The term “heresy” is often uttered with respect to Spinoza’s life. Being formally excommunicated and socially outcast in a number of different ways was the cost of privileging a critical engagement with objects over tradition, and the search for logically consistent knowledge over material comfort. One might say that certain life circumstances predisposed him to such a headfirst dive into radical questioning at an early age, seeking out an edge that wasn’t contained in the past (continuing with rabbinical study, or even chosing to follow Maimonidesian or Gersonidesian thought), but in what was contemporary for him (‘free-thinking Protestant’, Cartesian, scientific thought of the day). It’s almost as if something within the “Transcendent” made him intellectually restless, uneasy and dissatisfied. As if relying upon transcendence created an ever-present injustice overturned only by privileging the immanence of bodies.
Known primarily for his authorship of one of the worlds greatest philosophical texts, The Ethics, it can be argued that in all of his writing there is a concern for the Other, and an ethics guided by clear criteria of reason, but it is particularly in this book, The Ethics, that his complete concept of charitability is expounded. But before continuing, let’s revisit why the concept of charitability is important, because it isn’t something often written or talked about. For me, behind this concept is the the key to human co-operation, co-evolution, co-existence. It is one man or woman’s relationship with both the world, and everything outside of him or her. Philanthropic acts aren’t the giving away of money or goods. They are actually defined by the type of action internal to a giver, by a type of ethics, from the most everyday and mundane, to the most grandiose. That is to say, most acts publicly recognized as charitable or philanthropic may be far from it, and those that truly are may never be recognized at all.
An Ethics of Existence
We are accustomed to thinking and asking ourselves, following a Platonic/Aristotelian line of thought: “how should I be?”, “how should I live?”, “what must I do to be ethical? charitable? How must I live to be a good decent human being”. This, from a Spinozan point of view, is not ethics. It is better called morality –implying the existence of a type of conflict between essence and value — whereby the moral journey seeks to bridge or eliminate that gulf or distance. Ethics under this moralistic conception makes the charitable act one of conformity with externally imposed expectations. Spinoza’s ontology makes such a conception untenable, by virtue of the non-generalizable nature of a things’ “essence”. Each “thing” is immanently distinct, even when appearances lead us to assume otherwise. The generalization, insofar as there is one, is God, or the underlying unity of all Being. If essences cannot be generalized at the level of things then “values” as things external to the existent lose their utility as guides for understanding. The problem for humanity thus changes from understanding why specific entities fail to meet certain values, to one of understanding clearly what each essence in fact is. What is a body? What is this or that entity before me? What is this entity that constitutes “me” or “you”?
To Spinoza ethics presupposes ontology, that is to say, proper understanding of existence/essence. Ontology concerns itself with modes of being (ethics). The more we come to a proper, critical understanding of the nature of things, he would say, the more one develops the capacity to operate in an ethically enriching manner (defined in his terms as a manner comprised of “joy”). Perhaps another way to state this is that proper understanding is a prerequisite to an entity fulfilling its full potential. Ontology precedes ethics because ethics must be grounded in understanding, in knowledge, in the Real.
A things’ potential is approached by Spinoza much like a scientist would, and less like the more moralistic care for development displayed by greats like Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. A science that develops more on Lucretian Epicureanism than Stoic and Aristotelian eudaimonian lines of thought, in that that ancient concern for living up to “virtue” has now opened up to a process of individualization by the examination of Nature and the “nature” of bodies. Every class of thing that exists flourishes or perishes based on its capacity to properly navigate, at minimum, the world of affects and signs. The more complex the class of entity or species, the more complex the ethics required for it to flourish, to experience joy, or to provide meaning to itself –if that happens to be a quality important to that species.
Shadows and Bodies (Shadow)
When you feel emotional or physical pain, there is the tendency to associate to the cause of that pain negative traits. We say, X is bad, is evil, X is a scourge to the world that should not perhaps exist. When you feel emotional joy and physical please, there is a similar tendency to associate the causes of those joys and pleasures with positive traits. We say, Y is good, Y is awesome.. “More please!” It is thus that we “know” the nature of the world. Spinoza was radically opposed to Cartesian premises of knowledge. Spinoza will say, ‘what do I know of myself that I don’t know from encounters external to me’? What we know of ourselves and of others is all born of encounters, good and bad.
When we think of the circumstances of populations, their joys and miseries, just as within the individual examples, the moral evaluation of the worlds around them come equally from encounters. Is money good or bad, or is it neutral? Is an external population good or bad, or is it potentially neutral. The encounters of a person or population molds their perception. The things in themselves are seen as shadows, the affects of experience replaces the affecting bodies.
