Spinoza's Resting Place for Desire
Etienne Fessard, Baruch de Spinoza, c. 1730 (detail)
by Simon Calder
Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics
New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2021. 288 pp
What is the relevance to you, today, of a “new reading” of a text composed three and a half centuries ago? And what is the relevance to Spinoza, whose Ethics was banned by the Catholic Church in 1677, of a book called Spinoza’s Religion?
Clare Carlisle grapples with both of those questions in the Introduction to her timely book, Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of The Ethics:
Given Spinoza’s resistance to what commonly passes for religion, the title of this book contains an irony, and perhaps for some a provocation. At the same time, it is entirely in earnest. The book offers a new interpretation of Spinoza’s Ethics which takes seriously the question of its religious and theological import. At the same time … it suggests that understanding Spinoza’s religion forces us to rethink the concept of religion itself. And this is no coincidence, since our modern category of religion, structured by notions of belief and belonging, ideology and identity, rose to prominence during Spinoza’s century.
Spinoza’s Religion concerns us since it demonstrates that it is only when read through the lens of a modern category to which it presents an alternative that Spinoza’s Ethics appears irreligious. More specifically, Carlisle outlines how Spinoza “proposes both a speculative theology and a philosophy of religious life,” and that “the seventeenth-century Christian churches might have been better fortified against the challenges of modernity if they had embraced Spinozism.”
The following three sections of this review endeavour to foreground the relevance of Carlisle’s book to readers with little faith in religion or familiarity with Spinoza. This will be done by illuminating some distinctive features of Carlisle’s important book, then bringing it into conversation with contemporary best-sellers Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience by Brené Brown and Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear.
One reason why I am so enthusiastic about Carlisle’s book is that its thesis parallels that of the chapter, “George Eliot, Spinoza and the Ethics of Literature,” that I contributed to Edinburgh University Press’ Spinoza Beyond Philosophy in 2012.
Indeed, novelist George Eliot gets a couple of important mentions in Spinoza’s Religion. First, in the Introduction:
George Eliot, who produced the first English translation of the Ethics in the 1850s, and whose fiction evinces the text’s deep influence on her intellectual formation, wrote of her novel Daniel Deronda that “I meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there.” Spinoza might well have said the same thing about the Ethics.
This focus on the interdependence of parts is central to Spinoza’s philosophy, but few interpreters of the Ethics have applied awareness of this reality to Spinoza’s text as thoroughly as Carlisle does in her new book.
The other shout out to Eliot comes in what I believe to be the most ground-breaking chapter of Spinoza’s Religion, “chapter 6: Acquiescentia.” Indeed, Eliot is there recognised as having come closer than any other translator of the Ethics to finding “an adequate English translation” of the crucial Latin phrase acquiescentia in se ipso:
Marian Evans—who took the pseudonym George Eliot soon after completing the first English translation of the Ethics in 1856—chose ‘self-contentment’, which remains perhaps the best rendering of acquiescentia in se ipso, and has been revived by Spinoza’s most recent translators.
The most impressive thing about Spinoza’s Religion is how it integrates disciplined attention to especially salient particulars — such as the meaning, for Spinoza, of acquiescentia in se ipso — and acknowledgment of the interdependence of all parts of Spinoza’s text. If this achievement can be traced back to one choice made by Carlisle that would be her idiosyncratic identification of twenty-six “super-propositions,” each of which are circled back to at least ten times over the course of the Ethics. These “super-propositions” are, metaphorically, “the system’s strongest foundations, its thickest load-bearing columns.”
As Carlisle emphasises, “from Part Two of the text [Of the Nature & Origin of the Mind], the distinction between three kinds of cognition at E24OS2 and the discussion of imagination and error at E2P17S both make the list.” It is with attention to Spinoza’s distinction between three kinds of cognition that I opened my chapter on Spinoza, George Eliot and the Ethics of Fiction, and Carlisle’s more extensive investigation of the impact of that aspect of Spinoza’s philosophy on his ethics and philosophy of religious life is what makes her book so important. As Carlisle emphasises, when we really reckon with it as much as the text encourages, Spinoza’s critique of the first kind of cognition, imagination, “begins to appear even more radical than his critique of Descartes’ metaphysics, or of Calvinist theology.”
