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.

Counter-acting the affects

False Ideas are not Necessarily removed by telling the truth

Nothing positive which a false idea has is removed by the presence of the true insofar as it is true. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 117, P1)

For example, when we look at the sun, we imagine it to be about two hundred feet away from us. In this we are deceived so long as we are ignorant of its true distance; but when its distance is known, the error is removed, not the imagination, that is, the idea of the sun, which explains its nature only so far as the body is affected by it. And so, although we come to know the true distance, we shall nevertheless imagine it as near us. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 118)

It happens, of course, when we wrongly fear some evil, that the fear disappears on our hearing news of the truth. But on the other hand, it also happens, when we fear an evil which is certain to come, that the fear vanishes on our hearing false news. So imaginations do not disappear through the presence of the true insofar as it is true, but because there occur others, stronger than them, which exclude the present existence of the things we imagine, as we showed in IIP17. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 118, P1 Schol)

This is especially true with regards to teaching to the test. The teacher knows the right method for students to learn is to learn to work it out for themselves, but the fear of the students of failing is a powerful affect, and the teacher finds that it is easier to neutralise this affect by “spoon feeding”, a false idea of learning. The student learns to copy and imitate, not to think.

External Causes are much more Powerful than an Individual

The teacher is expected to be God, to have control over how children learn, what they learn and how they are expected to achieve in exams and their work generally. Spinoza teaches us that the power of external causes is much more powerful than the individual. The teacher has limited power over learners. External causes are much more powerful.

For given a man, there is something else, say A, more powerful. And given A, there is something else again, say B, more powerful than A, and so on, to infinity. (pp. 118, Schol)

The Passions are More Powerful than Individuals

The force and growth of any passion, and its perseverance in existing, are defined by the power of an external cause compared with our own (by P5). And so (by P3) it can surpass the power of a man, and so on, q.e.d. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 120, P6 Dem)

A repeated idea in Spinoza is that the passions can overwhelm us. This is particularly true in school. The concept of school is invested with numerous affects: historical, geographical, pedagogical, psychological etc. In particular, there is the “you-must-do-well affect” which is passed through schools on many levels, imparted in the way teachers/students talk to each other, a school’s results, the displays on the walls, prize for the “top” students etc. This affect is tremendously powerful, far more powerful than individuals; it is a collective social affect. This means that when you feel you’re not doing well, it is almost impossible not to feel some variant of Spinozist sadness: anger, hatred, depression etc.

Journey into Joy

What are the really powerful affects in school settings? Some thoughts: “I-Must-Do-Well affect”; “I’m-Better-Than-You Affect”; “I’m/You’re-Stupid Affect”.

Negative Feelings Are Contagious

Following on from this point, we can see how Spinoza is arguing that the affects are “contagious” in the sense that if we believe that someone is criticising us, that “criticising-affect” is very easily passed on to us; we internalise that feeling quickly because that “critical affect” is already powerfully present in many other bodies: other teachers, students, the school, the society, the media etc.

We feel sadness, and then pass on that sadness to someone else in another context. For example, the student who has been criticised in class by a teacher may well go home and be angry with his/her parents/siblings etc., but not show that sadness to the teacher him/herself.

Journey into Joy

When have you been criticised and then felt sad/angry/insecure? What did you do with that “affect”? Where do you think that “criticising-affect” came from?

What are the most contagious affects in school settings and in your career?

Affects can be counter-acted by More Powerful Ones

P7: An affect cannot be restrained or taken away except by an affect opposite to, and stronger than, the affect to be restrained. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 120)

This is a very important lesson for teachers and explains why (some) teachers so commonly shout. A noisy class enters the classroom and the teacher shouts for them to be quiet. An everyday occurrence which endorses this maxim. The affect of the “noisy class”, which as a body is riven with all the different passions of its members, joy, sadness, fear, boredom, distraction etc.; the teacher restrains and removes these multiple affects by providing the jolting, jarring affect of the “shout”, which carries with it all the connotations of authority, control and fear/lack of control. It involves the whole body of the teacher, the breath issuing through the throat, the blood rushing to the teacher’s head, the tensing of the body, the striving for order, for obedience. The affect of the shout is an “event”, a necessary performance of “becoming-teacher”. It works by surprise value. When it loses this, and students become habituated to the teacher always shouting, they more often than not ignore the teacher and the shout loses its power to restrain.

This is true of other teacher threats such as: the threat of detentions, of sending a student out of the room, of reporting them to another teacher, their parent/guardian etc.

Affects Can Be Counter-Acted By Reason

P59: To every action to which we are determined from an affect which is a passion, we can be determined by reason, without that affect. (p. 147)

I used to take criticism very badly. For example, I would have my teaching observed by a senior manager and would get very angry and upset if he/she was critical. The “You’re-Not-Good-Enough” affect would overwhelm me, drowning my sense of what I was doing. But recently, Spinoza’s philosophy has helped me use reason to deal better with criticism. I have been criticised, like most people, quite a bit in my life: my talents as a writer, teacher and organiser have been called into question by various sources. I have been better able to deal with them because I have gained a more adequate idea of a few things: the importance of what I am doing, the overall context of the society I am living in, the sorts of people, affects and ideas I dealing with, who I am as a person and what I want from my life. This is not to say I have not felt angry and sad about being heavily criticised – I have! – but I also realise that these feelings are almost inevitable – they’re encoded in my being – but this said, I have realised what gives me joy and determined that I wish to persist with these things because I believe them to be “noble”: I want to communicate with people my enthusiasm for learning and work with people to discover ways in which we might make our lives joyful. This overall sense of purpose has overridden my feelings of inadequacy generated by the criticism and rejection. This is what I take Spinoza to mean as “reason”.