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Spinoza and the joy of learning

This is the post excerpt.

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Teaching and joy, I’m joking right? For many working teachers today, the idea that it might be a joyful experience either for the teacher or the student is just not realistic. Sure, you might say some such claptrap in a job interview that teaching is just such a joy…but, in the real world, you’ve got to be kidding, right!?

And yet, there will inevitably be some good times. I’ve been a teacher in various English state schools for nearly a quarter of a century, and I’m now a teacher educator at Goldsmiths, University of London, helping post-graduate students become effective English teachers.

When I look back at my career in the classroom, I can recollect some joyful teaching experiences, which have mostly been when my students have been enjoying themselves by collaborating: drumming to their readings of poetry; acting out their own modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays; pursuing projects on humour, the Titanic and advertising; working out how to read a difficult but interesting passage in a group; doing improvisations and role plays. I have seen students genuinely joyful in these occasions: smiling and laughing at their enjoyment of the work. And that’s made the teaching joyful for me because joy – as we will see – is “contagious”.

But I’ve got to say, these moments of “optimum” joy have not been that frequent. And actually, while I think it’s important for teachers to provide students with these moments of joy, this is not really the type of joy I’m chiefly talking about in this book. No, I’m going to discuss a different species of joy, although what I will explore may well cover this “peak” moments as well. I’m going to explore the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s definition of joy and the implications it has for teachers.

Spinoza defines joy as a “man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection”. This definition takes some explaining but it’s worth going into depth right now about it because it forms the heart of my argument. I believe once a teacher is aware of Spinoza’s conception of joy, it will profoundly change his/her idea of his/her practice and life.

Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) lived in Holland and was excommunicated from the Jewish religious community for his controversial religious views which rejected Judaic conceptions of God as giving man “free will” and being separate from nature. He was a philosopher who wrote detailed tracts on various religious texts, politics and the philosopher Descartes. His best-known work, published after he died, was Ethics, which is a short but dense book which outlines his entire theory of life, the universe and everything. It begins with proving and defining the existence of God, who Spinoza believed is “Nature”, and ends with an explanation of how humans can live in a state of “blessedness” and achieve eternal life (of sorts).

Recently, his philosophy has enjoyed a renewed surge of interest with thinkers as diverse as Stuart Hampshire, Gilles Descartes, Roger Scruton and Antonio Negri writing books on him.

This website is not going to be like them. It is not a exploration of his philosophy, but rather a very “hands-on” practical discussion of his ideas and how they might be applied in the classroom. At the centre of it is an in-depth debate about how and why Spinoza’s concept of joy can be very useful to teachers.

What I love about Spinoza’s notions is that you don’t have to change anything to be affected by them. As a teacher, you won’t have to suddenly start leaping up and down and playing all sorts of arcane fun and games with your students in order to put his philosophy into practice. All you’ll have to do is to start thinking like him, and then, you may well discover that your teaching becomes more joyful.

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References

Atherton, J. S., 2013. Learning and Teaching; SOLO taxonomy. [Online]
Available at: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/solo.htm
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Deleuze, G., 1988. Spinoza Practical Philosophy. 2nd ed. San Francisco: City Lights.

Education Endowment Foundation, 2016. Collaborative Learning. [Online]
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[Accessed 8th May 2016].

Education Endowment Foundation, 2016. Meta-cognition and self-regulation. [Online]
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Forster, E. M., 1910. Howard’s End. 1st ed. London: Edward Arnold.

  1. Deleuze, F Guattari, 1988: 2013. A Thousand Plateaus. London: Bloomsbury.

Goleman, D., 2016. Emotional Intelligence. [Online]
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[Accessed 31st January 2016].

Inside Out. 2015. [Film] Directed by Pete Docter. US: Pixar Disney.

Jarrett, C., 2007. Spinoza: A Guide For The Perplexed. 1st ed. London: Continuum Publishing Group.

Lord, B., 2010. Spinoza’s Ethics. 1st ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Perkins-Gough, D., 2013. The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee. [Online]
Available at: http://162.230.210.194/RandD/Educational%20Leadership/Significance%20of%20Grit%20-%20Duckworth.pdf
[Accessed 5th May 2016].

Rousseau, J.-J., 1752: 1979. Emile or On Education. London: Penguin.

  1. Lutz, W. Huittz, 2004. Connecting cognitive development and constructivism: Implications from theory for instruction and assessment. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 9(1), pp. 67-90.

Spinoza, B. D., 1994a. Ethics. London: Penguin Books.

Spinoza, B. d., 1994b. A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Spinoza, B. D., 2008. On Blood and Lymph: Spinoza’s Letter 32, summary. [Online]
Available at: http://piratesandrevolutionaries.blogspot.com/2008/12/on-blood-and-lymph-spinozas-letter-32.html
[Accessed 16th February 2016].

Spinoza, B. d., October, 1674. Selected Correspondence: Letter 62 (58) Spinoza to G. H. Schaller: [Spinoza gives his opinions on liberty and necessity. (The Hague.]. [Online]
Available at: http://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Spinoza/Texts/Spinoza/let6258.htm
[Accessed 16th February 2016].

The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology. 2012. [Film] Directed by Sophie Fiennes. UK: Zeitgeist Films.

Truebridge, S., 2010. Resilience, Research, and Educational Reform. [Online]
Available at: http://www.wholechildeducation.org/blog/resilience-research-and-educational-reform
[Accessed 18th February 2016].

Victoria State Government, 2014. Literacy Professional Learning Resource – Key Concepts – AusVELS Levels 7 to 10 – Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding. [Online]
Available at: http://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/teachingresources/discipline/english/proflearn/Pages/velszopds56.aspx
[Accessed 27th February 2016].

Watkins, C., 2003. Learning A Sense Maker’s Guide. [Online]
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Watkins, C., 2010. Learning, Performance and Improvement. INSI Research Matters, Issue 3, pp. 1-16.

Weber, M., 1930: 1992. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge.

Žižek, 2010. Zizek on injunction to enjoy – psychoanalitic view. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaoC1Ts9-VE
[Accessed 13th April 2016].

 

Understanding the Eternal

Understanding the Eternal

P23: The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.

…though we do not recollect that we existed before the body, we nevertheless feel that our mind, insofar as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity (translation from: sub specie aeternitatis), is eternal, and that this existence it has cannot be defined by time or explained through duration. (p. 172)

Spinoza argues that the idea of being human has always existed in God and that this means that there is a part of us which has always existed and always will exist. This is not the ego-centred part of us, defined by the unique and specific cultural background which we inhabit in time and space. It is rather the unique flow of energy which is us. We are all bundles of energy, forces, which have always existed and always will exist. Understanding this enables us to acquire the third kind of knowledge: intuitive knowledge (pp. 173, P25). Once we have this kind of knowledge we realise and understand our eternal natures, the parts of us which have always been in nature and always will be.

