P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 161
24th March 2011
I. 'The Passionate Mind of Descartes' by Rafael Pangilinan
II. 'Giambattista Vico -- Street Catholic, House Heretic?' by Anthony
III. 'Spinoza: Close Encounters of a Preferred Kind' by Martin Jenkins
In this issue we look at three Modern philosophers, Descartes
(1596-1650), Spinoza (1632-1677) and Vico (1668-1744). Students
undertaking courses in philosophy for the first time find it rather
strange that thinkers writing over 300 years ago should be described
as 'Modern', yet in many ways they are much closer to us than the
historical distance might seem to imply.
This was a time when thinkers were daring to question accepted dogmas
and orthodoxies. Yet they did so in an atmosphere dominated by the
Church, which during the Middle Ages had fostered a flowering of
original philosophical thought but had now become terrifyingly
oppressive. Thinkers who dared to think differently, like Giordano
Bruno (1548-1600), were burned at the stake.
Descartes suppressed his book De Mundo for fear of the Inquisition.
Spinoza refused a Professorship at the University of Heidelberg
because he knew it would limit his freedom of research. As Anthony
Fahey argues, conflicting interpretations of Vico's writings can be
at least partly resolved when one takes into account Vico's
well-motivated desire to avoid the charge of heresy.
Yet religious dogma could not stop the progress of philosophic
thought. Professor Rafael Pangilinan offers a persuasive argument for
considering Descartes' book The Passions of the Soul as forming an
essential component of his philosophy of mind, expanding and
developing themes introduced in Meditations 5 and 6 -- a far more
robust and many-sided view of the nature of the mind than potted
introductions to Descartes' thought give him credit for.
Martin Jenkins considers Spinoza from a contemporary perspective,
calling upon the work of Deleuze, who sees a radical political agenda
in Spinoza's endorsement of the idea that we should seek association
with those persons who, through resonance with our own nature,
increase our power of acting, while avoiding those who reduce that
power; the ultimate aim being 'greater perception of and
participation in that universality of which we are part.'
I. 'THE PASSIONATE MIND OF DESCARTES' BY RAFAEL PANGILINAN
This essay relates to Descartes' theory of the passions as found in
his work, The Passions of the Soul. The book is divided into three
parts, the first part of which is concerned primarily with defining
the passions, the second with expounding, somewhat tediously, the
classification, physiological nature, functions and symptoms of the
six principal passions, viz. wonder, hatred, desire, joy and sadness,
and the third with laying down an account of virtue while making
further taxonomical divisions among the secondary passions. In a
prefatory letter to Princess Elisabeth, to whom the work is
dedicated, in September 1645, Descartes asserts that he intends not
to approach the passion as moral philosopher but as an 'en
physicien', that is, as a natural philosopher or physicist.
Descartes' own characterizations of the passions encourage the
assimilation of the passions to the other mental states that arise
from the union of mind and body. In the Principles of Philosophy,
Descartes says that the passions of the soul are 'confused thoughts,
which the mind does not derive from itself alone but experiences as a
result of something happening to the body with which it is closely
conjoined.' And in The Passions of the Soul, Descartes includes
the passions 'among the perceptions that the close bond between the
soul and the body renders confused and obscure.'
Commentators generally believe that in calling the passions 'confused
and obscure,' Descartes commits himself to the thesis that the
passions are confused and obscure representations. In this
respect, the passions are taken to be akin to internal sensations
such as sensations of hunger and pain, and external sensations such
as sensations of color and sound. But before these are threshed out
it is necessary to have some idea of what representations are for
Descartes. Unfortunately, no simple definition may be given, for the
notion of representation is a complicated one that can mean different
things in different contexts. For my purposes, I shall assume that a
mental state is representational if it bears some information.
Thus, for example, the sensation of thirst gives one the information
that the body needs a drink.
In this paper, I highlight the primal function of sensations and
passions, which unsurprisingly parallels Scholastic teachings on the
subject for the young Descartes was schooled at La Fleche in Anjou,
France, a Jesuit institution that tightly advances Aristotelian and
Augustinian thinking. In what follows, I present the function of
sensations and passions, and underscore that by motivating
perceivers/agents to will on the objects of sensations passions are
not merely representational states, but also motivational or conative.
The Function of Sensations
It is well known that in the Meditations, Descartes calls sensations
'confused and obscure.' One way of understanding this claim is by
marking a contrast between sensations and clear and distinct
perceptions. Clear and distinct perceptions accurately inform
perceivers about the natures of things, but sensations do not.
Because sensations do not accurately represent the natures of things
they lead one to make false judgments about those natures. So, for
example, 'we easily fall into the error of judging that what is
called color in objects is something exactly like the color of which
we have sensory awareness.' In order to avoid such error,
Descartes urges that agents refrain from making judgments about the
natures of things represented by sensations.
In everyday life, agents do not seek, or even need scientific
understanding of the world in a way that is afforded by clear and
distinct perceptions; suffice to say, agents merely seek to 'get
around' in the world. One may even say that sensations are clear and
distinct representations of features of the world that are relevant
to survival inasmuch as it presents features of the world that may be
harmful or beneficial for human beings. Descartes says that 'the
perceptions of the senses... ordinarily show us, how external bodies
may help or harm the conjunction of mind and body,' and maintains
that 'the proper purpose of the sensory perceptions... is simply to
inform the mind of what is beneficial or harmful for the composite of
which the mind is a part.'
Although sensations have been instituted by nature in order to tell
human beings which things are to be sought out and which things are
to be avoided, they are liable to malfunction. Descartes explains:
'Again, dryness of throat may sometimes arise not, as it normally
does, from the fact that a drink is necessary to the health of a
body, but from some quite opposite cause, as happens in the case of a
man with dropsy. Yet it is much better that it should mislead on this
occasion than that it should mislead... when the body is in good
For example, although a drink is no good for the health of the
patient who has dropsy, that is, an abnormal condition in which a
watery fluid collects in certain tissues or cavities of the body, and
which is the case with the woman in the Sixth Meditation, the drink is
represented as being good because hydration preserves the normal
functioning of the body. The dropsy sufferer's body is in the state
that normally prompts it to drink, although in this case it is
unhealthy to follow the 'call of nature.' This is therefore a case of
what Descartes calls 'true errors of nature.'
Sensations are properly characterized as information-bearing states
because they either tell human beings about the state of their
bodies, or about the relation of things in the world to their bodies.
Although occasional malfunctions, such as the case of the dropsy
patient, do arise, as Descartes says, 'in matters regarding the well
being of the body, all my senses report the truth much more
frequently than not.'
If sensations did not report the truth much more frequently than not,
they would normally malfunction. According to Descartes, a benevolent
God would not set up a system whose parts did not function as they
were supposed to. Although sensations provide merely confused and
obscure information about the natures of things, their function is
not to inform agents about the natures of things, but rather to help
preserve the mind-body union by representing things in the world and
thereby informing agents whether those things are suitable or
unsuitable for the survival of the mind-body union. Sensations
perform this task quite well, despite their occasional errors/
Representationality and the Passions
Descartes often seems to claim that the passions represent things. He
says that the passions of the soul are akin to internal and external
sensations because 'the soul always receives them from things that
are represented by them.' He also notes that the passions of the
soul 'almost always make the goods and evils they represent appear
much greater and more important than they are.' In his
discussions of particular passions, he makes similar claims. He says
fear and ambition represent things as evils; 'abhorrence
represents a thing as linked with a sudden death; delight represents
a thing as the greatest of goods and hence causes desire for it;'
love represents what we love as a good that belongs to us; and
despair represents a thing as impossible.
In his example of the genesis of the passions in The Passions of the
Soul, Descartes explains the relation between passions and the brain
states instituted by nature to give rise to certain sensations.
