Spinoza in principle: ethics, affect, and friendship

Spinoza_3One hundred years ago, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a famous philosopher, oft-quoted and respected, if notorious for his relationship with the authorities of his time. It is unclear why he fell out of fashion. We may have seen Spinoza’s statue in Amsterdam, or heard his name mentioned by another philosopher, but of Spinoza himself, we know nothing. This is unfortunate seeing as Spinoza is one of the most practical and relevant philosophers there is. There are all sorts of ways that we can apply Spinoza’s philosophy today. Henri Bergson, writing in the early 20th century, saw Spinoza as a philosopher of intuition. The Italian political theorist Antonio Negri argues that Spinoza is the key to understanding globalization and the postmodern age.

This post does not explore the work of these thinkers. I want to focus on Spinoza himself.

oude_kerk_amsterdamSpinoza was the son of a Portuguese merchant who had fled to Amsterdam with his family to escape the Catholic Inquisition. Spinoza senior couldn’t have picked a better place to have moved the family business. It was the height of the Dutch Golden Age and Amsterdam was the trading capital of the world. Amsterdam, moreover, was an excellent spot for Spinoza to begin a philosophical education. Through the seventeenth century, the liberal climate of Amsterdam drew a hoard of political and religious refugees from other parts of Europe, stimulating a lively intellectual culture. Strolling through Dam Square, Spinoza would have rubbed shoulders with French Huguenots, German Anabaptists, Spanish heretics, and Scottish freethinkers amidst the hustle and bustle of the markets and trade. Spinoza formed the principles of his philosophy long before he considered himself a philosopher, as a young man on the streets of Amsterdam.

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Cynic simplicity: the courage to think

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Diogenes, Bastein-Lepage (1873)

Twenty years had taken their toll. I hadn’t seen Andy since our high school reunion. At first, I barely recognised him. There was more of him than I remembered. His face was broad, carved with crevasses of flesh. The hams and T-bar shoulders that had made him a star on the rugby field now hefted an imposing gut. His hand absorbed mine, pumping fiercely. He seemed to have swelled in size, as if his whole body were inflated with air.

If the suit didn’t give it away, you could tell from his manner that he’d done well for himself. Andy had done a bit of everything. Five years’ work in the WA mines had set him up to make some smart investments. Andy was a ‘self-made’ man, with a dozen businesses behind him and two failed marriages along the way. These days he worked as a consultant to the coal industry (‘Carbon budget, my ass’, he said. ‘The stuff’s in the ground, it’s coming out’). He liked how the Asians partied with a bottle of whiskey on the table. We bonded over shots at the bar, but the more we talked, the more the years yawned like a chasm between us.

He laughed when I told him that I was a philosopher. ‘So am I’, he said. ‘I’m a professional cynic’.

Cynicism used to be a dirty word. When Andy and I were kids, we wouldn’t have thought of affirming it. To be cynical means to be distrusting of people’s motives and dismissive of their good intentions. Only a fool would want to try to change the world. Cynics are convinced that everyone operates out of self-interest. Given this state of affairs, the only smart response is to take care of number one. In business life, cynics are distinguished by a ‘me first’ mentality. They don’t care much where they make their money. If the money’s easy, it’s good. Often, you’ll find them working for pariah industries like coal and tobacco. They are working for a broken system, and they know its going nowhere, but they’re riding the gravy train to the end.

I am troubled by the easy affirmation of cynicism in contemporary life. To my mind, the fact that successful people like Andy know that things are getting worse; also that aspects of their existence are helping things to get worse; yet think the matter is out of their hands, that it is beyond their power to do or change anything, so they may as well be cynical – this amazes and upsets me. ‘Pretty stupid not to be cynical, these days’, Andy laughed when I pressed him on the issue. ‘Take it from me, mate, it’s a pack of dogs out there’. He squared his shoulders and knocked my glass with his drink. ‘Chi-ching’. Same old Andy. Yet something had changed – I could see it in his eyes. It was a flicker of fear. Our conversation was taking him places that he rarely went. Difficult places. His cynical philosophy gave him license to live the way he wanted. But did it allow for journeys of the mind? Did the old school battler have the courage to think? [Read more…]

Nietzsche’s demon: the eternal return

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Alexis was in love with life. Fresh out of art school in Fremantle, Australia, she’d picked up a scholarship to study photography under a famous Parisian photographer. Her mother had urged caution but Alexis persisted – and thank goodness! The course – and Paris itself – was everything that she’d dreamed. Her French sponsor found her an apartment in the Latin Quarter, just a stone’s throw from the Place Saint-Michel. Alexis would stroll along the Seine in the evening, up the Champs Elysées to take pictures of the Arc de Triomphe in the flurry of lights.

After two months documenting daily life on the streets of Paris, she had enough material for an exhibition. Alexis felt like she was at the heart of life. Things could go anywhere from here.