Recently, I have begun to acquire a sense of this by looking closely at trees, understanding them as living things, as forces in nature, thinking about the sap that flows through them, feeling their bark, observing their leaves and blossom in spring. I share certain flows of energy with the trees I encounter, and I can feel this in a wordless fashion when I encounter them. This is not to personify the trees as people but to see trees as having certain powers of action, certain modes of thought (completely different from human beings), certain strivings to become. It only when I am in the company of these trees that I fully understand this, but nevertheless my reason has begun to give me an adequate idea of this. Trees create a definite “sub specie aeternitatis” affect for me. And this has enabled me to feel connections with other living things as well — mammals, insects, birds, plants – as well as inanimate things which have their different powers of action within the context of our physical universe: clouds, stones, metals etc. The third kind of knowledge impels the thinker to jettison the cultural self, the homunculus in the head speaking its ego-driven thoughts, and feel the connections between everything in nature.

Journey into Joy

What connections can you find between yourself and other things in nature?

This Wikipedia page on Sub Specie Aeternitatis” is full of quotes about the concept from various eminent people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub_specie_aeternitatis

What do you think of them?

Fearing Death

P38: The more the mind understands things by the second and third kind of knowledge, the less it is acted on by affects which are evil, and less it fears death.

For Spinoza thinking adequately about ourselves involves learning how determined we are by external causes, conceiving ourselves as parts of an ever-changing, interlocked whole (God or Nature); this means cheerfully acknowledging that the things that we think define ourselves – our name, our jobs, our status, our feelings – are entirely determined by nature. We are flows of energy which have been expressed in particular moments of time as particular beings with particular identities. We share with all things certain powers of action which ebb and flow as our lives unfurl. This flow of energy is eternal: it always has been and always will be. Our names, our clothes, our houses, our friends, our families are part of this inter-locking flow: we are them and they are us. We are everybody and nobody. Getting in touch with our “flow”, with our energy, with our powers of action and thought, feeling and understanding them means we will necessarily not fear death because we realise these are the things that really define us.

Journey into Joy

What do you feel and think about your own death and other people’s? What do you think of Spinoza’s ideas regarding death?

The Rewards of Blessedness

P42: Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself; nor do we enjoy it because we restrain our lusts; on the contrary, because we enjoy it, we are able to restrain them.

Spinoza’s last proposition in Ethics returns to the concept of immanence, rejecting teleological modes of thinking. Being virtuous is the reward. Thinking adequately is the reward of life. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Being blessed involves feeling the joy of learning, taking delight in the journey and not expecting any reward at the end of it.

Spinoza sums up his approach in the Scholarium to P42 here:

…it is clear how much the wise man is capable of, and how much more powerful he is than one who is ignorant and is driven only lust. For not only is the ignorant man troubled in many ways by external causes, and unable ever to possess peace of mind, but he also lives as if he knew neither himself, nor God, nor things; and as soon as he ceases to be acted on, he ceases to be. On the other hand, the wise man, insofar as he is considered as such, is hardly troubled in spirt, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possesses true peace of mind. (pp. 180-181)

This is a philosophy of intuition and spontaneity which means that the blessed person feels able to express him/herself in the way that’s appropriate in the moment, regardless of what other people might think of him/her. It means shedding many of the inadequate ideas of our culture which inhabit our powers of action. So for example, if you feel like it you should:

Just breathe

Take some deep breaths and feel your breath moving through your body.

Just dance

It doesn’t matter if you think you’re a bad dancer. Dance around the room, dance in the street if you feel like it. Feel the joy of your body moving in the shapes it wants to move in.

Just sing

Go to a suitable place and sing your favourite words, your favourite song at the top of your voice.

Just clap

Get a rhythm going with your hands. Get a beat going. Feel the pulse of your beat.

Just write

Write whatever you like. Express all the feelings that you want to on the page.

Just smile

Feel the power of your smile.

Journey into Joy

Add your thoughts to your Joy Journal, writing down what you think it means to be blessed.

 

 

 

 

Stepping to happiness

Ordering The Affects

P10: So long as we are not torn by affects contrary to our nature, we have the power of ordering and connecting the affections of the body according to the order of the intellect. (p. 167)

So you’ve had a really bad day and you’re trembling with anger regarding the way a student has spoken to you and the general stress of the job. What do you do? Go out and get pissed?

Well, Spinoza would say no. He’d say, try to understand what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way. He is, here, I believe urging a form of “mindfulness” – not necessarily meditation – but certainly a moment of calm when you take stock of what you are feeling and then a listing and ordering of the different “affects” you are feeling. His system is very flexible and can be adapted directly to your life. So, say for example, there is a class, 9A, that generates a certain “affect” in you, you can label that “affect”. In terms of my own teaching, I might list certain affects like this if I was going to analyse a bad day:

  • Early-morning-dread affect. Despair?
  • 10A GCSE class, Worry-About-Results Affect
  • Coffee-Affect-Joy
  • Year 7 Teaching-Drama-Joy-Affect. Increasing my Powers of Action
  • 9A Dread-Affect. Stress. Anger. Frustration. Deep breath. Calm. Rudeness-Affect. Anger.
  • Marking-Tiredness Affect. All-Done-Joy-Affect.
  • Joy Affect.
  • Bath-Joy-Affect.
  • Walking-Through-Park Joy Affect.
  • Talk-to-Family Joy-Frustration Affect. Do they understand me?
  • Dinner-Joy-Affect.
  • TV-Box-Set-Joy Affect.
  • Going-To-Sleep-Worrying-About-Tomorrow-Affect

So once I have listed these, I could order them into the joy and sadness affects, and consider my true desires in the third column.

Joy Sadness Desires
·         Break. Coffee-Affect-Joy

·         Year 7 Teaching-Drama-Joy-Affect. Increasing my Powers of Action

·         Marking-Tiredness Affect. All-Done-Joy-Affect.

·         Home. Joy Affect.

·         Bath-Joy-Affect.

·         Walking-Through-Park Joy Affect.

·         TV-Box-Set-Joy Affect.

 

 

·         Early-morning-dread affect. Despair?

·         10A GCSE class, Worry-About-Results Affect

·         9A Dread-Affect. Stress. Anger. Frustration. Deep breath. Calm. Rudeness-Affect. Anger.

·         Going-To-Sleep-Worrying-About-Tomorrow-Affect

·

 

·         Not feel despair. But how?

·         Not to feel anxiety. But how?

·         Not to feel anger, frustration, despair.

·         Not to feel worry about tomorrow.

·         Long-term desires: to be a good teacher, to make a living, to feel good about myself, to have a sense of purpose.

 

Having gone through my day like this, I can see there are some clear “joys”. But how to deal with the difficult stuff?

At the root of it is the worry that I am feeling to do a good job. What if I give up thinking I’m a good teacher? Accept that given this set of circumstances, I will never be a “good” teacher. Then just do the best I can in the circumstances? Maybe that would make me calmer? What if I just focused upon learning more about the situation instead of rushing to think I should do this or that? What if I thought about what was really going on with those classes?

Here we can see me beginning to make connections between my feelings and the situation; I’m beginning to have an adequate understanding of what is happening during this dreadful day. I can see now that it is not all dreadful and that it is my feelings which are defining my day for me rather than the actual events themselves.

