Thinking joy

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, I’d like to give you a reasonable, though possibly not adequate idea (yet) of what Spinoza believed, intellectual joy to consist of. Spinoza argues in Ethics that thinking clearly increases our “powers of action”, our “activity” of mind, and joy is a necessary product of this thinking. It is an active process. Let’s go back to the cake to illustrate this properly.

So you eat the cake, and feel temporarily the passion of joy in eating it, but then you might feel depressed because you had promised yourself that you weren’t going to gorge yourself on cake today. This depression would be another passion, but this time not the passion of joy, but a passion of sadness: an “I-ate-too-much-cake” affect. This is where you might tell yourself, “I need to avoid eating too much cake” in future.

This injunction would be another passion because you still have not thought adequately about your situation. But if you began to think about all the causes that led to you eating the cake, then you should, according to Spinoza, increase your powers of action, because this is what deep thinking involves for Spinoza. To do this you might retrace the steps which led you to eating the cake: the stressful day at work, the fact that you have a tendency to like cream cakes, feeling like you deserved a treat after working hard etc. Now, you’re beginning to understand some of the causes that led to you eating the cake. But this would not be enough for Spinoza, he would want you to situate yourself as in the world that you inhabit and work out the multiple causes behind you eating the cake when you take the big picture into account. Spinoza’s thought demands a massive “zooming out”: you would need to see yourself not as an autonomous individual but as an agent acted upon by a matrix of causes.

To do this, you might come to understand how we live in an industrial, capitalist society which produces a surfeit of fatty foods, and that food companies make money from selling products like cream cakes. You would might think about how the human body has evolved to crave fatty foods because for most of our evolution we have needed to eat fatty foods to survive – but no longer. Or you may think of yourself in a more psychological fashion: certain facets in your psychological make-up led you to eat the cake. Or you may think of yourself in a “geographical way”: a series of geographical positionings led you to being next to a cake shop when you were leaving work.

There are many, many ways of considering your cake eating. The point is that by thinking more deeply about your cake eating, you would come to see how it was inevitable that you ate that cake: that you had no choice but to eat it, because it was a necessary part of your life, because all things that happen to us are “necessary” events.

Spinoza’s approach demands that we never feel regret about something that has happened to us: we do not live in a “free” universe according to him. We are not free to choose. Our only freedom comes in understanding.

But this is not a fatalistic conception of life at all because of the link that Spinoza makes between thinking adequately about something and joy. Having thought deeply about the multiplicity of causes that led you to eating the cake, you would increase your powers of action, you would increase your joy, and you would be in a much stronger, more active position when encountering cakes in the future. To this extent you are free; if you understand adequately how you are acted upon by the “affects”, you are in a position to enjoy a degree of power in your life.

The implications of this approach for education are profound. The teacher has a clear role in such a philosophical system. The teacher needs to a) develop adequate ideas him/herself in order to increase his/her powers of action and therefore joy b) nurture adequate ideas in his/her students. The aims and purposes of education thus become both cognitive, emotional and ethical with all three strands being intractably intertwined.

Helping children to think properly increases their joy, and this, in turn, helps them live ethical lives. This is the other vital strand to Spinoza’s Ethics, and why it has its name. It’s worth here explaining how and why Spinoza structured his treatise in the way he did. Spinoza starts the book with pondering profound philosophical questions about the nature of being (ontology) and the ways in which we come to know the world (epistemology) but then spends the rest of book exploring the ways in which we can adequately understand our feelings (or affects) and free ourselves from what he calls their “bondage”.

My larger interest in this book is in exploring how Spinoza’s thinking about the affects can inform teachers’ thinking about how they teach. I go into this in some depth later on in the book, but I would like to outline here my chief points so that you can glean an overall sense of my direction of travel.

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