Philosophical Bibliotherapy Session at the Philosophy Now Festival 8.9.13

ImageWhich work of philosophy  has changed the way you see the world and your place in it?

If philosophy has any point at all, surely it must be that it can help us to understand ourselves, our experience and how to live better lives. This isn’t to say that reading philosophy should always make us happy. Sometimes the function of a work is to disturb us, making us reassess our most cherished assumptions.

In this session we will talk about whether philosophy fulfils this therapeutic role of enabling us to if not find a cure, at least come to terms with the human condition. Bring your favourite book, or come prepared to talk about why it is important to you…and why you think other people should read it.

The session is happening: 12:00pm Sunday 8th September 2013

at the Philosophy Now Festival at Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Nearest tube: Holborn

This all-day festival will include 36 other events including talks, debates, workshops, and philosophical games for the whole family, and runs from 10:00 – 22:00.

Web page:


Twitter: @PhilosophyNow  hastag #PhilNowFest2013



Ways into reading Spinoza

spinbooks-2How do you solve a problem like (reading) the Ethics? Try not to get put off by the appearance of the geometrical method. At a first look, you may open the book to find dry definitions, arcane axioms and a series of propositions, pared-down to provide an economical and rigorously argued logical progression from premises to conclusion. However, don’t skip over the scholia (referred to as “notes” in some translations) or the prefaces and appendices, where Spinoza lets his hair down a bit, allowing himself a more conversational engagement with the reader. I would also argue that the book can be approached in a non-linear fashion, dipping in and out, following meandering trails signposted by the constant cross-references in the text, getting pleasantly lost as one might in a well-written encyclopaedia. Whether Deleuze himself says this or not, I’d suggest that the book can be taken as rhizomatic, allowing for multiple entry points, with each proposition being linked by uncountable paths to all the others. If you’re interested in the ethical-therapeutic angle, you could start with the Appendix to Part Four, where Spinoza summarizes his psychological results, providing simple advice on how to live with ourselves and with others. The other question about the Ethics is whether to read an introductory volume, or to approach the work with a fresh and open mind. The philosopher Stuart Hampshire writes:

I believe that everyone who has ever written about Spinoza, and who has tried to interpret his thought as a whole, either has been, or ought to have been, uneasily aware of some partiality in his interpretation, when he turns once again from his words to the original. Certainly this is my own position. (1)

While it is certainly true that every writer on Spinoza has their own standpoint, and reading “secondary” literature carries the danger of accepting a partial view as Spinoza’s own, historical distance can be hard to traverse unaccompanied. A wise companion can be of great assistance in overcoming the difficulties in understanding Spinoza’s seventeenth-century conceptual scheme. All the same, like Spinoza’s ring, I advise caution: even the clearest and most faithful commentary is no substitute for reading the text itself, given, of course, that even a translation is an interpretation. The following bibliography is anything but exhaustive. If you feel I’ve left out anything that you have personally found useful and relevant, please post a comment. It’s also almost certainly more than most people will ever read, myself included, but ask a librarian for a book and he or she will always return with arms full of ’em. And do check back, as I will be adding those that I think are most useful, as well as others that come to my mind or my notice.

Translations of the Ethics

Assuming that you’re not going to read it in the original Latin, the canonical translation of the Ethics (used by most current writers on Spinoza) is by E.M. Curley and has been included in at least three different titles.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1996). Ethics. London : Penguin, 1996.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1994). A Spinoza reader: The Ethics and other works. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M.  (1988). The collected works of Spinoza Vol 1. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

→ (In Finnish)  Spinoza, B. d. & Oittinen, V. (1994) Etiikka. Helsinki: Gaudeamus

Online translations:

→ The Ethics at Project Gutenburg Older translation by R.H.M Elwes, also still in print, published by Dover Publications.

→ The Ethics as audio file at LIbriVox (R.H.M. Elwes translation)

Spinoza, Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order at Early Modern Texts Jonathan Bennett’s loose, modern language translation, more readable, less faithful to the original.


→ Nadler, S. M. (2001). Spinoza: A life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Excellent and meticulously researched biography by a prominent Spinoza scholar and philosopher.

→ Kayser, R. (1946) Spinoza, portrait of a spiritual hero. New York, Philosophical Library. Entertainingly written, more like a historical novel than a serious biography, with a short preface by Einstein.

Introductions to Spinoza and the Ethics

→Curley, E. M.  (1988). Behind the geometrical method: A reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Seminal introduction, based on three lectures delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1984, taking a materialist view of Spinoza’s metaphysics.

→ Della Rocca, Michael. (2008) Spinoza. London : Routledge, 2008. Clear and readable introduction, probably aimed at undergraduates. Central thesis is what Della Rocca refers to as the “principle of sufficient reason” (a phrase coined I believe not by Spinoza, but by Leibniz) which the writer holds as fundamental to Spinoza’s thought. Also has a useful index of propositions of the Ethics which means it can be used as a commentary and companion.