Journey into Joy

Have a go at ordering your “affects” in the way I have done in my example for a difficult day, then interrogate yourself, looking at the reasons why things are happening within your day.

Maxims To Memorise: Love Conquers, Find the Good in Each Thing…

The best thing, then, that we can do, so long as we do not have perfect knowledge of our affects, is to conceive a correct principle of living, or sure maxims of life, to commit them to memory, and to apply them constantly to the particular cases frequently encountered in life. In this way our imagination will be extensively affected by them, and we shall always have them ready. (p. 167)

Here we find Spinoza advocating a sort of mental toolkit for overcoming the power of the affects. I think this is particularly important for teachers who are assaulted by the affects when they work in schools. Ultimately a teacher needs to ready him/herself to deal with the stresses and strains of the job by having certain moral principles to guide him/her.

Teachers are going to be confronted with a great deal of hate during their careers. Spinoza says that this sad affect needs to be repaid with “love”:

For example, we have laid it down as a maxim of life (see IVP46 and P46S) that hate is to be conquered by love, or nobility, not by repaying it with hate in return. But in order that we may always have this rule of reason ready when it is needed, we ought to think about and meditate frequently on the common wrongs of men, and how they may be warded off best by nobility… (p. 167)

Let us remember what Spinoza means by love here because I think it helps. Personally, I’ve always found Christian injunctions to love one’s neighbour quite galling; it feels more like an order than a reasoned concept, predicated upon obeying God. This is not Spinoza means here, remember his definition is: “Love is nothing but joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause.” (pp. 78, P13 Schol.). In other words, in order to love someone we have to find joy in the idea of him/her. This involves seeking out what might be lovable in a person who hates us. It takes a form of detective work to do this: to reflect where you might find joy in some idea attached to them. You have an infinity of choices here: you might like an item of their clothing, their eyes, share the same taste in music etc. The vital thing about loving someone in a Spinozist sense is finding a joy within some idea connected with them. It could be a very random thing. For example, they might remind you of a character in a story you really like; this character could be an “evil” character in the book, but you might think about the affect of joy that the book brings to you when you meet them.

One thing I found help me deal with students I was beginning to hate was to think that they were like my grandmother’s pets – her cats and dogs – who I all loved. I would see traces of Granny’s labradors’ eyes in their eyes, notice the students’ feline and canine qualities. This produced the affect of joy in me, and helped me repay their hate with love. This is an example also of finding the “good” in everything. For Spinoza, good is not necessarily a “moral” quality, but something you find “good” in someone, it is a joy:

But it should be noted that in ordering our thoughts and images, we must always (by IVP63C and IIP59) attend to those things which are good in each thing so that in this way we are always determined to acting from an affect of joy. (p. 167)

The other way to repay hate is to be noble. Remember Spinoza defines it thus: “By nobility I understand the desire by which each one strives, solely from the dictate of reason, to aid other men and join them to him in friendship” (pp. 102-103). This is possibly easier than trying to love your hater. Reason and necessity dictates that you’re going to be a much more effective teacher if your students are your friends. Emphasizing the importance of collaboration is important here. To do this a teacher needs to be tenacious.

To put aside fear, we must think in the same way of tenacity: that is, we must recount and frequently imagine the common dangers of life, and how they can be best avoided and overcome by presence of mind and strength of character…

Journey into Joy

What strategies could you use to learn to love your students in the Spinozist sense of the word? How might you find the good in everything? How might you develop your powers of nobility and tenacity?

Find Out What is Really Going On

Above all, a successful teacher in dealing with problems in school finds out what is really going on and this necessarily stops you feeling too bad about a situation. So, for example, I’ve always found that one of the most successful ways of dealing with difficult child is to find out more about their history and background; there is always something in there which makes me go “oh yes!” so that’s why they’re a pain. And this has moderated my feelings of hate towards them. Spinoza writes:

One, therefore, who is anxious to moderate his affects and appetites from the love of freedom alone will strive, as far as he can, to come to know the virtues and their causes, and to fill his mind with the gladness which arises from the true knowledge of them, but not at all to consider men’s vices, or to disparage them, or to enjoy a false appearance of freedom. (p. 168)

Journey into Joy

Investigate the reasons why certain people or situations make you feel bad, finding as many causes as you can for that situation.

The More Connections You Make, the More you’ll flourish

P11: As an image is related to more things, the more frequent it is, or the more often it flourishes, and the more it engages the mind.

P12: The images of things are more easily joined to images related to things we understand clearly and distinctly than to other images. (p. 168)

An effective teacher should always be making connections between various ideas, showing his students that knowledge is connected in an infinite number of ways. Encouraging students to make the connections between things is a vital part of a teacher’s job.

Journey into Joy

How do you encourage your students to make connections between topics and ideas?

The More You Understand, the More You’ll Rejoice

Spinoza is an optimistic philosopher. He argues that when we start to gain an adequate idea of who we are, we will find joy in a multiplicity of things, seeing the connections between them. In a sense, this is very much against the grain of contemporary thinking much of which suggests that the more we learn about the world, the more depressed we become. But Spinoza has an answer for this. Even if you find out depressing information, the act of gaining an adequate idea about things is a joyful act, which increases your powers of action. It increases your powers of action and therefore stirs through the affects of tenacity and nobility to do something about a particular situation. It is not a fatalistic philosophy that compels you to accept the bad things in the world, but rather it is an active philosophy which necessitates the thinker to act in a joyful fashion upon what they learn.

Journey into Joy

What do you rejoice in learning about? What things do you find joyful about the processes of learning?

“I didn’t want to know this…” “Too much information…” What would a Spinozist pedagogue say in response to phrases like this?

 

Step Programme To Happiness

The power of the mind over the affects consists:

  1. In the knowledge itself of the affects (see P4S);
  2. In the fact that is separates the affects from the thought of an external cause, which we imagine confusedly (see P2 and P4S);
  • In the time by which the affections related to things we understand surpass those related to things we conceive confusedly, or in a mutilated way (see P7);
  1. In the multiplicity of causes by which affections related to common properties or to God are encouraged (see P9 and P11);
  2. Finally, in the order by which the mind can order its affects and connect them to one another (see P10, and in addition, P12, P13 and P14).

There are many interpretations of these five steps but I offer my own version here:

  1. Understand your thoughts and feelings as best you can. What things are causing you to feel and think this way?
  2. Learn to separate off the affects from what you might have caused those affects.
  3. Give yourself the time and space to process the difficult feelings you’re encountering; don’t expect to understand them straight away. When your understanding of them is greater than your lack of ability to understand them, then you’ll feel happier. Will you be feeling this way in a year’s time?
  4. See how all things that have caused your feelings are inter-linked and related.
  5. Put all of your feelings in a sequence which helps you understand how they have caused each other.

