Seize the New Year

Spinoza; public domain, Wikimedia CommonsHappy New Year! Thank you for being a part of Philosophy News!

I was doing research for a paper I’m working on and read through Harry Frankfurt’s short book On Truth. It’s a fine little book focusing on the practicality of valuing truth. I came across a passage that captures ideas that I’ve been turning over for the past few years and Frankfurt articulates these ideas in ways I’ve not been able to. As I think about a kind of “charge” for the upcoming year, this passage seems better than any I’ve come across recently.

I know themes of “self-actualization” and “authenticity” have turned into pop-psychological nonsense in recent days but the nonsense is a bastardization of ideas that are not only sensical but essential, I think, for human thriving. In this passage, Frankfurt briefly unpacks Baruch Spinoza’s idea of love and joy as a catalyst for determining how we ought to orient our lives.

Spinoza explained the nature of love as follows: “Love is nothing but Joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause” (Ethics, part III, proposition 13, scholium). As for the meaning of “joy,” he stipulated that it is “what follows that passion by which the…[individual] passes to a greater perfection” (Ethics, part III, proposition 11, scholium).

I suppose that many readers will find these rather opaque dicta quite uninviting. They do truly seem forbiddingly obscure. Even apart from this barrier to making productive use of Spinoza’s thoughts, moreover, one might not unreasonably question whether he was qualified, in the first place, to speak with any particular authority about love. After all, he had no children, he never married, and it seems that he never even had a steady girlfriend.

Of course, these details concerning his personal life have no plausible relevance except to questions about his authority with respect to romantic, to marital, and to parental love. What Spinoza was actually thinking of when he wrote about love, however, was none of these. In fact, he was not thinking especially of any variety of love that necessarily has a person as its object. Let me try to explain what I believe he did have in mind.

Spinoza was convinced that every individual has an essential nature that it strives, throughout its existence, to realize and to sustain. In other words, he believed that there is in each individual an underlying innate impetus to become, and to remain, what that individual most essentially is. When Spinoza wrote of “that passion by which the…[individual] passes to a greater perfection,” he was referring to an externally caused (hence a “passion”—i.e., a change in the individual that does not come about by his own action, but rather a change with respect to which he is passive) augmentation of the individual’s capacities for surviving and for developing in fulfillment of his essential nature. Whenever the capacities of an individual for attaining these goals are increased, the increase in the individual’s power to attain them is accompanied by a sense of enhanced vitality. The individual is aware of a more vigorously expansive ability to become and to continue as what he most truly is. Thus, he feels more fully himself. He feels more fully alive.

Spinoza supposes (plausibly enough, I think) that this experience of an increase in vitality—this awareness of an expanding ability to realize and to sustain one’s true nature—is inherently exhilarating. The exhilaration may perhaps be comparable to the exhilaration that a person often experiences as an accompaniment to invigorating physical exercise, in which the person’s lungs, heart, and muscular capacities are exerted more strenuously than usual. When working out energetically, people frequently feel more completely and more vividly alive than they do before exercising, when they are less fully and less directly aware of their own capacities, when they are less brimming with a sense of their own vitality. I believe it is an experience something like this that Spinoza has in mind when he speaks of “joy”; joy, as I think he understands it, is a feeling of the enlargement of one’s power to live, and to continue living, in accord with one’s most authentic nature.

Now, if a person who experiences joy recognizes that the joy has a certain external cause—that is, if the person identifies someone or something as the object to which he owes his joy and on which his joy depends—Spinoza believes that the person inevitably loves that object. This is what he understands love to be: the way we respond to what we recognize as causing us joy. On his account, then, people cannot help loving whatever they recognize as being, for them, a source of joy. They invariably love what they believe helps them to continue in existence and to become more fully themselves. It seems to me that Spinoza is at least on the right track here. Many paradigmatic instances of love do exhibit, more or less straightforwardly, the pattern that he defines: people do tend to love what they feel helps them to “find themselves,” to discover “who they really are,” and to face life successfully without betraying or compromising their fundamental natures.

With all the life-critical problems facing so many in most parts of the world, struggling to become an authentic self may strike some as largely an indulgent, Western “first-world problem.” And in some ways it is. But if you are fortunate enough to be in a position where more than your basic needs for survival are met and you don’t live in a world where avoiding terror and destruction constitute your daily goals, be thankful and find a way to embrace authenticity and live life full of vitality—whatever that means for your situation (and be assured it won’t come without sacrifice and probably some pain). As we enter 2015 find or focus on what it is that gives you meaning in a way that enlarges who you are and better enables you to help those around you.

Let nothing distract you from pursuing it.

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