According to Descartes, when one sees something, a particular figure
is traced on the pineal gland and, for example,
if this figure is very strange and very scary, that is to
say, if it bears much similarity to those things that had
hitherto been harmful to the body, that excites in the soul
the passion of apprehension, and then that of fortitude, or
that of fear and horror, depending on the particular
temperament of the body, depending on whether one has
previously preserved oneself by defense or by flight
against the harmful things that the present impression
resembles. Because that forms the brain so that the
[animal] spirits reflected from the image formed on the
[pineal] gland... excite a particular movement in the
[pineal] gland that is instituted by nature to make the
soul feel a particular passion.
There is a good reason why Cartesian passions should be caused by
physical states, and not by the mental states which ensue from
physical states (e.g. cognition). It is said that the passions of the
soul themselves are caused by the animal spirits, which are bodily
fluids which are set in motion by physical or bodily states, in
particular, the pineal gland.
In the Principles of Philosophy, Descartes distinguishes between
mental representations and the passions. He explains that
if we imagine ourselves enjoying some good, the act of
imagination does not itself contain the feeling of joy, but
it causes the [animal] spirits to travel from the brain to
the muscles in which these nerves are embedded. This causes
the opening of the heart to expand, and this in turn
produces the movement in the tiny nerves of the heart that
must result in the feeling of joy.
Descartes here distinguishes between a representational thought ('the
act of imagination') and the passion that is caused by the brain
activity caused by the mental representation. In a letter to Princess
Elizabeth, Descartes explains that 'souls can receive the movement
that constitutes the passion only after they have made the judgment,
or at least conceived the danger without making a judgment... All
these things happen so quickly one after the other that the whole
thing seems like a single operation.' The point here is that
although the passions arise from judgments or thoughts about a given
situation, they should nevertheless be distinguished from those
The idea that the passions themselves are responses to
representations, and hence ought to be distinguished from
representations, even underlies Descartes' classification of the
passions. Descartes says that
the objects that move the senses do not excite different
passions in us on account of all the differences that are
in them, but only on account of the different ways that
they may harm or profit us, or in general be important to
us... this is why in order to enumerate them, one must only
examine in order in what sorts of different respects that
are important to us our senses can be moved by their
This passage suggests that sensations represent the importance of
objects (whether they are suitable or unsuitable, harmful or
beneficial) to us, and that the passions then arise in response to
In what follows, following Deborah J. Brown, I articulate an
understanding of Cartesian passions that arises from looking at the
passions from a functional perspective, an account that demands on
seeing the passions as instituted by nature to respond to
Function of Passions and the Cartesian Will
Consider the following slightly different characterizations of the
function of the passions.
i. 'The use of the passions consists in this alone: they dispose the
soul to will the things nature tells us are useful and to persist in
ii. 'Their natural use is to incite the soul to consent and
contribute to actions that can serve to preserve the body or render
it more perfect in some way.
iii. 'The principal effect of all the passions in men is that they
incite and dispose their soul to will the things for which they have
prepared their body...'
All these remarks suggest that the function of the passions is in
some way to dispose the soul to contribute to actions that serve to
preserve the body. (This reflects the fact that the movements of the
animal spirits that cause the passions also cause bodily changes.)
The first and third remarks refer explicitly to the will; the second
remark does not explicitly refer to the will, but the claim that the
passions bring the soul to consent and contribute to actions does
implicitly refer to the will. According to Descartes, all actions of
the soul are volitions and so are related to the will; in the
Scholastic Aristotelian tradition with which Descartes was familiar,
consent was taken to be an act of the will. Hence all three
functional characterizations of the passions underscore their
relation to the will.
Descartes even distinguishes the passions from sensations by
reference to the relation of passions to the will. He explains that
'one may distinguish two kinds of movements excited by the animal
spirits on the pineal gland: the one [kind] represent to the soul the
objects that move the senses... and do not have any effect on the
will; the other [kind] does have some effect on the will, namely
those that cause the passions or the movements of the body that
As mentioned herein, the function of sensations is to inform the mind
of things that can benefit and harm the body, but they have no direct
relation to the will, and so do not themselves bring about action,
whereas the passions do have some effect on the will, distinct from
the bodily effect of the animal spirits, which cause the movements of
the body that accompany the passions.
What effect do the passions have on the will? How are the passions
related to the will? Commentators do not engage these questions
clearly: many simply repeat Descartes' remark that the passions are
somehow related to the will, without further exploring that
relationship. In order to understand the function of the
passions, however, one needs to understand the relation between the
passions and the will.
Progress can be made on understanding the relation between passions
and the will by considering the psychological effect of the passions
on the human mind. There are scattered suggestions about the
psychological effect of the passions in Part I of The Passions of the
Soul. Descartes says that the passions sustain the volition necessary
to contribute to the action to which the body has already been
disposed by the animal spirits. In order to sustain this
volition, the passion focuses the attention of the soul on the object
represented to it by a sensation. Descartes' discussion of one of the
first principal passions, wonder, extends these hints about the
effects of the passions. Inasmuch as wonder is concerned primarily
with knowledge, not action, it does not cause bodily action and so
differs from the other passions, but it nevertheless does have a
similar effect on the mind as the other passions. Descartes explains
Wonder is a sudden surprise of the soul that makes it tend
to consider attentively those objects which seem to it rare
and extraordinary. So it is caused first by the impression
in one's brain that represents the object as rare and
consequently worthy of being accorded great consideration,
and then by the motion of spirits disposed by this
impression to advance with great force upon the place in
the brain where it is -- to strengthen and preserve it
there -- as there are also disposed by it to flow from there
into the muscles for keeping the sense organs in the same
position they are in, so that if it has been formed by them
it will still be maintained by them.
Passions are caused by animal spirits that reflect from the
representation of the thing as rare and consequently worthy of being
accorded great consideration, and those animal spirits serve to
'strengthen' and 'preserve' that impression by holding the
representation in place. In strengthening and preserving the
impression, the psychological effect of the passion is to make the
soul attend to the object represented to it as worthy of such
In the foregoing, Descartes distinguishes the representation of an
object from the passionate response to that representation. The
passion is caused by animal spirits that reflect from the
representation of the thing as worthy of being accorded great
consideration, and those animal spirits serve to strengthen and
preserve that impression by holding the representation in place. In
strengthening and preserving the impression, the psychological effect
of the passion is to make the soul attend to the object represented to
it as worthy of such consideration. It seems legitimate to extrapolate
from this passage that the function of wonder, at least, is to make
the sensory representation salient and to focus the attention of the
mind on the object represented by the sensation.
Appropriately, Descartes also simultaneously characterizes both the
proper function of the passions and their malfunction. Their
function, as I have indicated already, is to strengthen and preserve
thoughts, in particular, thoughts which could otherwise be easily
effaced from the soul, and they malfunction either when they
excessively strengthen and preserve thoughts, or when they strengthen
and preserve thoughts that should not be strengthened and
preserved. It is said that these two ways in which the passions
may malfunction reflect their causal structure. The passions are
normally caused by representations of the objects of internal and
external sensations; in effect, misrepresentations may cause the
passions to strengthen thoughts that should not be strengthened. For
example, water is represented to the dropsy patient of the Sixth
Meditation as something good for the body, so that she desires it and
seeks to drink. When there is no misrepresentation, the passion may
malfunction by preserving thoughts for too long. Thus one may still
feel thirsty long after one has already drunk. This phenomenon is
sometimes termed the inertia of emotions. Inertia results, according
to Descartes, because the passions 'are almost all accompanied by
some excitation taking place in the heart, and consequently also
throughout the blood and the spirits, so that until this excitation
has ceased they remain present to our thoughts.'
