We are part of nature

We Are Part Of Nature

This seems to me to be a central lesson that runs throughout Ethics; our ideas, our thoughts, our feelings are part of nature, and subject to Nature’s causes and effects. However, we tend to think of ourselves as intellectual creatures who are “outside nature”, and not determined in this way.

The Lesson of the Woman in Black

The Woman in Black is possibly the most terrifying stage play you will ever see. It tells the story of a young solicitor, newly married, who goes to a remote house to unearth the contents of a deceased old lady’s will. It is cleverly set up so that the author of the story, who we are led to believe it really happened to, narrates the story, and a hired actor plays the role of the author, enacting out the “real story”. After a long build-up, the young solicitor finally enters the remote and creepy house, having to stay there during the night. At which point, the theatre becomes immersed in darkness, subject to random sounds, creaking doors and sudden apparitions. The fear we feel is the fear we feel of a “random” universe, where we do not know what terror will come next, the ultimate terror of cause being our own death. We are victims of these sudden and terrifying “affects”; this is what nature does to us. This is the genius of the play; it is not a ghost story at all, but the story of our affective relationship with nature: it haunts us with its darkness, its events and affects which we can never predict. However, as Spinoza attempts to show, we can begin to have a better understanding of it beyond seeing it as The Woman in Black; we can see beyond the superstitious interpretation of it as a malevolent ghost. This will not stop it haunting us, but we will understand the nature of our haunting better.

Journey into Joy

What do you think of “nature”? What do you think “nature” is? For Spinoza, Nature is God, who is everything, and we can never be outside it.

What scares you about nature? Your death? The deaths of your children? Disease? Pain? The unpredictability of events?


Hence, they consider all natural things as a means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers, of Nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and made all things for their use. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 26)

Spinoza critiques teleological modes of thinking in his Appendix to his first chapter; he is critical of humans positing “final causes” to events and Nature. He points out in the above quote that this teleological way of thinking necessarily leads to people viewing the world as a “means” to end; a final salvation. As Spinoza shows in the rest of the Appendix, this teleological approach has permeated our culture: when we think in this way, in terms of doing things because our reward will be in heaven, we cease to conceive of God’s immanence, but instead see our lives as a “means to an end” to attain salvation. This critique applicable to education; when we see learning as a means to an end – to achieve an external reward such as an exam grade – we cease to think immanently about our learning. Our educational experiences become a means to an end, and not intrinsically enjoyable in themselves. A whole raft of educational thinkers from Matthew Arnold to Chris Watkins have been highly critical of this perception of learning. As Watkins points out when learning becomes a means to an end, it becomes a “performance” (Watkins, 2003, p. 20); this, in turn, means that learning becomes side-lined in favour of a performance which looks like learning. As a result, students become obsessed with achieving external ratification for their effort, and cease to think meaningful about what they are learning (Watkins, 2010, p. 3). This is what I would like to term a “teleological” approach to education; learning is about the “final cause” – the external reward of achieving an exam grade – as opposed an “immanent” approach which views learning as intrinsically worthwhile in itself. As Spinoza points out one of the problems of this teleological perception of the world is that it “takes away from God’s perfection. For if God acts for the sake of an end, he necessarily wants something which he lacks.” This critique could be directly applied to perceptions of learning. If a student is learning something because they want to achieve an external reward, they are primarily conscious of what they “lack” rather than being immersed in the intrinsic joy of learning. Thus we can see that a Spinozist conception of learning is not about “filling a hole”, about addressing a “lack”, but rather about making new connections in one’s mind; it is not a deficit model of learning where the learner is an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge because he/she needs to pour one’s knowledge into another receptacle at the “end” of the learning such as writing all one knows in an exam. Rather, it is an active expression of God’s power, and is happening all the time.

Journey into Joy

Reflections: what motivates you to learn? What do you enjoy learning about most and why?

Learning and freedom

Spinoza states that God is the only free thing in that he is “All-That-Is”; he is “compelled by no one” (pp. 13, P. 17). Everything else is necessarily determined by an infinite series of causes and effects. However, we are all “in” God. I would like to argue that by learning about God, about “All-That-There-Is”, we glean a sense of God’s freedom. This is not acquiring a sense of the Judo-Christian God who many theologians argue exercises his free will upon us, but gaining a sense of an immanent God whose being is infinitely free. By learning in an adequate fashion about the world, we gain a sense of the constant inter-play of things, of the freedom of the “whole” to take any direction, any course, which is free to the extent that it is God, and determined to the extent But it’s important to note that determinism doesn’t entail fatalism, i.e. learning that the whole might take any course is learning that the future is not pre-given; that we, as the modifications of God, have the ability–through adequate thinking and active action–to be an adequate cause of the ‘direction’ of the whole.

Journey into Joy

Creative visualisation: zoom out from where you are now, become a magical bird and fly above yourself, watch yourself from above, doing what you are doing right now, and then zoom out more so you can see the area where you are currently in, then zoom more so that you can see the country you’re in, then the continent, the cloud-enmeshed blue earth, the bare moon; the rings of Saturn, purple Jupiter, the other planets and the blazing sun of the solar system; the Milky Way, the other galaxies, then all the galaxies that ever were and are, so that you are outside it all! Stand back, and watch the free play of everything in its totality!

Now free fall through everything that ever was and will be back into yourself.

See Spinoza’s Letter 32 (Spinoza, 2008)

What did you learn?