Understanding the body and affects

We Feel with our Bodies

P1: In just the same way as thoughts and ideas of things are ordered and connected in the mind, so the affections of the body, or images of things are ordered and connected in the body. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 163)

This is an important but often ignored idea. We feel with our bodies. The affects and the body are one and the same thing. Our love, anger, hatred are natural processes, cascades of energy if you like, that are embodied experiences. Teachers need to understand this: we can’t abstract our feelings from our bodies, in order to understand why we are feeling the way we are, we need to examine what is happening with our bodies, e.g. our diet, our age, our physique etc.

Journey into Joy

How are you feeling right now? Where in your body are those feelings being expressed? For example, you might be feeling anxious, and feeling this in your stomach, in the lightness of your legs.

Think about the other affects. Where in your body do you feel the different types of love you have for your loved ones, your friends etc.? Where you feel anger? What happens to your body when you feel anger?

 

Break It Up!

P2: If we separate emotions, or affects, from the thought of an external cause, and join them to other thoughts, then the love, or hate, toward the external cause is destroyed, as are the vacillations of mind arising from these affects. (p. 163)

A way of freeing ourselves from feelings of love or hatred is to see that the affects are forces of nature which attach themselves to the ideas of external causes in our minds. This is a difficult idea to get your head around but it is worth thinking about. We love and hate people not because there is anything inherently lovable or despicable about them but because they have been produced by multiple causes: their geography, their upbringing, the situations they find themselves in. If, in our minds, we can severe the link between the affect of love/hate etc. and that particular person and see that we are feeling an affect which really has no definable cause in that person, then we might stop feeling that particular way towards that particular person.

I think it is particularly important for teachers to do this with children they are teaching. If a teacher feels hatred towards a child who has been nasty towards them, it’s important for the teacher to try to understand the reasons why that child has behaved the way they have, and separate off the feeling of hatred and from the actual child.

Journey into Joy

Think of someone you really don’t like. Think of all the reasons why that person is the way they are. Can you separate off your feeling towards them and the actual person?

Can you do the same for someone you love?

Understanding your Feelings Puts You In Charge of them

P3: An affect which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it. (p. 163)

Thinking through why you might be feeling the way you are, helps you “take charge” of them. In this sense, Spinoza is arguing for us to learn to become emotionally literate (Goleman, 2016). This is something I feel schools are very bad at. I’ve encountered too many situations where other teachers have felt that it was not a good idea to discuss “feelings”. One headteacher said to me once: “Meetings are not the place to discuss feelings”. And yet Spinoza would argue that we can only become free when we try to understand why we are feeling the way we are.

Spinoza writes that we must take care “to know each affect clearly and distinctly” so that the “affect itself may be separated from the thought of an external cause and joined to true thoughts”.

Journey into Joy

Map out the typical feelings you have during a typical work-day. Why are you feeling this way at these different times?

We Feel Most Strongly About People We Imagine To Be Free

Dem: An affect toward a thing we imagine to be free is greater than that toward a thing we imagine to be necessary…but imagining a thing as free can be nothing simply imagining it while we are ignorant of the causes by which it has been determined to act (pp. 164-165)

We are not free to act. We act for an infinite of reasons; our actions are determined. Once we understand this, we stop blaming individuals for their actions, and start to understand the root causes behind things. I think understanding the discourses that inform our actions is particularly helpful for teachers. For example, a student who has been racist or sexist will be using the language he/she has heard at home, in school, in society, and will be using this hateful language for a whole set of reasons. He/she will not have chosen to be racist/sexist, but instead is the victim of this affect. A Spinozist pedagogue would try and counter this negative affect by making the child aware that racism/sexism is not noble or joyful: it is a sadness which ultimately decreases the perpetrator’s powers of action, it stops them thinking reasonably about the world.

Journey into Joy

What do you think you have “chosen” to do your life? When have you felt “free” to act? How else might these actions be explained?

More Causes = More Power

P8: The more an affect arises from a number of causes concurring together, the greater it is. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 166)

Why is a headteacher’s criticism of your teaching more hurtful and upsetting than if a child criticises you? This is partly because there are more investments in the former’s criticism: a headteacher has been “created” by multiple causes. His/her career, status, authority, wage, demeanour and expertise are all the effects of multiple causes. Similarly, the event of your being criticised by the headteacher will have been caused by multiple factors: the high-stakes observation, the timetable, the curriculum, the students you teach, your career, your life outside schools will have all contributed towards you performing in a way that the headteacher has deemed inadequate. This is a very powerful concurrence of causes which will necessarily create a more powerful “affect” when the meeting happens. If a child criticises your teaching, there will have been less significant causes: there will have probably been no high-stakes observation and the child will not have the status of the headteacher.

Journey into Joy

Think of a high-stakes observation you have had as a teacher. What were the “causes” of this observation in the widest possible sense? What feelings did these causes create?

Preface

In his Preface to the final book of Ethics Spinoza criticises the Stoics and Descartes for having a false idea of how the mind can control the passions. Pointing out that he has already shown that the affects can be far more powerful than the individual, he argues that we are not free to feel and act in the ways we think we can: “the forces of the body cannot in any way be determined by those of the mind” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 162). We are determined by an infinity of forces and the only way to be truly free is to begin to understand those forces: “the power of the mind is defined only by understanding…we shall determine by the mind’s knowledge alone, the remedies for the affects.”

So being free is understanding. To understand we need to teach ourselves. Thus we can see Spinoza is ultimately advocating a “pedagogy of the self”: he wishes us to become self-directed learners who learn to understand Nature adequately and thus become free. This is a “life-long learning” project and a dynamic process. There is no “endpoint” only a constant process of striving to understand.

Free thinking

P67: A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death. (p. 151)

P68: If men were born free, they would form no concept of good and evil so long as they remained free. (p. 151)

P69: The virtue of a free man is seen to be as great in avoiding dangers as in overcoming them. (p. 152)

P70: A free man who lives among the ignorant strives, as far as he can, to avoid their favours. (p. 152)

P71: Only free men are very thankful to one another. (p. 153)

P72: A free man acts honestly, not deceptively. (p. 153)

P73: A man who is guided by reason is more free in a state, where he lives according to a common decision, than in solitude, where he obeys only himself. (p. 154)

For Spinoza freedom is all about gaining an adequate understanding of Nature/or God. This means that the free person is constantly aware that they are learning about being in the world and will necessarily feel joy in gaining an adequate idea of what is happening in their life. This means they will focus upon the here-and-now, not their death. The free person also would not think of things in explicitly “moral” terms; rather freedom of thought means that you would see how both good and evil are shaped by the contexts that they emerge from. Free thinking also means making fine judgements about the dangers in your life and avoiding danger if it means your life is under threat.

The free person is able to discern who is ignorant and who is not, and would not seek to gain the favour of ignorant people. Free people are pleased when they meet other people who are also free, and they act in an honest way out of necessity, making fine judgements about what should be considered deceptive in particular contexts.

Perhaps most importantly, free thinking involves conceiving ways of establishing states which are founded upon common reasoned decisions. All of these ideas have implications for teachers, but P73 is particularly important. A free thinking teacher has the opportunity to establish a “state” in their classrooms which is founded upon “common decisions”. By inducting students to think adequately about their lives, the teacher can establish a genuine community of learning which enables all students to be free thinkers.