One night Alexis was speaking to a friend in Australia. They were reminiscing about their student days, which her friend dearly missed.

‘Do you remember Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return?’ the friend asked. ‘If I had to choose one time of my life to live out again and again forever, it would be art school’.

Alexis, for her part, was ambivalent about the ‘good old days’. She realized then that if there were a time in her life that she would have again and again, it would be her time in Paris, not Fremantle. The more that she reflected on this, the more her life seemed to come into focus. Looking out the window at the bustling streets, Alexis imagined Nietzsche’s demon coming into her room and making her the offer of Eternal Return. Alexis could hear herself reply, like Nietzsche:

‘Yes. You are a god and I have never heard anything more divine’.

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This post is excerpted from Chapter 3 of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

Epictetus on the seas of fate: cultivate the power within

The Roman slaver groaned as it lurched through heavy seas. Below decks, a boy, Epictetus, lay writhing in his chains. His left knee, where the manacle bit into the shin, was trussed in a heavy rag. Two nights ago a crate had come loose in a storm, careered across the floor and crushed his leg. Epictetus had been in and out of consciousness since then.

No one had treated the break. The soldiers who had dragged the crate away retreated when they saw the damage it had done. Now they spoke in whispers and brandished the lash when he begged for help. He was damaged goods. Epictetus could tell that they didn’t expect him to survive the trip.

Epictetus would prove them wrong. All he needed to do was to control the pain. Try as he might, there was no stopping it. He had tried to blank it out, but it was oppressively – there. There had to be some way of dealing with it, the boy thought. What was it that the Stoics taught? Cultivate the power within. Epictetus struggled to apply the Stoic teaching.

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What is philosophy? An expression of care for life

I was invited by Rev. John Queripel to speak on philosophy at the Bondi Chapel by the Sea. Rather than prepare a talk, I spoke off-the-cuff and from the heart about my own experience of philosophy, which I understand as an expression of care for life. Peter Dowson from Bondi Storytellers was there and captured the moment on film. Thanks Pete! I owe you hugs and beers.

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Excerpts:

‘The basic idea that I want to share with you tonight is that the philosophical disposition, the philosophical state of mind, is an expression of care for life, care for existence’.

‘We are creatures that have the capacity to create value. And the fact that we have the capacity to create value … is attested by the fact that our sense of the value of things grows and decreases, waxes and wanes, depending on how we are feeling. You know how it is, you wake up in the morning and you are feeling a bit blue and nothing seems to have any value, nothing seems to have any importance. But then on another day, you’ve had a few triumphs and all of sudden those things in the world that really seem important just come into relief for you, and you are reminded about what it is in life that you find so valuable… I think that what we are experiencing in these moments when value comes into relief for us is … our own power to care about life. And this ability to care is very very important. Without it we are sociopaths, essentially. We need to care … in order to be good human beings’. [Read more…]

‘We are capable of incredible things’: Tim Rayner interviewed by Frederick Malouf on Bondi FM

I spoke with the indomitable Frederick Malouf on Bondi FM a few weeks back about philosophy, trust, collaboration and the meaning of life. I’ve transcribed some choice snippets below. You can listen to the whole interview here: Interview – Bondi Locals @ Bondi 88FM. [Read more…]

Swarm Wall Street: why an anti-political movement is the most important political force on the planet

This was originally posted on the Coalition blog on 10 October, 2011.

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Why are people occupying Wall Street? The US political elite and mainstream media don’t know what to make of it. ‘Anti-capitalist and unAmerican’, says Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, echoing the sentiments of the conservative left and political right. The mainstream commentariat, when it dares to peer closer, paints an unflattering picture of disaffected, disorganized youth, milling about Liberty Square without a shower or a set of policy demands to level at the administration.

Meanwhile the occupation grows day by day.

If camp in Manhattan makes the doyens of the status quo feel nervous, the explosion of Occupy Together events across the US last weekend will have sent anxiety levels through the roof. There were ‘Occupy’ camps in 70 cities across the nation last weekend. More events are planned for the coming days and weeks in the US and other countries.

Political leaders must be wondering what is going on. (‘Who are these kids? Would they vote for me?’) To be fair, it is difficult to say exactly what the the protesters want. They have no single message or identity. They represent, they say, the 99% who are excluded by the standing political and economic system. They say that the top 1% of the US population owns 40% of the wealth. The way the movement has accelerated seems to follow the pattern set in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world earlier this year: a contingent of dissidents occupy public space; footage of their mistreatment by police is spread via Facebook and Twitter; this consolidates the sense of injustice and inequality that inspired their actions in the first place.