The passions serve the mind-body composite by making certain mental
representations salient and focusing the mind on the objects
represented by those mental representations. In this way, the
passions remedy the natural inattention of the mind, to which
Descartes alludes in several of his writings. In the Fifth
Meditation, for example, Descartes writes that 'my nature is... such
that I cannot fix my mental vision continually on the same thing.'
The fact that the will is not naturally determined by confused and
obscure perceptions is crucial to the project of the Meditations,
which requires that one must be able to withhold judgment with
respect to any perceptions that are not clear and distinct in order
to avoid error. Inasmuch as the will is indifferent to confused and
obscure perceptions, however, it will not be moved by the confused
and obscure perceptions of the particular goods that are essential to
the survival of the human being. By strengthening mental
representations, the passions focus the attention of the mind on the
objects represented by those sensations, and can thereby bring the
will to incline one way rather than another in cases where it might
otherwise have remained indifferent. In consequence, actions that
might otherwise not have been undertaken may come to be undertaken
Passions find their physiological origin in the animal spirits. They
incite us to seek the good and flee evil. Yet this Cartesian account
of the passions seems to raise a problem for freedom of the will.
Given that the proper function of the passions is to incite agents to
seek goods and avoid evils, it might seem that the passions influence
the will and thereby compromise human freedom. Brown is of the
opinion that even when one is overcome by a passion, one's will is
free for agents always have the power to refuse consent to any
confused and obscure perception, even one to which the agent is
inclined to consent. In order to combat the passions, it is said
that 'we must always make use of experience and reason, in order to
distinguish good and evil and to know their true value, in order not
to mistake the one for the other and not to allow ourselves to be
borne to anything excessively.' Just as the knowledge that
sensations do not accurately present the nature of things enables
individuals to resist their natural inclination to take the
information they present as a guide to the natures of things so an
understanding of the nature of the passions should enable us to
resist being overcome by them.
Also in The Passions of the Soul, Descartes seeks to classify the
strength of souls with respect to the passions, and to this end he
distinguishes three different types of soul. First, there are
those who can 'conquer the passions most easily... the strongest
souls.' Second, 'there are some who cannot test their strength,
because they never make their will do battle with its proper weapons,
but only with those furnished to it by some passions in order to
resist others.' Because the 'proper weapons' of the will are
'firm and decisive judgments concerning the knowledge of good and
evil,' those souls that combat the passions by means of firm and
decisive judgments use the will most properly, since the will is the
faculty of judgment. Most firm and decisive judgments are 'false, and
even founded on passions,' and so strictly speaking are not the
proper weapons of the will, 'yet, because the will continues to
follow them when the passion that caused them is absent, they can be
regarded as its proper weapons.' Although in such cases, a
person's firm and decisive judgments do not reflect the proper use of
his will, the will is at least employed to combat the passions. This
is in sharp contrast to the third type of person, 'the weakest souls
of all, those whose will does not decide in this way to follow
certain judgments, but continually allows itself to be carried away
by present passions.'
It is because these weakest souls do not use their wills to combat
the passions that they are 'carried away' by them. Weak-willed souls
are 'enslaved and unhappy' because they do not use their wills; those
who seek knowledge by means of sensations are in the state of
childhood because they do not use their wills 'always to refrain from
believing things which are not completely certain and thoroughly
Although according to Descartes all rational agents have wills, the
weakest souls, in not making use of their wills, act as if they did
not have wills. These weakest souls are anomalous cases as they will
nothing other than what their passions dictate. One must bear in mind
that with respect to the preservation of the mind-body union, it is
still as appropriate to follow passions as it is to follow
sensations. And only when sensations prompt agents to some judgment
about the nature of things, or when the passions run counter to 'some
firm and decisive judgment concerning the knowledge of good and evil,
that the soul has resolved to follow in conducting the actions of its
life,' should they be resisted.
Descartes' treatment of the passions may thus be seen as continuous
with his treatment of sensations in Sixth Meditation. In the
preceding Meditations, Descartes sought to bring the reader to
withdraw his mind from the senses; yet in the Sixth Meditation, he
explains how sensations may fulfill their proper function of
providing information about the world, thereby promoting the survival
of the embodied mind. Similarly, in The Passions of the Soul, he
explains the proper function of the passions and the remedy for the
malfunctions internal to the passions.
There is a further respect in which Descartes' treatment of the
passions is continuous with his treatment of sensations: passions
complement sensations in promoting the survival of the embodied mind
by responding to the information conveyed by sensory representations
in order to motivate action. Although Cartesian passions are related
to internal and external sensations, they must nevertheless be
distinguished from them, for they play quite different roles in
Such account of the passions thus highlights an underappreciated
function of the Cartesian mind, and it also brings out the fact that
Descartes examines the passions from a crude biological point of view
by attending to the distinctive role they play in ensuring the
survival of the human being.
1. Princess Elisabeth is the eldest daughter of Elisabeth Stuart,
daughter of King James I of England, and the Elector Palatine
Frederick V, a Protestant and short-reigning King of Bohemia who was
deposed by the Catholic forces after the Battle of the White Mountain
in 1620. For basic information about Descartes life, see John
Cottingham, Descartes (Oxford; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1986).
2. 'The Principles of Philosophy,' in The Philosophical Writings of
Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stroothoff, and Dugald
Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), vol. I, 317;
3. 'The Passions of the Soul,' in The Philosophical Writings of
Descartes, vol. I, 350.
4. See, inter alia, Lilli Alanen, Descartes's Concept of Mind
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 171-172, Alison
Simmons, 'Are Cartesian Sensations Representational?' Nos 33, no. 3
(1999): 347-369, and Margaret D. Wilson, 'Descartes: The
Epistemological Argument for Mind-Body Distinctness,' Nos 10, no. 1
5. This is a relatively thin sense of 'representational', but I
believe that it's thick enough for my purposes in this paper. In the
body of the paper, I go on to clarify the sense in which I am using
this term with respect to Descartes' conception of the mind and in my
argument. The reader should therefore not puzzle over this
characterization, which is meant to be as philosophically neutral as
6. 'Meditations on First Philosophy,' in The Philosophical Writings
of Descartes, vol. II, 80, 81, 83. The literature on the nature of
Cartesian sensations is immense: for my purposes in this paper, I do
not engage it. My discussion of the function of sensations follows
7. Descartes, 'The Principles of Philosophy,' vol. I, 34-35.
8. Hence in the Meditations, Descartes seeks to 'withdraw the mind
from the senses' so that one will not be misled by them. For a
reading of the Meditations that emphasizes this aspect of Descartes'
strategy, see Gary Hatfield's 'The Senses and the Fleshless Eye: The
Meditations as Cognitive Exercises,' in Amelie Rorty, ed., Essays on
Descartes' Meditations (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1986), 45-79 and the more sustained development of this
interpretation in Hatfield's Descartes and the Meditations (London:
9. 'The Principles of Philosophy,' vol. I, 41-42.
10. 'Meditations on First Philosophy,' vol. II, 83.
11. Ibid., 89.
13. 'The Passions of the Soul,' vol. I, 342.
14. Ibid., 431.
15. Ibid., 347.
16. Ibid., 387.
17. Ibid., 432.
18. Ibid., 457.
19. Ibid., 356-357.
20. 'The Principles of Philosophy,' vol. I, 318
21. 'The Passions of the Soul,' vol. I, 312.
22. Ibid., 372.
23. Deborah J. Brown, Descartes and the Passionate Mind (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2006), 84-115.
24. Descartes, 'The Passions of the Soul,' vol. I, 372, 430 and 359,
25. Given that assent was taken not to be an act of the will, but the
intellect, the Scholastic Aristotelians would have considered what
Descartes calls assent to be consent. Nicholas Malebranche rejects
the distinction between assent and consent, explaining that it arises
from the mistaken belief that assent to truths is not voluntary. See
The Search After Truth, ed. and trans. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J.
