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”.

Despair and learning

Next, if the doubt involved in these affects is removed, hope becomes confidence and fear, despair – namely, a joy or sadness which has arisen from the image of the thing we feared or hoped for. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 81, P18 Schol. 2)

Despondency is thinking less highly of oneself than is just, out of sadness (pp. 108, D XXIX)

Despair is a sadness born of the idea of a future or past thing, concerning which the cause of doubting has been removed. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. XV)

Students’ Experience of Despair

I think a strange passivity comes over despairing children. It is usually preceded by moments of extreme anger, hope and fear; once a student has realised that there is nothing to be done, that there is no hope that they will benefit from being in school, no hope that they might learn anything which they perceive to be worthwhile, they can “give up”. The fight goes. This is a strange form of death I think. It makes me wonder just how many students are in states of “despair”. Such students may well be perfectly well-behaved but ultimately totally disengaged. I think the system sends a great many signals to students that they are not going to make it in the form of bad exam results, in the inattentive and uncaring looks from parents/teachers/students etc., in the inaccessibility of the work that they have been given to do.

My diagram is attempting to give an adequate idea of the ways in which the system produces despairing learners. In my view, often “despairing cultures” – cultures which feel abandoned economically and culturally from the “mainstream” – produce initially “despairing learners” in the form of young children who are frightened by a system which they have inadequate resources (economic, cultural, psychological) to deal with the issues that the school throws at them. This despair turns to despondency when they realise that they will never succeed in the school system; the resources that they have been given become “redundant” – totally useless and meaningless – and they feel alienated. They are despondent because their estimation of themselves is completely unjust; they have not gleaned a fair assessment of their abilities.

A Teacher’s Experience of Despair

In some ways, despair is a nicer emotion to feel than fear. I can think in my career when I have felt very fearful about the fact that I was teaching classes quite badly, I would, in my mind, give up the “hope” that I could actually help them learn anything meaningful, and, as a result, I stopped feeling the “inconstant sadness” about a “doubtful outcome”, and would instead just feel that there was no doubt that they were learning nothing in my charge. Despair took hold of me. It was a curiously restful emotion to feel; there was no longer any point in “trying” to help students learn; my task became purely to “control” my pupils, keep them busy, keep them quiet. I think my students recognised the affect of despair in me, and liked me all the more for it; I had stopped making demands on them, I had stopped checking that they’ve done their homework, I’d stopped marking their work in detail beyond doing what was absolutely necessary to keep my managers off my back, I’d entered a rather Zen-like state of professional despair. I had no expectations any more. I think my students recognised this affect in me because I think many teachers are in states of “despair”; while they might pay lip service to extracting the best results they can from their students, they have secretly made their peace with the fact that their students are learning very little in their lessons. The hope and joy has gone.

Ironically, these states of despair have had the effect of making me feel despondent in a Spinozist sense – thinking less highly of myself than was just. This realisation that I was better at my job than I had previously thought I was frequently had the effect of lifting me out of the despair, and bringing new hope that I might be able to help my students.


This diagram shows the affective cycle that I underwent as a teacher when trying to deal with classes whose results and learning I felt I could not adequately “mould”, or “control”, or “nurture”. It starts with fear or hope depending upon your state of mind, and then moves to despair, which creates a calm despondency that then nurtures hope, which eventually leads back to fear. In the current climate, the constant issues to deal are “results” and “status”, which produce this affective cycle.

Fearful learning

Fear…is an inconstant sadness, which has also arisen from the image of a doubtful thing (pp. 81, P18, Schol. 2)

Fear is an inconstant sadness, born of the idea of a future or past thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt. (pp. 106, D. XIII)

P63: He who is guided by fear, and does good to avoid evil, is not guided by reason. (pp. 149, IV. P63)

I would like to argue that schools have increasingly become institutions which have nurtured “fear” in the Spinozist definition of the word.

