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?


Author: @wonderfrancis

Francis Gilbert is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London, teaching on the PGCE Secondary English programme. He also teaches the Creative Writing module on the MA in Children’s Literature, which is run by Maggie Pitfield and Professor Michael Rosen. Previously, he worked for a quarter of a century in various English state schools teaching English and Media Studies to 11-18 year olds. He has, at times, moonlighted as a journalist, novelist and social commentator. He is the author of ‘Teacher On The Run’, ‘Yob Nation’, ‘Parent Power’, ‘Working The System -- How To Get The Very Best State Education for Your Child’, and a novel about school, ‘The Last Day Of Term’. His first book, ‘I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here’ was a big hit, becoming a bestseller and being serialised on Radio 4. In his role as an English teacher, he has taught many classic texts over the years and has developed a great many resources to assist readers with understanding, appreciating and responding to them both analytically and creatively. This led him to set up his own small publishing company FGI Publishing ( which has published his study guides as well as a number of books by other authors, including Roger Titcombe’s ‘Learning Matters’ and anthology of creative writing 'The Gold Room'. He is the co-founder, with Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, of The Local Schools Network,, a blog that celebrates non-selective state schools, and has his own website, He has appeared numerous times on radio and TV, including Newsnight, the Today Programme, Woman’s Hour and the Russell Brand Show. In June 2015, he was awarded a PhD in Creative Writing and Education by Goldsmiths.

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