Olscamp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 8-9.
26. 'The Passions of the Soul,' vol. I, 365.
27. See Paul Hoffman, 'Three Dualist Theories of the Passions,'
Philosophical Topics 77 (1991): 153-191, and Alanen, Descartes's
Concept of Mind.
28. 'The Passions of the Soul,' vol. I, 359.
29. Ibid., 380.
30. Ronald Nash has taken this idea as the basis for a Cartesian
theory of the emotions. See Nash, 'Cognitive Theories of Emotions,'
Nos 23, no. 4 (1989): 481-504.
31. 'The Passions of the Soul,' vol. I, 363.
32. 'Meditations on First Philosophy,' vol. II, 69.
33. Brown, Descartes and the Passionate Mind, 132-133.
34. Descartes, 'The Passions of the Soul,' vol. I, 431.
35. This is a respect in which Descartes' treatment of the passions
'as a physicist [en physicien]' helps agents control their passions.
36. For a discussion on Descartes' functional complexity of the soul,
read Steven J. Wagner, 'Descartes on the Parts of the Soul,'
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 45, no. 1 (1984): 51-70.
37. Descartes, 'The Passions of the Soul,' vol. I, 366-367.
38. Ibid., 367.
40. Ibid., 368.
42. Ibid., 367.
43. Descartes, 'The Principles of Philosophy,' vol. I, 22.
44. Descartes, 'The Passions of the Soul,' vol. I, 367.
(c) Rafael D. Pangilinan 2011
Department of Social Arts and Humanities
Centro Escolar University
II. 'GIAMBATTISTA VICO -- STREET CATHOLIC, HOUSE HERETIC?' BY ANTHONY
Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), in his magnum opus, the New Science,
asserts that there are two histories of humankind: the sacred history
of the Hebrews, and the history of gentiles, or pagans. While the
pagans 'had only the ordinary help of providence' (n'ebbero i soli
ordinari auita dalla provedenza'), the Hebrews 'had the
extraordinary help of the true God' (n'ebbero anco auiti
estraordinari dal vero Dio'). Although the Hebrews had from time
to time fallen into polytheism, says Vico, in truth their God, as was
the God of the Christians, was the one true God, while for pagans,
whose gods were created by their own primitive imaginings, there were
many gods. This paper will argue that this concept of two histories
may not reflect Vico's true position of the history of humankind:
that it may well have been a view put forward to appease the
Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited Books, both of which were
alive and well in the Naples of Vico's time.
According to Vico the history of the gentiles, unlike the history of
the Hebrews, is not a process in which each phase succeeds the other
in a gradual but ever-improving march towards the ideal, but a
cyclical process consisting of three ages: the age of religion, the
age of heroes, and the age of men, which, upon reaching its zenith,
eventually dissolves in chaos before returning once again to its
original state. Vico explains the anomaly of two histories by
maintaining that, since the Hebrews' origins dated back to Adam,
their history was not subject to the same process as the pagans. He
also says that while the truths of the Hebrews were given by God in
revelation, the truths of the pagan peoples were creations of their
own imaginations. However, since Vico's references to the history of
the Hebrews are scant, and it is clear that his 'ideal eternal
history of humankind' ('storia ideale eterna') predominantly concerns
the history of gentile nations, the charge can be made that his
insistence that there are two histories of humankind has as much do
with his concern of avoiding accusations of heresy as it has to
2. The Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited Books
To understand why Vico may have chosen to present his 'new science'
in a way that would prevent accusations of heresy, a charge that had
been made at some cost against some of his friends and
contemporaries, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the power
that the Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited Books wielded around
Vico's time. The role of the Inquisition and the Index of prohibited
books -- the Index liborurum prohibitorum -- was to repress certain
views and behaviours. For those whose works came to the attention of
these bodies it was better to be investigated by the Index rather
than the Inquisition. That is, it was considered preferable to have
one's books banned rather than to suffer the fate of people like
Giordano Bruno or Tommaso Campanella. Such was the fear of such
reprisals that independent religious speculation was almost extinct.
Scholars, fearful that such studies would bring them into disfavour
of the Church (Galileo too had fallen foul of the authorities and had
been forced to recant his discoveries), turned instead to the safer
topics of mathematics and archaeology.
During Vico's time education was completely in the hands of the
Church, hence, 'philosophy was only taught in its scholastic forms,
and from books that received ecclesiastical approbation. A philosophy
which assumed an anti-religious or anti-churchly attitude would not
have been tolerated'. For example, Pietro Giannone's Civil History
of the Kingdom of Naples, (Dell' istoria civile del Regno di Napoli),
was quickly placed on the Index after its publication in 1723 for
containing an attack on the power of the papacy. French Protestant
Thomas Bayle's journal, News of the Republic of letters (Nouvelles de
la Republique des Lettres) was put on the Index in 1689 on the
grounds that his argument for the toleration of all views,
'heretical, non-Christian and even atheist ones' should be
tolerated; several of Nicolas Malebranche's were also added;
Spinoza's Ethics, which was first published in his Opus posthuma was
added in 1670; Hobbes' Leviathan joined the list in 1703, and Pietro
Giannone's polemic against the power of Rome in his Civil History of
the Kingdom of Naples (Dell' istoria civile del Regno di Napoli), in
1723, was almost immediately placed on the Index. Against such a
background, it seems fair to argue that there is a case to be made
that Vico, who, as a youth was attracted to the Epicurean philosophy
of the Roman Philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus, a thinker who
appeared '... to have little interest in Christian systematic
theology', and, who '... was manifestly resolved to commit himself as
a philosopher', may well have been a 'closet heretic' who chose to
present his new science, as Peter Burke suggests, in a way that would
'avoid, if possible affording occasion or pretext for accusation of
3. Vico and Religion
In the New Science, Vico's approach to religion is, to say the least,
enigmatic. That is, throughout the New Science, he appears to find no
conflict between Christian dogma and his ideal eternal history of
humankind as he juxtaposes orthodoxy with heterodoxy. Because of this
apparent contradiction, and also because, openly criticises others for
superimposing their own prejudices on the past, while he confidently
asserts that Judaism (and, as a consequence, Christianity) is the
only true religion, many commentators have taken the view expressed
by Samuel Beckett that when Vico speaks of '[t]his force he called
Divine Providence [it is] with his tongue, one feels, very much in
his cheek'. While there can be no doubt that Beckett was familiar
with Vico's philosophy, it must be said that this remark reflects a
failure to fully grasp the Italian philosopher's stance on the issue
of providence. Indeed, had Beckett been better informed, he might
well have remarked that it is when Vico speaks of the history of the
Hebrews his tongue is not where it should be. For, as Frederick
Vaughan says, '[i]t becomes clear from an analysis of Vico's divine
providence that it is not the divine providence of Thomas Aquinas or
orthodox Christian theology'. While a parallel might be seen in
the orthodox Christian view of providence that affirms that the
universe and man's role in it are not subject to the blind forces of
fate and chance, and Vico's view which affirms that his science would
... rational civil theology of divine providence, which was
previously lacking in philosophy. For the philosophers were
completely unaware of the existence of providence. The
Epicureans said that human affairs are set in motion by the
blind collision of atoms; and the Stoics said they are drawn
along by an inexorable chain of causes and effects.
... una teologica civile ragionata della provvedenza
divina. La quale sembra aver mancato finora, perche i
filosofi o l'hanno sconosciuta affatto, come gli stoici e
gli epicure, de' quali questi dicono che un oncorso cieco
d'atomi agita, quelli che una sorda catena di gagioni e
d'effetti trascina le faccende degli uomini,
the fact remains wholly absent from Vico's notion of providence is
the concept of an ultimate end or eschaton. As Vaughan explains,
[f]or Augustine and Aquinas, history has a meaning or
intelligibly only in terms of providence and a final telos.
