At the end of the last post I wrote on the US election, I ended with a quote from Dave Chappelle taken from his recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, which on reflection poses a particular question, specifically with the depths of the dejection, flat out disbelief and hurt that’s been felt by many following the results of the US election and perhaps more importantly the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis, how is it possible to find a way to continue to find joy in existence? This perhaps sounds incredibly dramatic.
However as I write this a march consisting of thousands of Trump supporters is currently descending upon Washington D.C where Trump is set to declare himself the winner1 meanwhile on the ground responses range from refusing to accept Joe Biden as the winner2 a perhaps strangely familiar line given the similar responses to the 2016 election to despair over the future of America3. At this moment in time COVID-19 has claimed over 244,000 American lives and cases appear to be accelerating with at last count well over 100,000 cases being registered every day4.
Providing a simple response to this question is very much beyond the scope of this entry but there is perhaps a particularly useful way to consider it which can be found in the writings of Spinoza. For, Spinoza specific emotions, which he defines as affects, “follow from the same source of nature as other singular things” as such these same emotions can be explained and analyzed in the same manner in which Spinoza explained God and Nature as a question of “lines, planes and bodies”. Joy, in this framework is related to pleasure where pleasure is defined as “a passive state wherein the mind passes to a greater perfection” and joy is “pleasure arising from the image of something past whereof we have doubted the issue”.
What I find particularly useful for our purposes follows in the next proposition “The mind, as far as possible, endeavors to conceive those things which increase or help the body’s power of activity”. Activity and passivity in Spinoza’s framework is best defined by the following quote “I say that we are active when something takes place within us or out of us, of which we are the adequate cause, i.e when from our nature something follows either within us or out of us, which can be clearly understood by that nature alone. On the other hand I say that we are passive when something takes place in us or follows from our nature, of which we are only the partial cause.”.
Joy then could equally be seen as an affect which coincides with an entities perception of an increase in power. Sadness correspondingly is the opposite, an affect which corresponds with an entities decrease in power. The missing ingredient is that joy and correspondingly sadness, according to Spinoza, can be active or passive dependent on the entities understanding of where this affect arises from. Without this understanding we are merely at the whim of these emotions, this is what Spinoza refers to as a passion, however as Spinoza subsequently explains with understanding comes joy. Or rather:
The mind, as far as possible, endeavors to conceive those things which increase or help the body’s power of activity (III. xii.); in other words (III. xii. note), those things which it loves. But conception is helped by those things which postulate the existence of a thing, and contrariwise is hindered by those which exclude the existence of a thing.
Perhaps now a picture begins to emerge of what exactly finding “a joy in existence in spite of that feeling” might mean. Returning a sense of activity, or perhaps another way of putting it self-determination to individuals, beyond the spectacle of MAGA’s palingenetic nationalism and beyond empty consumerism but firmly fixated on a future oriented liberation.
For Spinoza this isn’t something that’s necessarily bound to the typical ideas of altruism or worse charity. In seeking to develop our collective knowledge of our circumstances, the blockages to fulfilling our wishes and we are, according to Spinoza imbued with virtue. So then being able to locate these drives both within ourselves and each other, could be the starting point of a construction site for the dispersion of a joy beyond political partisanship and it’s winner take all corollary.
- Ethics (translated by R. H. M. Elwes),Baruch Spinoza