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Why study our own particular nature?

The following is part of a response to a private email. I have summarized the correspondents questions and left out some separate topics.

[The correspondent had asked, with regard to the particular methods which seem to be used by some people in their study of Spinoza's ideas, why they study their own particular nature rather than seeking to acquire "the more perfect nature of the divine being." The following is part of the reply:]

    If you stand back a bit from Spinoza's "Ethics" and "The Improvement of the Understanding" (as though you were coming to them for the first time) how would you explain his concentrating so much on the need to distinguish between the true idea and fictitious, false, and doubtful ideas? And why does he spend so much time in part 2 of the Ethics on the nature and cause of inadequate and confused ideas and then go on in parts 3 and 4 to show how the particular emotions (confusions) work if he did not consider it important to study our own nature? Why not just say something like "Well, we all have had the experience of finding ourselves confused about something or being caught in an emotional situation but rather than dwell on those things let me give you some clear ideas." Clear ideas about what? If you look at part 2 he shows that we most commonly mistake the modifications of our own body for "reality" or "the external world" and that this confusion accounts for much of what keeps the mind so occupied that it has little power to form clear and distinct ideas about anything.

[The correspondent had also questioned the usefulness of examining actual events from our ordinary daily life as experienced through our senses and memory and expressed that such study "leads nowhere."]

    To me, Spinoza's Ethics is like a pyramid where each new level is built on the preceding levels, each and all resting on a solid foundation, and the top level is what he has built it to support. So what does he talk about in part 5? He first deals with such things as:

E5: PROP. 2. If we remove a disturbance of the spirit, or emotion, from the thought of an external cause, and unite it to other thoughts, then will the love or hatred towards that external cause, and also the vacillations of spirit which arise from these emotions, be destroyed.

E5: PROP. 3. An emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof.

E5: PROP. 3, Corollary.--An emotion therefore becomes more under our control, and the mind is less passive in respect to it, in proportion as it is more known to us.

E5: PROP. 4. There is no modification of the body, whereof we cannot form some clear and distinct conception.

E5: PROP. 4, Corollary.--Hence it follows that there is no emotion, whereof we cannot form some clear and distinct conception.

    When he says above "There is no modification of the body, whereof we cannot form some clear and distinct conception" do you think he is suggesting that we attempt to form a clear and distinct conception of the modifications of bodies in general or in abstraction? or is he referring specifically to our particular mind forming a clear and distinct conception of our particular body? If the latter does not seem to be the case then what do you make of:

========== E5: PROP. 4 Corollary, Note:
--Seeing that there is nothing which is not followed by an effect (E1P36), and that we clearly and distinctly understand whatever follows from an idea, which in us is adequate (E2P40), it follows that everyone has the power of clearly and distinctly understanding himself and his emotions, if not absolutely, at any rate in part, and consequently of bringing it about, that he should become less subject to them.

    To attain this result, therefore, we must chiefly direct our efforts to acquiring, as far as possible, a clear and distinct knowledge of every emotion, in order that the mind may thus, through emotion, be determined to think of those things which it clearly and distinctly perceives, and wherein it fully acquiesces: and thus that the emotion itself may be separated from the thought of an external cause, and may be associated with true thoughts; whence it will come to pass, not only that love, hatred, etc. will be destroyed (E5P2), but also that the appetites or desires, which are wont to arise from such emotion, will become incapable of being excessive (E4P61).

    When he says: "...in order that the mind may thus, through emotion, be determined to think of those things which it clearly and distinctly perceives, and wherein it fully acquiesces" whose emotions do you believe he is referring to if not yours or mine specifically? Do you think he means: "in order that a hypothetical mind may thus, through a hypothetical emotion, be determined to think of those hypothetical things which it abstractly perceives, and wherein it fully acquiesces"? I believe this is what most people imagine when they read the Ethics. They never even dream that Spinoza might mean for his readers to apply these ideas to the study of their own particular nature.

    But don't take my word for it. You said: "It isn't so much human nature that we need to acquire, than the more perfect nature of the divine being." If that is so then what do You make of:

========= E5: PROP. 15.:
He who clearly and distinctly understands himself and his emotions loves God, and so much the more in proportion as he more understands himself and his emotions.

    And how do you propose putting this idea that Spinoza expresses into practice? Spinoza himself says a bit further on:

========== E5: PROP. 20, Note:
--We can in the same way show, that there is no emotion directly contrary to this love, whereby this love can be destroyed; therefore we may conclude, that this love towards God is the most constant of all the emotions, and that, in so far as it is referred to the body, it cannot be destroyed, unless the body be destroyed also. As to its nature, in so far as it is referred to the mind only, we shall presently inquire.

    I have now gone through all the remedies against the emotions, or all that the mind, considered in itself alone, can do against them. Whence it appears that the mind's power over the emotions consists:--

1. In the actual knowledge of the emotions (E5P4CN).
2. In the fact that it separates the emotions from the thought of an external cause, which we conceive confusedly (E5P2 and E5P4CN).
3. In the fact, that, in respect to time, the emotions referred to things, which we distinctly understand, surpass those referred to what we conceive in a confused and fragmentary manner (E5P7).
4. In the number of causes whereby those modifications [Affectiones] are fostered, which have regard to the common properties of things or to God (E5P9 and E5P11).
5. Lastly, in the order wherein the mind can arrange and associate, one with another, its own emotions ([E5P10] E5P10N and E5P12, E5P13, E5P14).

    "...its own emotions"; My particular mind, My particular emotions. But of course I'm older and wiser now and don't need to follow this advise. I just want to "cut to the chase" so when I get to the last part of that note he says:

...And now I have finished with all that concerns this present life: for, as I said in the beginning of this note, I have briefly described all the remedies against the emotions. And this everyone may readily have seen for himself, if he has attended to what is advanced in the present note, and also to the definitions of the mind and its emotions, and, lastly, to Propositions E3P1 and E3P3. It is now, therefore, time to pass on to those matters, which appertain to the duration of the mind, without relation to the body.

    Ah, the Cap Stone, the Pure Gold, that's for me and that should be my reward for having endured all that crap in Parts 3 and 4 about those nasty old emotions that everybody else but me seem to suffer so much from. I'm a modern educated being with a good intellect so I'll just take the elevator to the top of this pyramid and avoid all that difficult labor.

    So, what do I find near the top?:

========= E5: PROP. 30:
Our mind, in so far as it knows itself and the body under the form of eternity, has to that extent necessarily a knowledge of God, and knows that it is in God, and is conceived through God.

    Oh Damn, he's telling me I have to use My particular mind to know both Itself and My particular body but I was hoping that I could just bypass all that and "acquire" the "divine nature" (whatever that is) directly. Rats, I guess I'll go comfort myself by displaying my vast knowledge and collection of books to those who can really appreciate my great intellect. [See Spinoza's definitions of Pride and Ambition and how these confusions work.] What do I need with the ramblings of some 17th century philosopher that hardly anyone at the Academy pays any attention to anyway.

In Sympathy and with

I welcome any thoughts on the above subject.
You may send email to:
tneff [at] earthlink [dot] net

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