Spinoza, Self Help and Agency
The bookshelves of the world abound with tomes on self-help. Many of these profess to help people with various emotional woes, such as sadness, and make vague promises about happiness. Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.
Each spring semester I teach Modern Philosophy and cover our good dead friend Spinoza. In addition to an exciting career as a lens grinder, he also manage to avoid being killed by an assassin. However, breathing in all that glass dust seems to have ultimately contributed to his untimely death. But enough about his life and death, it is time to get to the point of this essay.
As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotion and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness: the people we love betray us or die. That fancy Tesla can be smashed in a wreck. The beach house can be swept away by the rising tide. A job can be lost as a company seeks to boost its stock prices by downsizing the job fillers. And so on, through all the ways things can go badly.
While Spinoza was a pantheist and believed that everything is God and God is everything, his view of human beings is similar to that of the philosophical mechanist: humans are not magically exempt from the laws of nature. He was also a strict determinist: each event occurs from necessity and cannot be otherwise—there is no chance or choice. So, for example, the Seahawks could not have won the 2015 Super Bowl. As another example, I could not have written this essay in any other manner, so I had to make that remark about the Seahawks losing rather than mentioning their 2014 victory.
Buying into determinism, Spinoza took the view that human behavior and motivations can be examined as one might examine “lines, planes or bodies.” More precisely, he took the view that emotions follow the same necessity as all other things, thus making the effects of the emotions predictable—provided that one has enough knowledge. Spinoza then used this idea as the basis for his “self-help” advice.
According to Spinoza all emotions are responses to the past, present or future. For example, a person might feel regret because she believes she could have made her last relationship work if she had only put more effort into it. As another example, a person might worry because he thinks that he might lose his job in the next round of downsizing at his company. These negative feelings rest, as Spinoza sees it, on the false belief that the past could have been otherwise and that the future is undetermined. Once a person realizes nothing could have been any different and the future cannot be anything other than what it will be, then that person will suffer less from the emotions. Thus, for Spinoza, freedom from the enslaving chains is the recognition and acceptance that what was could not have been otherwise and what will be cannot be otherwise.
This view does have a certain appeal and it does make sense that it can have some value. In regards to the past, people do often beat themselves up emotionally over what they regard as past mistakes. This can lead a person to be chained by regrets and thus be partially trapped in the past as she spends countless hours wondering “what if?” This is not to say that feeling regret or guilt is wrong—far from it. But, it is to say that lamenting about the past to the detriment of now is a problem. It is also a problem to believe that things could have been different when they, in fact, could not have been different.
This is also not to say that a person should not reflect on the past—after all, a person who does not learn from her mistakes is doomed to repeat them. People can, of course, also be trapped by the past because of what they see as good things about the past—they are chained to what they (think) they once had or once were (such as being the big woman on campus back in college).
In regards to the future, it is very easy to be trapped by anxiety, fear and even hope. It can be reassuring to embrace the view that what will be will be and to not worry and be happy. This is not to say that one should be foolish about the future, of course.
There is, unfortunately, one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice. If everything is necessary and determined, his advice makes no sense: what is, must be and cannot be otherwise. To use an analogy, it would be like shouting advice at someone watching a cut scene in a video game. This is pointless, since the person cannot do anything to change what is occurring. What occurs must occur and cannot be otherwise. For Spinoza, while we might think life is a like a game, it is like that cut scene: we are spectators of the show and not players controlling the game.
The obvious counter is to say “but I feel free! I feel like I am making choices!” Spinoza was well aware of this objection. In response, he claims that if a stone were conscious and hurled through the air, it would think it was free to choose to move and land where it does. People think they are free because they are “conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which those actions are determined.” In other words, we think we are free because we do not know better. Going back to the video game analogy, we think we are in control as we push the buttons, but this is because we do not know how the game actually works—that is, we are just along for the ride and not in control.
Since everything is determined, whether or not a person heeds Spinoza’s advice is also determined—if you do, then you do and you could not do otherwise. If you do not, you could not do otherwise. As such, his advice would seem to be beyond useless. This is a stock paradox faced by determinists who give advice: their theory says that people cannot chose to follow this advice—they will just do what they are determined to do. That said, it is possible to salvage some useful advice from Spinoza.