Spinoza’s first kind of cognition, imagination, differs from reason and intuition in that it “signifies the activity of undisciplined, spontaneous, everyday, habitual thinking.” Without getting too lost in the weeds of Spinoza’s epistemology we can note that neurobiologist Antonio Damasio references Spinoza in the title of his book on “the feeling brain,” which affirms that Spinoza intuited truths about the nature of emotions and feelings and the relation of mind to body that modern neurobiologists are just now discovering.
Carlisle encapsulates the practical implications of Spinoza’s critique of the first kind of cognition clearly and succinctly:
In criticizing imaginative thinking, Spinoza was not talking about an aberration, nor about something that is confined to a certain group of people (the uneducated, the stupid or the insane), but calling into question virtually all our ordinary activity.
According to Carlisle’s persuasive argument, there are two distinct ways in which the Ethics is so constructed as to liberate us from common errors into which we are all prone to fall given the nature of our ordinary habitual “imaginative thinking.” Carlisle explicates:
The Ethics configures the experience of reading in a certain way: as we read, our minds follow its geometric method, moving between ideas in a logical sequence. The dynamic text thus inculcates the discipline of rational thinking [Spinoza’s second kind of cognition], as well as offering moments of scientia intuitive [Spinoza’s third kind of cognition].
Central to Carlisle’s case concerning Spinoza’s religion is her notion that “the Ethics resists the tendency of modern thought to see ratio as the highest form of knowledge, and thus to deny the mind’s repose.” Yes, the geometric form of the Ethics re-habituates readers to the second kind of cognition, ratio, and “Spinoza’s concept of scientia intuitiva places intellectual rest, alongside intellectual striving, at the heart of the human good.”
The remaining two sections of this review will use comparative analysis of Spinoza’s Religion and, first, Atlas of the Heart, then, Atomic Habits to drive home how timely and distinct a contribution Carlisle is making to contemporary inquiry concerning meaning-making and habit formation.
Insofar as Carlisle and Spinoza are focused on “how our emotions can be brought into harmony with a rational understanding of both ourselves and others,” as Carlisle puts it, they investigate similar territory to that just recently chartered by Brené Brown in Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Indeed, Brené’s goal in that book, to map out “the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human,” is analogous to Spinoza’s goal in Part III of the Ethics, “Of the Origin & Nature of Emotions.” In this section we’ll be honing our sense of the contemporary relevance of Spinoza’s Religion, by facilitating conversation between Carlisle / Spinoza and Brené Brown concerning three sets of affects: (i.) regret and repentance; (ii.) contentment and tranquillity; and (iii.) pride and humility.
(i.) regret and repentance
In a chapter of Atlas of the Heart devoted to “Places We Go When Things Don’t Go as Planned,” Brené asserts her firm belief “that regret is one of our most powerful emotional reminders that reflection, change, and growth are necessary … Regret,” she testifies, “has taught me that living outside my values is not tenable to me.”
By contrast, Carlisle offers this synopsis of Spinoza’s perspective on the related affect of repentance:
A “decision of the mind which is believed to be free is not distinguished from imagination [i.e., cognition of the first kind] itself,” writes Spinoza, concluding that those who “believe that they do anything from a free decision of the mind, dream with open eyes” (E3P2S); the idea of free decision is a “fiction” (E3Def.Aff.6exp). Throughout the Ethics, he treats belief in free will as a symptom of ignorance: “men think of themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think … of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of those causes.”
Both Brené Brown and Carlisle/Spinoza recognise that a kind of thinking is occurring when we are caught in the drift of emotions like regret: through regret, Brené recognizes that choosing to live outside her values is untenable for her, for example. For Carlisle and Spinoza, though, the ideas to which we are driven by such drifts are confused cognitions, since once we have habituated ourselves to thinking according to the second kind of cognition, ratio, we come to realise that the idea that humans ever make unconditioned decisions is a fiction. Indeed, Spinoza’s definition of Repentance, quoted by Carlisle, is “a Sadness accompanied by the idea of some deed we believe ourselves to have done from a free decision of Mind.” Far healthier (for Carlisle / Spinoza) than learning from regret that I cannot make choices out of alignment with my values (a confused “cognition of the first kind”), is learning from habituation to “cognition of the second kind” that neither I nor any other human makes free choices. To understand how such reasoning leads somewhere other than despair and fatalistic resignation, let’s now shift our attention to what Brené and Carlisle/Spinoza each have to say about a second set of affects: contentment and tranquillity.
