Part I – The nature and significance of the conatus
Spinoza’s ‘conatus’ is a signal concept of his thought and one which appears as an axiom of modern treatments, particularly those of a political nature. Famously, the conatus doctrine provides:
Each thing insofar as it is in itself, endeavours to persevere in its being.
PROPOSITIO VI. Unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur.
Traditionally the source of this doctrine has been identified as an amalgam of Hobbes and Descartes. From Hobbes Spinoza takes the view that this endeavour is an infinitesimal striving which characterises (human) individuality and is the origin of consciousness; from Descartes he draws the idea that this striving is explicable in entirely rational terms as a kind of inertia. The result is a mechanisation of consciousness in which our lived duration is characterised by the struggle of continued being—the resistance to annihilation.
From this reading a characterisation of Spinoza’s philosophy flows in which all is struggle, an indefinite State of Nature in which Natural Right is regarded as a claim that ‘might makes right’ — each thing has as much natural right as it is actually able to exercise in the world.
But, like the rule in Foss v Harbottle (1843), the conatus is actually two principles which seem to have been run together at the expense of one. In fact it is worse—I believe no-one in the modern period has ever remarked that Spinoza posits another conatus, which reads as follows:
In this life therefore we endeavour [conamur] above all that the body of infancy be changed [mutetur] into another body which is capable of a great many things, and which is related to a mind which is very much conscious of itself, of God, and of things. Ethics V Proposition 39
In hac vita igitur apprime conamur, ut corpus infantiae in aliud, quantum eius natura patitur eique conducit, mutetur, quod ad plurima aptum sit, quodque ad mentem referatur, quae sui et Dei et rerum plurimum sit conscia;
Of course it is not enough merely to have spotted this. The question is, why is it there and why should it be granted the architectonic integrality of the classic conatus? After all, this could just be the throwaway comment of a man known for his small Latin. It is this that I would like to explore, with reference to Spinoza’s theory of natural right insofar as this is treated by him as a cornerstone of his political theory.
Part II – The political as the cause of being
To do this I need to set the scene a little by trying to show what is at stake in Spinoza’s mechanisation of the conatus and the possibility of its becoming, and in doing so sketch out the consequences for his theory of natural right. To do this I am going to trace the ‘notion’ of command that founds natural right for some of Spinoza’s contemporaries. For historical reasons, the notion of command was tied up both with the will to obey and with the act of thinking and, it must be said, partly to avoid accusations of heresy we can see explorations of (dis)obedience taking place within epistemological debates.
Thirteenth century Oxford then, and developments in Scholastic epistemology, and here I draw broadly on the works of Anton Schuetz and Massimiliano Traversino, and Andre de Muralt. The Franciscan Duns Scotus proposed to escape to a certain degree the consequences of Aristotle’s philosophy—notably the perceived incompatibility of predestined final causes with God’s absolute power—by positing a division by God before time of the orders of the world into:
(i) the physical world of matter and form; and
(ii) a metaphysical world of specific and generic degrees.
This evidently creates a problem: by this difference the individual cannot be sure if what she imagines represented subjectively is what is there physically.
Duns Scotus was obliged to replace the problematic Aristotelean transcendental causes of unity between matter and form with a tertium quid—a screen as it were between the orders which ensured the coherence and unity of the two. In a certain sense it acted as the ‘orderer’ of the relation between the two orders; it is their reality.
At one level, the level of ordered power, the tertium quid permitted a causal nexus whereby things occurring physically would cause corresponding representations metaphysically. This dualism was clearly problematic, for what ensured coherence between the physical and metaphysical worlds?
Now tertium quid also allowed a subtle explanation of the possibility of true knowledge. For example, the tertium quid was the ‘place’ in which God could illuminate people i.e. God through His absolute power could cause a true representation – having objective being or esse objective – to appear in a mind. Such a representation which was true and, critically, self-evidently true. The screen, as it were, not only brought together the things of the world as the coherence of a thinker’s mind, but acted to illuminate the contents. The more intense the illumination, the more clear and distinct the thing became, the more reality and so truth it had. This revelation was for Scotus by the grace of God, for it was in God’s absolute power to choose to whom truth would be revealed by His intervention in the tertium quid.
