O.O.P.S.Theory & Practice

Spinoza in Love

“If someone imagines that a thing he loves is united with another by as close, or by a closer, bond of friendship than that with which he himself, alone, possessed the thing, he will be affected with hate toward the thing he loves, and will envy the other.” (IIIP35)

“He who recollects a thing by which he was once pleased desires to possess it in the same circumstances as when he first was pleased by it.” (IIIP36)

In Part III of the Ethics, Spinoza begins to diagnose more deeply what it means to be a finite mode (e.g., a human being). In his attempt to address “men’s way of living,” and contravene the erroneous conception of “man in Nature as a dominion within a dominion,” (III Preface) Spinoza details a love that is largely passive rather than active. Though it will become very important, the active form (termed “nobility”) that “destroys” hate is only hinted at here. Instead, Spinoza is primarily concerned with our passion-ate love — the love we suffer and undergo.

Following the seemingly neutral accounts “Of God,” and “Of the Mind,” “Of the Affects,” is a poignant and rather unsettling section, as hate and love grow and diminish in a fierce struggle, all told through the dispassionate tenor of Spinoza weaving the logic of his geometrical loom. Yet, his thread is fraying. Though Spinoza explicitly notes the limitations of his “cumbersome geometric order,” in the next section “Of Human Bondage,” (IVP18) the first instances of this slippage appear when he begins to rationalize our ability to act or to be acted upon — in other words, the possibility of our being a cause or an effect; the role of affections that we control and of passions by which we are controlled.

As the cogs of his geometrical machinery become strained, Spinoza slides further, and we find the man, not just the thinker, also first truly emerging, overcome by his own affects: just one more finite mode among many, with his own sufferings, memories, and loves. A question, then, might be posed: is such a slippage detrimental or otherwise indicative of a flaw in Spinoza’s method of treating human action “just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies?” (III Preface) I do not believe so, for we might say that the Euclidean logic of Spinoza the geometrician has merely changed states. What we find, instead, is Spinoza the spurned lover following a logic of desire. Such a logic nevertheless remains true to Spinoza’s intentions and his project as a whole if only we keep in mind that desire is “man’s very essence, insofar as it is conceived to be determined, from any given affection of it, to do something.” (IIIDef. Aff.1)

As finite modes, all individuals, including humans, are determined by their very essence to do things that will increase their flourishing. This fact, however, takes a particular spin when it comes to humans, and that spin assumes a particular poignancy when we learn that affects are the seat of human power. Alas, though there are individuals, none is “determined only by himself.” (III Preface) Left alone, each to oneself, we might persist in our being without much difficulty. But of course for Spinoza, nothing is ever left on its own — indeed, the very idea makes no sense. As such, the affects — transitions to a greater or lesser flourishing (joy and sadness, respectively) — depend heavily on our ideas of the affects of others.

Because our ideas involve the nature of our body and at the same time the nature of an external body, imagining some affect in an external body will bring about such an affect in our own body (IIIP27). Our affects of joy and sadness vary with what we imagine to be the affects of the things we love and hate. With love defined as the awareness of a significant transition in the direction of joy, combined with an idea of an external cause of that transition, we find that when we love we strive to have present to us the thing we imagine to cause our joy (IIIP28). In other words, both necessary and sufficient conditions of love include that we find a person helpful to preserving our being and that we thereby strive to preserve the beloved in turn. This is important.

Proposition 35 introduces the notion of jealousy, which is the feeling of vacillation between love and hatred for the person we love, combined with envy of that person’s new lover. Spinoza has a particular case in mind — the “love toward a woman” — (whose specificity almost certainly implies a particular woman in Spinoza’s life). His language of possession here is striking. To possess is to be “united with” the object possessed; it is, in a strong sense, a form of appropriation.

The love-object is simultaneously a kind of emanation of oneself (involving the nature of one’s own body and its flourishing) on the one hand, and something that remains in an external relation (as the idea of an external cause that must be preserved) on the other. A sort of economic scarcity is at play in passion, wherein the love-object cannot be shared without loss. Its full possession is such that only one person can have it. Yet the beloved denies the possibility of her consummate possession — she “prostitutes” herself, and the lover is “forced to join the image of the thing he loves to the shameful parts and excretions of the other.” (IIIP35Sch.) What a forceful description! For the rest of the text, this description remains a guiding thread as something to be resolved.

Because an image is a trace left on the body or mind resulting from an interaction with another thing, the love-object’s image becomes joined and tainted by the image, “the excretions,” of another. We thereby experience both love and hate toward the same object, and the two emotions are ever thereafter joined in our thought of that object; it becomes a form of bondage, through which we are riveted terribly to the object, born again and again of our passivity and the thought of our own inadequacy. Because we wish to flourish, we hate our bondage, and both love and hate its cause.

However, this pendulum of love and hate is implied in the very nature of passionate love: love toward the external and finite carries with it a fear (and hence a sadness) of the finitude and transience of the love itself. The finitude of the love-object necessarily implies the finitude of appropriation. Passionate love — that love between one finite mode and another — is nearly always doomed to ambivalence and vacillation.

Spinoza’s account of a therapy of affects continues: the jealous man is rebuked, betrayed, and scorned. The woman “no longer receives the jealous man [Spinoza himself] with the same countenance as she used to offer him.” (IIIP35Sch.) So, naturally, he “desires to possess it [the woman] in the same circumstances as when he first was pleased by it,” and this we see, also quite naturally, is Spinoza’s next “logical” proposition (IIIP36). In striving to preserve the existence of our beloved, we strive to preserve it when it helped to reciprocally preserve us. This, as psychoanalysts might say, is a primitive fantasy of restored omnipotence and possession — an infantile regression to an originary state of unity and joy. But all a heartbroken lover, all Spinoza, sees now is an absence, and consequently, he undergoes longing: “a sadness, insofar as it concerns the absence of what we love,” (IIIP36Sch) or a “desire to possess something which is encouraged by the memory of that thing, and at the same time restrained by the memory of other things which exclude the existence of the thing wanted.” (IIIDef.XXXII)

Not to be undone by what may have been his undoing, Spinoza will counter suffering with reason. Reflection on or understanding of one’s own pain and longing, guided by an infinite and exhilarated reason, will sever the enslaving ties of mad love, setting free all those “who burn with love, and dream, both night and day, only of a lover.” (IVP44) Far from maintaining a love strangulated by the passions and fixated on finite dependency, the lover would rather find the intellectual bliss of totality itself.

Thus, what we see in the Ethics is a form of liberation that is not confined to prompting human reason simply to follow a set system of mathematical propositions. Rather, the crabbed, geometrically expounded form of ethics that Spinoza follows superimposes an image of the finite and suffering human being onto an image of the human conceived under the aspect of eternity. This dual image of the human — following the logic of desire, on the one hand, and the logic of geometry, on the other — constitutes our greater perfection. Insofar as, for Spinoza, human existence naturally tends toward its own passionate enslavement, our task is not to suppress such tendencies but to re-orient them to objects that actually sustain our flourishing. The Ethics, we might say, is itself one such object. As we preserve the life of the text by reading its words, we find our own self-conceptions being reciprocally nurtured. To the extent that we may read Spinoza with love, we are, indeed, already changed, enriched, and liberated.

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Zachary Lloyd

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