The ultimate end, finis ultimus, of man is God, i.e., a
transcendent end which gives meaning to history. There is
no such end in Vico's theory of providential history.
According to Vico the truths upon which the history of the Hebrews
was founded were given by the one true God in revelation, whereas the
'truths' upon which the histories of pagans nations were founded arose
in virtue of the sensus communis -- the spontaneous common sense
judgements of the community -- to meet the needs or utilities of
society at particular times and places in the ever unfolding and
refolding ideal eternal history of humankind, under the governance of
divine of providence; a silent force which, in many cases, acted
contrary to the wishes of men. Evidence that points to that fact
that Vico believed his life was governed by the latter rather than
the former can be found in his declaration he believed his own life
represented the ideal eternal in microcosm and that 'from his
earliest days Providence had been unwilling to establish him... in
comfortable circumstances and cut off all means to improve his
condition'. He also attributes his failure to achieve his long
cherished ambition to win chair of jurisprudence at the University of
Naples, where he held the rather more lowly chair of rhetoric, to the
same silent force when he concluded that in its wisdom providence had
liberated him from the shackles of academia so that he might
accomplish his real purpose in life which was to develop the ideas
already set out in his orations. In fact, so convinced was Vico that
this was in fact the course providence had set for him that, when
Cardinal Lorenzo Corsini, who had committed to underwrite the cost of
the publication of Vico's New Science, reneged on his promise, Vico
attributed the set-back to 'one more dispensation of Providence',
and promptly sold, probably his only valuable possession, a ring 'set
with a five-grain diamond of the purest water' so that he might
see his work in print.
The question that arises for the Vichean commentator is 'how can one
whose 'new science' rejects the notion of absolute, timeless values
assert so adamantly the doctrine of Christianity'? Perhaps, as Isaiah
Berlin says, this is Vico's way of 'avoiding the
Epicurean-evolutionist heresy for which the Inquisition, in the last
years of the seventeenth century, had inflicted on some of his
Neapolitan friend and contemporaries'. Indeed, M.H.Fisch and T.G.
Bergin add weight to this view when they make the point that Vico's
'writings are not fully intelligible to one who does not bear in mind
that it [the Inquisition] was active in Naples throughout his [Vico's]
lifetime'. Jules Michelet also displays some sympathy with this
approach when he says 'Vico shows how gods are made and unmade...
[i]t is man who makes [them]. He constantly creates himself; he
manufactures his earth and his heaven. Thus is the mystery revealed.
The revelation so bold that Vico is himself afraid of it'.
Michelet goes on to say that Vico 'makes an amazing effort to believe
that he is still a believer'. One is tempted to say that that it
may be more accurate to say that Vico 'makes an amazing effort to
show others that he believes that he is still a believer'. However,
while it seems reasonable to take the view that Vico's commitment to
orthodox religion may be questionable, there seems to be no doubt
that his faith in a transcendent God was total. For Vico, men may
make their own gods, but it is God that makes the men that make their
4. Verum ipsum factum
According to Vico, history occurs as a result of the interaction
between the human mind and nature. The theory of knowledge he
advances to support this theory of history is called verum ipsum
factum: we can know only to be true that which we make or do. While
it is not unusual to see Vico credited as the originator of this
principle, Harold Samuel Stone draws our attention to the fact that
there are two references of its use by St John the Apostle in the New
Testament. The first appears in the Gospel of St, chapter 3, verse 21
where John, in conversation with Nicodemus, talks about 'the one who
makes the truth' -- 'qui autem facit veritatem'. The second
reference, which takes the negative form of the verum/ factum
principle, appears in chapter 1, verse 7 of the First Epistle of John
where John, who is discussing the notion of God as light, says, '...
and we do not make the truth' (my italics) -- 'et veritatem non
facimus'. Although there has been much discussion on these
passages from the New Testament, says Stone, most have failed to make
any reference to John's allusion to making and knowing. Of those who
have, the one that appears most relevant appears to what would later
appear in Vico's philosophy that of the primary editor of the
Elzevier Greek edition of the New Testament, Daniel Heinsius, who, in
chapter 10 of his edition of Nonnus' Paraphrasis in Joannem
(Paraphrase of the Gospel of St John), suggests that making and
knowing in John's texts indicates 'that John and the early Christians
developed a new kind of metaphor, one not known to the pagan Greeks or
Hebrews'. The question that arises, says Stone, is whether Vico
had ever read Heinsius. On the evidence of the well known editor of
Vico, Fausto Nicolini (1879-1965), who in his Comment on the second
New Science (Commento storico alla seconda 'Scienza nouva), suggests
that Vico was not only familiar with Heinsius' commentary on Horace,
but that he may also have known Nonnus' work on Dionysius
(Dionysiaca), Stone concludes that Vico may well have drawn some
inspiration for his verum/ factum principle from Heinsius. However,
since the 1627 edition of Heinsius' work was added to the Index in
1632, it is perhaps understandable that Vico 'who played by the rules
in these matters', decided not to acknowledge the banned author as
his source lest he be tarred with the same heretical brush.
5. The 'universality' of Vico's new science
Vico held that the evidence he provides to support his new science
was so convincing that it could be applied universally. That is, '...
no matter what one's theological presuppositions might be, his science
would have the same utility'. As Vico himself puts it,
... the predominant proofs of my Science follow this form:
given the orders established by divine providence, human
institutions had to, have to, and will have to develop in
the way described in my science. (Nor would this change
even if infinite worlds were to arise from time to time
throughout eternity, which is certainly false in fact.)
... quindi regna in questa Scienza questa spezie di pruove:
che tali dovettero, debbono e dovranno andare le cose delle
nazioni quali da questa Scienza son ragionate, posti tali
ordini dalla provvidenza divina, fusse anco che dall'
eternit nascessero di tempo in tempo mondi infiniti; lo che
certamente e falso di fato.
Vico goes on to say that his new science traces the course of history
through which every nation must pass in time. If it is, as Vico
says, that every nation must pass through this historical process,
the implication is that his inclusion of a second history -- the
history of the Hebrews -- may well have been a sophistic device
designed to keep him out of the gaze of the Inquisition, and his work
out of the clutches of the Index.
Implicit, then, in Vico's New Science is the view that even in a
non-Judaic or non-Christian world his science would carry the same
effect. Richard H. Popkin draws attention to the fact that Isaac la
Peyrere (1594-1675), in his Latin treatise, Adam's Predecessors
(1655), puts forward the concept of such a world. It seems that
La Peyrere, like Vico, also held that there were two histories: that
of humanity, and that of the Hebrews. He held too that Adam was not
the founder of the human race, but only the first Hebrew and that
Noah's Flood was a local phenomenon rather than a global one.
Harold Stone draws attention to the fact that although Vico, when
discussing La Peyrere's hypothesis, dismissed his pre-Adamite view,
he does go on to say that the Jews are descended from Adam  -- a
role, Stone reminds us, that had been traditionally assigned to
Abraham. Although this may not be evidence that Vico was a
'clandestine believer in the pre-Adamites', says Stone, '[i]n keeping
with the general direction of his thought, a better description might
be that even in the possible world of pre-Adamites his theory of
nations would hold'. While this may well have be the case, given
that the belief in men before Adam was one of the heresies of which
some of Vico's friends were accused in 1691, and also given,
notwithstanding his rejection of La Peyrere's pre-Adamite hypothesis,
that Vico holds that his science would apply even in such a world, it
may be that one has to look beyond the lines of Scienza Nuova: to
events that were happening in Naples at that time, to discover Vico's
real position on this issue.