(ii.) contentment and tranquillity
There’s a difference between feeling content and feeling tranquil. With contentment, we often have the sense of having completed something; with tranquillity, we relish the feeling of doing nothing. (Brown, 217)
In a chapter of Atlas of the Heart titled “Places We Go When Life is Good,” Brené differentiates the emotions of contentment and tranquillity: contentment is defined as “the feeling of completeness, appreciation, and ‘enoughness’ that we experience when our needs are satisfied,” whereas tranquillity is “associated with the absence of demand” and “no pressure to do anything.”
Redirecting our attention to Spinoza’s Religion, you’ll recall that Carlisle praised George Eliot’s translation of that key phrase acquiescentia in se ipso as “self-contentment.” Here is Carlisle’s account of why that translation is more fitting than Edwin Curley’s “self-esteem”:
Our modern notion of “self-esteem” captures very well Spinoza’s definition of acquiescentia in se ipso as a self-love that involves an idea of oneself, or an attitude towards oneself. We human beings live in relation to ourselves, or an attitude towards oneself. We human beings live in relation to ourselves, with a certain self-understanding or self-awareness, and this reflexivity always has an affective dimension. Yet translating acquiescentia in se ipso as “self-esteem” neglects the element of quies, stillness and rest. It also conceals the continuity between Spinoza’s discussion of acquiescentia in se ipso in Parts Three and Four of the Ethics, and the “true peace of mind” (vera animi acquiescentia) he attributes to the wise person in Part V. (see E5P27, E5P42) (113-4)
At the heart of Spinoza’s Religion is Carlisle’s recognition that if there are three distinct forms of cognition — and, therefore, three distinct ways of conceiving the self — then there are three distinct ways of finding contentment through conceiving the self. On the one hand, “the meaning of acquiescentia varies according to the epistemic, psychological and ethical condition of the person who experiences it.” On the other, “the concept has an integrity throughout the text,” as Spinoza consistently uses the same phrase, acquiescentia in se ipso, to discuss — and assess — each way of finding contentment through conceiving the self (whether confusedly or reasonably or intuitively).
Because acquiescentia in se ipso always involves an idea of oneself, it is an inherently cognitive affect. Ideas, for Spinoza, are not static images, like “mute pictures”, but acts of thinking that affirm their object (see E2P49S). So any idea of oneself is an act of thinking that affirms one’s own existence in a certain way. Spinoza distinguishes between three kinds of thinking—imagining, reasoning and intuiting—and one’s idea of oneself can take any of these cognitive forms. When our self-understanding is based on imagination, our acquiescentia is a hollow, volatile, egotistical satisfaction. When it is rooted in the second, rational kind of knowledge, it becomes a stable joy that can be shared with others. Within scientia intuitiva, the third kind of knowledge, acquiescentia signifies the feeling-quality of participation in God’s eternity, giving experiential content to the apparently abstract idea of intellectual love of God. Just as there is a hierarchy among Spinoza’s three kinds of cognition, so there is a hierarchy among the corresponding forms of acquiescentia.
This notion — of there being a hierarchy among three distinct forms of self-contentment — is central to the argument of Spinoza’s Religion. Crucially, these three kinds of acquiescentia “express three distinct qualities of thinking.”
When I am engaging in the process of training confused cognitions of the first kind to recalibrate in light of stable, ordered cognitions of the second kind, I will find myself experiencing states like Brené Brown’s contentment, where there is a sense of transition to completion. When I experience myself (and, indeed, all things) as participating in divine nature, then I will experience a peculiarly active form of what Brené calls tranquillity.
Ultimately, however, Carlisle’s Spinozan notion, that there are three forms of acquiescentia in se ipso, elicits a very different picture of what it means to be human than the atlas within which Brené differentiates contentment (related to successful striving) from tranquillity (related to non-doing). To appreciate how so, we will now consider a third family of inner states (pride, hubris, and humility), which Brené groups together in the final full chapter of Atlas of the Heart, “Places We Go to Self-Assess.”
(iii.) pride and humility
Brené’s chapter on “Places We Go to Self-Assess” ends with a declaration of hope that we may “leave behind” three false assumptions — “that hubris is just a benign form of supersized pride, that pride is bad for us, and that humility is weakness” — and replace them with three truths: that “pride can be good for us, hubris is dangerous, and humility is key to grounded confidence and healthy relationships.”
These are the definitions of those three inner states that ground Brené’s claim about how we should shift the way in which we self-assess:
Pride is a feeling of pleasure or celebration related to our accomplishments or efforts.
