Tag Archives: Spinoza

Xenophobia, Political Society and the Mechanism of the Imitation of Affects

Each year The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) outlines in its report the main trends in the fields of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance in Europe. ECRI’s report raises alarms about an increase in xenophobic populism and the discourse on racist hatred that has continued to make its mark on the contemporary political climate in Europe in 2018.  The report points out that xenophobic discourses and hate speech are often the first step toward acts of xenophobic violence. “It (xenophobic populism) fuels an anti-immigrant rhetoric, which often results in racist hate speech, breaking taboos and inciting further expressions of hatred.”[1]. The report not only highlights the anti-immigrant sentiment spread in Europe, but points out that xenophobic populist discourses fuel Islamophobia, antisemitism and anti-black racism too: “Islamophobia is still prevalent in most member states…(and) In many member states a dangerous “normalisation” of Islamophobic prejudice can be observed.”[2]  And about strengthening of antisemitic hate, we can read in the report that: “Jewish people in Europe continue to be confronted with antisemitic hatred, including violence. Extremist groups, especially Neo-Nazis and Islamists, pose particular threats to the safety of Jewish communities and their members across the continent.”[3] Also persons of African descent who were born in Europe, or have lived here for a long period of time, are facing increasing hate: “Members of Europe’s Black communities continue to suffer from negative stereotypes, prejudice, hate speech, and also violence. Their social marginalisation is often exacerbated by discrimination in various fields of day-to-day life.”[4] In addition to all this, the report stresses how Xenophobic discourses based on the “us” and “them” ideology sow the seeds of divisions along identity lines, and therefore threaten basic principles of Europe’s democratic societies: tolerance and inclusion.[5]

This is what we read in official reports, which have been signalling for years the increase in these feelings of racial and xenophobic hatred, and which continue to record it in an objective language. During my recent sabbatical year (2018) in Italy I witnessed in some ways this progressive increase in such collective feelings. I witnessed a growing pervasive hatred in everyday conversations and an inclination towards growing violence.

Some people complain that “they take up all the spaces in kindergartens”, “it was different before, now there are all “these ” people”, “they shouldn’t come, they steal our work” (said by a worker married to a migrant). These are sentences I heard daily on the street, in shops, among acquaintances. And these sentences, little by little, pave the way for violence; they open the path to violence quite unconsciously, with no awareness of the dangers or the gravity of the evil to which others or they themselves will be exposed.

And so we come to the chronicle of one November weekend: a weekend of everyday racism. To make it clear what kind of phenomenon I will analyse, allow me to recall some events that have been denounced as chronicles of a weekend of the current racism.[6]

On Saturday evening, November 9th, outside a famous disco of Ancona, a 22-year-old man, born in Italy of an immigrant family, is a victim of violent racist aggression from the disco’s bouncer and three customers. After insulting him with very violent racist slurs, they beat him and stabbed him.[7]

On the Sunday evening of November 10th in Savona, a group of eight quite young men attacked two shopkeepers, a husband and wife of Bengali origin, who had been in Italy for many years. Eight young people entered the couple’s shop and began to take the goods, pulling things off the shelves and throwing them on the floor. When the shopkeeper objected, they grabbed a chair from the nearby bar and hit him over the head, angrily[8].

On Monday November 11th, new racist aggression took place in Florence. Two hooded young men kicked and punched a 28-year-old Nigerian peddler, and escaped[9].

The week in question ended with news that brings us back to the mood before the Second World War, the so-called “Liliana Segre” case.

Liliana Segre is senator for life. She was deported in 1943 because she was Jewish, and survived the Auschwitz extermination camp. From 1990 she went to school assemblies and conferences to tell young people her story, also on behalf of the millions who shared the same story and who have never been able to communicate it. She is the first signatory of the motion for the organization of a parliamentary commission against hatred, racism and antisemitism. From November 8th she will be escorted in her every move by two carabinieri. The decision was taken by the prefecture of Milan which considered Segre to be in danger due to repeated and daily antisemitic threats received via the web and a recent banner against her, carried by an extreme right-wing group[10].

In other words, what is happening today, in 2019 in Italy, 70 years after the proclamation of the republican, democratic constitution, which states that “All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, personal and social conditions.”[11]?  What happens is that Senator Liliana Segre needs protection by an armed escort because she is Jewish.

I have outlined this series of events because I believe that it is the manifestation or the symptoms of a phenomenon that I will call an affective epidemic, a phenomenon I will try to investigate through this contribution. This affective epidemic reinforces the feelings of radical exclusion and discrimination of non-citizens, foreigners, and those who are perceived to be radically different in religion, culture, ability and race. Such feelings risk destroying our capacity for living together as equal and free citizens and dissolving basic values of liberal democracy. However, the link between this affective epidemic and democracy is more complex and perhaps ambiguous.

I do not here intend to perform a political, sociological or media-based analysis of the public communication of what is happening. Such studies already exist in their respective disciplines.

I would like, however, firstly, to give a general outline of a description of the socio-political function of negative affects. I will do this through the Spinozist analysis of the imitation of affects, starting from the Spinozist systematic of “sad passions”, first of all, hatred. Secondly, I will attempt to present the ambiguous link between these epidemic affections and democracy, always in light of Spinoza’s theory.


Spinoza and the imitation of affects 

The mechanisms of imitation of affects are rooted in the imaginative identification, from which proceeds the (imaginative, I would say virtual) recognition of the other as “similar”. At the same time, this imitation produces an effect of classification and grouping (national, social, sexual, etc.), which excludes the other as “totally other”. All this opens up to a phenomenology of antipathy, destruction and dehumanization. This mechanism, triggered only by sad affections, does not show us the causes of the existence of the state, but the causes of its dissolution.

Furthermore, the phenomenology of sad passions places politics at the ethical turning point of the individual, at the dividing line between active becoming and passive becoming.

Before continuing the analysis, I will recall some basic concepts of Spinoza. To indicate the world of affectivity, Spinoza uses two terms: affectus and passio. The term affectus / feeling indicates a change in the state of the individual’s vis existendi (force of existing), in the interaction with the outside world. Passio is a derived concept in that it indicates the passive aspect of the change, the impulses that our mental system undergoes in encounters with the outside world.[12] All affectus/feelings are not passions; there are active feelings as well. However, all the passions suffered by the soul are affectus. Affectus is therefore a transition towards an empowerment (active affects) or a weakening (passions) of our power of being. The power of being, or Conatus when it refers to the mind and body, is called desire, and, Spinoza notes, this is nothing but the very essence of the human being (Eth. III, P. IX, Sch. G.II, p 147). It follows that desire, i.e. a human being’s essence, is the basic root of affectivity.

An increase in this power is joy; a decrease is sadness (Eth. P.XI and Sch., G. II, p. 148-9). This joy and sadness transcribe in the mind the variations of the conatus connected to the affections of the body in its relations with other bodies. It is to be noted here that such joy or sadness do not imply knowledge of truth, but only the immediate, unconscious reaction of refusal or acceptance of the affections of the body, which is why they are inadequate ideas, or the ideas of imagination. Joy and sadness are felt through external “things” to which we refer our feelings imaginatively. These feelings show themselves spontaneously in the forms of love and hatred (Eth. III, P. XIII, Sch. G.II, p. 150).

This mechanism gets terribly complicated when the “external causes” to which we refer our feelings of love and hate are “res nobis similis”, that is to say, other people. “Ex eo quod rem nobis similem et quam nullo affectu prosecuti sumus, aliquo affectu affici imaginamur, eo ipso simili affectu afficimur.” (Eth.III, P.XXVII, G.II, p. 160 )

(From the fact we imagine that a thing which is similar to us and for which we have felt no feeling, is affected by a certain feeling, by that itself (eo ipso) we are affected by a similar affect)[13].

There are two crucial points in this proposition.

First of all we are dealing here with a process of imaginary identification. It is an imaginary process because we burden ourselves with the feelings of another person, without having a previous emotional relationship with this person. The only condition is that it is someone like us. Here a tendentially universal identification process is at work[14], but before we think this identification, we imagine it, as the definition of commiseration tells us.[15] The definition tells us that this feeling runs to someone we “imagine being like us”.[16]

Who is this being whom we judge similar to us? And further, how do we judge who is similar to us?

We know that Spinoza doesn’t give a formal definition of the human being. The “human” issue emerges explicitly in the Ethics only in the fourth and fifth part: dedicated to human servitude and human freedom[17]. Already in the TEI Spinoza explains that the aim of his research is to acquire a stronger human nature (naturam aliquam humanam sua multo firmiorem) (TEI, G.II p. 8), so as to enjoy it with other individuals (ut ille cum aliis individuis, si fieri potest, tali natura fruatur) (Ibidem). And in the preface to Part IV of Ethics, almost taking up the purpose of the research already expressed in TIE, he grounds his research in a desire: we desire (cupimus) to form a certain idea of the human being: an idea that can be considered as an exemplar of human nature.( Eth. IV, praef. G.II, p. 208). As P. Macherey[18] pointed out, the use of the verb cupio is central here. This research too is rooted in a desire (which we must not forget is the very essence of each individual). This desire arises from a situation that is common to all beings, and more particularly, to all human beings, expressed in the Appendix of De Deo: all human beings are born ignorant of the causes of things (omnes homines rerum causarum ignari nascuntur)( Eth. I, Appendix, G.II, p. 78)

And this is the human servitude: The human being believes to be a kingdom apart, separated in Nature (imperium in imperio). This belief is based on the universal idea of ​​Human Being, which, according to Spinoza, is nothing more than a general imaginative idea, which differs from common rational notions (Eth. II p. XL sch).  Resuming here the interpretation of Gilles Deleuze, [19] we remember that the common notions, far from being formal axioms, express the relationship of convenience or discrepancy of bodies and therefore of minds, since the mind is the idea of ​​the body (Eth.II prop. 38, coroll. G.II, p. 119)[20]. All bodies are in accordance (conveniunt) with each other in movement and rest, and therefore they have something in common. The “human” individuals, whose bodies are extremely complex, are in accordance with each other to the highest degree, that is to say they have greater and specific common properties due to the similarity of the internal law which regulates the proportion of movement and rest of each individual body.  It is only in this sense that the term species or human nature can be understood, according to Spinoza.[21]

So, what is the idea of human being to be considered as an exemplar of human nature that can help us to acquire a stronger human nature? We need to remember what Spinoza says in Eth. IV def 8 ( G.II, p. 210): the essence or nature of man is the virtue or power to do certain things that can only be known thanks to the laws of his nature. As Macherey rightly notes[22], it follows from here that in every human individual there is an effort to be and act as an adequate cause of his actions: this power, referring to both the mind and the body, is expressed in desire that is, as we have already said, the essence of the human individual. The exemplar that can help us in the acquisition of a stronger human nature, will therefore be a path of acquisition of power as the Scholium of the proposition 39 Eth V (G.II,p 305) indicates: in this life we ​​make an effort that the body of childhood changes, as far as its nature (vis existendi) allows and agrees, in another that is much more able to act and that relates to a conscious mind to the highest degree.  The path cannot be a lonely one. In fact, because of our impotence we could not exist or be happy without the union with what strengthens us (K.V. II, 5.5, G I, p. 41). [23] We have always been in alio et per alium,( Eth.I def. 5, G II, p. 45) we are in Nature, limited and / or enhanced by the relationship with other individuals, with the bodies of other individuals, with other human individuals. Since all human beings are born in ignorance of the true causes of things and therefore in the impotence to regulate and control the affects (humanam impotentia in moderandis et coercentis affectibus servituten voco) (Eth. IV, praef, G.II, p. 205),  the judgment on who is similar to us starts immediately from the basic datum of this ignorance. We judge most often what is similar to us not on the basis of common notions, but on the imaginative representation of what we believe to be similar us.

