For any Spinoza fans out there I’ve decided to have a Spinoza only Patreon channel. Here, as a giveaway, is the first article and podcast.
The very first sentence, in the very first of Spinoza’s published works, “Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect”, goes as follows:
After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life …
Spinoza’s family was quite affluent and so he would have had access to all the “goodies” that most people crave, but clearly he found them to be unsatisfactory. Most of Spinoza’s writing is wholly impersonal, but here is a giveaway and an insight into his own life.
So why did he state so strongly that everything encountered in ordinary life was hollow and futile? Well, obviously because it is. As he states a page later in the same document:
But after the enjoyment of this pleasure there ensues a profound depression …
Passive pleasures, where we depend upon some external agent or thing to deliver the pleasure, is a roller coaster – as Spinoza indicates above. Having experienced a lift through some pleasurable activity we then have to either up the stakes to get a greater pleasure, or we suffer the inevitable come-down as the effect of the pleasure wears off. If we are happy living a roller-coaster life then this is the way to go. If not, then we need to seek pleasures that have no downside. The problem with such a pleasure is that it involves effort – and so it will be unattractive to most people.
The other pleasures Spinoza contemplates are fame and money. Fame has a very big downside:
to attain it we must conduct our lives to suit other men, avoiding what the masses avoid and seeking what the masses seek.
Common to fame and wealth is striving and possible failure:
But if it should come about that our hopes are disappointed, there ensues a profound depression.
Unless a person becomes profoundly disappointed with the usual trappings of life there is no possibility of them finding real pleasure. They will continue to pass through the cycles of pleasure and pain associated with inadequate externally dependent pleasures.
At any moment it is quite simple to observe whether we are chasing an external pleasure. This may be the anticipation of a delicious meal in a restaurant, a new sexual partner, a promotion, external recognition, and validation, or any one of a hundred things we have told ourselves will bring pleasure. While experiencing the pleasure we should attempt to be mindful that after it has been experienced there will be a come-down. This doesn’t mean we should spoil our pleasurable experience, but simply that we observer the “profound depression” that follows.
The beauty of an exercise of this nature is that it involves both passive and active pleasures. The passive pleasure is associated with the thing or event being enjoyed. The active pleasure comes from the effort to observe ourselves during and after the pleasure. From such observation comes understanding, and this understanding is a pleasure with no downside – the price has already been paid through the effort that has been made.