Motivation: using hope and fear

Is Motivating through Hope and Fear a Good Thing?

There are no affects of hope and fear without sadness. For fear is a sadness (by Def. Aff. XIII), and there is no hope without fear (see the explanation following Def. Aff. XII and XIII). Therefore (by P41) these affects cannot be good of themselves, but only insofar as they can restrain an excess of joy (by P43), q.e.d.

I feel that there is far too much hope and fear in schools: hope that you will get the top results, get the right qualifications etc., and fear that you might fail.

These affects show a defect of knowledge and a lack of power in the mind. For this reason also confidence and despair, gladness and remorse are affects of joy, they still presuppose that a sadness has preceded them, namely hope and fear. Therefore, the more we strive to live according to the guidance of reason, the more we strive to depend less on hope, to free ourselves from fear, to conquer fortune as much as we can… (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 141, P47 Schol)

Indeed in my experience, I have found that hope and fear are the most commonly used affects in order to motivate both staff and students. But as Spinoza shows if you rely on these affects, then you are always the victims of them: you necessarily believe in concepts which are inadequate. In other words, teachers should not be living in the hope that they will be graded as “outstanding” and that their students will get great “results”, but should instead see what is intrinsically good about what they do. Similarly, students should not be living in hope and fear regarding their results/grades, but should be finding their learning intrinsically joyful. This is very difficult to do in a context where there are number of coded messages being sent through the system.

Be Wary of Over-Estimation

P49: Overestimation easily makes the man who is overestimated proud. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 142)

He who rightly knows that all things follow from the necessity of the divine nature, and happen according to the eternal laws and rules of Nature, will surely find nothing worthy of hate, mockery, or disdain, nor anyone whom he will pity. Instead he will strive, as far as human virtue allows, to act well, as they say, and rejoice. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 142, P50, Schol)

Celebrate Favour and Self-Esteem

P51: Favour is not contrary to reason, but can agree with it and arise from it.

P52: Self-esteem can arise from reason, and only that self-esteem which does arise from reason is the greatest there can be. (p. 143)

Self-esteem is a joy born of the fact that man considers himself and his power of acting (by Def. Aff. XXV). But man’s true power of acting, or virtue, is reason itself (by IIIP3), which man considers clearly and distinctly (by IIP40 and P43). Therefore, self-esteem arises from reason.

Next, while a man considers himself, he perceives nothing clearly and distinctly, or adequately, those things which follow from his power of acting (by IIID2), that is (by IIIP3), which follow from his power of understanding. And so the greatest self-esteem there can be arises only from this reflection, q.e.d.

Self-esteem is really the highest thing we can hope for. For (as we have shown in P25) no one strives to preserve his being for the sake of any end. And because this self-esteem is more and more encouraged and strengthened by praise (by IIIP53C), and on the other hand, more and more upset by blame (by IIIP55C), we are guided most by love of esteem and can hardly bear a life in disgrace. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 143, P52, Schol)

The love of esteem which is called empty is a self-esteem that is encouraged only by the opinion of the multitude. When that ceases, the self-esteem ceases, that is (by P52S), the highest good that each one loves. That is why he who exults at being esteemed by the multitude is made anxious daily, strives, acts and schemes, in order to preserve his reputation. For the multitude is fickle and inconstant; unless one’s reputation is guarded, it is quickly destroyed. Indeed, because everyone desires to secure the applause of the multitude, each one willingly puts down the reputation of the other. And since the struggle is over a good thought to be the highest, this gives rise to a monstrous lust of each to crush the other in any way possible. The one who at last emerges as victor exults more in having harmed the other than in having benefited himself. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 146, P58, Schol)

Thus we can see that a teacher has a role in helping students to build their self-esteem in a reasoned way, basing their self-esteem not only the approval of the multitude but an adequate idea of who they are. This means seeing that no matter how good or badly they do in their exams etc., they are just as “worthwhile” as people as anyone else. The teacher needs to help students “self-soothe” in a way which is reasoned, i.e. have an adequate idea of their abilities but also not feel that they are failures just because they can’t do x or y.

You Cannot Have Too Much Learning

P61: A desire which arises from reason cannot be excessive (p. 148)

The educational system, predicated as it is upon Judeo-Christian modes of thought, sends the implicit message that taking joy in learning is inherently sinful, and that you are doing something wrong if it is fun. In our post-Christian times, we no longer believe in getting to heaven, but we do believe in “consumer heaven” (Weber, 1930: 1992). Our enjoyment is supposed to come outside school when we buy and consume things. In this teleological universe, learning things is a form of good works which needs to be boring and stressful because it offers the heaven of a good results, high status, a good job, a decent wage and the chance to enter consumer heaven. I have encountered many teachers, students and parents who think like this and are actually insulted and repelled by a Spinozist approach to learning. For them, learning is compartmentalised to the classroom, to text books, to exams, and after that they can “switch off” and “enjoy themselves”.

But, as I have argued, in a Spinozist universe, learning is activity: we are “in learning” and once we acknowledge learning’s immanence, we must necessarily see that we can never have too much of learning. Unlike other ideas and affects which we can have too much of – e.g. joy, sadness etc. – we can never have too much learning in the widest sense of the word. I’m not saying here that we should always be swotting over physics text books or reading Spinoza’s philosophy, but I am saying that we are always on a Journey into Joy.

Journey into Joy

Do you agree? Do you think you can never enough learning?

Nobility is collaboration

Creating Harmony With Reason

Everyone exists by the highest right of Nature, and consequently, everyone, by the highest right of Nature, does those things which follow from the necessity of his own nature. So everyone, by the highest right of Nature, judges what is good and what is evil, considers his own advantage according to his own temperament (see P19 and P20), avenges himself (see IIIP40C2), and strives to preserve what he loves and destroy what he hates (see IIIP28).

If men lived according to the guidance of reason, everyone would possess this right of his (by P35C1) without any injury to anyone else. But because they are subject to the affects (by P4C), which far surpass man’s power, or virtue (P6), they are drawn in different directions (by P33) and are contrary to one another (by P34), while they require one another’s aid (by P35S).

The affects, in other words, distort the natural law of reason so that people are set against each other. A teacher needs to understand this, and be on guard for the ways in which emotions are shaping the alliances within a class and nurture an environment which foster continuous reflection upon what is good for the individual versus what is good for the whole class.

In order, therefore, that men may be able to live harmoniously and be assistance to one another, it is necessary for them to give up their natural right and to make one another confident that they will do nothing which could harm others. How it can happen that men who are necessarily subject to affects (by P4C), inconstant and changeable (by P33) should be able to make one another confident and have trust in another, is clear from P7 and IIIP39. No affect can be restrained except by an affect stronger than and contrary to the affect to be restrained, and everyone refrains from doing harm out of timidity regarding a greater harm.

The basic rule of every classroom should be “harm no one”, the only rule Rousseau believes should be imposed upon the young child (Rousseau, 1752: 1979, p. 15).