Hubris is an inflated sense of one’s innate abilities that is tied more to the need for dominance than to actual accomplishments.
Humility is openness to new learning combined with a balanced and accurate assessment of our contributions, including our strengths, imperfections, and opportunities for growth.
Redirecting our attention, again, to Spinoza’s Religion, we find that its pivotal chapter, “Acquiescentia,” ends with a series of reflections on those same inner states.
The closing paragraphs of that chapter respond to a charge levelled against Spinoza by one of his seventeenth-century critics, Pierre Poiret: namely, that in making acquiescentia in se ipso “the highest thing we can hope for” (as Spinoza does in E4P52S), Spinoza founds his Ethics on “the head and root of all vices, and true atheism.” Here are Calisle’s further reflections on Poiret’s allegation:
His critique assumed that, in proposing acquiescentia in se ipso as our highest good, Spinoza was replacing the Christian virtues of humility and repentance with the sin of pride. Our threefold analysis of this affect exposes the error of Poiret’s view. The acquiescentia in se ipso that is distinguished from humility and repentance is acquiescentia of the first kind. This acquiescentia belongs, together with these two affects, within the domain of the imagination—the basis of superstitious religion—and Spinoza argues that all three affects are equally volatile, confused and debilitated.
What Carlisle is saying here is that humility, repentance, and acquiescentia (self-contentment) of the first kind are a constellation — or package deal — of confused inner states; each one of these states is, again, as confused and volatile as the others because all three of them are grounded in the false belief that I have a faculty of free will and am, therefore, the unconditioned author of my actions (that I alone should be praised or berated for actions I autonomously commit).
Rather than simply inverting the traditional Christian schema of virtue and vice, which opposed humble obedience to prideful self-assertion, Spinoza showed how this whole moral schema rests on misunderstanding. Poiret’s critique was itself rooted in cognition of the first kind: it was a symptom of the superstition that Spinoza was challenging. The account of adequate acquiescentia [i.e., self-contentment of the second and third kind] developed through Parts Four and Five of the Ethics lies at the heart of this challenge. In fact, the highest kind of acquiescentia is very far from hubristic, and is absolutely opposed to atheism. It involves an obedience based on consciousness of being-in-God, and yields a certain kind of humility—although Spinoza does not give it this name—since it is a consciousness of ontological dependence on God. And far from being a sign of weakness or smallness, this humility is a feeling of the highest degree of power or activity that a human being can express, by virtue of “participation in the divine nature.”
Effectively, then, Carlisle ends her chapter with a call for us to jettison three false assumptions: that pride (i.e., joy at the thought that I autonomously made something happen) is good for us; that Spinoza’s ethical conception is dangerously hubristic; and that humility (i.e., choosing to refrain from exercising power) is the root of virtue and healthy relationships.
Boldly, Carlisle claims that Spinoza was able to “counter the moral outlook grounded on belief in free will with an alternative ethics grounded on understanding and accepting necessity.” (120-121) To appreciate the nature and power of Carlisle’s argument we will now bring her new reading of the Ethics into conversation with the new model of human behaviour recently presented and popularised by James Clear in Atomic Habits.
At the end of the Introduction to Atomic Habits, James Clear clarifies that “the backbone” of that influential book is his “four-step model of habits—cue, craving, response, and reward—and the four laws of behavior change that evolve out of these steps.”
When James recently appeared on two consecutive episodes of Brené’s podcast Dare to Lead, this is how he responded when Brené characterised his four-step model of habit-formation as “taking us … into the Skinner box of cue, craving, response, reward”:
What Skinner’s big finding was—from a behavioral standpoint—is that, hey, if you perceive behavior with a reliable cue and you follow it with some kind of a reliable reward or consequence, then you can shape behavior in a lot of ways. Now, I think there’s a whole separate field of cognitive psychology that would say, hey, it turns out moods and emotions and feelings, like, dramatically influence our behavior. And so that was why I added in that … stage of craving, and really that stage is … about the prediction that your brain makes before each behavior happens … That second stage is a space for interpretation, for moods, for feelings, for emotions, and talking about how those influence our behavior as well. So my hope is that, my four-step model merges behavioral and cognitive psychology in a way that’s useful and easy to apply.
What Clear was clarifying just there is that he inherited a three-step model of “operant conditioning” from the behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner, then added a fourth step (actually, between the first two) to account for the fact that not all humans respond to given stimuli in the same manner (because we experience diverse inner states, and these too affect our behaviour).