The Student’s Perspective of Fear

Let’s start with the students’ experience of school. Many students become quickly aware that they are being judged when they enter the school environment, often by measures which they don’t fully understand. In their very early schooling, many children are simply unaware that school is a place where “work” or, as it less commonly labelled by teachers, “learning”, happens. They are told to behave very differently in school from the ways in which they behave at home; the way they are grouped with other children is naturally very different, as are things like going to the toilet and eating. The school regulates the child in different ways from that of the home environment. Gradually, the child becomes aware that what he/she is doing is being “ranked” or “judged” in a number of different ways which he/she will inevitably not adequately understand and which, unlike many situations outside school, do not have consequences. For example, if a child laughs or talks in a way which is deemed “inappropriate” for the school setting, he/she may well be told off. The child quickly learns to internalise these rules, but I would like to argue that much of the time this process of internalisation produces an “inconstant sadness” because the child inevitably will not have a definite “idea” of what the consequences of obeying or disobeying these rules will be; the “outcome” of one’s education is always, to a certain extent, “in doubt”. Education is necessarily a “meritocratic” exercise, whereby learners “discover” or “construct” their talents, inclinations, desires within the given parameters of the system and the whole point of it is that once starting out, you never quite know where it will “end”. The learner never quite knows what he/she will “become”. There is inevitably a “vacillation of mind” which will produce “an inconstant sadness, born of the idea of a future…thing whose outcome we to some extent doubt.” The learner never quite knows that he/she will succeed in the way he/she might wish. This seems to me to be the “very ground” of education and there is nothing that can done about this.

However, piled on top of this fundamental fear are many others which “local conditions” produce. Let’s start with the institutional structures which produce fear. If a learner is in a system which is insistently “testing” a child’s abilities, this will inevitably create fear, particularly if these tests are deemed to be very important. Many students quickly learn to find self-esteem in how well they do at school and will feel fear if they worry that they will do badly in a test. If students are being tested all the time in many different ways, then the system will inevitably produce the affect of fear on a more or less constant basis.

But is this a good or a bad thing? There are a few points to be made here.

First, a Spinozist pedagogue might argue that one would want to create a system which nurtured adequate ideas about “fear” in order to increase students’ powers of action. So, in this sense, it is not so much that a child is being tested, but it is the way the child learns to think adequately about the “fear” which is important. In my experience as a teacher, I have not felt I have encouraged my students to adequately think about their “fears”. In fact, I have probably only discussed students’ fears about the outcomes of their education on a handful of occasions. A Spinozist pedagogy I think would insist that all learners think in depth about the nature of their fears: the forces which have produced it.

Second, with so many “fear” being generated, a Spinozist pedagogue might well argue that overall such a system is more likely to produce “passionate” modes of thinking rather than active ones. Learners are constantly being buffeted around by the affect of fear which is enshrined in the system.

The above diagram attempts to show a Spinozist critique of the education system viewing it from the affect of “fear”. At the bottom is the fundamental point that the notion of education in a modern society creates “doubtful outcomes”; few learners know what will happen both in the long-term and short-term. Assessment regimes which are high-stakes will inevitably produce more fear because outcomes will become even more doubtful. This testing will affect self-esteem because many learner’s sense of themselves will be entwined with how they are being assessed. Narrow assessment regimes which, in the minds of the learners, arbitrarily attach a number to someone’s “achievements” will pile on more fear and “aversion” in the Spinozist sense of the word.


My Own Experiences as a Pupil


I have a distinct memory of not being aware that the spelling tests I was doing at school carried with them any affect of fear. I was not doing “too well” in them, and not being worried about this, until one day I told my mother that my score in a test. She was furious, and told me that I had to learn the spellings at home, which I began to do. You could argue that my mother gave me an adequate idea of what it meant not to be a good “speller” in our culture. Provoked by fear, I “increased my powers of action” and learnt the spellings, doing much better in the future tests, and began to gain a real sense of self-esteem from doing well in them. This lesson never left me; motivated initially by fear and a desire to please my mother, and then myself, I continued to revise hard for future tests. But the tests at secondary school often had outcomes which were much more doubtful than the spelling tests, and, as a result, my fear was greater about doing badly in them. I began so habituated to feelings of fear being attached to the tests that I learnt to live with my fear, expecting it as a matter of course, and worrying if I did not feel fear. I saw, incorrectly I think, as a “key motivator” to do well. However, when I analyse my success at school, I realise that I began revising well before I started to feel fear about how I might do in a test. The memory of the fear motivated me to revise well ahead of time; I wanted to gain mastery over this affect and therefore revised hard. The affect I did not want to feel was that of “failure” but possibly more powerfully, I wanted to feel the affect of success. Having achieved success with my spelling tests after revising, this positive feeling ultimately motivated me to revise for my other tests. So while I may have felt that fear motivated me, it did not. Rather it was the memory of the fear, the avoidance of the affect of failure, and most importantly a striving for the joyful affect of success which motivated me, in part, to work hard. This said, the subjects I did best in were those I had an intrinsic intellectual interest in; my striving to know some form of truth made me work above and beyond that which I would have done if I had only been motivated by these affects. From this, I would say that “fear of failure” did motivate me to work, but only partially, and it certainly was not enough to motivate me to do my very best.

