Understanding the Eternal

Understanding the Eternal

P23: The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.

…though we do not recollect that we existed before the body, we nevertheless feel that our mind, insofar as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity (translation from: sub specie aeternitatis), is eternal, and that this existence it has cannot be defined by time or explained through duration. (p. 172)

Spinoza argues that the idea of being human has always existed in God and that this means that there is a part of us which has always existed and always will exist. This is not the ego-centred part of us, defined by the unique and specific cultural background which we inhabit in time and space. It is rather the unique flow of energy which is us. We are all bundles of energy, forces, which have always existed and always will exist. Understanding this enables us to acquire the third kind of knowledge: intuitive knowledge (pp. 173, P25). Once we have this kind of knowledge we realise and understand our eternal natures, the parts of us which have always been in nature and always will be.

Recently, I have begun to acquire a sense of this by looking closely at trees, understanding them as living things, as forces in nature, thinking about the sap that flows through them, feeling their bark, observing their leaves and blossom in spring. I share certain flows of energy with the trees I encounter, and I can feel this in a wordless fashion when I encounter them. This is not to personify the trees as people but to see trees as having certain powers of action, certain modes of thought (completely different from human beings), certain strivings to become. It only when I am in the company of these trees that I fully understand this, but nevertheless my reason has begun to give me an adequate idea of this. Trees create a definite “sub specie aeternitatis” affect for me. And this has enabled me to feel connections with other living things as well — mammals, insects, birds, plants – as well as inanimate things which have their different powers of action within the context of our physical universe: clouds, stones, metals etc. The third kind of knowledge impels the thinker to jettison the cultural self, the homunculus in the head speaking its ego-driven thoughts, and feel the connections between everything in nature.

Journey into Joy

What connections can you find between yourself and other things in nature?

This Wikipedia page on Sub Specie Aeternitatis” is full of quotes about the concept from various eminent people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub_specie_aeternitatis

What do you think of them?

Fearing Death

P38: The more the mind understands things by the second and third kind of knowledge, the less it is acted on by affects which are evil, and less it fears death.

For Spinoza thinking adequately about ourselves involves learning how determined we are by external causes, conceiving ourselves as parts of an ever-changing, interlocked whole (God or Nature); this means cheerfully acknowledging that the things that we think define ourselves – our name, our jobs, our status, our feelings – are entirely determined by nature. We are flows of energy which have been expressed in particular moments of time as particular beings with particular identities. We share with all things certain powers of action which ebb and flow as our lives unfurl. This flow of energy is eternal: it always has been and always will be. Our names, our clothes, our houses, our friends, our families are part of this inter-locking flow: we are them and they are us. We are everybody and nobody. Getting in touch with our “flow”, with our energy, with our powers of action and thought, feeling and understanding them means we will necessarily not fear death because we realise these are the things that really define us.

Journey into Joy

What do you feel and think about your own death and other people’s? What do you think of Spinoza’s ideas regarding death?

The Rewards of Blessedness

P42: Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself; nor do we enjoy it because we restrain our lusts; on the contrary, because we enjoy it, we are able to restrain them.

Spinoza’s last proposition in Ethics returns to the concept of immanence, rejecting teleological modes of thinking. Being virtuous is the reward. Thinking adequately is the reward of life. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Being blessed involves feeling the joy of learning, taking delight in the journey and not expecting any reward at the end of it.

Spinoza sums up his approach in the Scholarium to P42 here:

…it is clear how much the wise man is capable of, and how much more powerful he is than one who is ignorant and is driven only lust. For not only is the ignorant man troubled in many ways by external causes, and unable ever to possess peace of mind, but he also lives as if he knew neither himself, nor God, nor things; and as soon as he ceases to be acted on, he ceases to be. On the other hand, the wise man, insofar as he is considered as such, is hardly troubled in spirt, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possesses true peace of mind. (pp. 180-181)

This is a philosophy of intuition and spontaneity which means that the blessed person feels able to express him/herself in the way that’s appropriate in the moment, regardless of what other people might think of him/her. It means shedding many of the inadequate ideas of our culture which inhabit our powers of action. So for example, if you feel like it you should:

Just breathe

Take some deep breaths and feel your breath moving through your body.

Just dance

It doesn’t matter if you think you’re a bad dancer. Dance around the room, dance in the street if you feel like it. Feel the joy of your body moving in the shapes it wants to move in.

Just sing

Go to a suitable place and sing your favourite words, your favourite song at the top of your voice.

Just clap

Get a rhythm going with your hands. Get a beat going. Feel the pulse of your beat.

Just write

Write whatever you like. Express all the feelings that you want to on the page.

Just smile

Feel the power of your smile.

Journey into Joy

Add your thoughts to your Joy Journal, writing down what you think it means to be blessed.






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.

Understanding the body and affects

We Feel with our Bodies

P1: In just the same way as thoughts and ideas of things are ordered and connected in the mind, so the affections of the body, or images of things are ordered and connected in the body. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 163)

This is an important but often ignored idea. We feel with our bodies. The affects and the body are one and the same thing. Our love, anger, hatred are natural processes, cascades of energy if you like, that are embodied experiences. Teachers need to understand this: we can’t abstract our feelings from our bodies, in order to understand why we are feeling the way we are, we need to examine what is happening with our bodies, e.g. our diet, our age, our physique etc.