Imaginatio implies a different order and connection of images that is heterogeneous in relation to the order and connection of the intellect’s ideas. There is a specific order of imagination that expresses[24] itself in memory and in the ability to produce words and symbols. Using these words and symbols, we remember things and form ideas that are similar to things.  This association arises according to the order and association of the modifications of the human body (Eth. II, XVIII, sch. G.II, p. 106-7).

From the “Imagination’s” order follows that we have as many different ways of associating emotions and images as we have different body constitutions. The same object can be seen by two different individuals in two different ways.

Thus, everyone will move from one image to another according to the way his habit has ordered the images of things in his body (Ibidem).  A soldier, for example, will immediately, upon seeing the tracks of a horse, go from the thought of the horse to the thought of the rider and thence to the thought of war, etc. A farmer, on the other hand, will go from the thought of the horse to the thought of the plough, the field. And so, each one, according to how he is used to connecting and making connections between the images of things, will go from one thought to another.

With words, images and symbols we get used to associating and finding similarities. And so we begin to imagine that an “individual is like us” when he presents the characteristics that our instinctive inclination accustoms us to recognize.

The identification process can therefore find its limits in the mechanisms of imagination that operate by simple association.

Secondly, the imitation of affects is also an automatic, involuntary process that occurs without the subject being aware of it, as the wording “ex eo quod … eo ipso” indicates. The imitation of affects is an involuntary phenomenon that doesn’t occur because of pre-existing emotional ties, but because of a real or imaginary similarity of which Spinoza gives a physiological demonstration. Any perception of a body implies the nature of our body and the nature of the external body together. If the nature of the external body is similar to the nature of our body, then the idea of ​​the external body, which we represent and imagine, also implies the affections of this external body. Consequently, if we imagine someone like us affected by some affection, this imagination will express an affection of our Body analogous to this affection: and, therefore, those affections will be produced in us by transference without our awareness and without previous emotional ties to that external body (Eth. II, Prop. XXVII, dem. G.II, p. 160)[25]

Here, at this point, feelings circulate among those who imagine themselves as similar, as if they didn’t belong to anyone in particular. We no longer know who loves whom and who hates whom, in a complicated game where feelings reach a maximum of instability. We are in the presence of a collective “fluctuatio animi” (emotional instability) where feelings seem to start to live a life of their own!

This mechanism brings into play two passions, piety (commiseratio) and emulation (aemulatio) ( Eth.III, prop.XXVII, sch., G.II, p. 160).The first is a form of shared sadness, which also arises without having direct affective relationships. Piety is therefore not a form of love. But it can be at the base of an affective ethics and can foster the development of reason: since, with regard to others, the passion of piety can automatically raise an obstacle against the feeling of hatred.

The second is an affective imitation with respect to the desire of another: Let us remember the definition of desire: “Cupiditas est ipsa hominis essentia quatenus ex data quacunque ejus affectione determinata concipitur ad aliquid agendum” (Eth.III, Def. Aff. 1, G. II, p. 190) (Desire is the actual essence of human being, in so far as it is conceived, as determined to a particular activity by some given modification of itself.)[26]

Sharing the desire of others entails sharing the impulse to do something. So besides sharing the joys and sadnesses of others, we are driven to adopt their rules of behavior. This is why we tend to cry together, to flee together, to love and to hate together. It is here that Spinoza identifies the genetic mechanism of a common life, for those who imagine themselves similar, and who are “infected” by the same passions. The imitation of affects explains the crowd’s passions, the collective passions, the political emotions. It is the genetic cause of the formation of the group, the nation, the society and the State.


The passionate genesis of political society 

The space of what is really common to human individuals, the space outlined by the common rational notions, is reason. The formation of the political body that Spinoza briefly outlines in Ethics is part of the human path from servitude to liberation. It is the path of acquisition of that stronger human nature of which Spinoza speaks in the TIE and which is a common good. It is the common path of foundation of a society capable of allowing the greatest number of human individuals to reach that degree of perfection (TIE G.II p 8). The “common” space where human beings agree is reason. But human beings are not born rational, even if they can become rational. If all humans lived under the guidance of reason, they would live in perfect harmony and would not need to form a political society.

The humans, as already mentioned, are subject to passions; their initial state of powerlessness and ignorance cause them to oppose each other. Each individual exists by natural right, and the right of each is measured by his power. By natural right, everyone judges what is good or bad, what is useful or harmful to him; everyone “takes revenge, strives to preserve what he loves and destroy what he hates: “seseque vindicat et id quod amat, conservare et id quod odio habet, destruere conatur” (Eth. IV p. XXXVII sch 2, G.II p. 237).  Even these destructive passions can become collective and be shared. In fact, Spinoza identifies the genesis of political society in human impotence, in the need that human individuals have to live together to be of mutual help (ibidem). And this being together collectively does not only happen under the guidance of reason, quite the contrary. Reason is one of the paths that humans may embark upon. Passions can be the genetic cause of the political society, in particular the fear of loneliness that is inherent in all human individuals, because no one can survive alone.

As reported by A. Matheron,[27] there is a paragraph, and only one, in the Political Treatise where Spinoza puts into play the collective passions in order to make explicit the genesis of political societies.

“Quia homines, uti diximus, magis affectu, quam ratione ducuntur, sequitur multitudinem non ex rationis ductu, sed ex communi aliquo affectu naturaliter convenire et una veluti mente duci velle, nempe (ut art. 9. cap. 3. diximus) vel ex communi spe, vel metu, vel desiderio commune aliquod damnum ulciscendi. Cum autem solitudinis metus omnibus hominibus insit, quia nemo in solitudine vires habet, ut sese defendere, et quae ad vitam necessaria sunt, comparare possit, sequitur statum civilem homines natura appetere, nec fieri posse, ut homines eundem unquam penitus dissolvant”.(TP, 6,1, G.III p.294)

(Inasmuch as men are led, as we have said, more by passion than reason, it follows, that a multitude comes together, and wishes to be guided, as it were, by one mind, not at the suggestion of reason, but of some common passion—that is (Chap. III. Sec. 9), common hope, or fear, or the desire of avenging some common hurt. But since fear of solitude exists in all men, because no one in solitude is strong enough to defend himself, and procure the necessaries of life, it follows that men naturally aspire to the civil state; nor can it happen that men should ever utterly dissolve it.)[28]

Here Spinoza tells us that the political association is formed through an affective process, in which some precise affects are at work: – the common hope (spes) and the common fear (metus), – solitudinis metus he specifies in the second part of the paragraph almost to wanting once again to stand out from the Hobbesian position, – and finally the common desire of avenging.

Spinoza uses the term affectus, but here he takes into account only passions, the passive affects. The first two, spes and metus (hope and fear) are joy and sadness in relation to things we imagine in the future (Eth.III, prop. XVIII, 2.sch,G.II, p. 155 ). We are in the sphere of uncertainty. But when this uncertainty disappears, when we are sure of what is happening to us, hope becomes confidence and fear becomes despair. As the preface of the TTP lets us know, spes and metus are the passions that often drive the human being to confusion, and dispose the mind to the most extreme credulity, by disregarding the indications of reason. We are used to consider fear as negative and hope as good, as a theological virtue or as a principle to help us survive.  For Spinoza, however, fear and hope are just two sides of the same coin:  both are passions characterised by future uncertainty.

These kinds of passions cause a weakening of self-awareness and a feeling of insufficiency.  Fear as a passion generates a special need for security, and thus plays an important part in the political and social sphere.  So, from a political point of view, fear is the foundation, not just for autocracy, but for almost every regime: one cannot rule unless one induces fear. However, although hope and fear cannot be good in themselves (Spes et metus affectus non posse esse per se boni,( Eth. IV, p. XLVII, G.II, p. 245), they are, however, useful, and therefore “as we must sin, we had better sin in that direction. For, if all men who are a prey to emotion were all equally proud, they would shrink from nothing, and would fear nothing; how then could they be joined and linked together in bonds of union?” (Eth. IV, p. LIV sch.G.II,p 250)

But let us now focus on the last passion that can bring together human beings by nature and form a multitude that is led as if it were a single mind.

Before seeing where the reference to Article 9 of Chapter 3 of TP takes us, let us dwell on this desire for revenge.

The term desire, as we have already seen, indicates the essential impulse to do something. Yet, what should one do? Take revenge for an imaginary offense suffered in common. – Revenge is the effort (conatus) to return the evil done to us; but revenge is a derivative of anger, that is, the effort to hurt whom we hate, (Eth.III, prop XL, cor 2, sch.G.II, p. 172) We are therefore under the power of hatred: hatred is a sadness accompanied by an external cause. This hatred has become a common passion; we are faced with a community that was formed sharing a common hatred and therefore a common sadness. It is a hatred that developed without each individual of the community necessarily having a previous emotional relationship with “these others”.

Before summing up our analysis of the connection of the sad collective passions, we follow Spinoza’s reference to paragraph 9 of Chapter Three. Let’s read:

“Tertio denique considerandum venit, ad civitatis ius ea minus pertinere, quae plurimi indignantur. Nam certum est, homines naturae ductu in unum conspirare, vel propter communem metum vel desiderio damnum aliquod commune ulciscendi; et quia ius civitatis communi multitudinis potentia definitur, certum est, potentiam civitatis et ius eatenus minui, quatenus ipsa causas praebet, ut plures in unum conspirent.”(TP, 3,9, G.III, p.285)

 “Thirdly and lastly, it comes to be considered, that those things are not so much within the commonwealth’s right, which cause indignation in the majority. For it is certain, that by the guidance of nature men conspire together, either through common fear, or with the desire to avenge some common hurt; and as the right of the commonwealth is determined by the common power of the multitude, it is certain that the power and right of the commonwealth are so far diminished, as it gives occasion for many to conspire together.”[29]

It is not necessary here to recall the masterful analysis that Matheron makes of indignation[30]. I just want to emphasize three points:

Firstly: Even if indignation arises from something that offends our sense of humanity, justice or our moral conscience, Spinoza is drastic: indignation is always bad. Indignation is necessarily evil. “Indignatio est necessario mala. Indignatio odium est ”. Indignation is evil because indignation is a form of interpersonal hatred, similar to contempt. As interpersonal hatred, indignation is the cause of the dissolution of the political body. Spinoza says that hatred between people can never be good. Therefore it is not a matter of distinguishing between a good and an evil form of indignation.

We can therefore think that this association, guided by feelings of hatred, indignation and revenge, carries within it the seeds of dissolution, not only of the tyrannical state, but also of the association itself. Indignation, and therefore hatred, plays a double role here:  decomposing and recomposing the political body continuously.

Secondly, the formation of the political body based on common hatred entails that the political body is produced in the cycle of sad passions. Now we have already said that sad passion is a diminution of power, power of being, power of acting and power of thinking. In other words, as noted by G. Deleuze, sadness does not make people more intelligent, quite the opposite, it makes people foolish. And sure enough, those who want to hold power as complete domination arouse sad passions in the people, and use them to their own advantage.

Thirdly, even if this “community” is an association of individuals that exercise its power as una veluti mens (as if they were a single mind) and forms a multitudinis potentia (a strength of multitude), it is the most distant from the democracy that Spinoza defined in the TTP, since this political body arises among human beings fully deprived of the use of reason, and led exclusively by passions.

