(This is my final response for the Spinoza seminar I’m taking this quarter. After ten weeks of reading the Ethics — and hardly writing a word here — this is how I understand one of the central themes of Part V. If the word “God” makes you squirm, just substitute “Nature.”)
For Spinoza the affect “love” seems to shift from a passive affect in Part III to an active
affect in Part V. In Part III love is defined as “a joy, accompanied by the idea of an external
cause” (VI, Definition of the Affects). Reading this definition through both Bennett’s and
Curley’s account of the relationship between these the two elements constituting this passive affect – the affection itself, the joy, and the idea of an external cause, or a belief – suggests that a belief about some external force produces the affect. However, if belief is considered to beinadequate knowledge – it is for both Curley and Bennett, as well as Spinoza, since we cannot exercise any sort of determinate will over what we believe – this affect is necessarily passive (by E3p1). In Part V, the intellectual love of God is defined in a slightly more specific way: “joy, accompanied by the idea of God as its cause” (E5p32). However, in this formulation, love is an active affect, arising from the third kind of knowledge – intuition (E5p33). This essay will attempt to illuminate the dual nature of this affect by exploring each conception of the affect, as well as the relationship between the capacity to be affected and the potential to affect external bodies, as suggested in in E4p38*.
Clearly there is the common aspect of joy in each definition of love. As a passive affect,
love is evoked by inadequate ideas of external causes of joy, while as an active affect, adequate knowledge of God as eternal causes joy and, subsequently, love; this is a fundamental – though admittedly obvious – relationship between the two. But how, then, do we attain adequate knowledge of God?
In a move that is not exactly helpful, Spinoza asserts that adequate knowledge of God is
the foundation of the third kind of knowledge (E5p20s), and “in God there is necessarily an idea that expresses the essence of this or that human body, under a species of eternity” (E5p22). From this point he refers us back to Part II, where he claims that “[t]he human mind has an adequate knowledge of God’s eternal and infinite essence” (E2p47). Thus, we all have the capacity to construct adequate ideas of God, and subsequently the third kind of knowledge that will lead us to conception of love as an active affect.
However, this movement is not quite so straightforward. In E2P47s, Spinoza qualifies his
assertion and insists that our continuous exposure to external bodies obfuscates the clear
knowledge of God of which we are capable. This is his way of saying that we – as bodies – are necessarily subject to the effects of interactions with other bodies, and the passive affects that arise subsequently. Whereas our minds ostensibly have an eternal portion (per E5p23), our bodies are finite and “[o]nly while the body endures is the mind subject to affects which are related to the passions” (E5p34).
Despite this perennial and unruly barrier to the third kind of knowledge, Spinoza’s point
is that the joy – defined as a passage to greater perfection in the preface to Part IV – we
experience through this intellectual love of God is indicative of blessedness. Moreover, in
E5p33s, he claims that this is only possible because “the mind is endowed with perfection itself,” a perfection that is defined by our ability to know God’s essence through the third kind of knowledge. The pursuit of this knowledge is not directed outward – toward God as some sort of transcendent being presiding over our existence – but rather through our own minds, in which God is immanent as an affection of the attribute thought (panentheism). In the demonstration to E5p36, Spinoza asserts that intellectual love is “an action by which the mind contemplates itself, with the accompanying idea of God as its cause, that is, an action by which God, insofar as he can be explained through the human mind, contemplates himself, with the accompanying idea of himself [as the cause].” This perspective essentially provides us with a direct and substantial connection back to God via our own minds; and through this connection, Spinoza asserts that our intellectual love of God is the same as his love for men (per E5p36c).
As I understand it, the fact that the affect love has this dual nature does not taint the idea
of blessedness or freedom in the least. Conversely, it does indeed give it a very special meaning because one is required to live in such a way that he or she attains blessedness or freedom in a world constituted by external forces that act on the individual in unpredictable ways. Spinoza’s entire ethical project is a meditation on how we react to what fortune brings, and therefore it seems that successfully navigating its effects is both the most difficult and most prestigious accomplishment of all – “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare, ” as Spinoza writes in the closing sentence of the Ethics.
Moreover, the fact that the affect love can be expressed passively and actively also seems
to follow from the connection in E4p38 between the capacity to be affected and the capacity to affect external bodies. If these capacities are interrelated, then most – and probably all – affects have both a passive and an active manifestation. This again renders the world as a place in which every encounter either exercises power over the individual or provides the individual with the chance to exercise power. By equating virtue and power (E4d8), Spinoza again reinforces his conception of what defines an ethical life. I find Curley’s assertion that none of Spinoza’s remedies for the affects – either individually or in concert – are meant to be a cure-all to be an incredibly helpful way to think about this. To pursue the ethical life, to exercise the active affects when the passive affects occur more easily, is a perpetual struggle.
* “Whatever so disposes the human body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external bodies in a great many ways is useful to man; the more it renders the body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the
body less capable of these things is harmful.”