The great Dutch philosopher Spinoza has always appealed to me; but all the more so now I’ve studied more psychology.
Spinoza’s ethics are ‘naturalistic’ and spring from simple real-world causes. There is no divine origin or human uniqueness. Everything stems from the simple proposition (as Michael LeBuffe explains in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that:
Human beings desire whatever will bring joy and are averse to whatever will lead to sadness.
This fits beautifully with modern psychological theories that, along with animals, we have one of two basic reactions to everything: approach or avoid. And it all stems from a simple, unquenchable, animalistic drive which Spinoza describes thus:
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.
Spinoza’s ‘passions’ are the manifestations of this striving, as LeBuffe describes them:
Human passions are for Spinoza changes, that is, increases or decreases, in the power with which we, or parts of us, strive.
And again, as modern psychology suggests, Spinoza suggests a lot of what drives us is subliminal and below the level of consciousness:
Between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that desire is generally related to men insofar as they are conscious of the appetite. So desire can be defined as appetite together with consciousness of the appetite.
And the mind is constantly on the lookout for ‘perfection’ via more ‘joy’ and less ‘sadness’.
By Joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by Sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection.
All of which drives our actions or ‘striving’ accordingly:
We strive to promote the occurrence of whatever we imagine will lead to joy, and to avert or destroy what we imagine is contrary to it, or will lead to sadness.
And virtue for Spinoza is simply ‘correctly’ striving:
Consciously trying to preserve oneself is right and neglecting to preserve oneself is wrong.
The more each one strives, and is able, to seek his own advantage, i.e., to preserve his being, the more he is endowed with virtue; conversely, insofar as each one neglects his own advantage, i.e., neglects to preserve his own being, he lacks power.
All very simple – but we’re pretty complex in our motivations aren’t we? All that complexity comes from our reaction to other people and things; or as Spinoza has them ‘objects’.
There are as many species of Joy, Sadness and Desire, and consequently of each affect composed of these (like vacillation of mind) or derived from them (like love, hate, hope, fear, etc.), as there are objects (i.e. things) by which we are affected.
And a key part of achieving virtue, and correctly developing and using our ‘power’ of right action, is developing ‘clear and distinct ideas’ on things. As LeBuffe explains:
When I do something that fails to help me to persevere, it’s because the ideas on which I based my action were confused; that is, I thought I knew what would help me to persevere, but I was wrong.
When I do something that does help me to persevere, though (unless I have simply been lucky in acting from an inadequate idea), it is because I acted on clear and distinct ideas or, in other words, genuine knowledge about what would help me to persevere.
And this of course is a life’s work; coming to know ourselves, understand others and appreciate how the world works.
But does this mean there is no objective good and bad? Looks like it… For Spinoza:
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 be good, and [evil], and also indifferent. For example, Music is good for one who is melancholy, [evil to] one who is mourning, and neither good nor [evil] to one who is deaf.
Truth is, as Spinoza sees it, they are the other way around:
It is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.
LeBuffe concludes we need to stop kidding ourselves:
The ideal we set before ourselves will be a person who possesses the greatest possible power of action. This would be, in effect, to correlate our systematically distorted ways of perceiving ourselves—as free agents pursuing as an end a model of human nature—with the causes that really determine our actions.
So does this mean anything goes?
No, because we live in community, society and constant connection with myriad others, each with their own delusions, desires, passions and ideas of what’s good and bad; and that 100% creates our context.
And so as Susan Jones explained in Philosophy Bites in December 2007, Spinoza’s sage advice is to find a ‘community’ whose values you share – as he himself did. Because given how small our ‘power’ to influence events, people, ourselves and human nature truly is, you won’t make much headway in changing one you don’t.
And this piece of Spinoza’s advice – from across time and place – is part of why I’m changing jobs next month.