welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Prospects of Understanding for a Worm

Margaret Gullan-Whur advises Dr. Shenkman’s patients to read Spinoza.

Besieged by patients suffering from stress, Dr. Shenkman finds philosophy a ‘headless chicken’ unable to supply the purpose and direction in life which by dictionary definition it should. He’s observed that grand metaphysical schemes which give meaning to life are even more out of fashion than faith-based religion. But despair not, Dr. Shenkman: Spinoza’s your man. His Ethics satisfies your quoted criteria with impeccable rigour and profundity, and its worldview has notable affinity with certain currently palatable intuitions. At £4.99 [1] it scarcely exceeds an NHS prescription charge. However, the 1677 remedy takes a while to digest, so here’s a compact distillation containing Spinozistic elements specific to your patients’ needs. It still includes one infamously hard-to-swallow ingredient, an epistemic lump which could be caught in the strainer of analysis and rejected. But I’m not sure this would be wise.

“What are we?”

In a simple analogy, Spinoza visualises the humblest of all epistemological prospects for knowledge of one’s place in the universe, that of a parasitic worm [2]. The worm is familiar with the overt behaviour of the particles of blood in which it lives, but it can’t conceive of ‘laws of blood’ controlling the particles, of external causes modifying the blood’s functioning, or of external bodies affected in turn by the blood. To the worm the blood is the whole, not a part, of its universe. The worm is ignorant, and what is more, unhappy. Spinoza will show that the highest joy known to man lies in understanding the relationship of part to whole; in realising that all bodies are surrounded by others with which they interact in a systematic and determined way, and that this relationship extends throughout the physical world, without division. Knowledge progresses by learning how the parts connect; by establishing their proximate causes, the precise ways in which “the laws, or nature, of one part adapt themselves to the laws, or nature of another part”. This slow route to knowledge is the most likely one for finite modes of nature, of which human beings seem to be the most strongly minded exemplars.

So, immediate relief comes from knowing oneself to be a legitimate organic member of a rationally ordered universe.

Spinoza sets forth his view of the indivisible yet modifiable nature of extension (i.e. the totality of the physical universe) in a metaphysical scheme curiously at one with modern unified field theories. He describes how composite individual bodies may conjoin simpler bodies yet preserve harmony between the different proportions of motion and rest, so retaining their form. “And if we proceed in this way to infinity”, Spinoza adds, “we shall easily conceive that the whole of nature is one individual, whose parts, i.e. all bodies, vary in infinite ways without any change of the whole individual”. Spinoza doesn’t hold the physical world to consist solely in solid and inert concrete matter occupying space. It is “not, as Descartes conceives it, a quiescent mass[3]. His scheme diverges radically from the mechanical world of Descartes, which is created, set in motion and directed by an external God. Spinoza’s is active God-or-Nature – ‘Deus sive Natura’, ‘God equated with Nature’, whose force or energy is internal in the physical world. Wherever Spinoza writes the word ‘God’, the word ‘nature’ is interchangeable with it. Despite his deep reverence for nature, ‘God’ was almost without doubt an appeasing term for him, used to ensure that his work was read by those who would otherwise reject it. Spinoza’s ‘God’ is quite simply all there is, or logically can be.

Each individual expresses its own internal dynamic nature through its conatus, a medieval term meaning the striving of a thing to persist in itself. Spinoza’s conatus means more than Cartesian solid resistance to external bodies; it is internal, positive and active striving, the power (force or energy) of God-or-Nature partially expressed. The obligation of the individual is always to his own conatus, expressed through the mind as ‘will’ and through the mind and body together as ‘appetite’. This internal force of Godor- Nature, the conatus (“which is therefore nothing else but man’s essence” ), ensures that the individual is determined to exist and to act in a certain way, according to the laws of nature.

Secondary relief, then, comes from discerning that the will and appetites of an individual are, unless imposed on him by forces external to himself, the result of natural necessity.

“How do we survive in the hostile environment which is our universe?”

Spinoza has already eased us towards an understanding that the universe is essentially harmonious, in that it expresses interconnected natural laws. Man has a lawful place in the whole, and is naturally endowed with two forms of energy or ways of expressing himself within it. When the conatus is expressed through the body and mind together as ‘appetite’, energy is physical and the mind is passive, its information sensory and confusedly understood. On the other hand, Spinoza equates ‘advantage’ with the active force of reason. Advantage is, for Spinoza, acting in accordance with one’s own nature as known through reason. Reason is knowledge of causes in relation to the whole, and true understanding of one’s place in the universe arises only through reason. Reason shows states and events in their true order. (There is no such thing as a false reason: inadequate ideas are never the result of reason, but of imagination taken for reasoning. Here we’ve gagged on the epistemic lump. It should be tucked inside the cheek for the moment: we shall return to it.)