→ Lloyd, G. (1996). Routledge philosophy guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics. London: Routledge. Concise and readable. → Nadler, S. (2006) Spinoza’s Ethics An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

→ Popkin, R. (2004) Spinoza.  Oxford : Oneworld. Readable introduction to Spinoza’s thought, including on religion and politics, and putting this into historical context.

→ Scruton, R. (2002). Spinoza: A very short introduction ([2nd ed].). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Very short introduction, as the name suggests, and by a very forthright British philosopher. A very much abridged version of this is also available in Finnish, published by Otava, but with so little remaining, it may not be good value for money!

→ Silverman, R.M. (1995) Baruch Spinoza – Outcast Jew, Universal Sage. Northwood: Symposium) 1995 Particularly useful on the Jewish philosophical context, tracing a thread from earlier Jewish thinkers through to recent critics of Spinoza, such as  Emil Fackenheim.

→ Smith, S. B. (2003). Spinoza’s book of life: Freedom and redemption in the ethics. New Haven, CT ; London: Yale University Press. Clearly written and accessible. Recommended. spinbooks-3 Reading further:

→ Bennett, J. F. (1984). A study of Spinoza’s Ethics. [Indianapolis]: Hackett. Quirky and partial, includes a chapter ‘Psychotherapy’, a very critical reading of Spinoza’s recommendations for working with the emotions. See Koistenen (1998) below for a partial rebuttal.

→ Deleuze, Gilles (1988) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights. Not sure if this belongs in the “introductory” or “advanced” category, as the best part of it is a  glossary of the often archaic terminology found in Spinoza’s work.

→ Hampshire, S. (2005). Spinoza and Spinozism. Oxford: Clarendon. Written by a notable philosopher in his own right and one of a previous generation of commentators on Spinoza though still relevant. Beautifully written.

→ James, S. (1997). Passion and action: The emotions in seventeenth-century philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon. Contains a chapter on the psychology of Hobbes and Spinoza; by one of the foremost Spinoza scholars, who has recently published…

→ James, S. (2012). Spinoza on philosophy, religion, and politics: The Theologico-Political treatise. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A reading of Spinoza’s other great work, published in his lifetime, before the Ethics.

Koistinen, O. (1998). ‘Bennett on Spinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy’ A critique of Bennett’s critique of Spinoza’s prescription for the mind’s power over the emotions.

→ Koistinen, O. (2009). The Cambridge companion to Spinoza’s Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edited volume including a chapters on the passions by Susan James and Michael LeBuffe.

→ Lloyd, G. (1994). Part of nature: Self-knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics. Ithaca, N. Y. ; London: Cornell University Press. Examines Spinoza’s ideas of individuality, selfhood, and freedom in Spinoza’s Ethics.

Podcasts and videos

Susan James on Spinoza and the Passions at Philosophy Bites

Susan James arguing that you should vote for Spinoza

Spinoza: BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time”

Steven Nadler talk on Spinoza Part 1

Steven Nadler talk on Spinoza Part 2

Notes: (1) Hampshire, S (2005)  p. 175.

Kiitos käynnistä!


Photo: Ian Bourgeot

Thank you to everyone who gave up an hour or so of precious Finnish summer to take part in a discussion about bibliotherapy and Spinoza. I really didn’t expect so many of you to come, so apologies for there not being enough handouts to go around. And my gratitude to Ian, Liisa and all at Arkadia International Bookshop for inviting me and being such marvellous hosts.

Please check back to this blog in the next couple of days when I’ll be posting an annotated bibliography (reading list) of introductions and secondary literature on Spinoza, as well as some links.

As an appetizer, try this article by the foremost living translater of Spinoza’s works, Edwin Curley.

Or this one by Stephen Nadler.

Meanwhile, for those who didn’t get a copy of their own, here is the handout I circulated, which includes bitesized samples from Spinoza’s master work, the Ethics.

Philosophical Bibliotherapy: reading Spinoza, finding freedom

UntitledI resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all others being rejected – whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity (From the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect).


1. I pass now in explaining those things which must necessarily follow from the essence of God…not, indeed, all of them, but only those that can lead us, by the hand, as it were, to the knowledge of the human mind and its highest blessedness (II introductory remark).

2. Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God. (IP15)

3. [T]he mind and the body are one and the same thing, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension (IIIP2S).

The affects

4. Most of those who have written about the affects, and men’s way of living, seem to treat, not of natural things, which follow the common laws of Nature, but of things which are outside Nature. Indeed they seem to conceive man in Nature as a dominion within a dominion. For they believe that man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of Nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself.
The affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, and the like, considered in themselves, follow with the same necessity and force of Nature as the other singular things. […]I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies
(III Preface).

5. By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections […] if we can be the adequate cause of any of these affections, I understand by the affect an action; otherwise, a passion (IIID3).

The primary affects

6. …desire is appetite together with the consciousness of it. And appetite is the very essence of man, insofar as it is determined to do what promotes his preservation. (III Def. Affects I)

7. Joy is a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection. (III Def. Affects II)

8. Sadness is a man’s passage from a greater to a lesser perfection (III Def. Affects III)

Other affects

(In Part III and its appendix, Spinoza discusses numerous other affects, each directly or indirectly originating from desire, joy or sadness.)