Journey into Joy

How are you feeling right now? Where in your body are those feelings being expressed? For example, you might be feeling anxious, and feeling this in your stomach, in the lightness of your legs.

Think about the other affects. Where in your body do you feel the different types of love you have for your loved ones, your friends etc.? Where you feel anger? What happens to your body when you feel anger?


Break It Up!

P2: If we separate emotions, or affects, from the thought of an external cause, and join them to other thoughts, then the love, or hate, toward the external cause is destroyed, as are the vacillations of mind arising from these affects. (p. 163)

A way of freeing ourselves from feelings of love or hatred is to see that the affects are forces of nature which attach themselves to the ideas of external causes in our minds. This is a difficult idea to get your head around but it is worth thinking about. We love and hate people not because there is anything inherently lovable or despicable about them but because they have been produced by multiple causes: their geography, their upbringing, the situations they find themselves in. If, in our minds, we can severe the link between the affect of love/hate etc. and that particular person and see that we are feeling an affect which really has no definable cause in that person, then we might stop feeling that particular way towards that particular person.

I think it is particularly important for teachers to do this with children they are teaching. If a teacher feels hatred towards a child who has been nasty towards them, it’s important for the teacher to try to understand the reasons why that child has behaved the way they have, and separate off the feeling of hatred and from the actual child.

Journey into Joy

Think of someone you really don’t like. Think of all the reasons why that person is the way they are. Can you separate off your feeling towards them and the actual person?

Can you do the same for someone you love?

Understanding your Feelings Puts You In Charge of them

P3: An affect which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it. (p. 163)

Thinking through why you might be feeling the way you are, helps you “take charge” of them. In this sense, Spinoza is arguing for us to learn to become emotionally literate (Goleman, 2016). This is something I feel schools are very bad at. I’ve encountered too many situations where other teachers have felt that it was not a good idea to discuss “feelings”. One headteacher said to me once: “Meetings are not the place to discuss feelings”. And yet Spinoza would argue that we can only become free when we try to understand why we are feeling the way we are.

Spinoza writes that we must take care “to know each affect clearly and distinctly” so that the “affect itself may be separated from the thought of an external cause and joined to true thoughts”.

Journey into Joy

Map out the typical feelings you have during a typical work-day. Why are you feeling this way at these different times?

We Feel Most Strongly About People We Imagine To Be Free

Dem: An affect toward a thing we imagine to be free is greater than that toward a thing we imagine to be necessary…but imagining a thing as free can be nothing simply imagining it while we are ignorant of the causes by which it has been determined to act (pp. 164-165)

We are not free to act. We act for an infinite of reasons; our actions are determined. Once we understand this, we stop blaming individuals for their actions, and start to understand the root causes behind things. I think understanding the discourses that inform our actions is particularly helpful for teachers. For example, a student who has been racist or sexist will be using the language he/she has heard at home, in school, in society, and will be using this hateful language for a whole set of reasons. He/she will not have chosen to be racist/sexist, but instead is the victim of this affect. A Spinozist pedagogue would try and counter this negative affect by making the child aware that racism/sexism is not noble or joyful: it is a sadness which ultimately decreases the perpetrator’s powers of action, it stops them thinking reasonably about the world.

Journey into Joy

What do you think you have “chosen” to do your life? When have you felt “free” to act? How else might these actions be explained?

More Causes = More Power

P8: The more an affect arises from a number of causes concurring together, the greater it is. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 166)

Why is a headteacher’s criticism of your teaching more hurtful and upsetting than if a child criticises you? This is partly because there are more investments in the former’s criticism: a headteacher has been “created” by multiple causes. His/her career, status, authority, wage, demeanour and expertise are all the effects of multiple causes. Similarly, the event of your being criticised by the headteacher will have been caused by multiple factors: the high-stakes observation, the timetable, the curriculum, the students you teach, your career, your life outside schools will have all contributed towards you performing in a way that the headteacher has deemed inadequate. This is a very powerful concurrence of causes which will necessarily create a more powerful “affect” when the meeting happens. If a child criticises your teaching, there will have been less significant causes: there will have probably been no high-stakes observation and the child will not have the status of the headteacher.

Journey into Joy

Think of a high-stakes observation you have had as a teacher. What were the “causes” of this observation in the widest possible sense? What feelings did these causes create?


In his Preface to the final book of Ethics Spinoza criticises the Stoics and Descartes for having a false idea of how the mind can control the passions. Pointing out that he has already shown that the affects can be far more powerful than the individual, he argues that we are not free to feel and act in the ways we think we can: “the forces of the body cannot in any way be determined by those of the mind” (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 162). We are determined by an infinity of forces and the only way to be truly free is to begin to understand those forces: “the power of the mind is defined only by understanding…we shall determine by the mind’s knowledge alone, the remedies for the affects.”

So being free is understanding. To understand we need to teach ourselves. Thus we can see Spinoza is ultimately advocating a “pedagogy of the self”: he wishes us to become self-directed learners who learn to understand Nature adequately and thus become free. This is a “life-long learning” project and a dynamic process. There is no “endpoint” only a constant process of striving to understand.