According to Spinoza, the definition of a democracy is “coetus universus hominum, qui collegialiter summum jus ad omnia, quae potest, habet” “the union of all people who, in common (collegialiter), have full right over what is in their power.”( TTP, XVI, G. III s 191).In the democratic order, both a reflected common consent (communi consensus decernitur) (th.IV p.XXXVII, Sch. G.II. p. 239) and one mind (mens una) are fundamental elements.  We want to highlight that this mind is one, not just as if it were one (una veluti mente ducuntur)( TP, 2,16 G.III p. 281). This mind can be one mens una , because it expresses itself in the common sphere of ​​reason.But because a common consent involves all people, and one mind consists of all elements of society, the ability to use judgment becomes a core problem. Indeed, the ability to use judgment is a necessary condition for arriving at a reflected common consensus.

This multitude, or people, which form a political body by sharing common sad passions, doesn’t think. It cannot think, because sad passion blocks the power to act and think. It feels together, but it doesn’t think together. It is led by a mind, as if this mind were one: as if, but it is not, one mind. It is led by a totally passive mind, a mind enslaved by the passions.

It is easy to assume that this new political body allows itself to be led by the dominating mind of an absolute ruler. It seems that Spinoza answers the question Étienne de la Boétie had already asked himself and that later surprised Jacques Necker:  Why do people sacrifice their lives and their own interests for the interests and ambitions of other individuals?  Why do people accept the authority of others when this harms them more than it helps? Because they share common sad passions, when they should share common ideas.



The mimesis of passive affects also too easily brings into play the cycle of hatred and its derivatives: derision, contempt, anger, revenge (Eth.IV XLV, G.II, p.243). The society generated in this way is institutionally precarious and will easily become a world of appearance and reciprocal detestation. Although this mechanism of sad and hateful emotional passivity operates continuously and represents a steady drift of all human societies, it is possible to trigger another kind of cycle.

It is possible to develop a political association based on liberating passions and constructive images.

The mechanism could also put other feelings into play, and leave room for pity or compassion and all those passions, which are indeed sad, but which may indirectly become good: humility, repentance, shame (Eth. IV, LIV, sch. G.II, p.250 ). Because “He who is moved to help others neither by reason nor by compassion, is rightly designated inhuman, since (III. XXVII) he seems different from a human being” (Et. IV p. L, sch.G.II p. 247)

However, this path is more difficult and slower. This is the “perardua” way that leads us to reason and liberation, to the freedom that according to Spinoza is defined as rationality. It is the way that leads to the formation of the citizen who, by subjecting himself to the precepts of reason, understands that the interest of his individuality coincides with the collective interest of the state and lives according to the political community rules (Eth. IV, prop. LXXIII, G. II p. 264), the rules of the Free State, which for Spinoza is based on reason.

A State founded exclusively on negative passions, on the feeling of hatred and revenge, carries in itself the germ of its destruction. Its subjects – not citizens because citizens are guided internally or externally by reason – do not live according to the common political rules, but they live following their discordant individual passions, and sooner or later they will fight each other and disrupt the community with the same ease with which it was compacted.

Let us return to the growing feeling of xenophobia which seems to dominate in many of our democratic societies and which has spread so easily. The theory of imitation of Spinozian affections helped us to make clearer how and why negative feelings can spread so easily, even in the most civil and democratic societies. In addition, this theory sheds light on the danger these feelings pose to the strength of the State.  By compacting the common feeling of hatred for the “different” for the “foreigner”, the human individual loses the capacity of growing to be “citizen” of a Free State, as he becomes unable to submit the action of the rulers to careful examination, meticulous criticism and accurate judgment. Therefore he cannot engage in a common practical action based on this judgment. In other words, he is unable to build a democracy that is at the same time a free state. He becomes only a subject, a human individual who lives with others – most often against others- closed in his own singularity, dragged by his passions.

As we have just mentioned, the danger is twofold: for political subjects who can very easily be enslaved in an authoritarian way, but also for the State holding. Spinoza’s theory of affects makes us understand that hatred against “others” can spread out easily in our society, but with the same ease this hatred can pour itself out on classes and groups within society and the State, and finally against the authorities.



Cronache di ordinario razzismo: http://www.cronachediordinariorazzismo.org/un-lungo-week-end-allinsegna-del-razzismo-e-non-solo-sui-campi-di-calcio/

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de Cuzzani (2002) ”Une anthropologie de l’homme decentré”, in Philosophiques, 29, p. 7-21.

ECRI (2019) “Annual Report On Ecri’s Activities, covering the period from 1 January to 31 December 2018”, Strasbourg

Gueroult (1974) Spinoza 2. L’âme, Aubier-Montaigne, Paris

Macherey (1995) Introduction À l’Ethique de Spinoza, La troisième partie, Paris, Puf.

Macherey (1997) Introduction À l’Ethique de Spinoza, La quatrième partie, Paris, Puf.

Matheron (1978)  « L’anthropologie spinoziste ? », in Revue de Synthèse, n.89-91

Moreau (2005)  État et religion, Paris, Edition de l’ENS.

Moreau (2011) “Imitation Of The Affects And Interhuman Relations “ in Spinoza’s Ethics: A Collective Commentary by M. Hampe,Michael Hampe,Ursula Renz and Robert Schnepf, Leiden, Boston, Brill.

Sangiacomo (2013) “What are human beings? Essences and aptitudes in Spinoza’s anthropology”, in Journal of Early Modern Studies, 2, 2.

Scribano (2016) “La scoperta della simpatia dalla fisiologia alla socialità”, in L’Uomo, il filosofo, le passioni, a cura di Carlo Borghero e Antonella Del Prete, Firenze, casa editrice Le Lettere.

Sévérac (2011) Spinoza : union et désunion, Paris, Vrin.

Spinoza (1891) The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated from the Latin, with an Introduction by R.H.M. Elwes, vol. 1 Introduction, Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. Revised edition, London: George Bell and Sons.

Spinoza (1925) Opera, im Auftrag der heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften herausgegeben von Carl Gebhart, IV bind. Heidelberg.

Spinoza (2009) Ethics: Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata, translated by R.H.M. Elwes, Aukland, The Floating Press.



[1] ECRI, “Annual Report On Ecri’s Activities, covering the period from 1 January to 31 December 2018” Strasbourg, June, 2019, p. 7.

[2] Ibid. s. 10.

[3] Ibid. s. 11.

[4] Idem.

[5] Cf. ibid. p. 8.

[6] Cf. Cronache di ordinario razzismo: http://www.cronachediordinariorazzismo.org/un-lungo-week-end-allinsegna-del-razzismo-e-non-solo-sui-campi-di-calcio/

[7] Source: https://picchionews.it/cronaca/aggressione-razzista-al-mamamia-di-senigallia-calci-pugni-e-poi-una-coltellata-coinvolto-anche-un-buttafuori

[8] Source: https://www.ilsecoloxix.it/savona/2019/11/11/news/savona-paura-sotto-i-portici-banda-di-teppisti-minaccia-di-morte-e-ferisce-negoziante-1.37888569

[9] Source:  https://corrierefiorentino.corriere.it/firenze/notizie/cronaca/19_novembre_12/picchiato-due-ragazzi-col-cappuccio-sottopasso-cure-b307eb08-0529

[10] Source: https://www.repubblica.it/cronaca/2019/11/07/news/scorta_segre-240463251/

[11]Costituzione della Repubblica Italiana: Art. 3. “Tutti i cittadini hanno pari dignita` sociale [XIV] e sono eguali davanti alla legge, senza distinzione di sesso [292 , 371 , 481 , 511 , 1177 ], di razza, di lingua [6], di religione [8, 19], di opinioni politiche [22], di condizioni personali e sociali.” https://www.senato.it/documenti/repository/istituzione/costituzione.pdf

[12] Cf. Ethica III, def.III and Explicatio in Spinoza Opera, im Auftrag der heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften herausgegeben von Carl Gebhart, Heidelberg, 1925,  b. II p.139. Carl Gebhart’s edition will be referred with G. number on the volume and page numbers. Spinoza’s works used in the text are referred by the following abbreviation: K.V. Korte verhandeling van God, de mensch, en deszelvs welstand; TEI: Tractatus de Emendatione intellectus; TTP: Tractatus Theologico-Politicus; TP. Tractatus politicu; Eth. Ethica; Ep, Epistolae.

[13] My translation.

[14] Cf. P. Macherey, Introduction À l’Ethique de Spinoza, La troisième partie, Puf, Paris, 1995, p. 218.

[15] Eth. III, P. XXII, sch. G.II, p. 157.

[16] Pierre-François Moreau in his article “Imitation Of The Affects And Interhuman Relations “ in Spinoza’s Ethics: A Collective Commentary by M. Hampe,Michael Hampe,Ursula Renz and Robert Schnepf, Brill, Leiden, Boston 2011, p. 168-69 notes that the expression “res nobis similis” does not explicitly refer to humans. Belonging to the “human” is not relevant here to judge the “similarity”.For an analysis of the “common notions” see  M. Gueroult, Spinoza 2. L’âme, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne, 1974,  p. 381 and ff.

[17]  P. Macherey, Introduction À l’Ethique de Spinoza, La quatrième partie, Puf, Paris, 1997, p. 9.

[18] P. Macherey, Introduction IV, op.cit. p. 22.

[19] Gilles Deleuze, Philosophie Pratique, Les èditions de minuit, Paris, 1981, p. 127.

[20] Cf. Gueroult op.cit. p. 339.

[21] As Alexandre Matheron observes in his « L’anthropologie spinoziste ? », in Revue de Synthèse, 89-91, 1978, Spinoza does not define humanity as such,  and as P.F. Moreau (cf. État et religion,Edition de l’ENS, 2005, p. 5) argues Spinoza doesn’t give precise distinction between humanity and animality. The theme of Spinozistic anthropology is therefore problematic and controversial. However, as Andrea Sangiacomo (“What are human beings? Essences and aptitudes in Spinoza’s anthropology”, in  Journal of Early Modern Studies, 2, 2,  2013, p. 78-100) claims, the problem finds light considering that according to Spinoza humanity exists inasmuch as individuals can agree with each other and adapt to each other to live and work together. This is because Spinoza wants to give a non-anthropocentric interpretation of human beings. In this way we discover at the heart of the Spinozistic doctrine an extremely exact and original conception of the human individual, cf. Paola de Cuzzani, ”Une anthropologie de l’homme decentré”, in Philosophiques, 29, 2002, p. 7-21. On the problem of the human species in Spinoza, see also J. Busse, Le problème de l’essence de l’homme chez Spinoza, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2009.

[22] cf. P. Macherey, Introduction IV, Op. Cit. p. 45.

[23] Cf. Pascal Sévérac, Spinoza : union et désunion, Paris, Vrin, 2011, p. 14.

[25] See also Emanuela Scribano, “La scoperta della simpatia dalla fisiologia alla socialità”, in L’Uomo, il filosofo, le passioni, a cura di Carlo Borghero e Antonella Del Prete, casa editrice Le Lettere, Firenze, 2016, pagg. 63-75; and Macherey, Introduction III, Op. Cit. p. 216-7.

[26] English translation by Elwes:  Benedictus de Spinoza: Ethics: Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata, translated by R.H.M. Elwes, The Floating Press, Aukland, 2009, p. 226.

[27] Cf. A. Matheron, « L’indignation et le conatus de l’État spinoziste », in Puissance et ontologie, ed. Myriam Revault D’Allones et Hardi Rizk, Ed. Kimé, Paris, 1994, p. 154.