In B.F. Skinner’s model, a stimulus is taken to prompt a response, which then in turn prompts a reward. In James Clear’s model, it is acknowledged that I will only respond to a given cue with a given response if I have a given craving.
In Atomic Habits, Clear states that “while Skinner’s model did an excellent job of explaining how external stimuli influenced our habits, it lacked a good explanation for how our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs impact our behavior.” Clear then characterises his “integrated model” as “one of the first models of human behavior to accurately account for both the influence of external stimuli and internal emotions on our habits.”
The object of this final section of my review of Spinoza’s Religion is to demonstrate how the model of behavioural change presented by James Clear in Atomic Habits is essentially a model of how humans behave when (with differing degrees of reasonableness) we lock ourselves into what Spinoza’s Religion calls cognition of the first kind. Having seen this, we will be able to recognise how the picture of human behaviour (and potential) presented by Carlisle both accommodates and exceeds the pictures popularised by Brown and Clear.
We will achieve this in two stages: first, (i.) by comparing the stories about habit formation presented by Clear in his chapter on “How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)” and by Carlisle in her chapter on “Philosophy & Devotion”; then (ii.), by contrasting Clear’s case for always letting one’s identity drive the feedback loop of habit formation with Carlisle’s Spinozan reading of religion as “not a matter of identity at all.”
(i.) the habit loop
There is another interesting moment in Brené’s recent Dare to Lead conversation with James Clear when she asks him — “true or false, maybe, what are your thoughts?” — what he thinks about her hypothesis, that “the pursuit of a habit that involves other people’s perception is a much quicker walk to … the shame shit show” than the pursuit of a habit that does not involve other people’s perceptions.
Relevant to Brené’s question is everything that Carlisle asserts in “Philosophy and Devotion” concerning Spinoza’s awareness of “the lure of honour”:
After early infancy, to be a human being in the world is to be aware of oneself as visible to other people, and as subject to their judgements. Our sophisticated, reflexive sociability makes honour a powerful human value, and Spinoza perceived it to be a dangerously inhibiting force.
Discussing Spinoza’s earlier work, the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Carlisle highlights that Spinoza there describes “the process of adopting a new habit, or more precisely a new practice, if we understand practice to be a habit that is deliberately adopted or cultivated.”
A particularly fascinating point of connection between Spinoza’s Religion and Atomic Habits is that both texts straddle commitment to progress along a given path with respect for the virtue of circularity. “He acknowledged a deep practical circularity,” writes Carlisle of Spinoza:
We need to improve our minds in order to gain clear sight of the highest good, but we can make no progress in this so long as our minds are disturbed and disoriented by desires for what are not, in themselves, worthy goods. In other words, people live improperly because they are ignorant; but they cannot become less ignorant if they do not conduct themselves properly.
The Skinner box of stimulus, response, reward is relevant here. Let’s say I am addicted to checking my social media apps for notifications. Any progress I would otherwise be making in the realm of personal development is likely to be stunted by my deeply entrenched habit of (response) checking Facebook every time I (stimulus) see my phone, especially if some cases of checking Facebook elicit (reward) the dopamine hit I covet. Of course, as James Clear’s four-part model recognises, this less-than-optimal feedback loop will only occur if I have (and for as long as I maintain) a craving for Facebook-fuelled dopamine hits; hypothetically, were I to suddenly cease desiring whatever “reward” my habitual action elicits, the loop will be broken and my habitual response to the stimulus will, in turn, wither away. For better or worse, the neurological feedback loop will only become locked in if (and for as long as) “the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.”
Clear’s awareness that the stimulus-response-reward sequence will not play out if I lack a craving for the reward (or if I do not associate the present stimulus with a desired reward) parallels Spinoza’s reflections on the order of ideas established by the habits of imagination. Carlisle summarises:
Spinoza is suggesting that the way we interpret images reveals more about our past experience than about the nature of things. The chains of images in our minds reflect our particular habits, and no one will share exactly the same ‘concatenations’ of images with another person.
You and I will each experience distinct habitual chains of confused ideas, Spinoza recognises, since we have each experienced a lifetime’s worth of (complete and incomplete) cue-craving-response-reward loops. In their different ways, however, Brené Brown, James Clear, and Clare Carlisle’s Spinoza all recognize that there is a universal language of human experience and emotion, and that disciplined attention to how that language relates to my personal experience may to some extent liberate me from whichever kinks in my personal concatenations fail to serve me.