By this law, therefore, society can be maintained, provided it appropriates to itself the right everyone has of avenging himself, and of judging concerning good and evil…

But in the civil state, of course, it is decided by common agreement what is good and what is evil. And everyone is bound to submit to the state. Sin, therefore, is nothing but disobedience…From this it is clear that just and unjust, sin and merit, are extrinsic notions, not attributes which explain the nature of the mind. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 136-7, P37, Schol).

Here we can see that the civil state for Spinoza is an “unnatural one” where people’s natures needs are subsumed by the common laws established by society. The teacher has a chance to encourage his students to use their reason to establish what is good and evil for them and, to a certain extent, by-pass the laws of the civil state. Therefore, a Spinozist pedagogy would actively embrace the chance for students to think through what they believe to be good and evil within whatever learning context they are in. Thus, teachers should:

  • Encourage students to consider what they conceive of as good and evil within their own lives;
  • To analyse the effect the affects have in their own lives;
  • To analyse the effect the affects have in society as a whole

As Spinoza writes:

P40: Things which are of assistance to the common society of men, or which bring it about that men live harmoniously, are useful; those, on the other hand, are evil which bring discord to the state. (p. 138)

You Can Never Have Too Much Cheerfulness, But You Can Have Too Much Joy

P42: Cheerfulness cannot be excessive, but is always good; melancholy, on the other hand, is always evil.

P43: Pleasure can be excessive and evil, whereas pain can be good insofar as the pleasure, or joy, is evil.

P44: Love and desire can be excessive.

For Spinoza, cheerfulness is an activity which is a joy which affects all parts of the body and therefore means that all parts of the body “maintain the same proportion of motion and rest to one another”. In other words, cheerfulness is a totally embodied affect involving the whole of our being in equal degrees. This equality necessarily means that there can never be too much of it; it always increases our powers of action. However, melancholy diminishes our ability to act. In other words, it is important for teachers to be cheerful; it is an entirely positive affect because it is by its very nature not too excessive; there’s a natural equilibrium built into it. However, pleasure can be an “evil” because it can affect one part of the body more than the others. In other words, there is an inbuilt “disequilibrium” built into it. We see this with lust, greed, drunkenness, pride etc.: one part of the body is affected far more than the others. This is most obvious with lust (!), but it is true of all of these affects as well; parts of the brain and body are stimulated much more than others. Now, Spinoza is not saying that these affects are intrinsically evil in themselves – far from it, they are of nature – but if we do not have an adequate idea of them, they impair our powers of action. Therefore, the teacher needs to provide room within the curriculum for these affects to be explored. The philosophy Žižek diagnoses a central problem with our modern culture which is that we bombarded by the injunction “enjoy!” in our contemporary Western world; the problem with this is that the very command kills off the enjoyment (Žižek, 2010). It seems that our culture is in the grip of the affect of excessive joy and this has distorted our social world to an absurd degree, swamping it with excess in all spheres: sex, food, drink, travel etc. Spinoza writes:

Generally, then, the affects are excessive, and occupy the mind in the consideration of only one object so much that it cannot think of others. And though men are liable to a great many affects, so that one rarely finds them to be always agitated by one and the same affect, still there are those in whom one affect is stubbornly fixed…when a greedy man thinks of nothing else but profit, or money, and an ambitious man of esteem, they are not thought to be mad, because they are usually troublesome and are considered worthy of hate. But greed, ambition, and lust really are species of madness… (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 140)

A problem with our consumer society is that it does encourage obsessions – excessive affects through a multitude of means and for a multitude of reasons. The media, our money-focused culture, our social class distinctions, our parents all contribute towards us feeling certain obsessions about certain products whether it is food, drink, drugs, pop stars, TV programmes, computer games etc. A Spinozist pedagogue would want his/her students to investigate these excessive affects and would them to gain an adequate idea of them.

You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing

To use things, therefore, and take pleasure in them as far as possible – not, of course, to the point where we are disgusted with them, for there is no pleasure in that – this is the part of a wise man.

It is the part of a wise man, I say, to refresh and restore himself in moderation with pleasant food and drink, with scents, with the beauty of green plants, with decoration, music, sports, the theatre, and other things of this kind, which anyone can use without injury to another. For the human body is composed of a great many parts of different natures, which constantly require new and varied nourishment, so that the whole body may be equally capable of all the things which can follow from its nature, once.

This plan of living, then, agrees best both with our principles and with common practice. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 140-141, P45, Schol)

Spinoza’s philosophy is a philosophy of moderation. I think there is an important lesson for teachers here: be wary of using various teaching strategies immoderately. For example, if you’re encouraging the students to work in groups, vary your approach by asking students to work by themselves at times, provide them with direct instruction at other times.

In my teaching career at various points, I have plied my students at various points with too much: reading, videos, group work, individual writing tasks, direct instruction etc. Students require “new and varied nourishment”. The teacher is best placed to use his/her best judgement to see what might foster this variety. It requires constant reflection and discussion with colleagues and yourself.

Nobility is Collaboration

P46: He who lives according to the guidance of reason strives, as far as he can, to repay other’s hate, anger, and disdain towards him, with love, or nobility. (p. 141)

One who is eager to overcome hate by love, strives joyously and confidently, resists many men as easily as one, and requires the least help from fortune. Those whom he conquers yield joyously, not from a lack of strength, but from an increase in their powers. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 146, P46, Schol)

This is at the heart of Spinozist philosophy for me, and this is where his philosophy connects so powerfully with other educational thinkers. The Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) have noted that Collaborative Learning (2016) is one of the most powerful forms of learning: when students and teachers learn to dialogue properly with each other, and see the advantages of helping each other with their work, then you generate a genuine community of learners.

I love the way Spinoza has appropriated the word “nobility” in this context. True nobility is not being born into a wealthy aristocratic family but using your reason to understand that helping other people is a necessary act in order to find the God-like part of yourself. Being noble is “being-in-God”.

One thing I’ve found hard early on in my teaching career was encouraging students to work together. I think this was partly because I did not fully understand why it was so important; I failed to see the nobility in it. But once I did, I found I was much more effective at “selling” collaborative learning as a concept and nurturing it when I saw it happen.

Journey into Joy

What do you think of Spinoza’s concept of nobility?

 

 

Knowledge is not power

Compulsion is scary

P11: An affect toward a thing we imagine is necessary is more intense, other things equal, than one toward a thing we imagine as possible or contingent, or not necessary. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 122)

I’ve noticed that I really don’t like doing things that I’ve been ordered to do. I much prefer to do things which I feel I have chosen to do, even though, living as we do in the necessary universe, I actually haven’t had a choice in deciding to do those things. This is what Spinoza is telling me here. When we feel that we have to do something, the affect is more intense than if we feel we have a choice or we feel that random forces, chance, have made us do this particular thing. This is important to consider as a teacher. Quite a bit of research seems to suggest that students are more motivated to do things if they feel they have a choice. This may mean giving students a choice of different tasks, a sense of autonomy in what and how they are learning. But of course this will be a bit of an illusion. The teacher needs to shape and mould the environment so that the learner is always learning what the teacher wants the learner to learn. This is the great lesson of Rousseau.

