What would Spinoza do?

I just got back from a vacation to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. It’s an amazing annual, months-long celebration of theater in a beautiful small town that draws in top-notch actors from across Canada but also other nations. While each year, the festival performs a selection of Shakespeare plays (obviously), there’s so much more than that. They also do musical theater, modern works and modern classics like “The Crucible.” In other words: if you can go, go.

I surprised my wife with a trip to the festival this year that included tickets to “Little Shop of Horrors” (box seats!) and “Othello” (front row!). And both were amazing — so different int their own way, they really can’t be compared. But as I sat watching “Othello,” so close to the stage we could see the spittle fly from the actors’ mouths, I found myself really, really loving the character of Iago, the archvillain.

It’s that age-old question…

I’m not saying I think he’s a good guy, because boy howdy, no he’s not. But I’ve always loved characters that move the plot and make things happen, and that’s basically Iago’s stock and trade. He’s just so … devious. I just adored how he was written, so cunningly able to take advantage of others’ faults and shortcomings. And to the very smallest degree, I wish I was able to look out for my own interest like he did, rather than allow myself to put everyone else’s wants first all the time.

After the show, we headed to the theater gift shop, where my wife spotted a button I just had to have. “What would Iago do?” I snapped it up and it’s now attached to the bag I take to work every day.

You become who you spend time with

The truth is, I’m really nothing like Iago. I don’t even know how to think like him. And that’s probably for the best, because no matter how wonderfully written a character Iago might be, nothing good comes of him.

But the button I have amuses me because it’s a throwback to that old saying, “What would Jesus do,” which was transferred onto buttons, bracelets, stickers and who knows what else. It was meant to be a reminder to people to live up to the morals and standards of behavior they are supposed to value. And perhaps it works, because there are a roster of sayings such as “You become what you think about” or “You become who you spend time with” variously attributed to people as diverse as motivational speaker Jim Rohn and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And lately, I’ve been spending mental time with Baruch Spinoza. And the stoics. They go together like toast and jam, and they’re like a philosophical Xanax during turbulent times.

I wondered “What would Spinoza do?” when I learned of the immigration raids that were to start in my country, and I wondered “What would Spinoza do?” when America’s president called for the banishment of a refugee who is the member of a religious and ethnic minority. And thought of him again when others came to me, also troubled about what is happening in our nation.

An old friend approached me concerned about news that the federal government may start to monitor the social media accounts of people who receive disability help to see if they are engaging in any kind of activity that is deemed “too fun” for people who people who a disability. And so many people I know are contending with how to respond to the troubling things they see around them — some giving themselves over to fits of outrage and some checking out in despair.

The best intentions

When I started this blog, I really intended to keep politics out of it. Or to at least keep it down to a dull roar. I have started at least a dozen blogs before, several of them specifically for political purposes. I know all about blogging for activism, keeping tabs on elected officials, being opinionated … Trust me, I can be opinionated.

I wanted to avoid that here and just focus on my writing project. And for the most part, I am. But current events won’t allow that.

You know who else won’t? Spinoza.

Because that was one politically active man. How much so? To the point that he gave up everything just to say and write what he believed was right. He had one major publication released during his lifetime, the “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus,” in 1670. It was published under a fake name, but no matter; everyone knew it was him. Reaction to it was swift and harsh. One critic claimed it was a “book forged in hell.”

Why? Because in it, Spinoza argued that God isn’t a personal God — doesn’t care about your prayers, or how well you follow the commandments, and isn’t going to play favorites among your team or the opposing one. Just as bad, Spinoza came out against tyranny in government, against monarchy and oligarchies and defended the idea of democracy, already an endangered idea in the Netherlands as the Republic was on the brink of slipping back into monarchist rule.

As the saying goes; “Jan DeWitt, Jan DeWitt, tear him apart bit by bit…”

No, Spinoza didn’t keep his political life separate from his work life. The story goes that he turned down an offer to become the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg but turned it down, lest he have to tamp down the open expression of his opinions. And when the Dutch Councillor General Johann DeWitt was pushed out of office, torn (literally) to shreds by a mob and, if you want to believe it, cannibalized, another legend says friends had to hold back Spinoza from rushing outside to protest, which would have put himself in mortal danger.

Spinoza is not the sort who would be remaining quiet now. And neither should I. And neither should anyone with a conscience who has a voice and the ability to use it.

Do not wax indignant

But what, I ask myself, would Spinoza be saying and doing now, in this terrible moment in American history? The problems now seem so huge, and right now I seems so small. No matter what I try to do in response to them, I’m left feeling small and powerless against them.

Spinoza quite possibly had the same portrait artist as DeWitt.

In other words, this is exactly the sort of moment, I go looking for wisdom from others who’ve been in similar spots before. And a man who was exiled from the exile community he was born into — that’s the sort of person I imagine would understand something about the dangers of xenophobic fears and demagoguery, of finding yourself caught in a dark time you can’t escape, of feeling alienated from a society you once felt was home.

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them,” Spinoza wrote. Or, his shorthand version of it: “Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.

This is the advice I’m giving people now, and the words I’m trying to live by.

We don’t have the time to waste on outrage anymore, and we can’t afford the luxury of despair. Is Trump that bad? Yes, and more. Don’t be surprised from one day to the next at the new depths he plumbs. Expect them, because as sure as the sun will rise, standards will fall. I’m not saying you should be chill when you learn that we’re denying children soap or that the president is now staging Nuremburg-style rallies. Those things are disgusting and they deserve indignation. But don’t get tied up in your anger, grief and sorrow. Or fear.

What Spinoza was saying in those quotes is that when confronted with something overwhelming, it is time to take a step back and think. Everything has root causes; actions bear reactions. Analyze the situation. Think strategically; not emotionally, even when the subject is justifiably emotional. Think analytically about what brings someone to feel safer by locking up children in a desert concentration camp, or by calling for the removal of darker-skinned people from the country. Understand what is driving them, so that you know how to combat it.

Personally, I can think of few things more important than making sure we see the change we need in the 2020 election. While the campaign season is still very early, it is time now to start educating yourself about the candidates and issues so that you can make a good choice when it’s time to vote. Start talking to others about the importance of voting, and make sure you’re registered. Help others register. Once you find the candidate or candidates (because remember, Congress, the US Senate, state Legislatures and governorships, local government — they ALL matter!) you support, find out about how to support them, either through volunteering time or making a donation.

And reach out to others who might feel especially vulnerable now. Do you know of an immigrant family nearby or a business run by refugees that might be feeling insecure as all this unfolds? Stop in and say hello. Introduce yourself if you haven’t formally met yet. Let them know you’re there for them, and tell them how they can reach you if they need help. Just knowing they aren’t alone can be important during times like these.

I’d say I’m sorry for interrupting my normal history and writing and vampire posts with something so modern, but really, I’m not. Because this matters. A lot. And it’s what Spinoza would want, anyway.

2 Thoughts

  1. I wish I had the kind of level-headedness it takes to stand back and think strategically in these times. I go through cycles of outrage followed by “checked out” despair because it feels like nothing I can do is effective – I’m in a very liberal area so writing/voting for local reps is essentially just an “attaboy”.

    But I like your idea of getting at root causes. Otherwise we’re all just going to keep chasing our tails about the latest outrage instead of doing something effective. Thank you for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

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