[28] Benedict de Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated from the Latin, with an Introduction by R.H.M. Elwes, vol. 1 Introduction, Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. Revised edition (London: George Bell and Sons, 1891). 15.4.2020. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1710, p. 316.

[29] Idem p.205.

[30] Cf. A. Matheron, Indignation, Op.Cit. p. 153-165.

Conversion and Inclusiveness

The problem that I intend to try to tackle in this brief intervention of mine is the following: is the current notion of religious freedom or freedom of conscience – I do not mean to distinguish the two things even though one probably should – compatible with the current notion of tolerance? I will briefly try to prove: 1. that this problem exists, 2. that the setting given by Baroncelli to the problem of tolerance is the only way, at least among those I know, to set it correctly.

In the abstract, of course, the two concepts seem to fit together perfectly, after all they were almost always compatible in the internal forum (with the exception of the Catholic inquisition, as far as I know). If, however, we are striving to understand as we are trying to do today, the problem emerges immediately: it happens in fact that often the two concepts will involve, consciously or not, two opposing rhetorics, of inclusion and exclusion, often and willingly at the same time. On the other hand, from a public point of view the principle of religious freedom implies a form of public ignorance (even if almost always this is only very relatively true) with regard to the contents of this freedom; on the other hand, every religious freedom in which it is exercised implies a radical exclusivism: one cannot convert simultaneously to Christianity or Islam or practice different rites at the same time.

The same thing naturally applies to political liberty, but in this case, it is normally stated that the exercise of the aforementioned freedom is subordinated to the acceptance of a set of common values ​​- constitutional principles – and of common rules within which only political freedom is exercisable. This is because political confrontation exists in function of the exercise of a political power: everyone can disagree with any political proposal but must obey it when it turns into law correctly through a series of constitutionally guaranteed procedures. Every discussion or political confrontation is aimed at the conquest of a political monopoly. The purpose of constitutions, or at least of liberal constitutions, is to limit this monopoly to allow the survival of an adequate political dialectic through the protection of oppositions.

The problem lies in the fact that, unlike the political one, religious freedom implies the recognition of a right to a series of external and therefore public behaviours that by definition cannot be compulsively transformed into obligatory behaviours for all, under penalty of the abolition of religious freedom itself as external freedom. A quick examination of Hobbes Leviathan or of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologicus Politicus – from my point of view the two paradigmatic texts of modernity – would be sufficient to detect the dramatic centrality of the problem: on the one hand both Hobbes and Spinoza admit and defend the freedom of conscience in internal forum, on the other hand they  affirm at the same time the right of the sovereign in power to establish common dogmas and common rituals mandatory from a public point of view.[1] Locke’s ‘tolerance’ has – on the other hand within very clear limits – fortunately amended, not completely erased, from the paradigm of modernity this scheme, but the problem remains and is destined to emerge  periodically in particular situations.[2]

In a certain sense it could be argued that, at least after Locke, religious freedom could be assimilated more to economic freedom than to political freedom:[3] not surprisingly we hear about a religious market and about religious demands to which religions  offer religious supplies and even about a supermarket of the Sacred. That captures something essential that adequately describes the behaviour of many churches and sects within the modern open society.[4] The analogy, however, cannot be perfect because the goods put up – please allow my coarseness – for sale by the various religious denominations are metaphysical as Stark has often pointed out; in other words, while in theory it would always be possible to check the efficiency of any goods put up for sale obviously in relation to their price – and consumer companies take on this function primarily  – there is no metaphysical body that can control the qualities of the goods of ‘salvation’ put up for sale. In other words, the verification can only be internal. Religions are ultimately self-referential realities, even when they are in competition with one another.

The tools through which a hypothetical religious market can function may be, given the aforementioned self-reference, only two: fusion-syncretism and the transition from one perspective to another e.g. conversion. These two elements can be set against each other but are also strongly complementary to each other.[5] Here, with the help of William James, I will only deal with ‘conversion’.


What does being reborn mean?

As is well known, William James distinguished religious experiences into two categories: the religions of the healthy self and those of the sick self. Men, claimed James, on the basis of a statement by Francis William Newman,[6] the much lesser-known brother of the well-known cardinal, are divided into two basic categories, those who are content to be born once and those who want to be born twice. The former are in turn divided into two categories. Those who are naturally and instinctively happy with their state, who instinctively rejoice in the fullness of life that flows around them and those for whom optimism is a moral duty – in this regard the model is the hated-loved Ralph Waldo Emerson. The experience of conversion is irretrievably precluded to them: they are too healthy or at least they would like to be so too strongly and energetically. On the other hand, the experience of conversion concerns the second type of men because it implies a leap from a state of melancholy to one of exaltation. The religions of conversion are the most complete for James, although less widespread. Obviously, even if James does not take the trouble to highlight it, they are all of a biblical matrix, with the unique although an extremely important exception of Buddhism.

What  does distinguish these two types? James uses two technical terms in this regard: the first is threshold, the second is field of consciousness which is characterised by the indetermination of the margin; conversion is caused by the presence of an active subliminal self.

1) by ‘threshold’ James means a limit point that varies from individual to individual, and that can also vary within the consciousness of a single individual at different times, warning of the malum mundi.

2) in order to be converted a man must not only have a very or relatively low ‘threshold’ with regard to the malum mundi – or suffer as Job’s particularly tragic life experiences – but have a ‘second self’ available in the unconscious but not present on a conscious level.These two conditions must naturally be equally present. A man could have a very rich unconscious life but a very low threshold, or vice versa feel the malum mundi in a particularly tragic way but have no other ‘self’ in reserve, able to emerge or re-emerge at a decisive moment and therefore be completely devoid of ‘mythopoietic’ imagination.

It is therefore evident that the truly religious individuals are, have been and always will be very few: men, said James with an expression destined to become a common place, are divided into those that have their own religion and those that have the religion of someone else – the majority. One of the effects of secularisation is probably the, at least apparent, disappearance of this majority.

Given the theme of this conference, I will not critically address this approach, which I reserve the right to resume at the conclusion, but I will only briefly examine a passage that James uses to present the subject of his lectures to his Scottish listeners, perhaps to shock them enough to make them pay attention to his speech. This is a passage taken from the Journal of George Fox, notoriously the founder of the most open, reasonable and tolerant religious sect born of the reform. Here is the passage:

as I was walking with several friends I lifted up my head, and saw three steepled-hauses spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to […] I stept away […] till I came within a mile of Lichfield, where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then I was commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter, and the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put of my shoes, and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished […] and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again saying; Cry, ‘Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!’ So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, WO TO THE BLOODY CITY OF LICHFIELD! It being a market day. […] And no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood. When I have declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace, and returning to the shepherds gave them some money, and took my shoes of them again. But the fire of the Lord was so in my feet, and all over me, that I did not matter to put on my shoes again, and was at a stand whether I should or not, till I felt freedom from the lord so to do: then, after I washed my feet, I put on my shoes again.[7]

To be noted that James had already taken steps to inform his listeners of the psychopath or détraqué nature of George Fox, and it is no coincidence that the passage is quoted in his first lecture entitled Religion and Neurology.

However, the interest in the passage resides not in the more or less pathological state that the passage testifies to. In a certain sense one could say that not only James and his learned listeners, but Fox himself was well aware of it, so much so that the passage goes on to tell how Fox himself strove, through the elaboration of a series of ad hoc hypotheses, to construct an a posteriori rationalisation of this embarrassing word of the Lord, which in its immediate meaning seemed senseless to him too: for what reason in fact would the quiet town of Lichfield have been a bloody city? Instead, I would like to focus on one central point of this narrative: George Fox emerges from the common universe of all men, and first of all pastors who are surprised and frightened by this, for an explicit divine command to take off his shoes, and return, always for another explicit divine command, putting them back on. It should be noted that if there had been a particularly heinous crime in Lichfield a few days earlier, even unbeknownst to George Fox, an essential element, a verifiable ‘fact’, would act as a trait d’union between the two planes of the discourse that would be appearing overall sensible even though he would have remained ‘foolish’ to George Fox, who knew nothing about it.

There is another interesting point in this narrative: George Fox is surprised that none of the peaceful citizens of Lichfield have beaten him up. If they had done, he probably would have understood and apologised – ‘forgive them Lord for they do not know what they do’ as per the Evangelical citation. This could mean that the peaceful citizens of Lichfield, unlike those of Jonah’s Nineveh, had accepted Fox’s behaviour in complete indifference. But I will return to this point at the end of my paper. The passage quoted has the merit of presenting the problem that interests me in a particularly radical way: there are two George Foxes, and above all two different levels of communication, the pathology of the situation has to do only with the fact that these two levels of communication they have no point in common and that therefore the self-referentiality of George Fox’s speech without shoes is total, while in almost all ‘normal’ religious discourses there is still a margin of common meanings that can be more or less broad – think for instance of the five ways of Thomas.

At this point let us try to rethink the notion of conversion set out above: it is clear that the concept of ‘threshold’ becomes central. Let us imagine making this aspect of the question clear that a ‘vegan’ of our days was miraculously present in Lichfield, or more precisely still in its bloody meat market that certainly George Fox must have gone through during his preaching. He would have found Fox’s invective to be perfectly sensible, indeed he would have found it even more sensible than Fox himself, who, as I have already mentioned, had to construct a complicated attempt at rationalisation afterwards, going back to the time of the Roman occupation. The example, however absurd it may be, allows us to understand the deep connection that links the two essential conditions of James: I do not think the horror of blood is a natural fact, since after all man has been an animal hunter since prehistoric times; but it is probable that it has characterised many human individuals throughout the history of our species, so much so that it has always been exorcised in many ways since prehistoric times. To produce a religion such as Jainism, it is necessary that in some individuals a very low threshold for horror for this practice is combined with the emergence from the unconscious of a positive feeling towards every living being. An original James-type of religious experience, and a subsequent mythical transcription of it, was probably essential both to become hunters and to become vegans.[8] An individual, one could conclude, is first and foremost his mythopoeic imagination, and the recognition of religious freedom is precisely for this essential.


Flavio Baroncelli and the virtue of indifference

At this point we are almost back to the starting point: how to reconcile the claim of universality of every serious religious discourse with its self-referentiality in external forum? Avoiding both the Talibanism of all the prophets and the inverse Talibanism of all the contemporary atheologists who think of the “religious” as, in the best case, sick to cure, with a very early scientific education.[9]

Probably the best solution remains the small one practised by the peaceful citizens of Lichfield. The virtue of indifference for which they avoided beating up poor George Fox. What is often missed is an adequate theoretical justification for this fact, which did not coincide with prudential arguments – repression would have too high a social cost – or a merciful one – we must tolerate wanderers to give them time to find the truth – or again of a sociological or pseudo-sociological nature – it is a question of residual behaviour destined to be absorbed with the progress of civilisation, or in any case of true religion.

Particularly significant was a theory, different, and in some way opposite and morally more demanding, that was fashionable about thirty years ago, supported by an illustrious Argentine professor, Ernesto Garzon Valdès, who was also a visiting professor in Genoa in those years.[10] Tolerance is a particularly worthy virtue because it forces us to bear the unbearable. The starting point of the article is a story of Manuel Vincent ten years before in which he told of a father willing to tolerate the asocial and rude behaviour of his daughter and her friends until the fateful date of 14th May 1980, when she tried to put her filthy hands on his Mozart to make her friends listen to him. Another important point of reference is an analogous position of Mary Warnock[11], inherent as well prima facieto the complex mother-child relationships. From these two particularly significant exempla Valdès drew an essential conclusion:

in both cases tolerance appears as a dispositional property which in different and repeated circumstances […] is tested. Common to all these circumstances is the rejection that the respective acts immediately arouse in the tolerant person.[12]

The inevitable consequences of this approach are the affirmation that the idea of tolerance is always accompanied by the idea of an evil which should be the object of tolerance itself and therefore the need for a judgment weighed between the evil to be tolerated and the evil of intolerance; secondly the weighting presupposed by tolerance and a good criterion to distinguish this from indifference. It was therefore a matter of finding a new Aristotelian medium between the opposing vices of intolerance and indifference.

It was a version of the virtue of tolerance that was particularly demanding and ascetic in that it imposed the tolerance of the intolerable through a form of castration – even if this term was not used – of our moral or simply aesthetic instinct which should have involved suffering and therefore a complacency of this suffering.

The merit of Flavio Baroncelli was to react to this approach through the elaboration of an alternative hypothesis – the development of which probably would have led to the defence of political correctness in Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti  and lastly to Il razzismo è una gaffe  – tolerance is a public virtue that concerns the public space where differences must not be seen or at least noticed even if they are accidentally glimpsed. It is therefore a question of building institutions – and in the broadest sense of the term, even language is an institution, or rather the first institution – that are tolerant, not castrations of our private preferences whose public manifestation becomes a blunder. In this decidedly non-Aristotelian perspective, indifference becomes a public virtue that should not necessarily imply the castration of our private preferences, but if ever their “relativisation” in public space. An intolerant person would become essentially a blunderer, ridiculous not only in front of others, but above all in front of himself.

Only within a framework of this kind can the right to religious freedom in the external forum find its place through the construction of a public space within which, like within a Goffmann-style ‘scenario’, behaviours of religious actors can move. This would imply the need to postulate more alternative, parallel but not necessarily self-excluding public spaces.

The difficulty will then be again in the exercise of what Walzer called the ‘art of separation’ proper to liberalism, the exercise of which is particularly complex and difficult, especially since the World Wide Web seems to have erased the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’. I fear it will fall back more and more on the ordinary magistracy. In a certain sense we could say that the need to re-delineate this essential distinction is the difficult task that Baroncelli has left us with.


Endnotes & references

[1] From this point of view, the credo minimumrepresents a weak attempt to find a balance between the internal and the external, public and private. In this regard I refer to my ‘Dual language’: ‘Le salut des ignorants‘ and the ‘Homo liber’.The paradoxes of the ‘credo minimum’ according to Spinoza in ‘La ragione della parola’. Religione ermeneutica e linguaggio  in Baruch Spinoza, edited by F. Camera and A. Sangiacomo, II prato, Saonara (PD). 2013, pp. 97-130.

[2] See for instance the problem of the Burka.

[3] In this regard I refer to the General theory of religionwhich Rodney Stark, with the help of William Sims Bainbridge, expounded in the ever valid A Theory of Religion(1sted. Lang, New York 1987).

[4] But not in Europe, considering that in all European countries, excluding France, which on the contrary seems to apply a kind of monopoly of non-religion, there is some weak form of religious monopoly of a dominant confession.

[5] Without syncretism no common religious lexicon could exist and therefore no new religious proposal could find an adequate listener, on the other hand without exclusivism any metaphysical advantage that would make it convenient to support the cost of abandoning the old rites, beliefs and habits would disappear.

[6] Cf.The Soul, its Sorrows, and its Aspirations. An Assay towards the Natural History of the Soul as the True Basis of Theology, 1sted. 1849.

[7] W. James,The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1985, p. 16.

[8] James’s unconscious appears from this point of view particularly ambiguous: first, taking James’s speech to the letter, it should be understood as a sort of spare wheel of the individual, who can save himself from anguish, allowing another of his possible ‘self’s to emerge; on the other hand, by just forcing James’s discourse, one could think of it as an alternative to Jung’s collective unconscious without its potentially reactionary ambiguities: we can only imagine what is part of our culture and can be understood starting from it, even if we can remix the pieces of a puzzle in a radically innovative way by building something totally innovative. After all, to use the terminology of Ernest Renan, every génie religieux (among which George Fox can certainly be counted) did just that.

[9] Cf. for instance the small volume by V. Girotto, T. Pievani, G. Vallortigara,Nati per credere, Codice edizioni, Milano 2008.

[10] Cf. his article of 1992 ‘No ponga tua sucia manos sobre Mozart’. Algunas consideraciones sobre el concepto de tolerancia, Italian translation in Tolleranza, responsabilità e stato di diritto, il Mulino, Bologna 2003.

[11] M. Warnock,Limiti della tolleranza, in S. Mendus – D. Edwards (eds), Saggi sulla tolleranza, II Saggiatore , Milan 1980.

[12] G. Valdés, op.cit. p.166.

Political Cohesion, Friendship and Hostility

In a pluralist democracy, with different values ​​and interests, with different social classes and political organizations holding different ideologies, political cohesion is essential as the groups should all work for progress and security for the whole political body, despite all divergences. With regard to political cohesion, a large literature focalizes on group identities and on emotions as catalysts for group-based political action. The broad consensus is that political cohesion is based on the development of strong and subjective identities that are central in the construction of a socio-political membership.[1]

According to Henri Tajfel, a social identity implies “knowledge of his (individual) membership in a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to the membership.”[2] In other words, the starting point of political cohesion, i.e. social identity, is a set of beliefs forming a collective consciousness and a set of emotional states.

It is also necessary to consider that in today’s Western societies the consequences of globalization have exacerbated the disparities linked to social, economic, cultural and ethnic situations and weakened the bonds of affinity and solidarity between individuals. Social fragmentation and weak civic trust impact negatively on perceptions of the political body, since weak social cohesion hinders the development of civic engagement and collective political action.

Division of labour, objective solidarity and equality formed the prevailing conceptual framework used for thinking about socio-political cohesion and social identity in most of the countries of Western Europe during the years that the French economist Jean Fourastié called les “trente glorieuses”,[3] This conceptual horizon changed at the beginning of the 1980s, when words such as solidarity and equality disappeared from the socio-political discourse.

To understand the new system of thought we can refer fruitfully to the analysis that M. Foucault developed in the courses held between 1977 and 1979 at the Collège de France on the new form of liberal political rationality that he called neo-liberalism.[4] According to Foucault the specificness of this form of liberalism lies in a new function of the market: the market’s operating mechanisms now correct public and social policies, whereas before public policy had the task of correcting any negative effects of the market. The key to the new function of the market is competition, which in turn becomes the regulating principle of social, public and private behaviour.

Competition is not thought of as a natural fact whose development can be sustained by eliminating obstacles, correcting deviations. Competition, according to Foucault, is an idea to be implemented with a continuous action at all levels, public and private. The state must ensure that its members acquire the ability to sustain competition, even by competing with each other. Competition, continues Foucault, is a “formal game between inequalities”.[5] Competition breaks the bonds of interdependence that underlie social cohesion based on the division of labour. Competition implies a logic of separation that leads groups, whether economic, ethnic or religious, to close the groups in on themselves in order to defend their chances of survival or their cultural values.

We can say with Robert Castel[6] that the old social question is reformulated in a new framework: namely that the problems are always the same: poverty, unemployment, and marginalization of the weakest groups, immigrants etc., but that the way in which these problems put society at risk has changed. As has been observed, it is no longer a matter of class conflict in the name of political and social equality, but of an internal destabilization coming from the outside, for example, from international competition (arriving immigrants, the employment effects of offshoring etc.). It follows that the perception of social identity changes. It can no longer be based on class-consciousness, solidarity among individuals and common interests. All of this raises an important question regarding the conditions under which political cohesion can be generated. Since the collective conscience based on solidarity, interest and the common good is no longer valid, it is necessary to address or to accentuate the emotional bonds of belonging.


Civic friendship

It seems that the need for a cohesive society, above all politically, brought back a relationship that modern thought had almost always relegated to the private sphere of the I-you relationship. The close relationship between philia and politiké, characterizing the ancient world and broken in modernity, is rethought nowadays through different theoretical expressions and numerous figures: from fraternity to solidarity, from partner to comrade. These figures and expressions seem to be united by direct reciprocity and elective affinity. Above all, these interactions among individuals seem characterized by a special form of affectivity, that “calm” feeling of mutual sympathy which is friendship. Friendship is defined as the product of a choice that equal subjects make in favour of a harmonious sharing that gives rise to collaborative relationships. The political body would then be cemented by friendly feelings able to form a “we” that would make of individuals fellow citizens because it would promote understanding, solidarity and mutual support. So, numerous political studies turn to friendship, starting with the Communitarians such as McIntyre and Sanders. This new philia should recompose the complex differentiations characterizing contemporary liberal-democratic societies. According to McIntyre, friendship is the emotional tie that expresses the interrelation of civic virtues that make possible the recognition of the common good. Friendship is the bond that unites citizens: “the kind of bond between citizens which, on Aristotle’s view, constitutes polis …is the bond of friendship and friendship is itself a virtue”[7]

Interestingly, the political relevance of friendship has been highlighted not only by communitarians, but also by liberals. Already in the last parts of A Theory of Justice, Rawls suggests that the obligations and duties that the principles of justice require may not be sufficient to ensure the best possible good in a just and equitable society. Such a society must be based on the sharing of the conception of justice, and this sharing is expressed in the “civic friendship”: “Among individuals with disparate aims and purposes a shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of civic friendship”.[8] So the government of a just and fair society is not only based on rules and procedures, it requires also a sharing of values ​​and friendly interpersonal relationships. Inspired by Rawls’ observations, other liberal thinkers emphasized the role of friendship in the formation of public morality and public spirit, both essential for the liberal democracy. They range from Jason Scorza[9] who inserts references to Emerson on the Aristotelian reflection, to Thomas A. Spragens[10] who criticizes the civic friendship proposed by Rawls as a completely impersonal form, and turns to the Aristotelian idea of ​​friendship as a virtue. Spragens elaborates a form of civil friendship that would allow him to meet the aspirations of the four schools of liberalism he had previously analyzed: liberal realism, libertarianism, liberal egalitarianism and the liberalism of difference. He calls his new way “civic liberalism”, which seeks to achieve the liberal goals of security and tolerance, prosperity and limited government, the reduction of social discrimination and economic inequality. The key ingredient in Spragens’s formulation of liberalism is the “civic friendship” which, as “a condition of mutual enjoyment, affection, and good will among [citizens]”[11], could fill the shortcomings of the abovementioned forms of liberalism.

However, Spragens does not agree with the thesis of other liberal thinkers who believe that the friendship should relate strictly to the private sphere. On the contrary, he develops the argument that civic friendship represents a recovery of a dimension of liberal aspirations. According to Spragens, civic friendship enhances society’s stability, its economic performance and its capacity to mobilize community.[12] In short, civic friendship should improve the most important liberal virtues: “Responsible self-reliance, respect for the human dignity of all fellow citizens, law-abiding self-restraint, democratic humility, reasonableness and good judgment, neighbourly eunoia, and the public-spirited willingness to participate in civic service.”[13]

Nevertheless, this friendship may be hard to put into practice, since Spragens’s proposal does not clarify how such friendship would be institutionalized. Friendship thus assumes an ambiguous position between the private and public sphere, between the moral and the political horizon, between a horizon of spontaneity and autonomy and one of normativity.

Turning to the history of political doctrines, civic or political friendship has almost always had this ambiguous status, perhaps with one exception: the Jacobin Saint Just, friend of Robespierre, “the incorruptible” creator of the republic of virtue.


Political friendship between hostility and unconditional hospitality: from Louis Antoine de Saint Just and Carl Schmitt to Jacques Derrida

Who undoubtedly overcomes these ambiguities is Saint Just, who proposes what I’d call a radically utopian and “exclusive” model of civil friendship. In the effort of building republican institutions suited to form a “Patrie”, develop citizen’s resistance to moral corruption, and its intolerance toward injustice, Saint Just turns to friendship as a manifestation of the virtue and as a means of replacing all other interests with the public interest.[14] Saint Just replaces the social role of the family and the institution of marriage with a new one: friendship. He institutionalizes friendship and makes it the revolutionary instrument for establishing a society of equals, where citizens voluntarily cooperate, “so who declares not to believe in friendship”- Saint Just says- “must be banned”. [15]

In the paragraph “Des Affections” in the sixth fragment of Institutions républicains, Saint Just describes the ideal Republic where every man (here intended as the male) at the majority of 21, that means when he becomes fully a citoyen, has to declare at the Temple who his friends are. This declaration must be renewed every year during the month of Ventôse. This is a compulsory bond and subject to sanctions, because who deserts a friend, without a public justification, or who doesn’t respect friendship, is banned from the Republic. Friendship is the virtuous bond par excellence, and it must be present throughout the citizen’s life; it is thus strongly regulated: the tutors of children will be chosen among their fathers’ friends, preparing the funeral is an assignment of friends, and their remains are put in the same tomb. It is also prescribed that friends will cry for each other.

Friends have a legal role: contracts must be drawn up only in the presence of friends; legal disputes between two citizens have to be brought to trial in front of friends of both sides. Friends are responsible for their friend’s crimes and are banished from the republic with him.

It is interesting that alongside this normative approach to friendship, Saint Just presents marriage in an absolute individualistic and free perspective. Marriage has just to obey the laws of love, and the bond remains private until a pregnancy occurs. Moreover, when the couple presents itself in front of the civil registrar, he has the simple role of witness. The marriage bond includes few juridical requirements outside the mutual consent that rules the community or division of property and that can establish the end of it. The marriage loses its legal and civil character, all that remains are the rights to inherit, and this is restricted to the nuclear family. The foundation of society is not marriage and the family, both now absolutely privatized. Friendship is the fundamental cement of the society and the State and assumes a strong public meaning. Friendship is the real bond of the Republic, and at the same time it is the instrument by which the civil society will be reformed. Friendship is the relationship that has to exist among the citizens, and what makes selfish and competitive individuals into virtuous and altruistic citizens.

As a public and permanent bond, friendship has a substantial impact on improving the Republic’s political cohesion. He who doesn’t believe in friendship, he who has no friends, is not a friend of virtue and is therefore not a friend of the Republic; consequently, he is a stranger, and he is considered to be a foreigner. Saint Just tells us that the foreigner made civil respect disappear and leads citizens to have contempt for, and to be afraid of, each other, thus establishing a principle of jealousy between them[16]. The foreigner is the enemy of the Republic; he wages war from the outside and undermines the Republic’s stability from the inside. The stranger, the foreigner is the enemy and he is therefore banned (or very probably guillotined): friendship appears to be more and more a tool of social homogenization. The Republic can thus become a community of virtuous friends, united by affectional bonds. In this way the moral and normative horizon substitutes the political bond based on the contract: the ethics takes the place of politics, not, however, without practical and juridical consequences. We have seen that citizens are legally liable for their friends’ criminal behaviour and will also be banned from the Republic. Friends have thus a mutual duty of control and censure, all the time wondering where the false friend who threatens the security of the Republic is hiding. Therefore the Republic becomes a reign of denunciation and mistrust: the reign of Terror. The Republic becomes a community of virtuous friends with mutual emotional bonds that consolidate and guarantee membership in the social body. But this entails excluding anyone who has no friend, and considering him a hostis, i.e. an enemy of the state, a traitor, a stranger and foreigner.

And so, instead of wondering who and what make “us” citizens belonging to the same political body, we are only wondering how to identify the “non friend”, the other, the enemy. Individuals are bonded by a common sentiment, yes, but by a sentiment of resentment and hostility. And thus happens what Tocqueville expressed so concisely: “In politics shared hatreds are almost always the basis of friendships”[17]

Thus a series of questions arise in face of today’s reproposal – albeit with some variations – of friendship as the foundation of social-political cohesion.

How far can a friendship be an “open” relationship? As well as in the interpersonal friendship “I-you”, the other is an unwelcome element, at worst a stranger; even in politics whoever is outside the group, class, nation, or state is the “other”, the foreigner, arousing astonishment, anxiety and suspicion. Can the sentiment of friendship assert itself in the political body without having to point out a common hostis, in the double sense of foreigner and enemy?

The reference to Carl Schmitt’s most famous thesis is immediate: it reminds us that in politics the concept of friend recalls the term “enemy”. According to Schmitt, what specifies the nature of ‘the political’ is the distinction between friend (Freund) and enemy (Fiend): “the specific political distinction … is that between friend and enemy.” And its function is to denote “the utmost degree of intensity of an union or separation, of an association or dissociation.”[18]

Political friendship does not therefore lead to the end of hostility and divisions in the political body. On the contrary it implies enmity, since the friend / enemy dialectic is constitutive of the political. Focusing on friendship risks only accentuating the conflict between “who is with me / us and who is against me / us”. In politics friendship would be understood only within this polarization. The more friends there are, the more enemies there are, or better, the more enemies will be created. And one will use all the argumentative power in defining the enemy, the other, rather than defining “us”. We wonder if just who has little awareness of “us”, has to evoke with greater hostility an “other”, characterized as an enemy. It is no coincidence that Schmitt talks a lot about the enemy and very little about the friend! The enemy is “…nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. These can neither be decided by a previously determined general norm nor by the judgment of a disinterested and therefore neutral third party[19]

And he goes on to say that it is up to the one who is within the conflict to decide whether this otherness means the negation of one’s own kind of existence and therefore, once identified as an enemy, it is therefore a stranger that must be denied in his existential totality.[20] That is to say that the stranger may be subdued or destroyed.

Jacques Derrida’s crucial work from 1994, Politiques de l’amitié,[21] is a first attempt to find an answer to our questions. Searching for social cement beyond the bond of laws and the link of common interests, Derrida examines the political history of the idea of friendship, wondering if it is constitutive of the political. Derrida’s analysis moves by “a deconstruction of the genealogical schema, a paradoxical deconstruction”[22] of the current meaning of political friendship. To do this, Derrida starts from a quotation, attributed to Aristotle by Montaigne: ‘O my friends, there is no friend’ and advances by opening it to many interpretations. He finds the genealogical history of this quotation from Aristotle to Kant, Cicero, Montaigne, Nietzsche and through to Carl Schmitt.

He analyzes the “canonical” interpretation of friendship and he highlights that it is fundamentally ambiguous. From one side, since this interpretation emphasises what friends are, or do in common, it excludes the different. According to the canonical interpretation of friendship, the friend is “another self”. And Derrida underlines that its structure is egoistic, and narcissistic: the friend is “A narcissistic projection of the ideal image, of its own ideal image”.[23]

On the other side, friendship turns toward the “other”. This is the reason that the French revolutionaries linked friendship with politics in the form of universal fraternity. Friends are as brothers, i.e. they are bound by blood or by nature, and Derrida underlines that the structure of friendship is androcentric. What, he asks, about sisters and sexual difference? What about countless diversities characteristic of “humanity”? “Canonical” friendship implies that: ”the figure of the friend, so regularly coming back on stage with the features of the brother…  seems spontaneously to belong to a familial, fraternalist and thus androcentric configuration of politics”. [24] And thus (we can say) an exclusivist configuration of politics.

Friendship therefore seems to imply an internal contradictory logic that leads us to an outbreak of hostilities. At this point Derrida has to confront Schmitt and his interpretation of the political based on the conceptual couple friend / enemy.

According to Schmitt, this antinomian friend / enemy logic would operate everywhere in politics, both outside and inside the State. It would therefore not be true that the more friendship, the less hostility. The greatest hostility is between friends or brothers. The generalization of political friendship or fraternity thus acts to the contrary: friendship is not the remedy of hostility, because it always implies separating friends from enemies. The political is based, according to Schmitt, on the ability to identify enemies from friends; in fact, if the two were identical, the political itself would disappear. Hence, as Derrida points out, Schmitt dwells a great deal on the definition of the enemy. He warns that the enemy in politics is always the public enemy. We don’t have to mix the private and the public enemy. The hostis is not the inimicus, i.e. /who we have a personal relationship of enmity. But, as Derrida observes, this strict distinction makes Schmitt’s argument collapse. Because we can wage war on our friend, a real war, i.e. we can destroy our friend and at the same time, privately, love him. Hence Derrida finds a first semantic slip and inversion: the friend (amicus) can be an enemy (hostis).[25] But in this way we can’t tell the friend and the enemy apart and the political collapses.

Without here deepening Derrida’s deconstructive reading of the Concept of the Political, I just want to recall the results of the deconstruction of the friend / enemy antinomy.

In an attempt to dismantle the idea of ​​friendship as a fraternal union based on the mirror image of oneself, Derrida observes that friendship is not the ability to define and talk about who is a friend, and therefore to exclude who are enemies. It is not a matter of asking, “Who is a friend?” (And therefore “who is an enemy?”). It is a matter of asking “what is…?” According to Derrida, this question “what is…” always supposes: “…this friendship prior to friendships, this anterior affirmation of being-together in allocution. Such an affirmation does not allow itself to be simply incorporated and, above all, to be presented as a present-being (substance, subject, essence or existence) in the space of an ontology, precisely because it opens this space up.”[26]

Friendship is linked to being together without wanting to find a common definition. On the contrary, only in the incommensurable space, that is to say, in being together without any common measure, one turns to the radical otherness of the other, which presents himself no longer as an enemy (hostis) but as an unexpected and unknown guest.

The Derridean deconstruction of Schmitt’s political dichotomy friend /enemy leads us to a concept of friendship that coincides with unconditional hospitality. Is this too angelic a solution? Maybe. Certainly, Derrida’s proposal does not seem to be heard much today and indeed seems completely impracticable.

In conclusion, we move at this point between two radical and divergent positions of political theory. On the one hand the definition of the nature of the “political” by means of the “friend / enemy” antinomy, a simple but effective definition, leads us to look for real or constructed enemies to make the group cohesive. And so in place of that calm affection of industrious harmony peculiar to friendship, another sentiment, hostility, prevails in society. On the other hand, the proposal coming from the deconstruction of the Schmittian antinomy replacing the political friendship with the ethics of unconditional hospitality seems truly utopian today, as we face increasingly restrictive States, increasingly closed in their internal logic.

Our question arises again: can friendship be the emotional foundation of social-political cohesion in a modern state?

It is not a question of seeking the “we” of the Aristotelian polis, a narrow community, nor the “we” of a polis that would coincide with all mankind, the cosmopolitan community, a Cosmo polis. For this reason the question arises again and again, despite the theories with which we have tried to give an answer.

This motivates us to search backwards, returning to modern thought to evaluate other formulations.


Back through history

 We will not follow the path that starts from Hobbes. According to him, in the wake of the idea of ​​man’s innate unsociability, friendship is an alliance based on personal interest, like the state, of course, but it is only a private agreement: “By nature then we are not looking for friends but for honour and advantage from them. This is what we are primarily after; friends are secondary”[27] In fact, between the two covenants there is a fundamental difference; the state is formed by a contract that gives life to mutual obligations, while friendship is based on the gift that does not commit the other party to reciprocate:

When the transferring of right is not mutual, but one of the parties transferreth in hope to gain thereby friendship or service from another, or from his friends; or in hope to gain the reputation of charity, or magnanimity; or to deliver his mind from the pain of compassion; or in hope of reward in heaven; this is not contract, but gift, free gift, grace: which words signify one and the same thing.[28]

Therefore, we cannot turn to Hobbes, who, from the beginning, excludes that friendship may have a public role.  And so Hobbes starts a trend that impacts modern political thinking: friendship is only an individual, private relationship and not a public relationship among citizens.

One thinker, who, in modern political thought, reflected on the public role of friendship, was Rousseau. We know that for the contractualist Rousseau, founding our mutual social duties only on reason was too abstract. It was therefore necessary to find the sentimental roots of social virtues. He found their origin in the piety that controls the “amour de soi“, from which friendship also derives, since friendship is the “partage” of the positive self-love. And civil friendship, as a model of non-conflictual relationships, allows the development of a sense of belonging that integrates the individual into the political body.[29]

Rousseau is certainly the inspiring source of Saint-Just.  Undoubtedly, Saint-Just radicalizes, and greatly so, Rousseau’s conception of civil friendship. However, even in the variant expressed by Rousseau, the public role of friendship isn’t free from the dangers we have previously highlighted. The political body, based on that kind of friendship, implies hostility towards the foreigner, as indeed Rousseau himself expressed clearly in the Emile:

Every patriot is harsh to foreigners; they are only men, and nothing in his eyes. This is drawback inevitable but not compelling. The essential thing is to be good to the people with whom one lives. Abroad, the Spartan was ambitious, avaricious and iniquitous; but disinterestedness, equity and concord reigned within his walls. Distrust those cosmopolitans who go to great length in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfil around them. Such philosophers love the Tartars so as to be spared from loving their neighbours.[30]

Civil friendship is set up among fellow citizens; the others are strangers. Here again we find the exclusion that inclusion based on civil friendship brings with it. We understand how the Jacobin leader Saint Just was a faithful disciple of Rousseau. And yet it is not possible to ignore the emotional foundation motivating social and political behaviour. Actually, holding together the social body necessitates not only reason, but also common sentiments. This is an idea that Rousseau inherited from Spinoza, among others. And it is a Spinozistic lesson as well that these affections have to be regulated and governed appropriately.

At first sight Spinoza seems to indicate – just like Rousseau- what feelings are the most suitable for the construction of the body politic. These would be identified when Spinoza in the Ethics mentions friendship. Spinoza doesn’t define friendship, even if the term already appears in the third part of Ethics.[31] At first sight it would seem that friendship is a characteristic bond, which connects wise human beings who live according to reason. The desire to join with other persons in friendship is what characterises “generositas”, an active affect[32] that, together with courage (animositas), belongs to the strength of character (fortitudo): a characteristic affection of the human being led by reason.

Generosity and its derivations, modestia, clementia, and so on, are forms of virtue, not because of their presumed ability to stop selfish passions. In fact, for Spinoza, it is happiness that produces virtue, not vice versa. Generosity and the other virtues are positive affects in which the essential desire to continue to exist and enhance oneself (cupiditas) makes clear and intelligible that it cannot be disjoined from the desire to help other human beings. The relationship between generosity and self-conservation is not immediate and direct. During our life we are exposed to meetings with other things or individuals that can hinder or strengthen our effort of being. Now what strengthens our being is that which is in accordance (convenire) with our own nature. And, Spinoza continues, nothing is in accordance with our nature more than other human beings, and so there is nothing in Nature more useful to a human being than the other human beings  – homini nihil homine utilius – .[33]

This is the reason why “utilitas” is to be understood in a strong sense: what is most useful to us is not simply what the other human beings possess or the favours they  can do for us, but what they are. From here it follows that the desire to join in friendship with other human beings is a desire of accordance; it is the desire that one’s being is in accordance with that of the other human being, and friendship itself is a desire of accordance. Moreover, because of what we previously said, what is useful for the conservation of oneself coincides with the good and the utility of our fellow beings. This consideration is the basis on which the virtuous circle of reason is delineated, so that all the virtues (let’s remember that for Spinoza virtue means power to act) that facilitate the accord among human beings, such as piety, justice, loyalty or honesty, can come from the research of accordance, can come from friendship. The utility that a virtuous man searches under the guide of reason is the good that human beings desire one for the other, and for which they cooperate with a power equal to the sum of all individual powers. Therefore it would seem that friendship, so understood, means the rational desire to be in accordance, convenire, with other human beings, and is the very basis of the social and political union. In this, Spinoza’s position would be very close to that of Rousseau and Saint-Just.

But Spinoza’s analysis of friendship does not end here. Indeed, two clarifications are required. The first rises from the question of whether friendship, for Spinoza, is only inherent to the free and virtuous human being. The second concerns the relationship that the human being who lives under the aegis of reason has with the State and its laws.

Let’s briefly answer the first question. Desire (cupiditas) lies in all levels of human life from the passionate through the rational and to intellectual love. So it does not seem coherent to think that the desire of friendship is an exclusive prerogative of the rational man. All individuals strive to persevere in and to enhance their being, and they desire accordance with other individuals. Indeed in E3p35 the passionate form of desire for friendship appears at first in a tight relationship with the desire of recognition and of exclusivity.  Not only does the passionate friendship want mutual love in an exclusive way, but it also wants the monopoly of preferences.  An essence is for Spinoza always singular and igenium indicates this singularity. The passionate human being as res singularis judges the good and the evil according to his/her opinion, ex suo ingenio, and he/she often takes only his/her personal interest into account.[34] In this form of friendship the passionate man strives to impose on the friend his own opinion about good and evil, thus turning out to be particularly irritating. For this reason passionate friendship is a changeable relationship that can easily turn to hate and envy; it is a relationship exposed to fluctuatio animi, to the vacillation of feelings. Yet friendship is a relationship possible for everyone, both for the passionate being and for the wise man.

Moreover, friendship as desire for accordance with the others can, for the passionate human being, be a source of joy that, as positive sentiment, can begin the “virtuous circle” of the active affects and so help the individual to become rational. But does this mean that friendship can be considered the basis of the political body? Can the state stir up friendships to make citizens rational and free? All the virtues of the wise man: doing good for others, seeking harmony, helping others and desiring to unite them with friendship, are “inner” personal conditions. They have a value in external behaviour, and therefore in social bonds, but under no circumstances can they be directed from the outside. The State cannot produce fortitude or generosity in its citizens. The rational human being by his own essence desires (cupit) to observe the criteria of common life and collective utility, and consequently desires (cupit) to live according to social rules and norms. But if all human beings were rational, living together in harmony and following the collective utility would be a natural automatism coming from the spontaneous cohesion of everyone’s cupiditas and we would not need the State. But not all human beings are rational; on the contrary, all human beings are “passionibus obnoxious”, “traversed by passions”[35], including the wise man. Therefore, living freely according to reason is never an acquired state once and for all, but is a continuous realisation, an effort that always fluctuates between self- strengthening (rationality) and deprivation. Spinoza tells us that we are all “ut maris undae[36], “as waves in the sea”, exposed to passions, to illnesses, to death.

So here is the “naturaliter” need of the political Community, whose laws cannot, however, prescribe that its citizens be rational and thus free. “Freedom of spirit or strength of Mind is the virtue of a private citizen: the virtue of a state is its security.”[37] The State cannot impose on me to become rational and free, the State cannot impose on me to desire to make friends with other human beings, as it will happen for the Jacobins! The State must guarantee the security that permits the citizens can become rational and free!  This is the meaning of The Theological Political Treatise’s statement saying the aim of the State is security and freedom. Neither can the State entrust its stability only to the honesty of its administrators. According to Spinoza, the State will be very precarious when its security depends on the honesty of an individual and when affairs can be well led only if they are in honest hands. On the other hand, it is necessary that public affairs are organized so that who directs them, whether passionate or rational human beings, administrate public affairs in a good way.[38]

Lastly, let us try to outline what kind of socio-political union we can develop by focusing only on public friendship. Spinoza tells us something very disturbing.[39] He says that friendship, understood as the basis of politics, can provoke a process that leads to the dissolution of the state whose purpose is security and freedom. For example, we could think of a group of people living close to each other. These people do not use reason. They recognize as human beings only those who are perceived as similar on the basis of characteristics that the instinctive inclination of the group makes them admire. Based on this admiration, these individuals are bound by a feeling of passionate friendship. If one of them becomes the real or imaginary victim of an injustice, the others can respond with indignation, that is, with hatred against the one who has wronged the one they recognize as one of their own group. Hatred and hostility will be the more intense the more the real or imaginary guilty party is dissimilar from the group. The desire for revenge is born; revenge is a consequence of hatred and hostility. The mimesis of the affects triggers off in everyone the desire for revenge and for joining the others with the same purpose. So the collective power of a multitude is realized: an “imperium democraticum“, a democratic power. This power is exercised informally by a multitude. This power is collective and is united by a common affection of hostility, born of passionate friendship. Undoubtedly, this union is not idyllic. What is disturbing in the Spinozistic lesson is that the instinctive and affective form of political union based on private feelings could be lynching. Can we consider this “imperium democraticum” – characterized by the power of summary executions on the basis of citizen’s private sentiments, without prior judicial condemnation – a state whose purpose must be to guarantee security and freedom?

Spinoza is drastic. He tells us that hate and hostility and all affects related to them, such as Derision, Contempt, Wrath, Revenge, are intrinsically bad. “Hatred can never be good.”[40] . And when we wish to destroy the enemy we hate, this desire is shameful from the private point of view, and unjust from the public civil point of view.[41]So by trying to destroy the enemy, we first destroy ourselves and our civitas. Hate and hostility are sad affections that diminish the power of the individual and immobilize him in irrationality and social servitude. In a community dominated by impotence and disintegration, citizens are more committed to finding and banning enemies rather than to building institutional systems that help good governance.

Although Spinoza states that there cannot be a political body without an affective cohesion, he doesn’t indicate one sentiment as more suitable than others to make a people cohesive. Any sentiment used to maintain the cohesion of a political community, even the most noble, has its limits and dangers, including friendship. He notes its effectiveness, but also its limits. A fortiori this leads us to reflect on the dangers of thinking the antinomy friend / enemy as constitutive of the politics: it is ultimately more disruptive than aggregating. On the other hand, the proposal of universal hospitality would imply that all human beings were rational and wise, which they are not.

Spinoza helps us reformulate our implicit initial question. We need to understand the emotional causes underlying tyranny, superstition, nationalism and demagogy. But instead of proposing other emotional means for uniting and directing a political community, it is necessary to ask ourselves how to fight the sad passions in politics to try to develop institutions that are more effective because they are more rational.



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Scorza, Jason:  Strong Liberalism Habits of Mind for Democratic Citizenship, Tuft University Press, Medford, 2007

Spinoza, Opera. Im Auftrag der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt. Vier Bände, Heidelberg, Carl Winter-Verlag, 1925, English translation: Spinoza: Complete Works, with the translation of S. Shirley, ed. By M.L.Morgan, Hackett publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002

Spragens, Thomas. A. Jr.: Civic Liberalism: Reflections on Our Democratic Ideals, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999 , p.71



[1] Cf. Leonie Huddy, “From Group Identity to Political Cohesion and Commitment”, in Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, Leonie Huddy, David O. Sears, and Jack Levy (Eds.), New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.pp. 511-558.

