Lessons From Spinoza (Guest Post)

LadyDay SpinozaLast week, I walked from Benedictus Spinoza’s birthplace in Amsterdam to his grave in the Hague, a journey of (on the slightly indirect route I selected) some 75 or so kilometres (50ish miles). It took me two full days. By the time I finished the first day, my legs were wobbling and my feet were blistered. By the time I finished the second day, each step made me cry.

Why would someone undertake a walk like this? I did it because I love Spinoza’s thought, and I admire Spinoza the man. In a way, I wanted to seal my relationship with Spinoza with a kind of grand gesture. This isn’t the first time. I celebrated my 40th birthday by getting a Spinoza tattoo. Now, I’m 44 — the same age at which Spinoza died, as it happens — and living in the U.K. for a year, which makes it easier for me than it usually is to travel to continental Europe. It occurred to me to visit Holland’s various Spinoza sites. As soon as I realized that the whole geography of Spinoza’s life fit into a walkable distance, the idea of doing the walk became an idée fixe for me.  The two things that particularly appealed to me about the idea were that such a walk would be both an embodied activity and a meditative activity, and that it would be difficult. Both of these themes are central to Spinoza’s thought.

In a way, it is surprising that Spinoza, the great 17th century rationalist philosopher, has anything to contribute to our ideas about embodiment. Some other prominent philosophers of the period — most notably Descartes — regarded the body as a mere vessel for the mind, and blamed the body for the errors of the mind. Our minds, on Descartes’s view, are (in some sense) infinite and transcendent. Perfection is at least in principle possible for them. Our bodies, on the other hand, are finite and corruptible. Worse, they can corrupt the minds to which they are intimately joined. For Descartes and his followers, carnality — embodiment — is to blame for our evil thoughts, our irrational thoughts, our errors, and our sins. One of his most influential followers — Malebranche — therefore argued that to be virtuous one must make oneself as much like a corpse as possible.

Spinoza was different. He regarded the mind and the body as just two ways of thinking about the very same thing. For Spinoza, the body isn’t some flawed vehicle we’re stuck in — it actually is us, just as much as our mind is. Indeed, the body just is the mind, but thought of as part of a physical system rather than as part of a system of ideas. Like most philosophers, Spinoza offered instructions on how to become wiser. His advice was the opposite of Malebranche’s. Where Malebranche says “Make yourself like a corpse,” Spinoza says, “No! You’re an organism, a living, breathing, complex organism operating in a system that involves tons of other organisms. The path to wisdom is understanding those systems in all their complexity.”

Thus, we find Spinoza offering the following sensible tips:

…to make use of what comes in our way, and to enjoy it as much as possible (not to the point of satiety, for that would not be enjoyment) is the part of a wise woman.* I say it is the part of a wise woman to refresh and recreate herself with moderate and pleasant food and drink, and also with perfumes, with the soft beauty of growing plants, with dress, with music, with many sports, with theatres, and the like, such as every woman may make use of without injury to her neighbour. For the human body is composed of very numerous parts, of diverse nature, which continually stand in need of fresh and varied nourishment, so that the whole body may be equally capable of performing all the actions, which follow from the necessity of its own nature; and, consequently, so that the mind may also be equally capable of understanding many things simultaneously. This way of life, then, agrees best with our principles, and also with general practice… (Ethics IV.45 cor. 2)

* Ok, I admit it. Spinoza says “man” and “he/him”, here and throughout. But isn’t it better this way?

Many sports, not just sports but many sports.

We ought to play many sports (and eat and drink nice things in moderation and take time out for the theatre and listen to music and do a little gardening…) because our bodies are complex and benefit from a variety of types of nourishment, exercise and stimuli. Not just that — physical variety is important for our intellectual lives because our minds and bodies aren’t really different things at all. Understanding means understanding bodies.

Sometimes, when you’re sitting at a desk for hours, or whizzing around in a car or a plane, it’s easy to make the Cartesian mistake of thinking of the body as a vessel (like the desk, the car, or the plane). But any runner knows how rich that sequence of thoughts are that occur on a long run. They’re not just rich; they’re connected to our surroundings in a much more intimate way than they are when you’re stuck at a desk or on a plane. In those more contained environments, one tends to have controlled thoughts — the thoughts that one plans to have. Here I am at my desk thinking about this task that I have to perform. Here I am on the plane thinking about the article I’m reading. When we confine the body, it’s easy(ish) to confine the mind too.

You can do that to an extent during exercise. I’ve certainly taken runs or walks or bike rides in which I’ve intentionally focused on some problem or another. And, in some ways, we’re way better at solving such problems when we’re exercising. But I challenge you to actually go on a run or walk or ride and never once have your thoughts turn to your environment, on the one hand, and to the rich phenomenology of being in a real live body, on the other.

For me, on my long walk, this meant lots of thoughts about Dutch waterfowl and architecture, and the ubiquity of bicycles in the Netherlands, and the terrible toll of the Second World War on Dutch jewry, and the surprising similarities between rural Northern Dutch culture and the culture of rural Eastern Ontario. It also meant lots of noticing how feet and calves and knees and hips and iliosacral joints feel after one hour of walking, two hours, four hours, eight hours… It meant remembering that pain in itself isn’t dangerous and, so long as you genuinely aren’t in danger, can even be really interesting. When your feet really, really hurt, I learned, it is easier to keep walking than to resume walking after a rest. I relearned (because I first learned this when I was training for a half marathon a couple of years ago) that it is easier to approach a long physical challenge by thinking of it in terms of a collection of small challenges with small rewards. (Once you’ve passed that windmill, you can look at your watch. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you can have a handful of nuts.)

If you asked me whether my big Spinoza walk depended on physical stamina or mental stamina, I would reject the question as unintelligible. In this instance, at least, physical and mental stamina are two sides of the same coin — a most Spinozist result.

The walk, though, wasn’t just an opportunity to explore firsthand and without distraction the inseparability of embodiment and intellection. It was also a challenge — a chance to undertake a difficult task. I won’t say too much about this. If you didn’t understand the appeal of difficulty, you wouldn’t be reading a blog about fitness and feminism. Part of what makes fitness fun is pushing oneself to achieve a difficult result. Feminism, of course, means undertaking a whole other set of difficulties, more difficult ones usually than are required by our fitness efforts, and alas not always fun.

While it might be surprising at first to learn that Spinoza has useful things to say about embodiment, it should be entirely unsurprising that he understood difficulty. After all, his parents and grandparents were forced from Spain to Portugal to France to Holland by a succession of anti-semitic laws sweeping Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries. Spinoza himself was forced out of the Amsterdam Jewish community, and then wrote one of the most notoriously difficult works in western philosophy despite poverty, ill health and a day job grinding lenses.

Spinoza’s final words in that work remind us why we try to do difficult things. He writes, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” That is, if something is desirable and yet uncommon, it must be hard to get or to do. The difficulty doesn’t make such goals less excellent, though. On the contrary, your willingness to undertake a difficult and rare achievement is evidence of just how excellent it is. Think of it: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” If that isn’t the right motto to repeat as you push yourself to finish a ridiculously long walk, or to shave 1/10 of a second off your race time, or to add a triple axel to your routine, or to score a goal against the toughest defence you’ve ever encountered, then I don’t know what is.

Shannon Dea is an associate professor of philosophy at University of Waterloo. Her hobbies include hiking, doing yoga, missing the swell bike that’s waiting for her back in Canada, and sticking to cockamamie plans once she’s gotten them stuck in her head.