The future should be faced with rational strategy aiming at collective power; the past should be regarded with equanimity.
A pandemic is surging through the human community weakening social bonds, collective strength, and individual wellbeing. In some cases it brings tragic illness and death; in all cases, it brings some measure of fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger. Yet these emotions and others like them are forces which the brilliant 17th-century philosopher Spinoza believed to be dangerous enemies both to society and the individual.
Does Spinoza, the famed heretic, radical political theorist, and moral psychologist, have any advice for us in the Covid-19 crisis? Is he right that we need to manage these emotions for the sake of us all? And if so, how?
I think he would have at least two important things to say which I will share here.
A Community of Reason
Spinoza wrote that there was really no division between individual and communal benefit. When people are guided by reason (a key if) then when they cooperate their power of positive thought and action is magnified.
In other words, what’s good for me is to seek to be governed by reason and to team up with others. As Spinoza put it: there is nothing so beneficial for human beings as human beings.
The Covid-19 crisis is making this abundantly clear. Everyone’s wellbeing- socially, economically, and medically- depends on all of us being guided by reason and acting for the common welfare.
It seems clear that this means 1) seeking reliable sources of information on how to protect ourselves and others and following those guidelines, not ones generated by our racing emotions; and 2) looking for ways to band together with others for mutual aid.
We will have a hard time fulfilling either task, however, if we can’t do something more fundamental: manage our emotions.
Spinoza has two insights about emotions, or what he called affects, which I think can be helpful to us right now.
The first is that emotions which increase our clarity of thought and our feeling of wellbeing and power should be fostered and those that encourage confusion and a weakening of our power and wellbeing should be discouraged.
The king of the emotions in the first, good category is joy.
As Spinoza put it, joy is the passage to a greater perfection. It would be a grave mistake to think that it is virtuous to embrace fear, anxiety, solemnity and negativity right now as if they were civic duties. The best thing we can do, contrarily, is to embrace joy. The Italians who were singing from their balconies had it right according to Spinoza.
There is a great temptation in thinking that we should huddle together with others on Twitter or Whatsapp reflecting and magnifying each other’s fear, sorrow and anger. Though this may offer some comfort, these emotions hinder our ability to think clearly and quite literally weaken us, including physically- studies have shown these emotions are bad for the immune system.
It might feel good in the short term to cruise social media getting angry or self-righteous or to let our anxiety ricochet off of that of others, but a few minutes later the hangover hits.
We should notice the hangover.
What we need to pass to each other hand to hand right now is strength, love, solidarity, and reason.
The second insight about managing emotions relates to an idea central to Spinoza’s system of thought. This is his claim that every event that happens- including our human actions and decisions, flows necessarily from the complex interdependent web of causes we call the Cosmos.
Spinoza argued that we should face the future with strategic reason, seeking to increase our own positive power and wellbeing- and that of others, which are linked. Yet he also taught that we should understand that it is impossible that things should be other than they are, or should happen other than they have happened.
In other words, in each moment we should try to make the best decision we can, yet in hindsight, we should understand that we could not have acted differently- we are always literally doing our best as creatures whose very selves- socially, biologically, politically, economically- arise from factors much greater than us.
This is, of course, as true of others as it is of ourselves.
Why is this important for managing our emotions?
Looking at things this way frees us both from guilt and from anger. It lifts the burden of self-recrimination- of woulda should couldas- from our shoulders.
In each moment we should seek to act as rationally as we can, but we should look back with the understanding that we are always acting within a grand web of causes. We could not have done any differently at that moment given what we felt, what we thought, and what we were capable of seeing and knowing then.
This is important because these very emotions- guilt, depression, anger, etc. are both disempowering in themselves and foster other weakening emotions like fear and sadness.
At a time like this emotions run high and guilt, blame and anger can easily flare up and become toxic. Spinoza’s advice can help us turn our attention where it should be and away from where it shouldn’t.
The future should be faced with rational strategy aiming at collective power; the past — including our actions and those of others — should be regarded with understanding acceptance.
This might seem difficult- as Spinoza says, what is noble is as excellent as it is rare. Yet however much we can move in the direction of joy, peace and rational action right now is exactly how much ourselves and others will benefit.
You might also want to check out my quixotic attempt to write an accessible commentary on all of Spinoza’s Ethics. See here for An Introduction To Spinoza or start the series at the beginning with Spinoza In Plain English pt.1: Substance.