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PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS electronic journal


PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   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 Fahey

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.'

Geoffrey Klempner



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.[1]

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.'[2] 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.'[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.'[6] 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.'[7] In order to avoid such error, Descartes urges that agents refrain from making judgments about the natures of things represented by sensations.[8]

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,'[9] 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.'[10]

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 health.'[11]

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.'[12]

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/ malfunctions.

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.'[13] 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.'[14] In his discussions of particular passions, he makes similar claims. He says fear and ambition represent things as evils;[15] '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;'[16] love represents what we love as a good that belongs to us;[17] and despair represents a thing as impossible.[18]

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.[19]
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.[20]
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.'[21] The point here is that although the passions arise from judgments or thoughts about a given situation, they should nevertheless be distinguished from those judgments.

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 those representations.

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 sensations.[23]

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 that volition.

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...'[24]

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.[25] 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 accompany them.'[26]

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.[27] 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.[28] 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 that

     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.[29]
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 consideration.

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.[30] 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.'[31]

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.'[32]

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 through passions.

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.[33] 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.'[34] 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.[35]

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.[36] First, there are those who can 'conquer the passions most easily... the strongest souls.'[37] 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.'[38] Because the 'proper weapons' of the will are 'firm and decisive judgments concerning the knowledge of good and evil,'[39] 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,'[40] 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.'[41] 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.'[42]

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 examined.'[43]

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,'[44] 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 Cartesian philosophy.

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; cf.  23.

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 (1976): 3-15.

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 possible.

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 Simmons.

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: Routledge, 2003).

9. 'The Principles of Philosophy,' vol. I,  41-42.

10. 'Meditations on First Philosophy,' vol. II,  83.

11. Ibid.,  89.

12. Ibid.

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, respectively.

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.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.,  368.

41. Ibid.

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

E-mail: raffy.pangilinan@gmail.com

Department of Social Arts and Humanities Centro Escolar University PHILIPPINES



1. Introduction

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'),[1] the Hebrews 'had the extraordinary help of the true God' (n'ebbero anco auiti estraordinari dal vero Dio').[2] 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 historical accuracy.

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.[3] 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.[4]

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'.[5] 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.[6] 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'[7] 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',[8] 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 heresy'.[9]

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'.[10] 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'.[11] 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 be a

     ... 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.[13]
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.[14] 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'.[15] 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',[16] and promptly sold, probably his only valuable possession, a ring 'set with a five-grain diamond of the purest water'[17] 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'.[18] 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'.[19] 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'.[20] Michelet goes on to say that Vico 'makes an amazing effort to believe that he is still a believer'.[21] 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 own gods.

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'.[22] 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'.[23] 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'.[24] 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',[25] 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'.[26] 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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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 [31] -- a role, Stone reminds us, that had been traditionally assigned to Abraham[32]. 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'.[33] 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,[34] 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').[35] 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')[36] 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 gentile nations.

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'),[37] 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'),[38] 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'),[39] 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');[40] (ii) the overpowering of the corrupt societies by 'superior nations which conquer them by arms' ('nazione superiore, che l'abbiano conquistate con l'armi'),[41] 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').[42] 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'),[43] 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'.[44] 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.[45] 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.[46] 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'.[47] 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'.[48]

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.[49] 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'.[50] 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'.[51] 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.

7. Conclusion
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'.[52] 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

2. Ibid.

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. E.J.Brill. Leiden.

5. ibid.

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. The Hague

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.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

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.

21. Ibid.

22. Stone. Op.cit. (ibid. p182).

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid. p.183.

25. Ibid.

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.

33. Ibid.

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).

46. ibid.

47. Vaughan. Op.cit. (ibid., p.44).

48. ibid.

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

E-mail: fahey.anthony@gmail.com



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.[1] Firstly, a very brief account of the philosophical context in which Spinoza was thinking and working.

Ontological background

Rene Descartes (1596-16500 argued that reality, what is or Ontology, is constituted by substances.[2] 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.[3] 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 harmony.


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'.[4] 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'.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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'.[8]

So the body is affected in a great many ways and it too, can affect other bodies in a great many ways.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] Ideas can 'value' them as Good encounters because desirable. Our ideas and valuations of external bodies largely indicate our reception to their natures.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15] 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 Nature.

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.[16] 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.[17]

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'.[18] 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'.[19] 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. [20]


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.[21] 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. 1987.

3. GW Leibniz. Discourse On Metaphysics and Other Writings. Hackett. 1991.

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:---

20. P. 152. Bourg op cite.

21. Spinoza's metaphysics forms the basis for radical political philosophy.

See especially:

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

E-mail: martinllowarch.jenkins@virgin.net


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