(In part 1, I offer my hypothesis: that the philosopher Spinoza, a lifelong confirmed bachelor, did not live single because he lacked opportunity, was unlucky in love or was asexual. He was gay. I review what is known for certain about his life and relationships.)
(In part 3, I reveal how we can read between the lines of correspondence to see that Spinoza likely had a romantic relationship with Simon de Vries, a friend and fawning generous admirer, and how that relationship may have directed some of Spinoza’s behaviors.)
(In part 4, I disprove one myth about Spinoza and offer a theory of my own, however unlikely it may be.)
Baruch (Bento, as I prefer) Spinoza thought a great deal about emotions. He respected them in the way someone who spends a lot of time outdoors respects thunderstorms or black bears — a powerful, awe-inspiring force that can wreak great damage before you know what hit you. And like storms and bears, he believed they couldn’t be controlled. They could, however, be understood. In fact, he said, to do so was the only way to obtain any sort of freedom in a world that he viewed as devoid of free will.
What Spinoza writes about emotion is quite fascinating. Understand, first, that his writing style is, well, dense. He writes like he’s composing a geometry textbook, not a philosophy masterwork. Even so, many of the observations he makes on emotions are quite prescient. Doubly so when you consider that this was written by someone who (supposedly) never had any romantic entanglements. Read it, and you start to wonder how he came to know so much about matters of the heart.
What do I mean? Let’s dig in.
The very essence of a man
In typical Spinoza fashion, Book 3 of Ethics begins with a maddening labyrinth of definitions, propositions and corollaries — most of which, you’ll be glad to know, aren’t necessary for the purposes of this post. Important to this discussion, he distinguishes between adequate ideas (ideas that are formed with the benefit of enough correct information) and inadequate ideas (ideas formed on the basis of misinformation, superstition, emotion rather than reason, etc.). In other words, inadequate ideas are irrational; adequate ideas are rational.
Furthermore, the more inadequate/irrational ideas a person has, the more subject they become to their passion and emotion. The more adequate /rational ideas they have, the more their mind is ruled by reason. This stands to figure in the same sort of way that “you are what you eat”: fill your mind with, oh, let’s just say Fox News, you’ll start to believe it after a while.
It’s important to realize that Spinoza is NOT saying that emotion is a bad thing here. Emotions are natural, and all things natural are of God in his view. But they can be dangerous when they become the basis for decision-making and overrun a person’s life.
Also, Spinoza asserts that emotion cannot be switched on and off at will. For one, you’ll recall that we don’t even have free will, so put that silly notion to rest. Two, he says, quite elegantly, that “Reason cannot defeat emotion, an emotion can only be displaced or overcome by a stronger emotion.” (This is a favorite quote of mine and one I harken back to frequently during my day job in political communications.) In other words, Spinoza truly respects the power of emotion. Unlike several other philosophers, he does not declare them to be frivolous and weak. What he wants to do is understand them.
Spinoza determines that there are three prime emotions that act as the building block of all other emotions. I’ll tell you what they are, but I’m going to warn you, it’s pretty racy. You ready? The three prime emotions are:
Pain, Pleasure & Desire
I mean — just look at that! I seem to recall tales of wild parties built around a similar theme. And if that’s not enough, consider this quote: “Desire is the actual essence of man.” Do you need a moment alone? Want to have a sit and fan yourself? I understand.
But Spinoza being Spinoza, I feel I should tell you that things are a bit more complex. These words need defining, so here it is. In Spinozaland:
Pleasure is a passive state wherein the mind passes to a greater perfection
Pain is a passive state wherein the mind passes to a lesser perfection
Desire the conscious state of an appetite; as such, desire is related to mankind, while appetites are experienced by both mankind and animals. When a desire is associated by the mind alone and not the body, it is known as will.
The catalog of passions
From those three emotions, all others flow. Sometimes, he combines those emotions with each other or subsequent emotions, and sometimes with other factors, such as this: “Ambition is the immoderate desire for power.” Or this: “Shame is pain accompanied by the idea of some action of our own, which we believe to be blamed by others.”
Here’s what he has to say about some of the emotions related to romance:
Note to 3Prop13: Love is nothing else but pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause.
3Prop35: If anyone conceives that an object of his love joins itself to another with closer bonds of friendship than he himself has attained to, he will be affected with hatred towards the loved object and with envy towards his rival. …
This hatred towards an object of love joined with envy is called Jealousy, which accordingly is nothing else but a wavering of the disposition arising from combined love and hatred, accompanied by the idea of some rival who is envied. …
If he had hated him, he will forthwith hate the object of his love, because he conceives it is pleasurably affected by one whom he himself hates: and also because he is compelled to associate the image of his loved one with the image of him whom he hates. This condition generally comes into play in the case of love for a woman: for he who thinks, that a woman whom he loves prostitutes herself to another, will feel pain, not only because his own desire is restrained, but also because, being compelled to associate the image of her he loves with the parts of shame and the excreta of another, he therefore shrinks from her.
We must add, that a jealous man is not greeted by his beloved with the same joyful countenance as before, and this also gives him pain as a lover, as I will now show.
3Prop36: He who remembers a thing, in which he has once taken delight, desires to possess it under the same circumstances as when he first took delight therein. Note —This pain, in so far as it has reference to the absence of the object of love, is called Regret.
You don’t write about emotions like this unless you’ve lived them. Clearly, this is a man who’s been through some shit.
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