Spinoza and the joy of learning

This is the post excerpt.


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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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.

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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?


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?