According to Vico's ideal eternal history of humankind, there emerges
within each society, community, or nation, fables of heroic or noble
deeds. While the values from which these myths are created arise, not
from one person, but from the collective common sense, the sensus
communis, of each respective social grouping, they are garnered by
the theological poets and formulated into a concept of the ideal
human being. From time to time, in virtue of the performance of some
heroic act or deed by a member of society, this concept is attributed
to that person, thus elevating him to the status of a hero or god. As
Vico puts it, it is 'the custom of the masses... when they consider
famous people, noted for certain things and living in a certain
context, they create myths which are appropriate to these conditions'
('costume c'ha il volgo, il quale degli uomini nell'una o nell'altra
parte famosi, posti in tali o tali circostanze, per che loro in tale
stato conviene, ne finge acconce favole'). Vico calls this phase
of the development of human consciousness the 'age of heroes'.
Although he holds that providence decrees that all histories 'had to,
have to, and will have to' ('dovettero, debono e dovranno') pass
through this particular phase, he also claims that to bestow mere
mortals with characteristics that allow them to become revered in
this way is to commit idolatry. In a climate of the times, it is not
surprising that the Neapolitan philosopher was at pains to point out
that the propensity to make gods of mortal men was peculiar only to
All human civilisations, says Vico, pass through a cycle of three
ages: the age of religion; the age of heroes, and the age of men. The
nature of those of the first age is creative or poetic: it is a nature
'produced by the powerful illusions of the imagination' ('forte
inganno di fantasia'), when, during an age when the reasoning
powers of men are weakest, the power of fantasy strongest. The nature
of those of the second age is heroic. It is an age when the most
influential amongst the community are elevated to the status of
leader. It is also an age during which these leaders see themselves,
as natural 'sons of Jupiter, under whose auspices they had been
begotten' ('figliuoli di Giove, siccome quelli ch'erano stati generti
con gli auspici di Giove'), to be divine. The third age: the age
of men, is the age of democracy. It is during this age, when the
nature of men becomes corrupt, 'as did the plebeian tribunes at
Rome'('come i tribuni della plebe nella romana'), that providence
provides one of three remedies: (I) the emergence of a 'leader, like
Augustus, who rises up and establishes himself as their monarch'
('come Augusto, vi surga e vi si stablisca monarca'); (ii) the
overpowering of the corrupt societies by 'superior nations which
conquer them by arms' ('nazione superiore, che l'abbiano conquistate
con l'armi'), or (iii) by causing 'obstinate factional strife and
desperate civil wars to turn their cities into forests and their
forests into lairs' ('ostinatissime fazione e dispearate guerre
civili, vadano a fare selve della citt, e delle selve covili
d'uomini'). In other words, at a particular time in the ever
revolving history of human kind, providence ordains that certain
conditions must arise through which humankind can return 'to the
primitive simplicity of the early world of peoples' (ibid.). If we
take it that during Roman times the example of Christ might well have
been used on place of Augustus, it can be argued that the emergence of
Christ not only meets the criterion of Vico's first remedy, but that
it is also in accord with the practice, during feudal times, of
leaders being identifying themselves as sons of gods. Once again, it
comes as no surprise that Vico argues that these phenomena relate
only to the history of pagan peoples.
6. The Consequences of Vico's 'Discovery of the True Homer'?
For Vico the myths and legends of ancients were not the products of
superstitious minds, but true accounts of representations of their
indigenous value systems. In section two of the New Science,
'Discovery of the True Homer' ('Della Discoverta del Vero
Omero'), Vico declares that the works of Homer are not the work
of one man, but the accumulation of many years of wisdom of the
entire Greek people. 'Homer', says Vico, 'was a purely ideal poet who
in fact never existed as an individual', 'Omero fusse stato un poeta
d'idea, il quale non fu particolar di lui in natura'. Cecilia
Miller informs us that the section on the true Homer is actually
based taken from a short piece Vico had written in 1728-29 concerning
Dante. The principal reason Vico changes to Homer, says Miller, is
that he wanted to discuss mythology rather than a particular
individual. Miller goes on to say that there is a strong argument
that many of the conclusions Vico reaches of Homer in the final
edition of New Science, carry a striking resemblance to the direction
he was heading in his discussions of Moses in the 1725 edition of New
Science. It seems that while Vico may have changed the example of
his non-historical icon from Moses to Dante, and then to Homer in
order to avoid investigation by the Church authorities, he did not do
so without daring to leave certain clues for those who cared to follow
the trail. The view that such a trail exists is shared by Frederick
Vaughan who, in his The Political Philosophy of Giambattista Vico,
suggests that the only possible reason that Vico's heresy was not
detected by the Church authorities is that '... most of those who
read the New Science took Vico at his word and did not bother to
challenge his expressed orthodoxy by a careful reading of the
book'. Although those who did take the time to peruse the text of
the New Science in depth were quick to charge Vico with making
providence so immanent that it was impossible to distinguish it from
the course of nature, says Vaughan, he 'nonetheless remained free
from prosecution and had the official approval of his ecclesiastical
superiors to the very end'.
Miller's suggestion that Vico may have changed his notion of Moses to
Homer in order to avoid accusations of heresy is supported by Vaughan
who also suggests that Vico's criticism of Homer draws its influence
from Spinoza's criticism of the Bible. According to Vaughan,
although Spinoza accepted the moral value of the Bible, in the same
way that Vico later argued that the Iliad and the Odyssey had been
misinterpreted, so did Spinoza hold that the two books of the Bible,
the Old Testament and the New Testament, been 'hopelessly
misunderstood and weighed down by acquired superstition'. And in
the same way that Spinoza makes the case that the Bible was the
record of the Jewish race, Vico argues that Homer's epic poems are
really the true histories of the Greek people (ibid.). According to
Vaughan, the principal intention of Vico's treatment of Homer was
twofold: (i), to indicate the true nature of the epic poems [the
Iliad and the Odyssey] as 'containing crude and poetic history' and
(ii) to show 'that the critique of those two books might be applied
with equal success to the two 'books' of Christian religion, i.e. the
Old Testament and the New Testament'. If we accept the view put
forward by Miller and Vaughan that Vico's critique of Homer and his
epics had been originally intended for Moses and the two books of the
Bible, in the light of the prevailing mood in Naples at that time, it
is understandable that Vico would chose to change the subject matter
of this particular thesis from one whose tradition was closely
related to that of his time, to one firmly rooted in pagan tradition.
When Giambattista Vico was five years of age he fell headfirst from
the top of a ladder to the floor below. The injuries he sustained in
the fall were such that he did not return to school for three years.
During his time of convalescence, thanks to the fact that the family
home was also his father's bookshop, the young Vico became his own
teacher. Later, as a young man, he spent nine years as a tutor in the
castle at Vatolla where, again thanks to the castle's expansive
library, he once more became his own teacher. Rather than seeing
these interruptions in formal education a disadvantage, Vico saw them
as the work of providence and 'blessed his good fortune in having no
teacher whose words he had sworn by'. In virtue of his unorthodox
background Vico became an unorthodox thinker. So unorthodox perhaps,
as we have seen from this paper, that it seems fair to argue, on
prima facie evidence at least, that there are grounds for believing
that Vico may well have been a closet heretic. But if Vico was a
heretic he was a wise and a prudent one. He would have known, for
example, as far as the Inquisition was concerned, that the only good
heretic was a dead one; and he would have realised that if he wanted
to keep himself healthy and his work publishable, he would have to
present his discoveries in a way that would offend neither the
Inquisition nor the Index, but would, to a disciple of his 'new
scientific' method, contain clues that would reveal his true meaning.