Scotus’ follower, William of Occam, pressed this logic much further. He rightly asked how the physical world could cause representations in the metaphysical, and denied the same. Yet at the same time he denied the esse objectivo—after all de potentia absoluta God could create a representation that did not correspond with reality. We are left with nominalism and doubt: the subject is alone in a world of species and genera and must make do by attempting herself to establish truth via what Occam terms the experience of an intuitive notitia or notion.
Further critical explorations of the boundaries of hetreodoxy implied by the Scotist philosophy were undertaken by such as Nicolas d’Autrecourt and Gregory of Rimini, and the critical engagement with the tradition continued into Late Scholasticism and so informed the curriculum of the Jesuit schools. So we come to one of their pupils, Descartes, and the discovery of the one intuitive notion which must be true: the cogito, or at least, the thinking. The whole first meditation involving the evil genius is [and was understood at the time (by Voetius at al.) as] a debate with Occam’s God positing the false esse objective: the Deus deceptor that is summum potens & callidus. The contemporary significance of the cogito is that irrespective of God the finite subject can through intuition constitute its own representation of itself which has the radically different reality (truth) of the esse objective. This power is absolute in that it is first cause of self, irrespective of whether God is involved.
And this constitution by consciousness is this consciousness itself—the circularity is deliberate—and accordingly insofar as it is constituted it occurs irrespective of the fluctuations of the mind and the representations that pass across it. In other words it is self-sufficient and autonomous.
What does this have to do with command?
There is a direct parallel in this line of thought between ideas and the will. Duns Scotus holds that there is neither good nor evil in the physical or ‘metaphysical’ worlds and that the determinations of the subject are incapable of being described as such i.e. moral or immoral. God has created the order of the two worlds—their parallelism is ensured by what is termed God’s ordered power. In Scotist thought ordered power is clearly equated with the legal order as instantiated in medieval feudalism.
So where does morality come from, if it is not in the world? The ideas of moral truths come from God as moral laws in the tertium quid. They are chosen by virtue of God’s residual prerogative; His absolute power; God as supreme legislator could have chosen another law. He could change the moral law tomorrow by varying the tertium quid.
It is certainly not a question here of presenting a thing – a sign or symbol – to us stamped on the world which somehow informs of what is good or bad. The tertium quid is not the text, but the paper, and the divine commands are communicated by a continued folding of the paper whereby the textual elements are constantly permuted, combined, and varied, and done so according to degrees of intensity. On this model, which Leibniz would deepen, the combination to infinity is the most intense restructuring of the possibilities of a world. And for intensity read the power that caused it and so the reality that which is combined expresses. Hence the good is communicated by the structure of the tertium quid insofar as it recombines the the things of a world and implicates intensity into that combination. Revelation occurs not by the appearance of a supernatural thing, but by the intensification of a natural thing, which seems to shine forth (scheinen).
For those contemporaries who accepted free will as core to any orthodox theology, when we will, the will is called good only if it wills the Good as given in reality. A Scholastic claim, but already found in Seneca’s mitigation of Stoic doctrine for Roman tastes. Unsurprisingly, the Highest Good is deemed to be God as having the greatest reality towards which soul should turn. For the theologian the will should consider the world’s expression of this God (usually identified with God made flesh) and turn towards it as obediance to the highest command.
This is the nature of the command that comes down to Early Modern natural right theories—not specifically an order written somewhere, but a being of reality, of the screen that binds or (re-)ligatures thought to physical world. One will appreciate what is at stake politically in such a thesis, but the power of the doctrine itself was manifested not so much in orthodoxy and control, but in the extension of its logic beyond the limits carefully circumscribed by the Church.
Although ius (right) has always supported a multitude of meanings, we might broadly characterise the mainstream C17th theory of right as follows:
(Premise) a right is the fruit of a command;
(Premise) a command is given by a sovereign to a subject;
(Theological truth) God is the sovereign of the world;
(Consequence) The commands of God are rights and, by virtue of the supreme authority of the source, they are marked as natural rights, commanded at the beginning of the world and superior to every other right.