While the laws of nature allow imagination (passivity) and reason (agency), with equal necessity – “Inadequate and confused ideas follow with the same necessity as adequate, or clear and distinct ideas” – the senses are not, for Spinoza, purveyors of true ideas. Imagination (literally ‘image making’), confused understanding includes opinion, signs, irrational association of ideas and hearsay or report. Living in accordance with imagination, the individual is at the mercy of his sensory nature, which blurs his understanding of how things are ‘in the whole’. In this state he imagines his advantage to lie in things or events which may please sensorily but are in fact destructive, not in accordance with his ‘true nature’. “Insofar as a thing agrees with our nature, it is necessarily good’ , that is, to our advantage.

This doesn’t mean that natural human rights only accompany the use of reason. Spinoza says often that if this were so, human beings would have no rights, since even the man who most wants to use only reason, often fails. Everyone has the right to live according to their nature, in whatever state of activity or passivity it may be. “He who is blind to reason lives wholly by the laws of appetite with as perfect a right as he who guides his life by the laws of reason”. [4] “We do not acknowledge any difference between mankind and other individual natural entities, nor between men endowed with reason and those to whom reason is unknown; nor between fools, madmen and sane men…. For nature is not bounded by the laws of human reason”.

But the mental vulnerability which results from living through the senses and confused ideas affects our attitude to inorganic phenomena, whose behaviour we tend to perceive only via a narrowly anthropocentric perspective, and describe only in terms of human reactions. We see ourselves as the focus or ‘final end’ of the activities of external natural phenomena. Spinoza lampoons this irrational outlook: “If a stone falls from a roof on the head of a passer-by and kills him, they will show by their method of argument that the stone was sent to fall and kill the man…”. Only when we look for general laws of natural necessity shall we stop regarding the universe as hostile.

Stress is often the result of confused or unreal expectations, of failure to grasp that natural laws determine all events. I therefore take ‘hostile universe’ to include not only forces external to the human species, but also other humans imposing on an individual conatus. Spinoza’s analysis of suicide clarifies his view of this more parochial notion of environmental hostility. “No one, unless he is defeated by external causes, contrary to his own nature, neglects to seek his own advantage, or, to preserve his being. Those who do such things are compelled by external causes, which can happen in many ways. No one, I say, avoids food or kills himself from the necessity of his own nature … That a man should, from the necessity of his own nature, strive not to exist, or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as it is for anything to be made from nothing” . This is not to imply that other individuals wilfully exert force. Spinoza largely imputes the act of suicide to a choice of lesser ‘evil’ (disadvantage) to oneself, or to “hidden causes disposing the imagination, and so and affecting the body, that it takes on a nature of which there cannot be a true idea in the mind .” To consider the fruits of one’s imagination to be the true and total nature of one’s world is to share the attitude of the worm. Without the guidance of reason, other individuals will appear as external threats against which the individual must preserve himself. Reason, however, not only discloses the true connections of the individual with his neighbours, but the individual’s own energy. Spinoza famously describes the condition of those imprisoned in their own passions as ‘human bondage’. Reason alone shows the way to freedom – the freedom to live one’s essence fully. In Ethics Part 3 he embarks on one of the most detailed accounts of human psychology ever philosophically set forth, offering a psychotherapeutic thesis based on the belief that human beings must look beyond their own passive reactions, and try to discover causes through reason. In this he forestalls and justifies psychoanalysis based on past events and influences.

The advantage of reasoning out the laws of the universe, with which we are compelled by our nature to interact, is that we work with, not against our natures, and can hope to understand the role of the other individuals whose existences touch ours. While it’s our natural right to live through our sensory conatus, its confused ideas make us constantly fear assault and plan vengeance. This can only promote divisiveness and disagreement, and perpetuate the illusion of ‘surviving in a hostile universe’.

“How should we behave towards each other?”

We now understand that we should, to express our true nature, naturally act in accordance with our own best advantage. Put bluntly, Spinoza’s theory of conatus is a gospel of self-interest. How shocking .