Last week, the movement crossed a threshold. A localized set of swarm events evolved into a distributed swarm network. [Read more…]

Foucault and social media: I tweet, therefore I become

This is the second instalment in a three-part series. Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue, building on Michel Foucault’s account of the Panopticon:

There is a self-reflexive structure to sharing content on Facebook or Twitter. Just as actors on stage know that they are being watched by the audience and tailor their behaviour to find the best effect, effective use of social media implies selecting and framing content with a view to pleasing and/or impressing a certain crowd. We may not intend to do this but it is essential to doing it well. Unless we are sharing anonymously (and the radical end of internet culture, Anonymous, favours anonymity), all the content we share is tagged with an existential marker:

‘I sent this – it is part of my work. You shall know me by my works’.

Part two continues the Foucaultian interrogation of social media looking at Foucault’s concept of subjectivation. I argue for a playful approach to life in the virtual Panopticon. Social media shapes us, so why shouldn’t we engage this process in a creative way? Indeed, we can and do use social media as a vehicle for creative self-development.

‘Never stop sculpting your own statue’, the ancient philosopher Plotinus said. Latter-day Foucaultians are recovering this teaching in an age of social media. We are crafting our selves online in the engagement with crowds.

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Peggy Orenstein came late to Twitter. Orenstein was sceptical at first when her publisher suggested she use Twitter to promote her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She wasn’t fond of the gossip and celebrity culture and the trivial nature of much of what passed as content in the Twittersphere. Orenstein knew, however, that a ready tribe of tweeps is an essential part of the contemporary writer’s guerilla marketing toolkit. She succumbed to pressure and signed up.

Orenstein approached her Twitter experiment with the studious detachment of the field anthropologist. I imagine this is why she noticed how Twitter was changing her.

Tweeting, it turned out, was more fun than she had expected. It was addictive. In an article on her experience published in the New York Times, ‘I Tweet, Therefore I Am’, Orenstein describes how using Twitter redefined her experience of life and self. There was nothing covert or oppressive about this transformation. Orenstein was a willing participant in her own subjectivation.

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Ready for change? Your time starts now


Life Changing is a hands-on guide to harnessing the power of change. Using philosophical examples, it shows you how to cultivate the resilience, agility and vision to embrace change and make it an adventure.

The book includes practical exercises that enable you to apply the ideas in familiar contexts. By doing the exercises, you learn how to think philosophically about change and unleash its life-changing possibilities.

Be creative with change. Don’t just ride it out — use it.

Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide is available on Amazon, Kobo, and iTunes.

Check out the introduction to Life Changing on the P2P Foundation wiki.

Life Changing marks the end of a personal journey. For the past fifteen years, I have been studying, teaching, and applying transformative philosophy in my own life, first as a doctoral student at the University of Sydney, then as a lecturer at the Universities of Sydney and New South Wales, and recently in my Philosophy for Change course, which I’ve run at the Centre for Continuing Education, University of Sydney. My guiding intuition has been that it is possible to distil from philosophical ideas a kernel of practical wisdom, which can be communicated through simple exercises that students can apply to their lives.

This intuition is core to Life Changing. The book is structured about five practical exercises. Each incorporates a life-changing insight. The exercises show you how to muster the courage to change; how to control yourself like a Stoic philosopher; how to cultivate your Nietzschean will to power; and how to use Spinoza’s philosophy to supercharge your social life. They show you how to take adventure from the heart of crisis and fulfilment from the struggle with adversity. [Read more…]

Socrates as entrepreneur: philosophy as a tool of war

CHAPTER FOUR: PHILOSOPHY AS A TOOL OF WAR

But why are we talking about Socrates? If you are reading this blog, you are probably interested in practical wisdom to help you deal with contemporary crises and challenges. What could possibly be relevant in the story of a philosopher who died 2400 years ago? Isn’t this perpetuating the bad habit of looking to the teachings of long-dead white men for answers in a young, multi-ethnic, post-feminist world? Worse, it seems to be celebrating that hoary old intellectual chestnut, ‘reason’ – and reason has earned itself a bad reputation in recent years, deservedly so. The twentieth century saw reason applied to abominable ends: the rational extermination of millions of people in death camps; the establishment of the technocratic state, which claimed the right to socially engineer its populace in the name of rational gain; the ascendency of neo-liberal economic management, which posits every individual as a rational, value-maximizing agent (and too bad for you if you don’t fit the paradigm); the invention of the atomic bomb, turning war into Mutually Assured Destruction and international relations into game theory.

Why should we think about Socrates in the middle of cleaning up the mess that has been made by his descendants? Sure, Socrates is interesting – as a relic. But here in the second decade of the twenty first century, we have more important things to do than reflect on things that happened in the long-distant past.

I hear these kinds of views from people all the time. I agree with the criticisms to a large extent. Still, I think that, in this particular case, there is good reason for us to delve into the story of a dead white philosopher. The story of Socrates has immense value today, especially for those people concerned to address the challenges of the present and our transition into a sustainable future. [Read more…]