But what does the cogito mean for the command? Descartes hardly pursues the dangerous consequences of his thought, for if thought is free to constitute its own truth, is not the will free to give itself its own corresponding command, to love itself because for itself it is its own highest reality?
Spinoza has fewer such qualms. Ideas and will are bluntly equated and it is each thing thus making clear the political significance of his extension of the epistemelogical doctrine. And what is this extension? That while God or Nature is immanent cause of the being (and so reality of every thing), each thing is that causal nexus of God or Nature in the world, a truth evidenced by the highest relaity and truth of self-consciousness. The subject is placed at the heart of thought and of will as the cause of the structure of consciousness which assumes a role akin to the tertium quid. And this is a consciousness set in infinite motion as the effluxion of the affects of the attributes of God or Nature. In other words, the constant refolding of conciousness inherent in being the subject of God or Nature’s immanent power grants to the modern subject the absolute power of synthesising consciousness, and so of constantly moving to reorder its own will, its own immanent command.
As a corollary of his negative critique of the anthropomorphic God, Spinoza strips natural right of any legitimation through transcendent command. Yet he persists in deploying natural right as a keystone of his political philosophy now under a rigorous definition:
Natural right = finite and/or infinite power extended along a line
equals the transition (if any) of a certain proportion of: motion to rest [i.e. the power [potentia] of operating] of some machine defined by its willing of its: common nature, and particular nature, [i.e. the power [potestas] of existing] to the extent that this produces some actual, quantitative effect.
The core of this definition is this: that we produce our natural right, it is the product of our labour—it is nothing other than work.
As can be seen from the definition, a component of natural right is the power of existing. This refers us to the conatus doctrine that each thing endeavours to persevere in its being (unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur); a doctrine developed from Hobbes’ theory that the body endeavours to survive (resist) and the perception of this willing is called conatus. One of the chief results of our research (published as Spinoza, right and absolute freedom) has been to establish that Spinoza’s definition requires that there be two aspects to the conatus: (a) the well-established endeavour to persevere in being and (b) a previously overlooked endeavour to persevere in becoming.
But have these Cartesians, as Malebranche fretted, merely replaced one ineffable absolute with another? Is the modern condition instantiated by a free will which knows that it wants, but does not know what it wants?
My book is partly about establishing the depth of Spinoza’s response to this criticism even before it arose—Spinoza’s reality is structured and determinate, yet still allows freedom. Or better, freedom is the necessary and determinate consequence of an unremitting determinism. There are things we can say about the free will, about the aspects and variations of its being.
This is possible because Spinoza inverts power. For Scotus power is what God as first being exercises in choosing our reality—the prince exercising absolute power. For Spinoza the essence of God is His power (potentia) and all that is in His power (potestas), and as such power is determinative of God’s and our being.
It is power that determines consciousness as a field of degrees of reality. It is power that determines the Good. It is power that determines God.
This is why the thoroughgoing mechanisation of Hobbes’ political thought using a development of Cartesian mechanics is so important for Spinoza and so shocking for his contemporaries. Hobbes understands how power struggles order reality—in other words, as Paul Ricoeur might argue—how politics supersedes God as the ground of being.
In his 1973 paper What is Politics? Giovanni Sartori describes the historical autonomization process of politics vis-à-vis other social spheres—there arises a belief about politics that it is (1) different (2) independent (3) self-sufficient and (4) first cause, generating not only itself but given its causal supremacy everything else (including law).
Politics becomes the prime mover and so assumes the place of God. The question is what kind of God is this?
One school of modernity into which Hobbes might be said to fall holds on to absolute power. Politics as struggle determines reality in the State of Nature. A political order is required to end politics by constituting that order. A powerful sovereign will be required to make such decisions as a necessary to protect the political order by holding the door closed to politics. The command of this sovereign—his will—is the good to which the wills of citizens should turn to ensure their security. Their natural right in the state of nature is now modulated by political realities.
Another school, drawing on the potential of an Occamian, Franciscan theory in favour of the poor and dispossessed, would stress the absolute contingency of human laws and the freedom of humans to decide their futures with utter permissiveness. A version of this can be found in the English Revolution and espoused by Vaughan. Here permissiveness extended to all things deemed natural i.e. not directed in the Ten Commandments.