But Spinoza redefines the nature and function of self-interest. He concedes that ‘appetite’ enables the individual to exert natural energy in his own interest, and that this natural predisposition can be harnessed to the service of society. “It is a universal law of nature that no one ever neglects anything which he judges to be good, except with the hope of gaining a greater good, or from the fear of a greater evil; nor does anyone endure an evil except for the sake of avoiding a greater evil, or gaining a greater good” . Like Machiavelli, he shows how “the common passions of men” can be enlisted in the service of the collective, though “this will never last longer than the mutual need which binds them together”. Spinoza has little trust in harmony accrued through mutual passion, which is essentially confused and ultimately serves no one’s best interest. The metaphysical scheme entails that:- “A man acts entirely from the laws of his own nature when he lives according to the guidance of reason, and to that extent only must always agree with the nature of the other man”.

Why should agreement between individuals be the consequence of the practice of reason? Spinoza demonstrates how this must be. We know things truly, or ‘adequately’ through their proximate causes, via the chain of reasons or causes (for Spinoza these merge) which leads back to ‘God-or-Nature’ as the cause of the idea, but we also understand through ‘common notions’. “Those things which are common to all, and which are equally in the whole as in the part, can only be conceived adequately .. There are certain ideas common to all men, for all bodies agree in certain things”. “If something is common to, and peculiar to, the human body and certain external bodies by which the human body is affected, and is equally in the part and in the whole of each of them, its idea will also be adequate in the mind”. Common notions, the “foundations of our reasoning processes,” are not only the basis of a rationalist natural science, but that which, by finding the universal principles of human nature, makes Spinoza’s social agreement possible. Reason reveals what is in the self-interest of all individuals of a kind.

So we are not required to look after our neighbour’s best interest, but to look for what is universally advantageous. The political implications of this are striking, and Spinoza extrapolates from his metaphysics to a theory of social contract and democracy. This is the only kind of ‘free’ society possible: only in a democracy committed to legislation through reason can those natural human laws which pertain to the general advantage operate. But will those who choose to live through passion and sensory gratification go along with a democratic system based on reasoned universal principles? Not often, Spinoza admits. It would take an exceptional leader to bring this about. Natural rights remain untouched by any social contract or democratic regime, and no one can be compelled to reason. Spinoza’s conception of freedom in a democracy has a yet more startling corollary: the ‘freedom’ of an individual to live according to his own active nature doesn’t depend on a democratically ordered environment, but on acting according to his own essence, discovered through reason. Although “A man who is guided by reason is more free in a state where he lives according to a common decision than in solitude, where he obeys only himself” , Spinoza insists that if it comes to a choice between abiding by irrational state laws or by one’s own (opposing) reason, “I call him free who is led by reason alone” .

Rather than the reasoning conatus guiding an individual constantly towards unity and harmony, doesn’t it detach him from his neighbours? Isn’t it logically possible for this concept of freedom to embrace the notion of anarchy? The prime obligation of the human mode, be it emotional, ethical or political, is to preserve the active and coherent nature of his own thought against the input of undirected ideas, namely his passive perceptions, sensations and imaginations. This may lead him to assert reason in isolation. If a lone voice of reason constitutes anarchy, so be it. Spinoza’s political philosophy was no mere ivory tower pursuit. He engaged passionately with the well being of the remarkable Dutch society in which he lived, which was until 1672 a mercantile bourgeois democracy, and thereafter a liberal monarchy. In August 1672 the hated Johan de Witt and his brothers were dragged by a mob from the prison where Johan was visiting Cornelis, and were ripped to pieces. Surely one must tremble before such a mob, yet Spinoza, who lived nearby, took a large piece of board, painted on it the words ULTIMI BARBARI, and made to parade it, alone, through the rabble. His landlord barred him within the house door, and Spinoza acknowledged that his action was prompted as much by passion as reason. But ‘freedom through reason’ is shown in his peace mission to the French army commander, the Prince of Condé, during the invasion of the Provinces. Amid the stalemate of starvation and dysentery, Spinoza offered to reason with the French, and Condé, encamped near Utrecht, sent him a safe conduct pass. Ignoring Dutch murmurs that he was a spy, Spinoza waited six weeks for Condé’s return from Versailles.

“Some advice about lifestyle?”

