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  • Spinoza on Self-Preservation and Self-Destruction
  • Mitchell Gabhart

I wish to examine a difficulty that arises in Spinoza’s treatment of selfhood as it pertains to the possibility of self-destruction. The troublesome problem of selfhood is one which I will not solve but which I hope to illuminate. What I hope to do is shed light on Spinoza’s conception of human essence as necessarily self-affirming, and therefore of willful self-destruction as impossible. Yet this issue too is troubling since the accounts Spinoza provides of suicides all have one thing in common: suicide always involves being overcome by the external environment, i.e., the environment operating in a way contrary to the nature of the agent. Thus, all suicide is a sign of an internal weakness in the face of a hostile world. To provide the needed contrast to the suicidal agent, necessarily a state of the utmost bondage or servitude, I will first sketch Spinoza’s theory of the passions, their remedy, the characteristics of the active free agent, and his curious account of immortality. Then I turn to the problem in his account of suicide: I contend that he cannot make meaningful a distinction between suicide and any other form of death.


I begin with Spinoza’s analysis of human motivation, the elements of which are the affects, which he defines (E3D2) as the body’s power of acting being increased or diminished as well as the idea of those affections.1 Spinoza classifies [End Page 613] emotions, i.e., affects under the attribute of mind, into two types: actions and passions.2 Spinoza does not (contrary to his predecessor Descartes) posit the existence of a separate faculty such as will to transform passions into actions. Rather, “we act when something happens, in us or outside us, of which we are the adequate cause, i.e., (by E3D1) when something in us or outside us follows from our nature, which can be clearly and distinctly understood through it alone.”3 Conversely, we are acted upon “when something happens in us, or something follows from our nature, of which we are only a partial cause.”4 Consequently it is not necessary to oppose will and intellect in order to differentiate action from passion. The mind includes both adequate and inadequate ideas (E3P1) and therefore can be alternately both agent and patient.

The departure from Descartes is striking: since (1) ideas either are or are not adequate and (2) each adequate idea carries its own certitude (E2P43), the need for a separate faculty of assent, which is what volition must amount to, is nullified. Instead, volition and appetite are considered by Spinoza to be no more than distinct manifestations of one central striving, the former a purely mental description and the latter an account of both mental and physical aspects of the individual.5

Spinoza introduces the key term conatus to characterize the activity of modes but it is a concept which also bears the burden of accounting for the individuality, indeed the essence, of finite modes. The principle of conatus is defined by Spinoza as a striving (E3P7), i.e., “that striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its own being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.”6 This [End Page 614] striving to persevere in one’s existence—a striving which continues for an indefinite time (E3P8)—must, of course, undergo both successes and failures. Modes, such as the human individual, exist conditionally, as finite and temporally changing constituents of the substantial reality which Spinoza refers to as “God or Nature.” So, human beings are entities possessing (1) an essential identity through an indefinite duration and (2) a consciousness of that identity which alternately resists or succumbs to outside forces.

Thus, their existence can be thought of as merely adjectival, which poses difficulties in understanding self-identity. Vital, it seems, to an acceptable conception of identity is some principle of individuation—something which makes Peter distinct from Paul.7 Let us first then sketch the account of individuation that Spinoza proposes. It is important to bear in mind first that conatus is a striving of the organism as...


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pp. 613-628
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