freedom through separation

The author is building interconnected readings of imagination, error and desire in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics, a philosophical treatise published in 1677. On Spinoza’s theory of the passions, we can misjudge our own natures and fail to understand the sorts of beings that we really are; we are not well known to ourselves, and the self-knowledge that is the foundation of virtue and freedom is elusive and fragile.

5p2: “If we separate emotions, or affects, from the thought of an external cause and join them to true thoughts, then love or hate toward an external cause and also the vacillation of mind that arises from these affects are destroyed.”

Love and hate are passions in which laetitia [joy] or tristitia [sadness] accompanies the thought of some external cause. So, we might say, for example, that Anna’s love for Vronski is a kind of happiness that she has in thinking of him, and that, by 5p2, she might overcome this harmful passion—both the trouble that it causes now, “vacillation,” and also the trouble that, as a passion it is likely to lead to—by separating that happiness from the thought of this external object, Vronksi, who causes it.

. . . So, by the definition of love, if Anna no longer thinks of Vronski, it follows uninterestingly that her passion, whatever it is, can no longer be a variety of love.

. . . Spinoza emphasizes the right understanding of passion and its subsequent transformation at 5p3 and 5p4:

5p3: “An effect that is a passion ceases being a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.”

5p4: “There is no affect of the body, of which we cannot form some clear and distinct concept.”

These propositions suggest that it is not enough for Anna simply not to think of Vronski. In order to transform her own feelings and to avoid the harm they cause, Anna must also be self-reflective and try to understand herself and her emotions.

. . . To take the example of a passion, Anna may contemplate Vronski, and think of his him as the cause of her harmful passion, but, on Spinoza’s account of imagination, besides being mistaken about Vronski, Anna may be entirely wrong in thinking him the underlying source of the passion and the problem. It would be a mistake, on Spinoza’s account of imagination, to say that detaching her passion from the thought of Vronksi is good for Anna just because in doing so, she comes no longer to dwell on the external cause of her passion.

She certainly may have been dwelling on Vronski; her real problem, however, may be a failure to have recognized the true external cause of her passion (her unhappy marriage; her sense of confinement, and her separation from good company) at all. Detaching her passion from the thought of Vronski would be better understood as an important first step for Anna in doing what she can do for herself, which is to understand her passion as it is in her and insofar as it produced by her.

. . . However, nobility and tenacity are not immune to the other hazards of this method. Spinoza acknowledges generally in several passages in the Ethics that human beings may always be overpowered by external causes. . . . Some passions, we may assume, will always be overwhelming. This point I think is clear in the way that Spinoza qualifies 5p10 itself:

5p10: “So long as we are not agitated by affects that are contrary to our nature, we have the power of ordering and connecting the affections of the body following the order the intellect.”

LeBuffe, Michael. From Bondage to Freedom: Spinoza on Human Excellence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 4546, 75, 9697. Print.


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