Saturday, 21 November 2009

Spinoza and the Twilight of Stoic Rationalism

This post is prompted most immediately by teaching, though it also fits in with other things I am contemplating. Spinoza’s Ethics is a continuation of the kind of Stoic virtue theory I referred to in my last post. The Stoics turned the earlier virtue theory in a direction which gave maximum emphasis to the idea of the domination of desires by the will, which was already in Platonic and Aristotelian ethics. It was that understanding which dominated Early Modern ethics, and cultural assumptions about ethics well into the 18th Century, and certainly influenced Kant at the end of the century.

So the influence of Stocism continued well after Spinoza who died in 1677. Nevertheless there was a twilight in which Spinoza looks like the last stand of Neo-Stoic Rationalism. What is emerging, at that time or soon after, will not fit in the Neo-Stoic Rationalist paradigm. The discussion of the origin of moral ideas in the sensations that we find in Hobbes, Locke and Hume does not belong in the older ethics. If we turn away from theoretical philosophical ethics to the broader cultural context, we can think about the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld in the 17th century. They had a power to shock in the 18th century, as can be seen in the reactions of David Hume and Adam Smith, even if they were themselves investigating non-moral psychological sources of morality.

What La Rochefoucal emphasises in his aphorisms is the non-moral, and egocentric, motivations behinds apparently moral actions and phrases. He emphasises the passionate aspect of human nature, its desire for passionate love, and the difficulties of achieving the kind of communication desired by love. He does a lot to set up the concerns and style of French literature from Laclos to Proust. We can go back earlier than that to two literary works where he may have had and influence, and certainly connections with their authors, The Princess de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette and The Letters of Madame de Sévigné. Of course this is an extremely abrupt way of summing of literary history, but it is as good as such an abrupt summary can be, and this is not the place for more complexity.

My point here is the contrast and congruence, between Spiniza’s Rationalist Neo-Stoic ethics and the new emphasis on the labyrinth of the passions in literature and thought. The contrast is between La Rochefoucauld and Spinoza’s denigration of emotions in relation to reason. The congruence is the labyrinth Spiniza himself recognises in which the least bad emotions have to be used against the worst emotions in order to lead individuals towards reason. There is a far far greater sense in Sponoza than in his predecessors of the complexity and interaction of the emotions, and of irrational motives. This also reflects the complex interactions of nature, even on a mechanical model, in Early Modern science and the very noticeable rise of commercial society in the 17th Century Dutch Republic, already producing treatises that anticipate aspects of Smith’s economic treatise.

Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons and Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations compared with Spinoza: Spinoza looks like the last Rationalist Neo-Stoic. An oversimplification, but not a terrible one.

No comments: