THE BELOW ESSAY WAS PRESENTED AT THE WORLD PHILOSOPHY DAY MINI-CONFERENCE ON NOVEMBER 18, 2010 BY BEVERLEY ANGER - WINNER OF THE SECOND STAN CUNNINGHAM PRIZE FOR PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY.
Three Concepts Adapted from Spinoza’s Ethics
Intended to Encourage the Growth of a Community
By: Beverley Anger
Due: November 18th, 2010
For: World Philosophy Day Conference
It’s very difficult to conceive of something so abstract as a city when one lives so intertwined to it. Instead of stepping back to look at some theoretical whole, I take a walk around my block on an autumn afternoon. The trees are full of birds and squirrels. The road is lined with abandoned furniture. Children with dirty faces play in the street, and the occasional suspicious-looking and poorly groomed old man on a run-down bicycle coasts by. It’s clear that Windsor is in a growing state of desperation, but there is also a kind of charm and hope that shines down as the sun hits the red and orange leaves. The decline of the auto industry in combination with the recession has hit Windsor especially hard and the mark of wear is beginning to show. Many people are looking for work and it is a serious concern that skilled youth being trained in this city are moving elsewhere because jobs here simply aren’t available. It seems Windsor has no choice but to move away from the auto industry and we are feeling a transitional void where we no longer know what kind of city Windsor is or what kind of city Windsor will be. The most pessimistic may even say Windsor will cease to be, as many move away to find other jobs Windsor will fade away. There is something to love about this city despite its seemingly impending decay. I feel it, even though I have only lived here for a few years, and I can only imagine how torn between hope and despair the locals must be. Deep down I think we all feel it: the city needs to be saved, but we have no idea how, and we are torn between acting or walking away.
Many people in this city are looking for answers about what to do with Windsor. They search everywhere for a response, but they would probably never anticipate an answer coming from philosophy. However, Philosophy has a lot to offer Windsor in this time of questioning. One could look to many different fields of philosophical thought or to many different philosophers, but today I would like to give some answers that might be provided by one of my favourite philosophers, Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza wrote a work which was a fortress of deductive logic, adapting ideas from a variety of authors to form a comprehensive piece on the nature of God, human emotion, logic, and human freedom entitled Ethics. I hope his work will provide us with three concepts we can use to inspire new hope for growth in this city.
In part 3 of Ethics, the section on human emotion, Spinoza discusses the ancient idea of conatus. The conatus is the aspect of anything that makes it continue to strive to exist. The conatus is what causes non-living objects to maintain a certain amount of permanence, and it is also what causes animals to act to preserve themselves, for example by eating. The conatus of human beings has both aspects of maintaining form and of encouraging survival behavior, but it also causes the human mind to continue its survival by looking for right ideas. The conatus causes the mind to seek out knowledge and to grow in power. (part 3, prop 6-8) This idea also applies to Windsor. It seems even our community has developed its own kind of conatus, its’ own desire to survive. Of course, the connatus is an innate part of human beings. In fact Spinoza would say the conatus of a human being is the essence of the human being (part 3 prop 7), and so the conatus of our community is also the essence of our community. It is our desire to survive as a community that defines what Windsor is. (What a shock to those of us who assumed it was the auto industry that defined Windsor!) It is completely understandable that we have a desire to encourage the Windsor community to continue, because it is engrained in our very conatus.
To some this conatus idea might seem very primitive. It certainly has not been popular since Spinoza’s day. Perhaps it is easier for modern readers to accept the idea of conatus through the lens of evolution- we have engrained within us the desire to survive because this trait has enabled human beings to survive and continue to exist. We have developed a desire for a full and reliable body of knowledge because it has helped us continue to exist. Furthermore, we have developed a desire to maintain a community out of similar survival interests. Even if you are not willing to conceive of a desire to continue existence as something as innate as Spinoza formulates it, anyone can see that we have a desire to continue to exist, and for our communities to continue to exist, whether it is innate or developed through a process of natural selection. What should be taken away from the idea of the conatus, however, is that it is human nature to preserve one’s community.
Later on in part 3, Spinoza discusses that there is a definite relationship between being active and being happy, and being passive and being unhappy. When the mind sees its being active, it also sees that it is becoming greater. This improvement appeals to the conatus and so the mind feels better. Likewise, when a mind is only affected upon, it sees itself as powerless and weak. This is not appealing to the conatus, and so the mind feels worse. This passive experience is also known as “passion”. In others words, simply being played upon by your emotions and the world around you makes you a victim to forces which are outside your control (part 3, prop 53) This is important for Windsorites, because many of us simply sit at home thinking about how long it will take to get a job and how hopeless our situation is instead of doing something to change our situation. Even if our actions are unsuccessful, what is important is that we are acting. For example, some may choose to sit at home and think of how disappointed they are with the municipality’s actions recently, and will only mire themselves in depression about being the victim of a terrible situation, whereas some will get up and do something, like going to the polls, even if it seems meaningless or they know their candidate of choice will not win, and as a result they will still be happier because they were actively involved in their community. I find this is especially true from personal experience—when one is in a hopeless situation, the best cure is to go out and do something, anything no matter how pointless, just for the sake of doing something about your problem.
Strangely, of the three concepts from Ethics which I will discuss, this one occurs first in the text but last in this paper. It is definitely the most interesting and revolutionary concept in the entire work. Spinoza claims that only like substances can affect one another, and unlike substances cannot affect one another. To illustrate, in Descartes mind/body dualism there is no explanation of how an immaterial substance, like the soul, can affect an extended substance, like a body, and vice versa. If this is true, Spinoza says, it must be the case that the entire universe, affecting itself constantly and in many ways, must be one substance. This one substance he refers to as God, but also calls nature or the universe. So in other words, anything that exists must necessarily be of this one substance (part 1, prop 3, 11, 14, 15). This concept can also be applied to Windsor and interestingly reversed. If Windsor were this whole, as a microcosm of the entire substance, and we as citizens were aspects of the substance of Windsor, we could only affect the city by recognizing that we are of it. In fact, this is what we do every day. Because we are Windsor, we make Windsor what it is. Until we can recognize the fact that every one of us is Windsor, we cannot take hold of the change we are making. Spinoza’s ethics implores us to recognize our place in the greater whole. As citizens, we are the ones who decide whether Windsor makes it or not.
Spinoza’s Ethics demands that we recognize our impact as individuals on the whole of Windsor, because Windsor is not just our city, Windsor is us. We have to realize our own conatus, our innate desire to see ourselves and this city not only survive, but thrive, not only for today but for generations (part 3 prop 8). If we are going to be happy, if we are going to be a part of this community, if we are going to make it, we have to act. We have to act now. We can’t just sit back and worry, we must do something, no matter how insignificant it seems, because action in itself has value to our survival as a community.
I step out the door to a frigid November day. The street is quiet except for the engine of an old van that pulls into a driveway up the road. I say hello to my neighbor as she unloads groceries from the van. She had a job interview today at a restaurant and it went really well. Hopefully she gets the position; I know she could really use the money. I say goodbye and walk down the street, lost in my thoughts. All these houses down the street are full of people like her. She is like me, a part of this city, and in the back of my mind I even hope for her and hope for the city the way I hope for myself. I care about the neighbors I exchange brief nods with on the street. As the heels of my boots click against the pavement and echo down the alley I think about all of us. I think about this entire city and I wonder where we are going. I know where I am going- I’m going to class, I’m going towards a goal and a future, and I think to myself that the rest of this city is too.
Spinoza, Baruch. "Ethics." Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and Selected
Letter. Ed. Seymour Feldman. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992. Print.