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.


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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s