Of what does an encounter consist? Internal endogenous states, limits, strengths & weaknesses, dispositions, memories etc. that have fortunate or unfortunate mixings with exogenous entities with their own internal states, limits, strengths/weaknesses, dispositions, fears, memories etc. From a baby’s first breath, encounters are continuous, and the evaluative coloring one gives to the world rarely knows the bodies that constitute it outside of the affects we collect along its journey.
This is all very significant for Spinoza because it 1) highlights how things are known at the level of the body, which is absolutely essential to survival –the maximizing of joy and the marginalization of sadness/misery; but 2) it points out a surpassable limit to what bodies are capable of. Bodies are not restricted to reactive being, once we realize we are normally primarily only dealing with shadows. The first ethics Spinoza thus identifies is that of mastery of affects. Recognizing the primacy of affects in the coloring and evaluation of experience, but also listening to their message. A primacy of sadness in a life is a life in danger or at risk, to itself and to its society. A primacy of joy shows the proper marginalization of harmful encounters. Spinoza’s first ethics is thus an ethics of perceiving clearly our affects and using them as a guide towards more healthy states to both ourselves and society.
So far it may not seem as though we are discussing charitability as it exists in the thought of Spinoza, however that would be a false assessment. For Spinoza would say that there is no genuine charitability that does not start with the elimination of sad passions within the self. As long as one is stuck in the whirlwind of affects, one is only reactively concerned with self, even when presenting oneself as charitable.
To give an example dear to Spinoza, it is often both the priest and the tyrant who appear to be the most giving. But both are often only in pursuit of an exploitative maximization of their own joy. The appearance of charitability is from external objective purposes solely a ruse, however assuredly the subjective experience of the priest or tyrant that their gestures are in fact genuine. For Spinoza, any endeavor that relies upon the “sadness” or disempowerment of a participant, or recipient of charity is an augmenting of that participant’s servitude. I.e. it is not in fact to the benefit of the recipient or participant. Why does desire, which Spinoza sees as a natural good, produce harmful form of non-charitable joy-seeking? Spinoza, the rationalist, returns to his first principles of the inextricable connection between knowledge and ethics. How does the tyrant or priest perceive of themselves and the world around them. Any activity of ethics is only as good as the knowledge that grounds it, he would say.
This reveals a limit to the utility of the first ethics of Spinoza. The maximization of joy assures survival and is essential to the learning of vitality and thriving, but creates its own risks by creating conditions of conflict with others seeking the maximization of their own joys.
Servitudes, Liberations & Personae (Color) – Causes
What we experience with our never-ending journey of affects allows for the first ethics of the maximization of joy (relative active empowerment) and elimination of sorrows (reactive disempowerment). At the second stage of Spinoza’s ethics one moves from the navigation of passive affects to an empowerment via the politics of their creation. From shadows to the objects that produce them.
Spinoza is called a rationalist, but he is oddly so given his focus on affects, the body, and what he calls “God” (Nature). But the term is entirely correct because his goal was to get us to see clearly, to understand clearly, that we can understand and directly know the universe. Ethically, epistemologically, and metaphysically, there is a rational order of the universe. If the first ethics was concerned with our reception of the universe and how that affects our response to it, the second ethics is concerned with our understanding of the universe, insofar as it is composed of bodies that act and undertake actions on other bodies.
Spinoza brings up an ancient Stoic derived concept that is often highlighted as a central theme in his philosophy, the contatus — the desire to persevere in existence, or the will to live. All bodies have it, cellular bodies, intercellular or interpersonal relationships, societies, stars, galaxies. The problem with this concept though is that it can be misinterpreted in Spinoza’s sense, if not grounded in a prior understanding or prior common notion or concept. The Ethics begins with a bold chapter on God or Nature. It grounds all the concepts that follow. If all bodies desire to persevere in existence and undertake actions that maximize their empowerment, this is for Spinoza a way of saying that Nature, insofar as it is expressed by all forms of existence, has as constituent feature a desire for self-preservation shared equally by all beings. All of life, animate or inanimate has an objectality that is only felt in the first ethics. We experience how objects make us feel, how they augment or diminish us. To truly understand the contatus as principle is not simply to project a desire for self-preservation on all other entities, as the neo-darwinistic idea of survival of the fittest implies. This is unsuitable because we still do not understand what objects are.
All causes, like all objects or bodies are multi-componential. We are all defined an infinitude of relations with things seen and unseen. From the standpoint of dynamics essence has no static property. Each thing is always a thing in relation to the infinitude of relations with which it interacts. Conatus is a way of being or existing. Insofar as a body constitutes a life in a particular mode, that body desires for that mode to persevere. But perseverance is a subsisting in relations, with bodies. No longer is navigation through affect (shadows) sufficient. That ambiguous distance maintained with bodies in the first instance not necessitates a critical engagement. E.g. elements previously prohibited as “mere” poisons could be critically evaluated as “treatments”, “drugs”, “medicines”. A body previously labeled undesirable could hold a key to ones development or growth. As often repeated by Gilles Deleuze¹, we do not yet know what these bodies are capable of. This is so partly because these bodies are defined by how other bodies are relating to them, and critical engagement keeps us looking deeper or at the very least, looking differently.