A Teacher’s Perspective of Fear


One thing that struck me as I progressed with my teaching career was that fear seemed to dog me at every corner. I couldn’t really work out why this was? Was it something inherent in me? Or was it the school I was in? Or was it the actual system itself that was producing this affect? Having been a full-time lecturer at a university for over six months, I realise now that it was the system. I don’t have the feelings of fear that I used to have when in school. Why is this?

In a Spinozist sense, there was still the issue of “doubtful outcomes” in my professional life, and quite serious ones. In particular, my job security is not 100%; at the moment of writing, the government seem to want to shut down the course I teach on. But weirdly, I don’t feel the kind of fear I felt in school when my job was more secure.

I think the reason is that I feel much the victim of forces which are more or less totally out of my control. The English school system currently tries to make teachers directly accountable for their students’ results. But I found that the results my classes have got have varied very wildly from year to year, from class to class, from pupil to pupil. While there are always your “sure-fire winners” – students who obviously will do well in an exam – these are few and far between, and the vast majority of students can do exceptionally well or quite badly in a test depending upon the time of day they’ve taken it, what has been happening before they’ve taken the test, how much they’ve been supported at home, how they are feeling etc. etc.. In other words, a teacher’s results are often very unpredictable. It is this issue combined with the fact that such emphasis is put on test results at all levels which generates the “affect of fear” in the system for me. And this fear infects every part of the institution, buffeting teachers in all sorts of hidden ways. The reason why I feel I know this is because I am now in a job where there is much less emphasis upon judging whether I am an adequate teacher or not based on very unpredictable outcomes. The feeling is really quite striking. The fear has gone, and now I am surprised that I lived with it for so many years.

Learning, hate and humility

Hate is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, DVII)

There are so many “ideas of external causes” in the education system that it is probably no surprise that many sadnesses “accompany” them. For Spinoza, sadness is simply a decrease in one’s powers of action and so it embraces all the “negative” affects – if we can call them that. But it should be noted that Spinoza is not an “affective” prescriptivist; he does not say that we should be feeling a certain way. He does not advise against feeling “sadness” or any other affect. Moreover, he points out that any sadnesses that we feel are “necessary” in the sense that we are the inevitable recipients of them; they “act upon” us in the way all “passions” do. It is part of the pedagogue’s job to give the learner an adequate idea of them. This is particularly true of “hate” which is such an all-encompassing passion; it is closely related to “love” because both are affects which accompany the idea of an external cause. I think it is particularly important to consider certain external causes which may cause people in the education system to accompany their sad ideas with them.

Students and hate

Many students say they hate school. The whole system becomes their focus for sadness. As we have already seen, this may be because their “habitus” just does not fit in with the over-riding habitus of the system, and as a result, they hate many things about school: the nature of the lessons, the voices and bodies of the teachers, the instructions they receive, the powerlessness they feel. I have seen this happen in a few cases, but more often than not though, a particular incident or person triggers the hatred. This could be because they don’t like a particular teacher, subject or student. In my experience, the nature of the hatred is usually “human focused”. Usually, students feel that a key player in the system does not like them, and has “got it in for them”. We will look at the nature of these types of “fear” later, but here it is important to note that an effect of this kind of fear is burgeoning hatred for other things associated with school. Things that they treated with disdain or even love/joy now become external causes for hatred.

This diagram shows the factors that come into play when a student feels hate at school. Fear (which will be dealt with later) is linked to hate: fear of failure, fear of being humiliated, fear of physical/verbal violence etc. This fear then can affect a students’ mind in many other ways in that he/she looks for external causes for their sadness. Their powers of action have been decreased and they no longer feel joy in the things that they used to enjoy, and may well hate these things because they blame them in some way. For example, if they are being bullied they may well blame a friend who was a source of joy for not being supportive enough etc., and then hate them. The things that they disdain may well become ideas of external causes of sadness because they notice them now in this heightened affective state of fear. For example, the affect of finding certain lessons difficult or boring may well become a species of hate because they blame these things for the way they are feeling, which, of course, they don’t have an adequate understanding of.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt hate at school? What was the “accompanying external cause” in your view?