The first step is for me to reject his view that I lack free will. I have a stock argument for this that goes as follows. Obviously, I have free will or I do not. It is equally obvious that there is no way to tell whether I do or not. From an empirical standpoint, a universe with free will looks and feels just like a universe without free will: you just observe people doing stuff and apparently making decisions while thinking and feeling that you are doing the same.
Suppose someone rejects free will and they are wrong. In this case they are not only mistaken but also consciously rejecting real freedom.
Suppose someone rejects free will and they are correct. In that case, they are right—but not in the sense that they made the correct choice. They would have been determined to have that view and it would just so happen that it matches reality.
Suppose someone accepts free will and they are right. In this case, they have the correct view. They have also made the right choice—since choice would be real, making right and wrong choices is possible. More importantly, if they act consistently with this view, then they will be doing things right—not in the moral sense, but in the sense that they are acting in accord with how the universe works.
Suppose someone accepts free will and they are wrong. In this case they are in error, but have not made an incorrect choice (for obvious reasons). They believe they are freely making choices, but obviously are not.
If I can choose, then I should obviously choose free will. If I cannot choose, then I will think I chose whatever it is I am determined to believe. If I can choose and choose to think I cannot, I am in error. Since I cannot know which option is correct, it seems best to accept free will. If I am actually free, I am right. If I am not free, then I am mistaken but had no choice.
Given the above argument, I accept that I have agency. This makes it possible for me to meaningfully give and accept (or reject) advice. Turning back to Spinoza, I obviously cannot accept his advice that I am enslaved by determinism. However, I can accept some of his claims, namely that I am acted upon by my attachments and emotions. As he sees it, the emotions are things that act upon us—on my view, they would thus be things that impinge upon our agency. As I love to do, I will use an analogy to running.
As I ran this morning, I was thinking about this essay and focused on the fact that feelings of pain (I have various old and new injuries) and tiredness were impinging on me in a manner similar to the way the cold or rain might impinge on me. In the case of pain and tiredness, the attack is from inside. In the case of the cold or rain, the attack is from the outside. Whether the attack is from inside or out, the attack is trying to make the choice for me—to rob me of my agency as a runner. If the pain, cold or rain makes me stop, then I am not acting. I am being acted upon. If I chose to stop, then I am acting. If I chose to go on, I am also acting. And acting rightly. As a runner I know the difference between choosing to stop and being forced to stop.
Being aware of this is very useful for running—thanks to decades of experience I understand, in a way Spinoza might approve, the workings of pain, fatigue and so on. To use a specific example, I know that I am being acted upon by the pain and I understand quite well how it works. As such, the pain is not in control—I am. If I wish, I can run myself to ruin (and I have done just this). Or I can be wiser and avoid damaging myself.
Turning back to emotions, feelings impinge upon me in ways analogous to pain and fatigue. I do not have full control over how I feel—the emotions simply occur, perhaps in response to events or perhaps simply as the result of an electrochemical imbalance. To use a specific example, like most folks I will feel depressed and know that I have no reason to feel that way. It is like the cold or fatigue—it is just impinging on me. As Spinoza argued, my knowledge of how this works is critical to dealing with it. While I cannot fully control the feeling, I understand why I feel that way. It is like the cold I felt running in the Maine winters—it is a natural phenomenon that is, from my perspective, trying to destroy me. In the case of the cold, I can wear warmer clothing and stay moving—knowing how it works enables me to choose how to combat it. Likewise, knowing how the negative feelings work enables me to choose how to combat them. If I am depressed for no reason, I know it is just my brain trying to kill me. It is not pleasant, but it does not get to make the decisions for me. Fortunately, our good dead friend Aristotle has some excellent advice for training oneself to handle the emotions.
That said, the analogy to cold is particularly apt. The ice of the winter can kill even those who understand it and know how to resist it—sometimes the cold is just too much for the body. Likewise, the emotions can be like the howling icy wind—they can be too much for the mind. We are, after all, only human and have our limits. Knowing these is a part of wisdom. Sometimes you just need to come in from the cold or it will kill you. Have some hot chocolate. With marshmallows.