Spinoza operates a synthesis of the two. As I have indicated, following Descartes Spinoza claims that consciousness is constituted of each thing’s struggle to persevere in its being. This has two results:
To Hobbes Spinoza will state that the State of Nature—political struggle—continues in the city and can never end. Political struggle is the very condition of our reality. To latter day Occamists: political struggle is about constructing reality. We as Gods unto ourselves have the absolute power to constitute political reality. Remember, the orders of the world are neither good nor evil—the screen of consciousness is there where our absolute right will constitute our objective political being.
It is for this reason that when Spinoza defines the city as the highest civil right, or the highest authority of right [summarum potestatem ius], he is expressly not speaking of a particular political or legal order (democracy, monarchy, aristocracy) but the being common to all of these which derives from the citizens that make up this right (for more on being social see further Matthews & Mulqueen (2015)).
And in each case the common factor is that the right that constitutes the city is the right of the people en masse acting as if with one mind. So to underline this, Spinoza is looking for the constitution of a political order in popular consciousness, and is granting to the people who share that consciousness the capacity to determine its form, and thus the form which is willed by the people as their common Good.
Any group of people may in their interactions determine the good state as the very condition of their practical knowledge—as a form of consciousness which organises particular ideas.
But Spinoza does not stop here.
Part III – From political being to political becoming
The question always addressed to Spinoza is how in his determinist system anyone can choose otherwise than that which happens. Spinoza could have posited consciousness, with Descartes and others, as free will, but in fact consciousness is entirely determined by its struggle.
We need to return to our screen. I have talked a lot about Scholasticism but Spinoza is very widely read. He has not forgotten the question of Being. But he believes Being is constituted by power of two kinds.
Being must be considered according to these axes: potentia and potestas (see again the definition of natural right). That is the mechanical definition Spinoza gives because he is working using the physics of his time; but he is heroically trying to explain being using these constructions.
In essence he believes that in our mechanical being our consciousness is absolutely determined, and rationally we can consider this according to dynamics, but ultimately we need to start thinking in terms of necessary gradations of power. Part of the driver for these gradations is Spinoza’s need to explain how God or Nature can bear different characteristics. He spends a great time explaining to others that the appearance of our world as different types of matter is all down to variations of the same principles—that there is a spectrum along which there are jumps between material phenomena: transitions.
And the spectrum is determined by the interrelation of power.
On the one hand we have potentia: determination to act; an enlivenment or, Descartes would say, a contraction, of consciousness.
On the other we have the much maligned potestas: a thing’s nature; how this thing will necessarily act according to its natural laws. Coaction, as Seneca would say.
If we just take those two elements of natural right and ignore the specific work that is produced for a moment, we can draw a plane of the aspects of consciousness.
At the root of Spinoza’s claim, which at once physicalizes the Scotist metaphysical degrees of thought and places it as tertium quid, is that consciousness can go through great mutations as it varies as to power. This is to say that the quanta of power are not smooth; as a thing passes up the scale there are qualitative leaps in which the order of the thing, and so the content of its consciousness, is rearranged.
Remember, consciousness is conceived as the site of a particular ‘ordering’ of the relation of ideas and bodies. If consciousness admits of mutations—of distinct types of cognition—then as power increases the very order of reality of our world changes.
This leads us to reconceive the multitude as no londer a seemingly incoherent mob, only analogously of one mind, but now as itself consciousness in action under a qualitatively distinct degree of power. This new quality of consciousness, beyond rational cognition, is only revealed in the latter difficult stages of the Ethics, and no wonder. We can only appreciate and love multitudes if we can first understand their genetic link to the transitions of our own consciousness to teh highest form of knowledge: intuition. For intuition is the fostering, that is the love, of multitudes. Just as consciousness in intuition is able to nuture many different affects and so achieve creation, so the multitude is capable in its most intense moments of constitituting leaps in the political order. How can it be said that a multitude should be of one mind only when that characteristic which makes the emperor tremble – the sudden revolt – is defined as the passage of one mind to another? There is no glorying in this for Spinoza; it is a simple consequence of his principles – the ruler should never fool himself into believing that politics only comes from lawful, constitutional procedures. A political theory which discounts the multitude is mutilated, confused, and doomed to fail.