Knowledge is not power

P14: No affect can be restrained by the true knowledge of good and evil insofar as it is true, but only in so far as it is considered as an affect. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 122)

P 15: A desire which arises from a true knowledge of good and evil can be extinguished or restrained by many other desires which arise from affects by which we are tormented. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 123)

Here we see Spinoza pointing out that rational knowledge in itself is not enough to counteract the power of the affects. So, a teacher may well know rationally that it is a bad idea to shout at a class to get them to behave but they do so anyway because of a concatenation of causes: the teacher’s own upbringing when he was shouted at by his parents and teachers in order to get him to ‘behave’; the general rowdiness of the class which may have induced a degree of panic; the pressures on the teacher to give the impression of a quietly working class; the pressures to get good exam results; inadequate training and understanding of how to manage classes. So the knowledge of what is good, that is to inculcate in his pupils habits of good learning, are dashed aside by the affect of fear and panic. In this sense, knowledge is not power, or knowledge is not powerful enough. As Spinoza points out in proposition 15, “a true knowledge of good and evil can be extinguished or restrained by many other desires which arise from affects by which we are tormented”. Here Spinoza is honestly evaluating the power of desire, which are created by a multitude of forces. These desires torment us because they override our powers of rational thought, and make us do things we’d rather not do. The sheer complexity and tension of the school environment means that everyone is tormented by conflicting desires. For example, in my career I have noticed time and again that a student’s desire to belong to a friendship group or to prove themselves in front of their contemporaries conflicts with the teacher’s desire to teach. In P16 and 17 (p.124) Spinoza talks about the ways in which knowledge is extinguished by “a desire for the pleasures of the moment” or “a desire for things which are present”. He quotes Ovid, Metamorphoses VII, 20-21: “I see and approve the better, but follow the worse.” He is referring here to Medea who is torn between reasons demand that she obey her father and her passion the Jason (p. 124). I think that Spinoza is very different from your average self-help guide. He is not trying to peddle the lie that somehow by changing our thought processes, or some aspects of our lives, we will suddenly become wise and triumphant.

He writes:

My reason, rather, is that it is necessary to come to know both our nature’s power and its lack of power, so that we can determine what reason can do in moderating the effects and what it cannot do. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 124, P17 Schol.)

Joy Beats Sadness

P18: A desire which arises from joy is stronger, other things equal, than one which arises from sadness.

Dem.: Desire is the very essence of man (by Def. AffI), that is (IIIP7), a striving by which a man strives to persevere in his being. So a desire which arises from joy is aided or increased by the affect of joy itself (by the Def. of joy in IIIP11S), whereas one which arises from sadness is diminished or restrained by the affect of sadness (by the same Schol.). And so the force of desire which arises from joy must be defined both by human power and the power of the external cause, whereas the force of the desire which rises from sadness must be defined by human power alone…

Since reason demands nothing contrary to Nature, it demands that everyone love himself, seek his own advantage, what is really useful to him, want what will really lead a man to greater perfection, and absolutely, that everyone should strive to preserve his own being as far as he can. This, indeed is as necessarily true as that the whole is greater than its part (see IIIP4).

Further, since virtue (by D8) is nothing but acting from the laws of one’s own nature, and no one strives to preserve his being (by IIIP7) except from the laws of his own nature, it follows:

  • that the foundation of virtue is this very striving to preserve one’s own being, and that happiness consists in a man being able to preserve his being;
  • that we ought to want virtue for its own sake, and that there is not anything preferable to it, or more useful to us, but the sake of which we ought to want it; and finally;
  • that those who kill themselves are weak minded and completely conquered by external causes contrary to their nature.

Spinoza’s argument is that happiness and the striving to preserve one’s own being are one and the same thing. Virtue is immanent. We live ‘in’ virtue. Happiness is immanent. We live ‘in’ happiness. Learning is happiness and virtue. We live ‘in’ learning. Striving to preserve one’s being is learning. This is very important for a teacher to understand. The cognitive, ethical and aesthetic purposes of education are one. Learning is virtue is happiness is survival. They are all one. Separating them off into different compartments necessarily destroys each concept. The teacher’s job is to make the student see that “we ought to want virtue for its own sake”; to see that we live ‘in’ virtue. God is nature is virtue. They are all one.

There are, therefore many things outside us which are useful to us, and on that account to be sought.

Of these, we can think of none more excellent than those which agree entirely with our nature. For if, for example, to individuals of entirely the same nature are joined to one another, they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one. To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that or should so agree in all things that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together, should seek for themselves the common advantage of all.

From this it follows that men who are governed by reason — that is, men who, from the guidance of reason, seek their own advantage — want nothing for themselves which they do not desire for other men. Hence they are just, honest, and honourable. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 126, P18 Schol)

Here we find Spinoza building an argument which claims that it is in the individual’s own interest to work with others. People should “seek for themselves the common advantage of all”. I think this is a very important lesson for all teachers. They have a duty to show their students that it is in their own best interests to help other people. That contrary to what they might think working against other people rather than with them is not sensible. But we find ourselves in virtue when we are listening to other people, cooperating with them, appreciating their qualities, taking an interest in them, valuing their opinions. Spinoza is arguing for total reciprocity and more: we need to be generous with other people in order to find ourselves in virtue, in happiness and in learning. When someone listens to us, we should listen back. When someone shows curiosity about us, we should be curious about them.

 

Understanding is Power

P23: A man cannot be said absolutely to act from virtue insofar as he is determined to do something because he has inadequate ideas, but only insofar as he is determined because he understands. (Spinoza, 1994b, pp. 211, P23)

P24: Acting absolutely from virtue is nothing else in us but acting, living, and preserving our bing (these three signify the same thing) by the guidance of reason, from the foundation of seeking one’s own advantage. (p. 212)

Here we get to the heart of Spinoza’s philosophy and, by extrapolation, his pedagogy: a Spinozist education is about nurturing an adequate understanding of God or Nature, about understanding through reason that we are a part of Nature, that we are not the autonomous beings we think we are, but finite modes which express to a greater or lesser extent God’s power. I believe this conception of oneself as determined is paradoxically the way a Spinozist education sets us, finite modes that we are, free. As Spinoza says in P26:

What we strive for from reason is nothing but understanding; nor does the mind, insofar as it uses reason, judge anything else useful to itself except what leads to understanding. (p. 212)

Thus we have the core of any Spinozist curriculum: the striving to understand. This makes the Spinozist curriculum a “natural” one in that the striving to understand is a “natural” urge within all of us as human beings. In other words, learning “knowledge about God is the mind’s greatest good; its greatest virtue is to know God” (P28: p. 213).

Sharing is Power

P30: No thing can be evil through what it has in common with our nature; but insofar as it is evil for us, it is contrary to us. (p. 213)

We can see here that it is important for a teacher to find what he/she has in common with his students: shared interests, shared history, shared feelings and ideas because this will increase everyone’s power. Spinoza’s philosophy argues that the greatest good comes from people having together using reason as a guide.

