14 March 2011

Spinoza's Ethica III

Part III of Spinoza's Ethica, ordine geomterico demonstrata (Ethics demonstrated in geometrical order) concerns the ‘nature and origin of the affects’ (roughly, emotions) and consists chiefly of a long series of arguments to the effect that, in thus-and-such circumstances, we will, ceteris paribus, be excited with this or that affect: when, for example, ‘anyone conceives that he is loved by another, and believes that he has given no cause for such love, he will love that other in return’ (Prop. XLI), and ‘love or hatred towards a thing, which we conceive to be free, must, other conditions being similar, be greater than if it were felt towards a thing acting by necessity’ (Prop. XLIX).  In the process of defending these theses, Spinoza takes himself to be providing a scientific (cause-to-effect) account of the essences of our various affects, and thus ascertaining their real, as opposed to merely nominal, definitions.

Commentators invariably note the thoroughgoing ‘naturalism’ Spinoza commits himself to in articulating his thoughts in Part III, often citing the famous opening lines of the Part's preface as evidence that the propositions, corollaries, scholia, etc. contained therein are ordered chiefly to a naturalistic analysis of human psychology and action.  While a defence naturalism vis-á-vis humanity is no doubt among Spinoza's aims in Part III, however, I would suggest that the text evinces a more central goal, viz. the moral perfection and liberation of the attentive reader.

Before adducing my evidence in support of this claim, I should perhaps clarify what precisely my thesis is; ‘after all,’ a reader might argue, ‘is that not true of all the Ethics?  I mean to say, it is a treatise on ethical theory, so of course what he says in Part III, as well as everything else, is ultimately ordained to moral betterment of his reader!  What makes Part III so special in that regard?’  The point is a good one, and I do not deny that my contention is likely to descend into tautology if not specially qualified; however, I do believe that such a qualification can be found.  For while the Ethics does, overall, especially in Parts IV and V, seek to tell us how we might lead a good life, in other words, to provide the reader with practical advice and guidance, I am here arguing that Spinoza maintains that a proper understanding of Part III is in itself morally perfective and liberating, that grasping it does not merely direct us toward the good, but is rather partially constitutive thereof.  This claim is substantial indeed, for most works in ethics, Kant's Groundwork, say, or Anscombe's ‘Modern Moral Philosophy,’ certainly do not claim that reading the Groundwork or ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ is in any special sense constitutive of moral goodness, that understanding them is, as such, an exercise in morally praiseworthy action.  So on this front I think my thesis safe from the threat of triviality.

‘Still,’ a reader of the Ethics might challenge me, ‘even if it would be a substantive claim that an understanding of Part III is partly constitutive of the moral good in the opinion of its author were we to consider it merely as a work in ethics, it is a trivial claim when we are talking about Spinoza, for an understanding of Part III is, obviously, an instance of understanding, and all such acts are, in Spinoza's view, partly constitutive of our perfection and liberty, cf. Part IV, Props. XXVI-XXVII.’  To which I reply that while Spinoza does indeed view any act of understanding good qua act of understanding, he views an understanding of Part III good, not merely insofar as it is an act of understanding, but insofar as it is an act of understanding the subject-matter of the Part.  So, once again, I think my claim free from any triviality or tautology.

Herewith follows my textual evidence that reading Part III is intended chiefly to be an exercise in virtue:

1.) In attacking, in the preface to Part III, the position that man is a ‘kingdom within a kingdom’ enjoying both complete sovereignty over his own actions and full independence from the general order of nature, Spinoza's chief complaint is not that it violates some abstract ‘naturalism,’ but that it engenders an erroneous view of the affects dominated by an unjustified scorn therefor.  This scorn, Spinoza maintains, blinds us to the fact that ‘the passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on... answer to certain definite causes, through which they are understood, and possess certain properties... worthy of being known... whereof the contemplation in itself affords us delight’ (emphasis mine).  In so beginning Part III, therefore, Spinoza strongly suggests that it is written so as to lead the reader to a proper contemplation, in itself pleasant and desirable, in other words, in itself constitutive of our true good (cf. Part IV: Def. I), of ‘the passions of hatred, anger, envy,’ and the like, which passions form the subject matter of Part III, and whose causes, through the knowledge whereof such contemplation is achieved, are of the most interest to Spinoza therein.

2.) My thesis receives it greatest confirmation from sundry remarks on the affects and our knowledge thereof from Part V:
  1. An affect, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof. (Prop. III)
  2. An affect therefore becomes more under our control, and the mind is less passive in respect to it, in proportion as it is more known to us. (Prop. III, Cor., cf. Part V: Prop. XL)
  3. Than this remedy for the affects... which consists in a true knowledge thereof, nothing more excellent, being within our power, can be devised. (Prop. IV, Schol.)
  4. He who clearly and distinctly understands himself and his affects loves God, and so much the more in proportion as he understands himself and his affects. (Prop. XV, cf. Part V: Prop. XXXVI, Schol.)
  5. [I]t thus appears that the mind's power over the affects consists, firstly, in the actual knowledge of the affects. (Prop. XX, Schol.)
With these comments in mind, we might well understand to what end Spinoza directs the reader in his discussion of the affects in Part III, many portions whereof seem at first glance useless and are never referenced after their introduction (e.g. Prop. XLVI): he seeks to allow the reader clear, distinct, and adequate ideas of his passive affects, which ideas are themselves liberating and perfective.

3.) Finally, an interpretation along the lines I am suggesting makes sense of a seeming contradiction in Part III: while nearly all of the analysis Spinoza provides of the affects concern those which are passive (as opposed to those which are active, the discussion whereof is exhausted by a mere two propositions) and thus restrict our power of action, he nevertheless asserts, in Props. LIV-LV, contemplation of our weakness and constraint to be against our own interest.  Why, then, would Spinoza spend page after page in a book purportedly written with an end to the betterment of its readers engaging in an enterprise contrary thereto?  If we consider the matter only with an eye to Part III, we should look in vain for an answer to that question; conversely, if we interpret the lengthy discussion of passive affects in light of the aforementioned passages from Part V, we can easily account for its vast outstripping of the corresponding discussion of the active affects: in acquiring adequate ideas of our passive affects, the adequacy whereof is secured by the geometrical order of the demonstrations in Part III, they are stripped of their passivity, which stripping itself constitutes to some degree our liberation and welfare.  The active affects, conversely, stand in no need of such stripping, and thus they are not given the same depth of treatment provided their passive counterparts.

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