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?