Teachers and hate

I have noticed that teachers tend to be more political in the way they focus their hatred. So, for example, many teachers hate the government for imposing endless new changes to exams, curriculum, assessment procedures, and curriculum etc. These teachers feel “acted upon”, passive recipients of pointless policies, and, as a result, they feel sadness, accompanied by the idea of the external cause of the government. Their feelings of hate are clearly related to their feelings of powerlessness. Perhaps more commonly, certain figures within a particular institution may become foci for hate, particularly other teachers who are perceived to be “bossing” people around unreasonably, possibly exhibiting bullying behaviour. Over the years, I have come across many teachers who have hated other members of staff, regularly coming up with comments like “I’d like to stab his eyes out”, “He is the most pathetic person I’ve ever met”. This discourse of hate pervades staffrooms in a whispering, covert fashion up and down the country, and possibly across the globe.

I would like to argue that this affect of hate is an inadequate idea which has been produced by a number of accompanying causes, and that it is in the interests of teachers to understand these causes before focusing their hate upon a particular person. Spinoza’s philosophy necessitates for us to gain an adequate idea of the affect of hate; to understand its multiple sources. I think in an atmosphere where jobs are insecure, where teachers’ authority is constantly contested, where teachers are judged by arbitrary benchmarks etc,, then the affect of hate is much more likely to be produced by an educational institution.

Journey into Joy

Why do you think teachers hate other colleagues? What is really going on here?

Learning and Aversion

Aversion is a sadness accompanied by the idea of something which is the accidental cause of sadness (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 106, D. IX)

 The affect of “aversion” afflicts many classrooms. Let’s start with the students. Many students may not “hate” a subject in that they explicitly blame it in their minds for being the direct cause of their sadness, but they may well feel that for accidental reasons, they don’t a subject. A very common phrase I’ve heard in my career is “I just don’t like it – it’s boring”. For me, these phrases are informed by the affect of aversion, rather than hatred; many students feel that for “random” reasons they don’t understand they don’t like a subject. This lessens the affect of sadness. Many children feel that they don’t adequately understand the reasons why they are learning something, and in this sense they feel aversion because they feel that they are learning things for “accidental” reasons: they just happen to have strayed upon this teacher who insists upon teaching these pointless things, when they might be learning something more interesting. Teachers try to compensate for this by saying that they are learning something for an exam, but children then feel that they are the victims of a “random” exam system. This is at the heart of many students’ ressentiment; they constantly subjected to be bombarded with random terms, facts, tasks.

Similarly, teachers may well not like teaching a class or a topic for “accidental” reasons. For example, they have to teach a class in a particular room which is cramped, or too hot/cold etc., and this makes them feel an aversion for the class which they feel is “accidental”. I think it’s interesting to note in my own case that this means my feelings of sadness are not so strong as they might have been if I had blamed the students themselves for my feelings.

I found as my career progressed, I developed an aversion for Parents’ Evenings, something which I had not felt at the beginning of my career. I think this was for a number of reasons. I think Parents’ Evenings had become much more “high stakes” affairs, with parents much more likely to blame the teacher if their child was doing badly. I also felt aversion because these Parents’ Evenings were at the end of a long day of teaching, and I wanted to go home, but would have to talk to parents for three hours or so, before the long trek home.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt that you’ve been forced to learn random facts/terms/topics? What things do you feel an aversion towards?


Humility is a sadness born of the fact that a man consider his own lack of power, or weakness. (pp. 108, D. XXVI)

The “affect” of humility is very different from having an adequate idea of what “humility” is. Schools are constantly  casting its actors in roles which necessitate the affect of humility. The student has to feel humility much of the time because he/she knows that he/she has very little power; he/she has to attend school, and has little choice about what he/she learns. These power structures bred the affect of humility.

It’s strange as a teacher that I have felt the affect of humility many times. This is particularly the case when dealing with senior managers: headteachers, deputy heads, heads of department etc.. They have made me aware of my own lack of power: I have to follow their guidance, their advice whatever I might think of them. Instead of getting angry, I have found that the affect of humility has furthered my career with these people of worldly power; it’s conveyed in the way you accept what your superior says to you, the sincere nod of the head, the diligent way you follow their orders, the way you pay attention.

Journey into Joy

When have you felt humility in your life? What sorts of people have produced the affect of humility in you?