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.