P31: Insofar as a thing agrees with our nature, it is necessarily good. (p. 214)

If we talk and listen to people and find out what we have in common, then a common good will be achieved. It is when we think of people as distinctly “alien” to us that we feel that they may do us harm. This is not to deny that it is important to acknowledge that we are different from other people, but within this difference we need to find points of “commonality”, points of connection. It is the job of the teacher to instil in his students a sense that everything is inter-connected in mysterious ways.

Journey into Joy: what do you have in common with your students? Have you found out?

Our Passions Push Us Apart

P32: Insofar as men are subject to passions, they cannot be said to agree in nature. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 132)

P33: Men can disagree in nature insofar as they are torn by affects which are passion; and to that extent also one and the same man is changeable and inconstant. (p. 131)

P34: Insofar as men are torn by affects which are passions, they can be contrary to one another. (p. 131)

In his Demonstration to P34, Spinoza discusses the case of Peter being saddened by Paul because Peter has “something like a thing Paul hates or because Peter alone possesses something which Paul also loves”. He argues that “the cause (of their enmity) is nothing but the fact that (as we suppose) they disagree in nature” because “one is affected with joy and the other with sadness, and to that extent they are contrary to one another”. Spinoza is putting the case for the centrality of the affects here: our natures are ultimately defined not by what we know but what we feel. This is very important to consider within the educational context. If, for example, a teacher sets up a highly competitive environment where there is only one prize – i.e. being the winner, the best etc. —  this will mean that the students will necessarily disagree in natures because only one person will feel the joy of being top while the others will feel the sadness of not achieving the top position. Therefore, everyone will be torn by the “affects which are passion”. A more collaborative classroom atmosphere will nurture more “natural agreements” between people, and thus promote the affect of nobility whereby students feel the virtue in sharing ideas.

Reason Brings Us Together

P35: Only insofar as men live according to the guidance of reason, must they always agree in nature.  (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 132)

P36: The greatest good of those who seek virtue is common to all, and be enjoyed by all equally. (p. 133)

P37: The good which everyone who seeks virtue wants for himself, he also desires for other men; and this desire is greater as his knowledge of God is greater. (p.134)

Spinoza’s geometric method attempts to show that a natural consequence of thinking things through adequately is that we must see we “always agree in nature”. This means that, as a consequence of the guidance of reason, we will see that we are all virtuous and that we all should enjoy it in equal amounts. It follows from this that we should desire that other people are virtuous too. This, for me, is at the heart of the impulse to teach: any teacher who has thought through things adequately wants their students to enjoy being virtuous, being happy, being knowledgeable, being a reasoning being with an adequate idea of how to live. Spinoza writes:

Men still find from experience that by helping one another they can provide themselves much more easily with the things they require, and that only by joining forces can they avoid the dangers which threaten on all sides – not to mention that it is preferable and more worthy of our knowledge to consider the deeds of men, rather than those of the lower animals. (pp. 133, P35 Schol)

A teacher with a class has a unique opportunity to nurture the joining of forces; indeed, a Spinozist pedagogue would emphasize this point constantly, making students examine the power of collaboration in a reasoned fashion. I think it’s particularly important to stress that students should learn to work together not because of an “affect” of friendship, a need to belong for example, but because they have adequately reasoned their way to conceiving of the power of “joining forces”. Spinoza writes:

He who strives, only because of an affect, that others should love what he loves, and live according to his temperament, acts only from impulse and is hateful – especially to those to whom other things are pleasing, and who also, therefore, strive eagerly, from the same impulse, to have other men live according to their temperament. And since the greatest good men seek from an affect is often such that only one can possess it fully, those who love are not of one mind in their love – while they rejoice to sing the praises of the thing they love, they fear to be believed. But he who strives from reason to guide others acts not by impulse, but kindly, generously, and with the greatest steadfastedness of mind.

Again, whatever we desire and do of which we are the cause insofar as we have the idea of God, or insofar as we know God, I relate to religion. The desire to do good generated in us by our living according to the guidance of reason, I call morality. The desire by which a man who lives according to the guidance of reason is bound to join others to himself in friendship, I call being honourable, and I call that honourable which men who live according to the guidance of reason praise; on the other hand, what is contrary to the formation of friendship, I call dishonourable. (p. 135)

In other words, the teacher nurtures moral students by getting them to think adequately about the nature of friendship, which will necessarily lead to these students being friends, which, in turn, will lead to them becoming honourable.

The Power of Proximity

P9: An affect whose cause we imagine to be with us in the present is stronger than if we did not imagine it to be with us.

P10: We are affected more intensely towards a future thing which we imagine will quickly be present, than if we imagine the time when it will exist to be further from the present. We are also affected more intensely by the memory of the thing we imagine to be not long past, than if we imagined it to be long past. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 121)

Spinoza recognizes that the affects affect us much more powerfully when they are “near” us either in time or space, or both. For the teacher, this means he/she should consider the affects of actually having physical bodies in the room with him/her. A physical body being present in the company of a teacher creates many powerful affects which disappear when that body is not present. It sounds like an obvious point but it is not really. Think of infinite complexity of affects that being with someone creates upon you: their dress, their age, their status, their ethnicity, their size, their smell, the look in their eyes etc. all needs to be processed and absorbed. That person has a much bigger impact upon you when they are there in front of you than when they are gone, unless for some reason the affect of their physical presence has been replaced by a more powerful affect emanating from them, e.g. they have said they love you, or want to kill you etc. Part of releasing oneself from the bondage of the affects is understanding the “power of proximity”; understanding how things that are near us create affects upon us.

This diagram shows visually the power of proximity: how things that are near impact much more greatly upon the human subject than if they are far away. This true not only of physical proximity but also temporal proximity; immediate events generate more powerful affects upon us than if they are far away in time.

In an effort to utilise the power of the proximity affect, I try now to answer emails immediately, to get projects and proposals written early, to mark work immediately; then these are done, and they don’t “hang over” you, lingering at the back of your mind as a nagging worry, not a huge worry, but a worry nevertheless. Doing things immediately has the affect of “clearing the decks”. I found that my happiness as a teacher depended deeply upon this. At the end of the day, instead of leaving my marking/admin until later, I would do it all in school, marking my books at my desk and leaving later as a result, but not taking the work home with me. This made a huge difference to my well-being I noticed. I’ve spoken to other “happy” teachers who have said similar things: they’ve all completed the work they’d rather not do very early, doing it efficiently but not “over-exerting” themselves with it, which has then left them to do the things that they want to do. I suppose these teachers have had a deep sense of their own priorities. They are aware of what is important to them and that’s enabled them to get on with things that they don’t like as much quickly and efficiently. In this sense, they’ve overcome the “worry affect” of having lots of fiddling, nasty jobs hanging over them by doing them quickly because they have an adequate idea of what they enjoy and this has driven their desire to get the horrible jobs done.

This diagram shows how doing the “near” and “nasty” jobs quickly increases one’s powers of action. If you do the nasty jobs which are near quickly, you don’t forget to do them and they don’t hang over you.