Neither mock it nor lament it

spinoza1aEmily sent me a postcard from Germany with a quote from Baruch de Spinoza: “Man soll die Welt nicht belachen nicht beweinen sondern begreifen,” which could be translated as “one should neither laugh at nor lament the world, but only understand it.” I like the sentiment, which reminds us to avoid the tendency to categorize and judge other people or ideas. Instead, it calls for an openness to learning, akin to what Jane Addams calls “affectionate interpretation” in A modern Lear.

I’ve admired Spinoza since being introduced to him by Radoslav Tsanoff, a professor at Rice. Spinoza also inspired Marx, Wittgenstein, Einstein, and many others. His rejection of dogma and insistence on reason set the stage for the Enlightenment. Thinking about the quote sent me off to learn a bit more.

The quote (originally in Latin) is from his Tractatus theologico-politicus, but the general idea recurs throughout his Ethics. It’s actually not so much a “should” as it is Spinoza’s attempt to describe his own method–what he’s endeavored to do through his philosophy.

Friedrich Nietzsche picks up on Spinoza’s method in The joyful wisdom (La gaya scienza). He emphasizes that the issue is not to replace emotions with reason, but actually to build reason upon the emotions:

What does Knowing Mean? Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere! says Spinoza, so simply and sublimely, as is his wont. Nevertheless, what else is this intelligere ultimately, but just the form in which the three other things become perceptible to us all at once? A result of the diverging and opposite impulses of desiring to deride, lament and execrate? Before knowledge is possible each of these impulses must first have brought forward its one-sided view of the object or event.

This is consistent with Spinoza’s own rejection of the mind-body dualism of René Descartes. Much later, John Dewey proposes a related notion, that inquiry is reconstructive experience: The experiences, and our emotional responses, come first, but knowing is the reflection and articulation of those experiences, which leads away from simple judging.

This post necessarily glosses over the sublteties in the “sed intelligere” idea. But even so, I think it’s a useful phrase to remember, particularly as we encounter unfamiliar people or ideas.


4 thoughts on “Neither mock it nor lament it

  1. Now I’m thinking that there is a way to wed your point and mine, above, with a slight correction to my original thinking — firstly, by keeping in mind, as you point out, Spinoza’s rejection of mind-body dualism, and second, by seeing his contemplation of human nature in light of his mathematical nature (which is to say, his respect for the underlying deterministic ‘laws’ that govern the nature of all things).

    I could be wrong, but the Spinoza quote seems almost a direct response to Plato — the ultimate mind(soul)-body dualist. Plato conceived of the soul as immortal; the soul is “marred by communion with the body.” The good man relies on his rationality to moderate a tendency to lament personal misfortune, laugh ‘hysterically’ at life’s ironies, or lash out in extreme anger. In the final chapter of Plato’s Republic, Socrates finishes his condemnation of the poets by suggesting that the problem with the imitative arts is how they lead even good men to lamentation, anger, or laughter (specifically) — not at their own situations, but sympathetically toward imaginary characters, primarily as a kind of release since they are too virtuous to respond in kind to their own misfortunes. This cathartic sympathy, however, indulges irrationality, and “implants an evil constitution.” He contrasts philosophy & knowing (intellectual virtue), which he sees as good for the soul, with the irrationality of reacting to life’s misfortunes (via lamentation, mockery, anger), which are bad for the soul.

    Spinoza, as I understand it, rejects the idea that virtue and fortune are in opposition to one another. While the ancient Greeks distinguish between the necessities of life and the choices human beings are capable of when freed from necessity, Spinoza views all experiences as part of life’s necessities. Therefore, lamentation or mockery or anger are not to be countered or moderated, but understood for the awareness that they provide us. They become part of our knowledge of a situation, so long as we reflect upon them and try to understand *why* we react in the ways that we do. Our virtue lies in making the choice to understand our emotional states and their meaning, in gaining new knowledge from them.


  2. Thanks, Naomi, that’s a fascinating interview with Moira Gatens. The part about Spinoza “saying that we are both imaginative and rational” seems consistent with Nietzsche’s views, too.

    But I’m still learning about Spinoza, myself.


  3. Hi. I’m about to be a student in your fall Community Engagement LEEP class, and just had to comment because of the odd way that Spinoza keeps popping up in my world over the past week or so.

    I recently caught this great radio segment on the influence of Spinoza (among others) on the author George Eliot (of whom I’m a fan), on the Australian Broadcasting Channel’s “Philosopher’s Zone.” I thought I’d pass along the link in case it’s of interest:

    Your own post presents an interesting perspective. Without that outside context from Nietzsche, I would have taken the Spinoza quote to suggest that we have to completely reject the impulse to mock or lament what we bear witness to, since Spinoza seems to be drawing parallels between his study of human nature and studying mathematics, which is a subject that doesn’t tend to stir any critical judgment. Whereas Nietzsche seems to be suggesting that experiencing these emotions are a necessary starting point, so long as we’re aware of them.


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