Clear’s approach to behaviour change stresses “the value of making small improvements on a daily basis.” No matter how warped or confused my perceptions may have become as a result of years of exposure to certain cues and (largely nonconscious) cultivation of cravings; I can shift from being the victim of my habit cycle to its architect if I only shift my focus from what I want to make happen (outcomes) to who I wish to become (identity). There is no escape from the loop of habit formation and entrenchment, but there is liberation when one lets one’s commitment to being / becoming a particular type of person “drive the loop.”
Clear’s readiness to collaborate with the concatenation of inner states that he is striving to reform is particularly evident when he recommends getting your pride onboard:
The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it … Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.
As we have seen, Carlisle’s Spinoza recognizes pride, humility, and repentance as a concatenation of interrelated states on the first level of cognition. He does not advise inviting pride to take the driving seat because to knowingly do so would be to lock oneself into a cycle of “inadequate” ideas. The following section outlines the alternative model of behavioural change promoted by Carlisle’s Spinoza and clarifies in what sense his alternative approach might be deemed religious.
(ii.) “Not a matter of identity at all”
Two aspects of Spinoza’s Religion with which we have yet to grapple are its insights concerning desire and its insights concerning devotion.
In a chapter of her book titled “Whatever We Desire and Do,” Carlisle clearly and succinctly highlights how “human desire is both ontologically and ethically crucial for Spinoza.” (80) Indeed, “Spinoza’s concept of conatus, or striving, is ontological in a double sense: it is a striving to persevere in being; and this striving is ‘the active essence of the thing’ (E3P7).” When this striving (conatus) is related to Mind and Body together, it is called Appetite. When Appetite is united with consciousness of Appetite, it is called desire. Rather than letting pride (about actualising a certain, preconceived identity) lead, Carlisle’s Spinoza let’s desire do so.
Whereas Clear encourages us to transform the habit loop from within by habitually circling back to the question, “am I becoming the type of person I am able to take pride in becoming?”, Carlisle’s Spinoza holds that “our immanent ethical task is to become who we are: to express our being-in-God by knowing it, and desiring it.”
Awareness of the centrality of desire in Spinoza’s philosophy (via the concept of conatus) is something shared by all Spinoza scholars. What sets Carlisle apart is her coupling of this awareness with attention to Spinoza’s perspective on devotion.
Carlisle emphasises that Spinoza consistently uses the phrase dare operam to “describe his investment in his philosophical task,” where “dare means to give or to offer” and “operam is the accusative form of opera, a noun meaning work, labour, exertion, effort, and often implying taking trouble or pains over something.”
For Carlisle’s Spinoza, devotion is “an offering of consciousness,” “the act of registering the value of something by paying whatever costs of energy, time, effort and attention—the basic resources of one’s life—it requires.”
To fully appreciate how Carlisle integrates attention to devotion and attention to desire so as to forge a picture of human flourishing to rival those presented by James Clear and Brené Brown one would need to commit oneself to reading an entire book, and that book is Spinoza’s Religion. Should you devote yourself to reading that book, informed by the same craving (or, better, desire) for understanding that was prompted in me by her project, you will find the experience both rewarding and transformative. Indeed, you may even become a convert to Spinoza’s religion, constituted as it is by “internal acts of devotion and prayer,” as opposed to “circumscribed and regulated by ideals of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.”
The cue I’ll close by offering as a prompt for that process is Carlisle’s tantalising proposition, from the final page of her book, that “Spinoza’s conception of God as ontological ground not only secures the intelligibility of being, but also provides a resting-place [acquiescentia in se ipso of the third kind] for desire.”
Brown, Brené. Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Random House, 2021.
Carlisle, Clare. Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics. Princeton University Press, 2021.
Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Penguin Random House, 2018.
About the Author
Dr. Simon Calder completed a PhD on Spinoza’s philosophy and George Eliot’s fiction at the University of Cambridge in 2011, and his published scholarship includes a chapter on ethics and fiction in Spinoza Beyond Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press, 2012). He presently lives in Minneapolis, where he is the host of Back to the City: Minneapolis Music Conversation, which is broadcast on MCN6.org every Thursday at 10pm CST. He is soon to publish his first book, Her Hummingbird Heart: Harnessing Creativity with Sarah Morris, Julia Cameron, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Lamott, & Brené Brown.