The second ethics asks us to evaluate and engage with those relations and bodies that maximize your joy (empowerment) and minimize your suffering (servitude). The second ethics can be evaluated for its charitability insofar as a relation/engagement increases or decreases the power or servitude of the Other. At base the empowerment or disempowerment begins at the level of sensation. What do we chose to let in with sensation, how generously do we let sensation transform us in a way that alters how we relate to other bodies and their ecosystems? Sensation lays the ground for what we feel, sense, and see in something. It lays the ground for speculative investigation, experimentation, and all higher order cognitive activity according to the Spinozistic philosophy. Sensation and engagement, repeatedly. Spinoza’s conception of the ethicist here closely resembles a scientist, or perhaps more artistically, a sort of psychosomatic and psychosocial inventor, where what’s invented are new ways of being with the infinity of other entities in the world.
Singularization of Essence (Light) – Big Picture of the Expression of Nature/Universe (Degrees of Power)
There’s an edge to the universe and to experience. At the intersection between unspoken/unrecognized truths and invention, or between two aspects of light (a stripping away, and a venturing into chaos to bring back new bridges to newly seen aspects of the existing world/universe).
In the first and second ethics we saw how charitability depended first on the composition of a self capable of navigating signs, of maximizing joy and minimizing sadnesses to achieve firstly non-reactive being. To recognize ones body, ones power and the how signs help us notice augmentation and diminution of power. We notice it first in ourselves and our own in-groups and then we notice it in others and in our inter-being with others. These cognitive (perceptive) powers are necessary for charitability in the first ethics. When we think beyond the immediate moment, and think of relations we carry on with life and its worlds and objects we move towards a second ethics, where charitability becomes something defined simultaneously along the axes of a conceptual apprehension of objects (causes and no longer effects) and an axis of establishing relations to causes that increase or decreasing the power of bodies outside of a given in-group. The third and final ethics is a lot harder to grasp. It is neither an ethics of navigating effects nor navigating causes, but rather something entirely creative and coextensive with the potential of a body.
When one has reached a level of strength that allows one to be extricated from reaction to effects (a felt state of affairs that drives action, or affect) and that allows one to proactively cultivate alliances with causes (objects or concepts) that agree with your empowerment, this third ethics becomes possible that allows one to set out on a conquest that connects the first two ethics in a battle for the fate of what becomes actualized in the world. The concept used by Spinoza has always been the source of a great deal of confusion in the philosophical world: essence. A thing’s essence is something unique to its singularity and which defines how it sees its struggle with the affect and concept, how it sees its struggle with its internal state of affairs and its active engagement or disengagement with objects. The third ethics thus involves the struggle over these precepts, which for him could be seen as synonymous with a clear rational seeing of where one sits in the set of attributes of a world/scenario/ecosystem/universe and the power that presupposes. Perhaps this final ethics can be summarized in the question, ‘How to create the new through your existence?’ This is not talking about physical invention, or artistic creation, although both of those could be implicated in the ethics of essence. Rather the third ethics implies making of life a type of art/invention. Ethics 1-3 are each separate in a sense, but in reaching the 3rd they all presuppose each other.
The charitability scale relevant to the 3rd ethics, beyond implicating the aspects relevant to the first 2, the non-reactive being, the empowering inter-being, is determined on the composition of those two with the life singular to the you. If one imagines the type of positive externalities presupposed by the first two, the third is the type of value produced by a type of ethological biodiversity, or perhaps the type of gift one feels one receives upon reading a masterful work of fiction or a beautiful composed musical composition, only the gift has to do with the essence of the life lived and the mark it leaves behind.
Over 300 years after it was first published, The Ethics is still one of the most difficult and misunderstood books written in western history. However its import and significance both philosophically and historically cannot be overstated today, if only because its message still remains trapped behind the rough exterior of its conceptual presentation. It has never made a full pass through a true popular/social recognition and appreciation. The name and the book tend to raise more question marks than insight into how one could live, or what it actually says about ethical activity. This is no doubt in part because of its suppression after Spinoza’s death, but with 20th century interest especially (and far more thoroughly than initial interest by thinkers in the 19th century), the diffusion of his thought is finally receiving an audience worthy of the work invested in its composition. Perhaps now, finally, the true impact that could be had by a Spinozan conceptualization of charitability will take root from those seeds planted in 1677.
¹ This essay is based on the outline of ethical distinctions presented by Gilles Deleuze in “Spinoza and the Three Ethics“, (1997) Essays Critical & Clinical, New York, NY: Verso.