Spinoza’s trip to the zoo

I have been trying to get a good understanding of Spinoza’s advice for handling the passions. My understanding seems to require stories and analogies, so I ended up with this one:

spinoza.img_assist_customImagine taking a group of very special kids on a field trip. Each of them is enormously sensitive to different sorts of stimuli, and will react to them with great and terrible enthusiasm. Your mission is to take them to the zoo and back. If you just carelessly make the trip, there will be many, many sudden outbursts, as Mary sees balloons, Jose sees water fountains, and Tom hears lions roaring. These outbursts will trigger further outbursts from the children who are sensitive toward outbursts in general. Reasoning with the children or bribing them with sweets will not help, since the reasons and bribes you offer them will never have as much force with them as the stimuli to which they are “set” to respond. If you want to accomplish this mission peacefully, without so many disruptions, so that a good time is had by all, you will plan very carefully to avoid certain stimuli, or to have distractions at the ready, or you may choose to break the group into smaller groups and direct them toward attractions which won’t trigger the responses of the kids in that particular group.
You yourself are being driven by a desire to get to the zoo and back with as little suffering as possible. It is true that you too may be distracted, or succumb to your shameful desire to ditch the kids and go grab a beer. So you may prepare for yourself certain strategies or mantras to keep yourself on task; if you are mature enough, you may be able to stay on task by promising yourself rewards for a job well done.
In the end, you will fail. There are simply too many ways for things to go wrong. You will run into an old college drinking buddy, or the lion cage will have moved, or some idiot will be honking a loud horn and passing out free balloons. When that happens, you will console yourself by recognizing that these things were beyond your control and could not have been avoided. And why will this be consoling? Because it diffuses the blame into the wider cosmos, and offers you no tangible object for meaningful regret, scorn, or hatred. You may even come to laugh over it, as you appreciate all the causes which conspired to ruin your day. And that, my friends, is the intellectual love of God.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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6 Responses to Spinoza’s trip to the zoo

  1. Rob says:

    …you will console yourself by recognizing that these things were beyond your control and could not have been avoided. And why will this be consoling? Because it diffuses the blame into the wider cosmos, and offers you no tangible object for meaningful regret, scorn, or hatred. You may even come to laugh over it, as you appreciate all the causes which conspired to ruin your day.

    This seems akin to what Nietzsche’s getting at in GM 2.15, except that one would have to contract “blame” to “self-blame”, since he appears to leave open the possibility that such an attitude towards oneself can coexist with both (1) being the target of punition on the part of others and (2) oneself targeting others with punition. He seems to be describing a sanction landscape in which reactive attitudes operate without false beliefs about freedom. (Which, I suppose, raises problems for those, like Tom Clark at Naturalism.org, who apparently think the reactive attitudes which support retributive practices like capital punishment are essentially predicated on false beliefs — so if we erode those beliefs, then the practices will eventually be abolished [an over-intellectualizing view I disagree with]). Another way of putting it is simply by quoting TI, “Errors” 7 where he calls for the cleansing (not the abolition) of sanctions of “the concepts of guilt and punishment”.

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  2. Huenemann says:

    I suppose this is what makes it so difficult to get beyond good and evil: getting beyond guilt and punishment.

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  3. Mike says:

    I’d really like to read Rob’s book on Nietzsche.

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  4. shaunmiller says:

    The more I think about this, there are a lot of similarities between Spinoza and the Stoics. Of course there are a few minor differences. The Stoics don’t have the intellectual love of God, for example. But are there any real differences between Spinoza and the Stoics on how to live your life? It seems almost the same. To put it another way, when it comes to living your life, what makes Spinoza and the Stoics different? Or do they even have a different answer?

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  5. Huenemann says:

    Mike — me too. Rob, you can have a contract with Talking Donkey Press whenever you like!

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  6. Huenemann says:

    Shaun – I think one major difference is that the Stoics seem to urge the extirpation of all emotions (at least according to Nussbaum, Therapy of Desire). The idea is that every emotion is rooted in some sort of judgmental error, usually with respect to how valuable/horrible something is. Get rid of the errors, and you get rid of the emotions.

    Spinoza, on the other hand, is happy to surf on the emotions which stem from an individual’s increase in power. So if for some weird reason, life throws pleasure and success your way, go with it for as long as it lasts. In short, Spinoza is still an egoist, whereas the Stoics are strangely aloof from self-interest.

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