It is this structural possibility of transitions in mass consciousness that is a source for the materialist notion of consciousness raising.
It is not simply a case of placing objective ideas into consciousness as representations of the political Good. Consciousness must be raised through the intensification of political struggle-in which political actors synthesise the very tools with which they will increase their power-so that the existing order of the world is seen under a new light.
In fact certain of these mutations of consciousness occur every day between the affective realm of the passions and the first kind of reason. Something cosmopolitan occurs; we experience all of us these fundamental variations in the conditions of cognition and as such already are on the path to raised consciousness.
Consider Vermeer’s music lesson. The tutee concentrates fully on the keyboard in attempt correctly to play the exercise. The tutor stands at once formally, cane straight down, but rests one hand lazily on the harpsichord. Discomfort perhaps. Yet the screen – the mirror – does not simply reflect, but reorders this situation. The screen shows us the woman’s head turned towards the man; it is not a reflection at all but inconsistent with the present reality, but what is it? The present ‘reality’ is reimbued with the affective weight of this new information. In the older sense of reality, which is linked very much to the power of a thing, it is the screen’s reordering of the present which burns with a greater reality. Is this the will of the woman? Of the man? Has it been interposed by the creator of the scene, and how much are we implicated in the construction of this order by our reading of it?
Vermeer’s mirror/screen, I would say, discloses something deeper and more in tune with Renaissance thought. It is the music that is being played which is bending the screen. Or perhaps more correctly, we are asked to consider a modulation of our ‘seeing’ of this set piece. The screen’s power only makes sense if it has this or that form – this or that modality. The modes of the music played take up the information of the situation and mould them into peaks and troughs. Affect handles the ideas as the potter’s hand guides the clay. Nothing is added to the situation; it is simply, powerfully rearranged by a restructuring of the modes. By appreciating the significance of the screen in act we see music in its inmost: as the synthesis of ideas or bodies according to a modal ethic.
Spinoza has generalised this result, for modes are now everywhere, composing and recomposing in a discordant multitude. Yet as Vermeer shows, now and again a peak is attained in the cacophony and our consciousness resonates. It is because we have glimpsed with the eyes of our mind already the possibility of this path—that our reality has taken on varied modalities of the Good—that our will is bent towards the greater reality that we have encountered, and so on to the Highest Good.
Importantly in this regard Spinoza equates consciousness with desire. We produce our reality and in this reality we synthesise the Good. We desire this Good that we have made for ourselves and are moved towards it.
The human body is considered as a complex mechanism. It builds for itself new powers: greater strength, longer limbs, speech, thoughts, words, ideas. The human body produces for itself the conditions in the improvement of its own reality. This endeavour is that to which Spinoza refers in EVP39: this endeavour to bring about great mutations in the self. Yes we desire to persevere in our being, but also yes we desire to mutate ourselves, to become otherwise. The doctrine is already found in the Early Stoa, and takes up new life as the Nietzschean will to power. At the heart of Spinozism there is not a submission to being, but a struggle between a desire to be and a desire to reconstruct all the being that is in a new way.
Elsewhere in the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione and the Tractatus politicus Spinoza is clear on the breadth of the means to this mutation.
The Ethics is (as Deleuze said) a machine whereby the reader is taken as if by the hand to experience the mutations of consciousness. The Ethics is a collection of concepts and concepts are for Spinoza tools, tools constructed as products of our natural right or work. It is by means of tools that we achieve more, construct better tools; soon machines construct machines. At each stage a machine is constituted by a rearrangement of bodies, leads to an increase of power, produces a re-foundation of the order of ideas. The modal harmony of the Renaissance is replaced by the material conditions or modes of production. The determinate conditions of production are deeply tied up with the capacity of a society in achieving a mutation of political consciousness.
So this is becoming in Spinoza’s thought. It is born of political struggle; it lives as the natural right of each in the city to constitute their political reality; though attempts to grasp it may be crushed it continues as the very horizon of politics itself sub specie aeternitatis.
Stephen Connelly is the author of Spinoza, right and absolute freedom (2015: Birkbeck Law Press, Routledge) and Assistant Professor at the School of Law, University of Warwick.