In short, while Vico may have privately entertained heretical notions,
publicly he would have to have been seen to be a pillar of the
Catholic community. If this is what Vico did, it must be said, he did
it with considerable success, for he died peacefully in his bed at
seventy-six years of age.
1. Vico. New Science (hereafter referred to as NS). 1999, para, 313
3. Campanella (1568-1639) was imprisoned by the Inquisition for
reasons partly political and partly theological. Bruno (1548-1600)
was condemned by the Inquisition for heresy and burned alive.
4. see Harold Samuel Stone. 1997, pp 6/7. Vico's Cultural History.
6. see Cecilia Miller. 1993, p, 69. Giambattista Vico: Imagination
and Historical Knowledge. Palgrave. Hampshire and New York,
7. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. 2000, p, 63. Ed Thomas
Mautner. Penguin books. London.
8. Peter Burke. Vico. 1985, p, 86. Oxford University Press. Oxford
9. Robert Flint 1881, pp 6/7. Vico. William Blackwood and Sons (Cheap
Edition). Edinburgh and Brighton.
10. Samuel Beckett. 1983, p, 22. 'Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce' in
Disjecta. Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. John Calder
(Publishers) Ltd. London.
11. Frederick Vaughan. The Political Philosophy of Giambattista Vico.
An Introduction to La Scienza Nuova. 1972, p. 42. Martinus Nijhoff.
12. Vico. NS. para, 342.
13. Vaughan. Op.cit. (ibid., p. 43)
14. Vico. NS, para, 342.
15. Marquis of Villarosa. 'Vico's Last Years' (1818) in The
Autobiography of Giambattista Vico. 1975, pp 200/1. Trans. by Max
Harold Fisch & Thomas Goddard Bergin. Cornell University Press.
Ithaca and London.
18. Isaiah Berlin. 2000, p, 64. Three Critics of the Enlightenment.
Princeton University Press. Princeton. New Jersey
19. M.H Fisch & T.G.Bergin trans. 1975, p, 34. The Autobiography of
Giambattista Vico. Cornwell University Press. Ithaca, New York.
20. In Ma Liberte, Virgile Vico, by Jules Michelet: a chapter of Le
Banquet: Oeuvres, Vol. 16, p, 658.
22. Stone. Op.cit. (ibid. p182).
24. Ibid. p.183.
26. Ibid. p. 300.
27. Vico. NS, para. 348
28. see ibid. para, 349
29. see Richard H. Popkin. 1987, pp 91/92. Isaac La Peyrere
1596-1676; his life, work and influence. Brill. New York
30. see Stone. Op.cit. (ibid., p. 300).
31. see Vico. NS para, 51
32. see Stone. Ibid., p. 301.
34. see Burke. Op.cit. (ibid., p 66).
35. Vico. NS, para 205.
36. ibid., para, 348.
37. Ibid., para, 916
38. ibid., para, 917
39. ibid., para, 1102
40. ibid., para, 1104
41. ibid., para, 1105
42. ibid., para, 1106
43. ibid., para, 780
44. ibid., para, 873.
45. see Miller. Op.cit. (ibid., p 77).
47. Vaughan. Op.cit. (ibid., p.44).
49. see ibid.
50. ibid., p. 47
51. ibid., p. 46
52. see Donald R. Kelley. 'Vico's Road', p. 16 in Giambattista Vico's
Science of Humanity. 1976. Eds. Tagliacozzo/Verene. The John Hopkins
University Press. Baltimore and London.'
(c) Anthony Fahey 2011
III. 'SPINOZA: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF A PREFERRED KIND' BY MARTIN JENKINS
Ever wondered why certain people attract one another? In degrees of
relationships, from the professional, the friendly, to the emotional
and intimate, attraction and repulsion is present. Some it is said,
bring out the worst in people. Others gel and evidence 'connection'
even so called 'soulmates'. Others experience storm and stress,
having to work at the relationship. Some relationships prove to be
destructive encounters. Why? I attempt to answer this question by
examining the writings of philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677).
In particular, I utilise his work Ethics. Firstly, a very brief
account of the philosophical context in which Spinoza was thinking
Rene Descartes (1596-16500 argued that reality, what is or Ontology,
is constituted by substances. There were two substances: Mind (res
cogitans) and Body (res extensa). The two mysteriously interact and
Bodies in the universe can be understood by a priori, clear and
distinct reasoning. In accomplishing this, the 'framework' of reality
could be known by the thinking mind. It would approximate but never
equal the perfection in the mind of the creator God. Critics argued
that Descartes had failed to satisfactorily account for the
interaction of Mind with Body and vice versa.
For the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), reality was not
composed of two substances but many. These were the Monads. Each
monad -- for example the human soul/ being -- was indivisible,
pre-programmed by God in respect of all its actions, interactions
with other monads and as such, each was self-contained, expressing
the universe. Hence the term the 'windowless monad': it contains all
the interactions in itself; running like clockwork as it were. No
other monad induced a change of state in another. Such
pre-programming was attributable to God having created
Pre-Established Harmony between the monads to ensure the existence of
the best of all possible worlds. So the problems that had befallen
Descartes of how substances interact was solved by Pre-Established
For Spinoza, the proposition that substances interact created
insurmountable problems. For him, no substance can be created by
another. If they are, how they affect the nature of others will have
to be mapped and traced ad infinitum. By definition, this cannot be
accomplished. Changes of state or modifications in one substance will
be the affects caused by another. Properties or Attributes of a
Substance, by which they are understood will therefore not be
explicitly definable allowing caprice and accidentalism to ensue. In
the Ethics, Spinoza demonstrated there must be one, single, infinite
substance: Deus sive Natura (God or Nature). Modifications within
this will be attributable to two Attributes: Mind or Extension (the
latter understood as Body, other Bodies and the material furniture of
the universe) the attributes constituting God/ Nature. Flowing from
the immanent cause, all modifications occur with necessity and they
can be understood or deduced as changes in the attributes of both
Mind and Body.
As there is one single substance, there is nothing outside of it.
This removes the traditional creator God who causes yet transcends
its creation. There being no transcendent cause and only one
substance, God/ Nature is the immanent cause of all modifications.
This can be understood both as Natura Naturans: the self-creating
cause, the attributes expressing their eternal and infinite essence:
'Nature Naturing'. It can also be understood as Natura Naturata: all
modes of nature as the passive, existing creation, 'Nature
Natured'. Modifications are necessary and never contingent.
Mind and Extension
Modifications in either of the attributes, are understood in the same
manner, for: 'The order and connection of ideas is the same as the
order and connection of things'. So the idea of hunger is the same
as the uncomfortable physical state of hunger in the body, for a
modification of the Body involves a corresponding one in Mind.
The infinite and eternal modes of Extension are Motion and Rest.
Stuart Hampshire translates motion and rest into Energy:
It seems natural to translate the now unfamiliar phrase
Motion and rest as 'Energy', one can then represent Spinoza
as saying in effect that the extended world is to be
conceived as self-contained and an all inclusive system of
interactions in which the total amount of energy is
constant. And secondly, he is in effect saying that all the
changing qualities and configurations of extended bodies can
be adequately represented solely as transmissions or
exchanges of energy within this single system.
Physical, extended things are ultimately nothing more than
configurations of force and energy. Similar, stable degrees and
velocity of Motion/ rest/ energy (I will now use the single term
energy) create an extended thing such as a human body. It thereby
retains a nature, an identity. Within this stable nature, the
distribution of energy can change accounting for the changing
qualities of the body. Human bodies are complex configurations of
many individual parts of different natures. Not only do such parts
causally interact on each other within the stable nature, they are
also subject to the causal affects of other, external bodies 'in a
great many ways'.
So the body is affected in a great many ways and it too, can affect
other bodies in a great many ways. The Mind perceives these great
many ways for 'The order and connection of ideas is the same as the
order and connection of things'. Spinoza writes:
All the ways in which a body is affected by another body
follow from the nature of the affected body together with
the nature of the body affecting it, so that one and the
same body may move in various ways in accordance with the
various natures of the bodies causing its motion and, on
the other hand, different bodies may be caused to move in
different ways by one and the same body.
The manner in which a body or bodies (at different velocities of
energy) affects another body or bodies is found in their nature(s)
and this can be known by ideas in the Mind. Ideas can 'value'
them as Good encounters because desirable. Our ideas and valuations
of external bodies largely indicate our reception to their
However, such knowledge is not always clear; so the Mind must strive
to understand the true connection of cause/ ideas.
Encounters with other bodies can either increase or diminish a body's
power of action. A body's power of action is its essence to persevere
in its own being: the famous conatus. The increase in power tends
towards the perfection of the essence coterminus with the state of Joy
(Laetitia); whilst the contrary state of sorrow or pain (Tristitia)
applies to a decrease. Julian Bourg writes accordingly:
A relation that is harmful to my body brings about 'sadness'
and a resulting diminishment of my capacity. Spinoza himself
uses the example of 'poison' to demonstrate the point.
Poison invites sadness because it destroys positive
relations in the body. Eating poison brings no joy.
As the connection of causes is the same in both Mind and Body, the
Mind can account for the causal encounter by means of ideas and act
accordingly. Thus by means of Adequate Ideas, the Mind can understand
the succession of bodily modifications acquiring knowledge and
therefore, more power in relation to the conatus. As such it is
said to be active. It will understand modifications, the consequences
they imbue and then diagnose why certain modifications imbue Sorrow
and others Joy. Failure to understand the succession of modifications
will provide Inadequate Ideas or less knowledge, making the conatus
less powerful and the mind passive. In such ignorance, a person is in
bondage to the caprice of internal modifications (passions such as
sadness, misery, impotence) caused by external bodies. The power and
perfection of an individual mind -- and thereby its conatus -- is
increased insofar as it becomes less passive and more active in the
production of ideas.
For instance, Peter may constitute a bad encounter as he represses my
conatus imbuing the painful emotion of sadness. Katie on the other
hand embellishes my conatus filling me with happiness constituting a
positive encounter. Knowing this, I can actively encourage more such
encounters with Katie at the expense of Peter, thereby being active
in my understanding of the interactions. Here, the preservation of my
being is increased towards what it should be: toward perfection of its
essence in Spinoza's terminology. As God/ Nature constitutes my
essence, its enhancement toward perfection is likewise, the
enhancement and perfection of God/ Nature: this is the nature of
Power, Reason & Virtue
Remaining in the realm of extension, Katie and myself must share the
similar levels of energy in which modifications of each body by the
other are positive. The opposite is the case with Peter and the
modifications of my body with his energy which imbues anger,
exasperation and verbal disagreement. The transmission of his energy
into my body perturbs my level of energy which is also perturbing my
conatus. Rather poetically, Peter is a black hole whose gravity
oppresses, saps my motion etc whereas Katie is a shining star that
gives to me and vice versa. She agrees with my nature. The more
encounters I have with Peter, the more harm is inflicted to my
nature. Mind understands this attributing the sorrow I feel to the
modifications in my body brought on by the inroads of Peter's motion
and energy. On the understanding of Mind as to why Peter is harmful
to my nature, Reason dictates that I cease to associate with him.
In Spinoza's view, such an act constitutes Virtue. Virtue, is my power
to act appropriately to benefit my nature. By Virtue and Power is
understood the same thing.
This extends beyond individual bodies to several. Being an integrated
part of God or Nature, we can never free ourselves from the causal
influence of external bodies. Of these, 'none more excellent can be
discovered than those which exactly agree with our nature'. Thus
I have certain people as friends rather than others, as we share
common interests, values and perspectives. In the words of extension,
we share a similar level of Motion etc allowing mutual modifications
on the level of extension to be positive encounters then understood
at the level of Mind. This can apply to other areas of society such
as the workplace. Here, being in a job or structure which is contrary
to parts of or the whole of my nature, leads to sorrow. Again, Reason,
acting in accordance with my power to act requires that I do something
about this -- such as leave employment for something far more
conducive. Perhaps others with a similar constitution should do the
same. This is for me, similar to 'Self-Actualisation Theory'.
Bourg again pace Gilles Deleuze's reading of Spinoza:
To sum up: joy is good because it is active; sadness is bad
because it reflects and adds to the limitation of our power
of acting. The active is good because it expresses nature;
it is the nature of Nature... Spinoza's ethics says
Deleuze, amounts to a 'war cry' against all that stands in
our way of increasing our power of acting. We must move
from states of passive and passion filled suffering to
active and rational joy. The cultivation of joyful passions
leads to a greater power of acting and, with each expansion
of our expressive capacity, we move toward a greater
perception of and participation in that universality of
which we are part. 
So, the reason why certain people are conducive, attractive to one
person whilst others are destructive, is due to the interpenetration
of energy at various degrees between bodies and their complex parts.
That is, the degrees to which they either enhance a persons nature
or, to the degrees they harm or repress that nature. An understanding
of this can furnish the requisite action to enhance our nature or in
any type of relationship-personal, professional or
socio-political. This flows out of our nature and, according to
Spinoza, is the highest right of Nature.
1. Benedict Spinoza. Ethics. Hackett. 1992.
2. Rene Descartes. Meditations on the First Philosophy. Everyman.
3. GW Leibniz. Discourse On Metaphysics and Other Writings. Hackett.
4. Proposition 29. Part One Ethics op cite.
5. Proposition 2. part Two. ibid.
6. P. 63, 64 Stuart Hampshire. Spinoza. Penguin 1987. As well as
reading motion and rest as energy, Stuart Hampshire writes that
extended objects are ultimately constituted by elementary particles
or Corpora simplicissima.
7. Postulate 13. Part Two. Ethics op cite.
8. Postulate 3. ibid.
9. Postulate 6. ibid.
10. Proposition 15. ibid.
11. Proposition 16. ibid.
12. Propositions 15 and 16 intimate a view later propounded by
Friedrich Nietzsche. Namely there are no moral phenomena, only the
moral valuation of phenomena. Moral valuation is a sign-language,
symptomology of the hierarchical ordering of bodily drives.
13. Proposition 6, 7 & 9. Part Three. Ethics op cite.
14. P. 151. Ch 12. Julian Bourg. From Revolution to Ethics. May 1968
and Contemporary French Thought. McGill-Queens University Press. 2007.
15. Definition IV. Part Two Ethics op cite. Adequate Ideas and
Inadequate Ideas. This is not a correspondence theory where
subjective perception fully corresponds to object. Adequate Idea is
that idea, considered wholly in itself and as such, has all the
properties of a true idea. The idea of the object intrinsically
displays a logically necessary connection between the properties of
the idea of the object.
16. With respect to the conatus or endeavour of our nature, Reason
cannot demand that which is contrary to it.
Proposition 18, Part Four . Ethics ibid.
17. Definition V. Part Four. ibid.
18. Proposition 18. Part 4. op cite.
19. The tendency to realise or actualise one's needs, capacities,
drives, goals. Most famously associated with Abraham Maslow's
'Hierarchy of Needs'. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/self-actualisation
20. P. 152. Bourg op cite.
21. Spinoza's metaphysics forms the basis for radical political
Antonio Negri. Subversive Spinoza. Manchester University Press. 2004.
The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza's Metaphysics & Politics.
University of Minnesota. 1991.
(c) Martin Jenkins 2011
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