Spinoza, p6 / Understanding the emotions
Written by Clare Carlisle
By understanding our emotions, whether positive or negative, we gain in power and therefore happiness, argues Spinoza
In the third book of the Ethics, Spinoza writes that he intends to consider human emotions "as if the surfaces of lines, planes or solids". Because the emotions are just as natural and as law-governed as all other modes, he suggests, they can be studied with mathematical precision. And this means that human behaviour, so often motivated by emotion, must be completely intelligible and explicable.
Spinoza criticises people who, believing "that man rather disturbs than follows the order of nature, that he has absolute power over his actions", tend to adopt a misguidedly moralistic attitude. "They refer the cause of human weakness and inconstancy not to the common forces of universal nature, but too, I know not what vice in human nature, which they therefore bewail, deride, despise, or more frequently detest." Spinoza thought that it was more fruitful to understand our emotions and actions than to hate or ridicule them.
According to Spinoza, we understand something fully when we know what causes it, and how. From the perspective of his philosophy this is rather a tall order, since everything is connected, and therefore the causes of any particular phenomenon are highly complex. In fact, understanding something ultimately means knowing the whole of which it is a part – in other words, knowing God.
However, Spinoza approaches the task of understanding human emotions by a more accessible route. His first step is to draw a basic distinction between activity and passivity: "I say that we are active when something takes place within us or out of us, of which we are the adequate cause, ie when from our nature something follows either within us or out of us, which can be clearly understood by that nature alone. On the other hand I say that we are passive when something takes place in us or follows from our nature, of which we are only the partial cause." This doesn't conflict with Spinoza's denial of free will, which we looked at last week. When we are active we are determined by our own nature, while when we're passive we are determined, to some extent, by something (or someone) else.
Spinoza then asserts that every individual thing strives to persevere in its existence. In order to live, we need power, or energy, and because various external influences can diminish our power, we seek not only to sustain this power, but to increase it. Spinoza calls such striving conatus (a Latin term meaning will or appetite), and he argues that this conatus "is nothing but the actual essence of the thing". By using the traditional concept of essence in this idiosyncratic way, Spinoza gives it a new sense of activity and dynamism. In his philosophy, "what a thing is" becomes identical with its power, its energy, its force of life.
A finite individual's power: the mind's power of thought, and the body's power of movement – fluctuates over time. Spinoza suggests that the emotion of joy arises with the feeling of an increase in power, and the emotion of sadness arises when power is diminished. This means that our endeavour to persist in being is simultaneously a pursuit of joy, or pleasure. Whatever increases our power makes us happy, and this leads us to value it as good.
Spinoza regards joy and sadness as the two basic emotions, and he suggests that all other emotional states are variations of these, combined with ideas of particular objects that cause them. For example, love is a feeling of joy – and hatred a feeling of sadness – joined with an idea of its cause. Spinoza emphasises that such feelings may well have more to do with the imagination than with reality: the person I love may in fact weaken my essence – especially if this love is anxious or obsessive – even though I mistakenly believe that he or she enhances my life.
An important feature of Spinoza's account of emotions is that both joy and sadness, and also their variations, can be either active or passive, depending on whether or not the individual is aware of them and understands them clearly. As we have seen, understanding involves knowledge of causation: we need to figure out what gives rise to different feelings – and this might be a complex combination of external influences and things that follow from our own nature. Without such knowledge, we simply suffer our emotions, but understanding them has a transformative effect: "An emotion which is a passion, ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it." When the mind knows thoroughly even a painful emotion such as sadness or grief, its of joy arises with the feeling of an increase in power, activity of knowing signals an increase of power, which generates a feeling of joy. Spinoza is suggesting here that understanding is inherently joyful, regardless of its object.
In his thinking about the emotions, Spinoza is influenced by older philosophical traditions – in particular, by the moral theories of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. But he also ends up sounding rather modern, too, for his emphasis on understanding the causes of our emotions resonates with various forms of psychotherapy, and even with some contemporary selfhelp literature. If everyone is seeking to increase their own power, then helping other people to flourish must mean empowering them to become more active, rather than treating them as passive recipients of charity or therapy. Perhaps Spinoza is attempting to empower his own readers in precisely this way – although the Ethics is certainly not your average self-help manual.
However, in its modern form, this kind of ethic of self-empowerment and life-enhancement is often tied to an individualistic way of thinking. For Spinoza, on the contrary, the idea that we are separate, autonomous beings is a key target of his philosophical critique. Next week, in turning to the question of morality and the good life, we'll think about how to reconcile Spinoza's claim that every being pursues its own happiness and seeks to maximise its power, with his insistence that we are all connected to one another.
Philosophy as a way of life by Clare Carlisle
©First published in the Guardian Newspaper