Spinoza and the Case for Philosophy


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Instead of appealing to classical references as an instrument of persuasion, Descartes considered them as ancillary to the systematic deduction of arguments.

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Instead of offering evidence, citations could take the attention of the reader from the argument at hand by an excessive appeal to imagination and the emotions of the audience. Hence, citing classical authors either as authority figures or as mere means of illustrating a commonsensical view could be deceitful.

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After all, the nature of citations is such that the idea conveyed comes originally from the author of the citation and, for this very reason, it does not count as an idea that had been autonomously conceived by the one who is citing. Moreover, the persuasive power of citations is directly connected with the reputation of its author, a characteristic that is disconnected from the argumentative context.

For those reasons, citations count as rhetorical and literary artifice to capture the readers by their imagination. Hence, Descartes avoided direct citations, committed that he was with active, and rational, knowledge. Proietti, , p. Sometimes, when citing, Spinoza uses syntagmas such as hispano poeta E4p39sch , illud poeta natum E4p17sch or simply illud poeta E3p31cor. Those syntagmas, when they are present, help the reader to map the reference and find out its author. Those references are common expressions associated with classical authors and, sometimes, full sentences quoted from their works.

Since the dialogue takes the form of crypto-citations, the interchange between Spinoza and the Roman classics is easily overlooked. This well-established literature on classical sources in Spinoza has been limited to exploring the relationship between Spinoza and his use of the Latin language. They do not, however, investigate the argumentative context in which the citations of classic authors appear.

Spinoza probably started studying Latin by himself, through a text of Ovid and of Seneca Proietti, , p. This discussion sometimes reduces the complexities of the issue and, although it is philologically fertile, it becomes philosophically sterile.

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For this reason, he lists more than 70 syntagmas that are either identical or similar to those of the Latin classics. The identity or similarity is taken to be an evidence that in those syntagmas Spinoza is either citing or referring to authors such as Tacit, Lucretius, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Seneca, and Suetonius. In the context of the discussions on the reception of classical literature in Early Modernity, the case of Spinoza is an example of the difficulties of investigating the presence and impact of the Roman classics in Early Modern works.

To engage with this question, the next section will focus on the case of Ovid and Spinoza, and, more specifically, on the citations of Ovid that appear in the Ethics.

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The choice of Ovid is justified by the coincidence of topics and approaches in the works of both the philosopher and the poet, as well as by the richness of philosophical topics that this comparison can bring to light. In the next section of the paper, the analysis will focus on the citations that appear in the Ethics. The hypothesis entertained is that they evidence two perspectival similarities: metaphysical and ethical. Finally, I will add to the analysis a fifth citation that has not been mapped by Proietti in an attempt to enlarge the list of places and topics that merit further investigation.

There are, at least, thirteen places in Spinoza displaying either direct, indirect or crypto-citations to Ovid Proietti, , p. The reference is in Ov. This passage is a citation from Ov.

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Amores II 19 20 Spinoza only changed the order of the original verses. Proietti sees those passages as general allusions to the Metamorphoses. XV Those crypto-citations show that in the Ethics Spinoza is in a healthy and emphatic exploration of Ovidian works and themes.

In this proposition, Spinoza is showing that the belief that we are free to act and control our emotions is a false belief. We understand that this belief is false when we experience of the conflict well expressed by Ovid: we sometimes see what is better, but we follow what is worse.

Spinoza further elaborates on this experience, by explaining that although we feel as if we could act according to what is best, that is, according to what we think is best, our actions are tied to our affects in such a way that we will act according to the emotions or affects that have a stronger effect in us. That is, the conflict between best and worse is not a conflict between an idea of a good action and an emotion towards a worse action, the true conflict is between two conflicting and contrary affects that are impelling us to act in these different directions.

Spinoza integrates Ov. VII to his argument because the experience described by Ovid can serve as means to improve our understanding about how and why we act.

Spinoza wants to show that reason does not have absolute control over the emotions. The context of the saying shows that Ovid and Spinoza are not exactly in agreement when it comes to the causes of our actions. But some strange power draws me against my will. Desire persuades me one way, reason another. I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse.

There is, then, a fundamental difference between Spinoza and Ovid that the full context of the citation brings to light. Spinoza and Ovid do not agree with respect to the causes of our actions. However, they both share the understanding that we only relative power potentia over our actions. With this quote, Spinoza wants to show the workings of desire, sadness, and happiness: we get pleasure from imagining what others love.

If we suppose that some other person loves the same person or object that we love, our love for this person or thing will be increased. However, following the same pattern of the former citation, Ovid is not merely being used for the sake of illustration, instead, Spinoza is thinking Ovid. Spinoza wants to claim that the endeavor to have what one loves or to be loved by everyone is ambition, not love. Ovid, instead, is claiming that lovers love and hate the same objects, describing the powers of love through the mechanisms of desire: only a man with a cold or an iron heart would not love the same object that is already loved by someone.

But what Ovid calls love, Spinoza understands ambition and passive affect. The citation, in this case, is a step in the demonstration of our lower kinds of emotional experience. Spinoza cites Ovid to argue that this kind of fluctuation, although common, does not express the most genuine experience of love. The highest kind of love does not fluctuate due to external causes. It depends only on the direct relationship between the one who loves and the loved object. The degree of love will depend on the quality of the object of love and its capacity to increase and strengthen the existence of the one who loves.

That is why amor intellectualis dei is, for Spinoza, the foundation for an ethical life. The third and fourth citations concern the metaphysical themes that are common to the philosopher and the poet. In the first part of the Ethics , Spinoza argues that nature is a composite of individuals that form a single whole.

Those individuals are modifications of the single substance, and, for this reason, they share common characteristics. While maintaining their singular identities, individuals are different from one another. Spinoza was aware of a potential counterargument to his defense of the existence of multiplicity as modes of a single substance. From the definition of a single substance and its identification with nature and god, a careless deduction would lead to absurd conclusions.

For example, that if the substance modifies itself in an infinite number of ways, why then can stones not be transformed into human beings, men into stars or women into laurel trees? In the first part of the Ethics , Spinoza cites Ovid to illustrate what a reductio ad absurdum to his argument would lead to:. E1p8sch2 [G II 49, ]. This citation, as Curley points out in a note, is a clear reference to the theme of the Metamorphoses. Spinoza and Ovid share the interest in the changes or transformations that happen in nature.

Ovid, as a poet, explores linguistically and imaginatively the extent of those changes. In the opening lines of the book 1 of the Metamorphoses, Ovid defines his theme as the mutata formas corpora 12 and asks the Gods to guide him through the words since they are responsible for all kinds of change, including the ones in language.

Spinoza, in his turn, is also trying to explain how nature as well as language changes. He tries to remain close to what can be objectively described in order to describe the causes and the limits of bodily change. The verse is in the very beginning of the Metamorphoses and marks the shift from chaos to an ordered nature.


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