Feeling joy

Spinoza’s philosophy makes us re-think what joy is because he views joy as both an emotional and intellectual process: a feeling and a thought; a passion and a concept.

Let’s look at joy as an emotional process first. There are many times in our lives when joy is “visited upon us”: we watch a movie that we greatly enjoy; we eat some chocolate; the sun comes out; a person we like smiles at us; we learn that we’ve done very well in our exams etc. All these examples are for Spinoza “passions” because they happen to us. Spinoza has a precise definition of “passion”: it is a feeling which acts upon us. When joy is a passion, we are, to some extent, its “victim” in that we have limited control over whether we feel it or not.

Let’s examine cake as an example. Eating a cake is a “passion” in that you are, ultimately, putting yourself at the mercy of the cake: you have to trust that it will provide what Spinoza calls the “affect” of joy. The word “affect” is important in Spinoza because it is more than just a feeling, but is both a thought and a feeling. The “cake affect” involves both the feelings of pleasure that you have when you eat the cake and the ideas that it creates in your mind. This is partly why the advertising is so successful because it encourages your mind to generate positive ideas about a particular product that it is selling: for example, Salman Rushdie’s famous slogan “Naughty but nice!” sold the idea that the sensation of eating a cream cake was transgressive. When you eat a cake, all the ideas and feelings that you have about eating cakes, and much else – your situation when you eat the cake, your age, your degree of hunger etc. – will combine to produce a “passion”, a “cake affect”. While you may feel that you are “in control” of the joy you feel when you eat the cake – i.e. you think that you will definitely feel joy when you eat the cake – in actual fact, you are not in control: the unique concatenation of circumstances will have produced the “passion” of joy. You are not in control in the way you think you are.

So, this is joy as a “passion”: as something that happens to you. We live in a world which bombards us with joyful affects. Indeed, the psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek (The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology, 2012) argues that our consumerist, capitalistic culture is constantly exhorting us to “enjoy” ourselves. It is almost an imperative of modern life. And he points out that this is oppressive and has the net effect of actually making us not enjoy anything because we’re constantly worrying about whether we’re enjoying it or not.

This was not Spinoza’s attitude at all. In Ethics, he does not demand that we “enjoy” ourselves, rather he says that if we thinks deeply and adequately about things, we will inevitably feel joy: it is the necessary effect of adequate thinking. This is a mind-blowing and important idea that I believe teachers need to get their heads around because it has profound implications for the way we teach. It provides a deep and profound purpose to education. Spinoza is effectively saying if we educate our children properly, they will feel joy, and vice versa.