9. Love is a joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (III Def. Affects VI).

10. Hate is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an external cause
(III Def. Affects VII).

11. Anger is a desire by which we are spurred, from hate, to do evil to one we hate (III Def. Affects XXXVI).

12. Pity is a sadness, accompanied by the idea of an evil which has happened to another whom we imagine to be like us. (III Def. Affects XVIII).

13. Self-esteem is a joy born of the fact that a man considers himself and his own power of acting. (III Def. Affects XXV).

14. Self-esteem can arise from reason, and only that self-esteem which does arise from reason is the greatest there can be (IVP25).

15. Self-esteem is really the highest thing we can hope for. For no one strives to preserve his being for the sake of any end. And because this self-esteem is more an more encouraged and strengthened by praise, and on the other hand, more and more upset by blame, we are guided most by love of esteem and can hardly bear a life in disgrace (IVP25S).

The dis-ease: “bondage”

16. [I]t is clear that we are driven about in many ways by external causes, and that, like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we oss about, not knowing our outcome and fate (IIP59S).

17. Man’s lack of power to moderate and restrain the affects I call bondage. For the man who is subject to affects is under the control, not of himself, but of fortune, in whose power he so greatly is that often, though he sees the better for himself, he is still forced to follow the worse (IV Preface).

18. [O]ne who is ignorant and is driven only by lust […] is […] troubled in many ways by external causes, and unable ever to possess true peace of mind, but he also lives as if he knew neither himself, nor God, nor things; and as soon as he ceases to be acted on, he ceases to be (VP42S).

The treatment – understanding and love

19. [W]e are a part of Nature, whose order we follow. If we understand this clearly and distinctly, that part of us which is defined by understanding, that is, the better part of us, will be entirely satisfied with this, and will strive to persevere in that satisfaction. For insofar as we understand, we can want nothing except what is true. Hence, insofar as we understand these things rightly, the striving of the better part of us agrees with the order of the whole of Nature (IV App XXXII).

20. It is clear the power of the mind over the affects consists:

I. In the knowledge itself of the affects;
II. In the fact that it separates the affects from the thought of an external cause, which we imagine confusedly;
III. In the time by which the affections related to things we understand surpass those related to things we conceived confusedly, or in a mutilated way;
IV. In the multiplicity of causes by which affections related to common properties or to God are encouraged;
V. Finally, in the order by which the mind can order its affects and connect them to one another.

[Insofar] as we understand the causes of sadness, it ceases to be a passion, that is, to that extent it ceases to be sadness (VP18S).

The cure – “freedom”

In life, therefore, it is especially useful to perfect, as far as we can, our intellect, or reason. In this one thing consists man’s highest happiness, or blessedness. Indeed, blessedness is nothing but that satisfaction of mind which stems from the intuitive knowledge of God (IV App IV).

21. The mind can bring it about that all the body’s affections, or images of things are related to the idea of God [or Nature].

22. He who understands himself and his affects clearly and distinctly loves God [or Nature], and does so the more, the more he understands himself and his affects (VP15).

23. Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself; not do we enjoy it because we restrain our lusts; on the contrary, because we enjoy it, we are able to restrain them(VP42).
24. [T]he wise man…is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possesses true peace of mind (VP42S).

Spinoza’s last words of encouragement

The Ethics closes with the following passage:

25. If the way I have shown to lead to those things now seems very hard, still, it can be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

The above quotations (with cross-references removed, and some additions [in brackets]) are taken from The collected works of Spinoza edited and translated by Edwin Curley Vol. 1 (Princeton University Press 1985).

The same translation is also available in the Penguin Edition of the Ethics, (Penguin Classics 1996), with an introduction by Stuart Hampshire and in A Spinoza reader : the Ethics and other works, edited and translated by Edwin Curley
(Princeton University Press 1994).


Spinoza’s Ethics: understanding ourselves to find freedom

Saturday 13.7 at 4pm: Philosophical Bibliotherapy: Reading Spinoza, finding freedom, by John Heyderman

You are very welcome to visit us / Arkadia International Bookshop and “like” us if indeed you do!

Dear friend of Arkadia,

You are invited to Philosophical Bibliotherapy: Reading Spinoza, finding freedom, by John Heyderman on Saturday 13.7 at 4pm at Arkadia (Nervanderinkatu 11)

Bertrand Russell described him as “the noblest and most loveable of all the great philosophers.” Nietzsche called him “the purest sage”. Yet despite his growing popularity among social scientists, many people have never heard of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and fewer still have read his works.

This session will discuss Spinoza’s “Ethics” not just as a historical text but as living “medicine for the mind”. John Heyderman will present a personal view of how Spinoza can help us understand ourselves, our place in nature and ultimately how to live.

The presentation and discussion will be in English.

You are all most welcome.

Warm regards,


Entrance is free but a donation of €3 (or more!) to fund the event is suggested and would be most welcome.

John Heyderman is a former librarian from London. He studied philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and wrote his dissertation on Spinoza and Davidson on the mind/body problem.