Spinoza wouldn’t advocate civil unrest without supremely evident sound reason. “Of what advantage in life is the doctrine of reason’, he asks, “if it does not teach us that we are each a part of the whole of nature, that apart from other men we know nothing in nature whose mind we can enjoy, that more advantages than disadvantages follow from forming a common society, and that it is better to bear men’s wrongs calmly, and apply one’s zeal to those things that help to bring men together in harmony and friendship?”. Nor does he deprecate the senses as a source of new and varied nourishment for the body, which is composed of a great many different parts. “It is the part of a wise [reasoning] man, I say, to refresh and restore himself in moderation with pleasant food and drink, with scents, with decoration, music, sports, the theatre, and other things of this kind, which anyone can use without great injury to another”. Man’s corporeal nature is of his essence and requires suitable sustenance. Spinoza merely denies that the senses can provide adequate ideas about the world.

It’s now time to see if we can swallow the notorious lump of Spinoza’s explanatory rationalism; the assertion that human beings can know certain facts about the world a priori, without recourse to observation and experience (the tools of the senses). For Spinoza the supreme rationalist, philosophising begins with self-evident premises, from which all further conclusions are deductively derived. Ethics is an axiomatic exposition. Because human minds are, in the durationally modified forms appropriate to human bodies, finite, they cannot have many adequate ideas, which is to say that they cannot apprehend very many interrelationships of all parts with the whole. It is, however, natural for man to strive to know his place in the whole. As the human mind is unable to perceive the complete nature of any particular physical object, but strives to know Godor- Nature in some general ways, it has at most a few adequate ideas and a great many inadequate ones. Therefore I stretch the term Spinoza applies solely to confused understanding of the human emotions, and call this state of wormhood ‘human bondage’. Spinoza believes it is possible to a limited extent for human worms to apprehend notions of absolute truth, to know the universe as it really exists independent of man’s perception of it. He has no doubt whatever that reason reveals absolute reality. This certainty is not a matter of faith: for him prophetic revelation is of the imagination, and not to be relied on as knowledge. Adequate ideas are the result of reasoning or intuition, which for Spinoza is rapid apprehension of the truth, by-passing the stages of reason.

How can an assertion of absolute certainty amount to advice about lifestyle? Dr. Shenkman hints that to conduct one’s life it is necessary to have a sense of direction. Spinoza reinterprets this drive as impetus from one’s nature, and asserts that this fact is self-evident, undeniable. In the face of contemporary abuse he replies with assurance, “I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, but I know that I think the true one”.[5] To begin to shrug off stress it is at least necessary to believe that one is a part of a whole, to see one’s existence in a wider perspective. “For not only is the ignorant man troubled in many ways by external causes and ever unable to possess true peace of mind, but he also lives as if he knew neither himself, nor God [or Nature] nor things; and as soon as he ceases to be acted upon, he ceases to be. On the other hand, the wise man, insofar as he is considered as such, is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God [or Nature] and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possesses true peace of mind”.[6] Peace of mind comes not from speculating that one is a mode of nature, but from being certain that this is so. Only then can we enjoy the natural force and energy which is the human birthright, as of all natural things. Understanding that “Our body had different proportions of motion and rest when we were unborn children, and later when we are dead, it will have still another”, we don’t fear death, when we shall be assimilated into newly differentiated space-occupancy. “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death” .

Dr. Shenkman’s patients won’t all be able to digest this superbly efficacious remedy. But there exists a short tract which I suspect to derive from Spinoza’s philosophy, if not to come from his pen. Named the Desiderata, its original was found in Old St.Paul’s Church, Baltimore [7], in 1692. Copies are easily available. It concludes: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul…. Be careful [8]. Strive to be happy.”

References :
1. Spinoza, Ethics edited, with a revised translation, by G.H.R.Parkinson. Everyman’s Library, J.M.Dent and Sons Ltd., 1989
2. Letter to Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the newlychartered English Royal Society, 20th Nov. 1665.
3. Letter to the Count von Tschirnhauß, 15th July 1676.
4. Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise.
5. Letter to the Catholic convert de Burgh, Dec. 1675.
6. Spinoza, A Short Treatise , Preface to Part 2.
7. New York, settled by the Dutch and named ‘New Amsterdam’, was taken by the British in 1664.
8. ‘Caute’. Spinoza’s personal motto, engraved on his ring.

Except where stated otherwise, all quotations are from the Ethics or the Theologico-Political Treatise

© Margaret Gullan-Whur 1992

Margaret Gullan-Whur is researching to become a real doctor – of philosophy – at University College London.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X