixtures that are at hand to serve my daily needs do not contradict it, although they tend to hide my dependency, until they break down; I am no less dependent on nature than were my most distant ancestors who drank water from a stream, gathered acorns in the forest, and neatly deposited their waste under the leaves. They were more self-reliant than I, but dependent on nature all the same, although perhaps they were more natively aware of it.
And consider that every step we climb involves work overcoming gravity, which requires energy; and what is energy, but the capacity to do work; it infuses our bodies even as air fills the lungs and supplies the blood with oxygen; “Man thinks” says Spinoza, and what is his first object of thought? His very own body and its strivings. And through it, as through a medium, he perceives cycles of vitality and fatigue, sickness and health, pleasure and pain, fear and hope; they are constant reminders to him that the vital powers of his existence are uncertain and not altogether under his control.
Nature, it would seem, is indifferent to our welfare; like an uncaring parent that sends its mortal children into the world, leaving it up to them whether or how they survive or perish. But this is only a half-truth. Like all animals, we come equipped with a powerful motive to survive, a desire to endure; it is deeply embedded in our being; this endeavor is not blind instinct, it is desire interlaced with thought, or thought driven by desire, stirred up or calmed by emotion. This cunning endeavor and emotional striving is the very essence of our being and of all natural things, and without it nothing would last for long.
Spinoza’s reason for addressing this theme is to locate the foundation of morality in Nature. Now morality is all about human actions and omissions, things that, in retrospect, we ought to have done or ought not to have done, and the motives that impel us to act one way or another. But, Spinoza supposed, being a good naturalist, even more basic were the emotions for they are at the root of all our actions, and through them our power to act, and even more, to act responsibly, is increased or diminished.
Among modern moral philosophers, Spinoza was the first to make use of psychotherapy. Indeed, it is arguable that he invented it. He does not rail or moralize against the passions, nor does he make light of them; rather he explains them dispassionately, clinically, and naturalistically. It is by employing psychotherapy, through self-analysis, he believed, that we gain power to act responsibly and with rational purpose. Here is what he says:
“Nothing happens in Nature, which can be attributed to any defect in it, for Nature is always the same, that is, the laws and rules of Nature, according to which all things happen … are always the same everywhere. So the way of understanding the nature of anything, of whatever kind, must also be the same, namely through the universal laws and rules of Nature.
“The affects [i.e., passions], therefore, of hate, anger, envy, and the like … follow from the same necessity and force of Nature as any other thing… Therefore, I shall treat the nature and the powers of the affects, and the power of the mind over them, by the same method by which … I treated God and the mind, and I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies.”
The reference to lines, planes, and bodies, signifies that Spinoza’s method is the same that was used in mathematical physics. Newton’s great treatise on cosmology, written a couple of decades later employs the very same method, although with greater invention and mathematical sophistication. The point is that psychotherapy, like astronomy, is, or should be, founded on natural principles, and because those principles are natural causes, that operate like any other natural cause, it is possible to analyze and explain them, to count them and weigh them.
Spinoza’s explanation begins with what makes us move, which is desire, an elemental striving. We are creatures of desire, and much like all other animals, we are joyful when our desires are satisfied, and saddened when they are not. Joy empowers us; sadness has the opposite effect. Desire, joy, and sadness, this triumvirate of passions, are the basic principles of human action.
Spinoza’s exposition of desire is especially noteworthy, for he uses it to clarify the integral relation mind and body, their inseparability. He rejects the belief, current in his time, and perhaps still current, that the mind or will, by its own pure act, has the power to cause the body to act or is able to think independently of the body to which it belongs. He argues against this, insisting that body and mind are merely two aspects of the same thing; he cites as evidence the fact that the mind does not think when the body is inert and insensible; also, he observes that there are many things we say and do impulsively, as though without thinking, for which we feel remorse or are repentant, which we would not do, if we imagined that the body had acted on its own, without the mind’s awareness, if not its tacit consent. And the emotions would count for nothing to a mind existing separate from the body. They depend upon corporeal sensibility and full-bodied experience, including misperceptions and misrepresentations of reality. Thus gladness is the joy we feel when matters turn out well for us or for those we love; hope is an “inconstant joy” towards an uncertain future; fear, an “inconstant sadness” towards the same; envy is sadness caused by the good fortune of someone we hate; pride is thinking more highly of oneself than is just; humility, a sadness brought on by our evident incapacities.
Spinoza believed that such analyses and explanations of our passions give us a rational control over them; rational control is a kind of autonomy or self-government, whereby we are able to make impartial judgments about how to conduct our lives; by means of this capacity we become free, moral persons, and citizens.
We have arrived at the threshold of Spinoza’s theory of politics and morality.