[2] Henri Tajfel, Human groups and social categories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, p.255, quoted by L. Huddy, “From group identity”, Id. p.514.

[3] It is the period from the end of the Second World War to the first oil crisis of ’73, characterized by the great economic and social development of the industrialized countries.

[4] Michel Foucault, Cours au Collège de France 1977-78, Gallimard, Paris, 2004.

[5] Id, p. 124.

[6] Robert Castel, Le insidie dell’esclusione”, in Assistenza Sociale n.3-4, 2003.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre,  After Virtue, Bloomsbury, London, New Delhi, New York, Sidney p. 182.

[8] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 5; cf. also p. 90, p.205,p. 417, p. 454, and p. 470.

[9] Jason Scorza, Strong Liberalism Habits of Mind for Democratic Citizenship, Tuft University Press, Medford, 2007.

[10] Cf. Thomas A. Spragens Jr., Civic Liberalism: Reflections on Our Democratic Ideals, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999, p.71.

[11] id. p. 179.

[12] id. p.188.

[13] id. p. 229.

[14] Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Fragments sur les institutions républicaines, Transcription d’un cahier manuscrit déposé à la Bibliothèque nationale, Éditions 10/18, collection Fait et cause, Paris  2003, p.4

[15] id., p. 28. Cf. Françoise Fortunet, “L’amitié et le droit selon Saint-Just”, A.H.F.R., 1982 – N° 248, p. 181-195.

[16] Saint Just, op. cit. P. 19-20.

[17]  Alexis de Tocqueville, Souvenirs, Calmann Levy, Paris, 1893, p.10.

[18] Carl Schmitt, The concept of the political, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago London, 2007, p.26.

[19] Id. p.27

[20] Id. p. 30

[21] Jacques Derrida, Politiques de l’amitié, Galilée, Paris, 1994

[22] Jacques Derrida, Politics of friendship trans. George Collins ,London & New York: Verso, 1997, p. 105

[23] id.p.3

[24]  id. p. viii

[25] id. p. 88

[26] Id.p.249

[27] Thomas Hobbes : On the Citizen Edited by Richard Tuck,  Michael Silverthorne,  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 22.

[28] Thomas Hobbes Leviathan chap. XIV, 14,82 , Edited, with introduction by E. Curley, Hackett Publishing Company,  Indianapolis Cambridge, 1994, p. 79.

[29] Cf. Géraldine Lepan, « L’amitié selon Rousseau, de l’expérience douloureuse au projet politique », in Consecutio Rerum,  2, nr.3, 2017, pp.  226-255

[30] Jean Jaques Rousseau, Emile: or On Education, The Collected Writings of Rousseau v. 13, translated and edited by Christopher Kelly and Allan Bloom, University press of New England, Hanover and London, 2010, p. 164

[31] Spinoza, Opera. Im Auftrag der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt, Heidelberg, Carl Winter-Verlag, 1925, B. II, Ethica III, prop. 59,sch.pp.188-189

[32] Spinoza distinguishes the terms affect and affection. The term “affectio” designates a change occurring within a being due to an internal or external cause. The term “affect” (affectus) designates the modification produced in a body (and in the mind) by an interaction with another body. This interaction can increases (joy) or diminishes (sadness)  the body’s power of activity (potentia agendi): ”By affect I understand affections of the body by which the power of acting of the body itself is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, together with the ideas of these affections”.(Ethics, III,def.3, transl. by William Hale White). Thus we will use affect for “affectus” in relationship with Spinoza thinking of emotions.

[33] Spinoza, Opera,op.cit.  Ethica IV, 18.sch. p.223

[34] id. Eth., part IV, prop. 37, sc. II, G. II, p. 237.

[35]  For the translation of the term “obnoxious” see P. Cristofolini, «Piccolo lessico ragionato», in B. Spinoza, Trattato politico, ETS, Pisa 2000, p. 241. For the English translation see V. Molfino, Plural Temporality: Transindividuality and Aleatory between Spinoza and Althusser.Brill, Leiden, Boston, 2014, p. 63.

[36] Spinoza, Opera, op. cit. Eth. III, p. LIX, sch.G.II, p.189

[37] Spinoza, Complete Works, with the translation of S. Shirley, ed. By M.L.Morgan, Hackett publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002, p. 682.“Libertas, seu fortitudo privata virtus est; at imperii virtus securitas” ( Spinoza, Opera, Tractatus Politicus, 1,6, G. III, p. 275) see also Francesca Bonicalzi, L’impensato della politica: Spinoza e il vincolo civile , Napoli, Guida 2006.

[38] Ibidem.

[39] For this interpretation see Alexandre Matheron, ” L’indignation et le conatus de l’État spinoziste “, in Spinoza : puissance et ontologie, ed.  M. Revault d’Allonnes, de H. Rizk Kimé, Paris, 1994, where A. Matheron explains the incompleteness of the Tractatus Politicus because Spinoza would  hesitate to disclose a shocking truth: that ” the very origin” of the political society and the state is “something irremediably bad” since “the basic form of democracy, according to Spinoza, is lynching” Id., pp. 159-164. See also mine Paola de Cuzzani, “Forskjellene og indignasjonen: Toleranse mulige veier”, in LOS-notater 9620, Bergen, 1996.

[40] Spinoza: Complete Works , op. cit. p.344.  “Odium nunquam potest esse bonum” (Spinoza Opera, Eth.IV.p XLV, G. II, p. 243)

[41] Cf. Spinoza Opera, E.IV, p. XLV corollarium, G.II, p. 244.

Prejudices, Philosophies and Language: Spinoza and His Strategies of Liberation

The reflection about the category of prejudice has been one of the biggest themes of modern thinking from the scientific revolution through the Enlightenment and Positivism, up to the twentieth-century debate about the philosophy of science. The theme of prejudice intersects with the one of nature, of knowledge and of the obstacles that prevent a correct comprehension of reality. This reflection comes primarily from Francis Bacon. He identifies the purification of the intellect from “idola”(prejudices) which blind the mind, as the first step of the quest for knowledge. It goes on with Descartes’s theory. According to him, the first act of the new philosophy is the choice to separate the mind from the senses and to free the mind of prejudice: “quin etiam nullis author sum ut haec legant, nisi tantùm iis qui seriò mecum meditari, metemque a sensibus, simulque ab omnibus praejudiciis, abducere poterunt ac volent”.[1] This reflection leads to the great Enlightenment’s fight against superstition and prejudices, sources of distortion of our knowledge of the world and of social discriminations. Voltaire says that prejudice “est une opinion sans jugement. Ainsi dans toute la terre on inspire aux enfants toutes les opinions qu’on veut, avant qu’ils puissent juger.”[2] And he goes on saying that, even if not all prejudices are false and negative, it’s useful to submit them to the judgments of reason in order to recognize which of them are the good ones: “ceux que le jugement ratifie quand on raisonne.[3]

Kant is amazed that someone could ask himself if prejudices are useful, and goes on saying: “Es ist zum Erstaunen, daß in unserm Zeitalter dergleichen Fragen, besonders die wegen Begünstigung der Vorurteile, noch können aufgegeben warden”.[4] Prejudices are source of wrong judgments and are caused by the lack of reflection, because prejudices are temporary judgments taken as principles or definitive judgments.[5] Moreover, Kant goes on saying that prejudices aren’t singular concepts; in fact, it is not a prejudice to affirm that an individual is dishonest, but it would be a prejudice to extend that assessment to a whole category of people.[6] Prejudice is therefore an undeserved generalization.

D’Holbach resumes with more radical tones the position of the Enlightenment about this theme: “L’ignorance, les erreurs et les préjugés des hommes sont les sources de leurs maux. La vérité doit tôt ou tard triompher de l’erreur.”[7]  The fight against prejudice has not only the aim to open the way to the real knowledge of reality; it’s the unavoidable step of progressive individual and social improvement. Experience and reason are essential to triumph on prejudices[8] and the instrument is instruction:

Pour que la morale ait du pouvoir sur les hommes, il faut les éclairer sur leurs vrais intérets; pour qu’ils soient éclarés, il faut que la vérité puisse les instruire, pour les instruire, il faut que le préjugé soit désarmé par la raison, c’est alors que les nations, tirées de cette enfance que leurs tuteurs s’efforcent d’éterniser, s’occuperont de la réforme de leurs institutions, des abus de la législation, des idées fausses qu’inspirent l’education, les usages nuisibles dont elles souffrent à chaque instant.”[9] The role of the educator was given to the “philosophe” presented as “medicin du genre humain” (physician of mankind).[10] The “philosophe” has to address himself to principals and to people “La verité a deux moyen de triompher de l’erreur: soit en descendant des chefs aux nations, soit en remontant des nations à leurs chefs.[11]

D’Holbach continues by saying that the most efficient of the two ways is the second one, because illuminated chiefs can die and be substituted by despots, while an “instruit et raisonnable” population can’t die. From this extended debate about prejudice, here summarily outlined, emerge some distinctive elements of the concept in matter. Prejudice is a pre-established opinion, a rush to judgment, lacking of a rational justification or of precise knowledge of the judged object, a conviction made up without any foundation. It acquires a negative value with hard social consequences.

Obviously, we must remember as well the critics who spoke against the Enlightenment’s and positivist traditions. I mean the reassessment of prejudice that finds its highest expression in Gadamer’s theory. Prejudice is the pre-comprehension, that is the knowledge that pre-exists the experience and so it’s a condition of making a reflective judgment about the world. In a hermeneutics perspective, prejudice is the necessary intuitive pre-cognition that the interpreter can’t leave out of consideration. Gadamer distinguishes between positive and negative reading of the term “prejudice”. The positive prejudice makes comprehensions possible while the negative obstacles and hardens it. The difference between the two isn’t in the bigger or in the smaller correspondence to the real world. On the contrary, both negative and positive prejudices can’t be preventively distinguished.  The distinction becomes clear during the process of understanding. The subject consciously uses them in an endless debate with the other possible “horizons of sense”.[12]

In the wake of these philosophical debates the great and complex analysis of psychology has been gradually introduced with the discussion between cognitivism and constructivism. The social-constructivist approach seems to be close to the criticism of the Enlightenment’s tradition developed by Gadamer and the hermeneutical approach. Social constructivism develops a particular attention for the language understood as an instrument of interpretation of the world and of comparison of “horizons of sense”. On the other hand, studies about the definition of prejudice as a cognitive mistake have been developed. For example, Allport which inserts the emotional element in the cognitivist definition: “Prejudice is an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group or an individual of a group.”[13]

During the years, more or less successful strategies against prejudices developed strategies tending to eliminate and reduce them. Gordon Allport himself developed already 60 years ago the hypothesis of contact. If prejudices come from a lack of knowledge among different groups, the contact with individuals of the out-groups will help to discover that a lot of prejudices and stereotypes are wrong. Recent researches have however underlined that prejudices is higher in towns with more immigrants, where the possibilities of a contact are higher.[14] So contact and knowledge do not always bring to more positive relationships.

We don’t want to underline these analyses here, even if they are important and fruitful. We want to leave from a question: did we really destroy or at least attenuate the negative strength of prejudices after centuries of fight against it? Actually, prejudices exist and they’ll always and always continue to direct collective and social life, and they often foment aversion and hostility towards other individuals, groups, nations and races. The idea of the Enlightenment that prejudice is to be fought with rational and objective knowledge freeing us from fast and preconceived opinions, as well as the position of hermeneutics calling for an awareness capable to distinguish the prejudices able to produce new cognitive horizons from the ones that stop it and render the vision of the world infertile, does not seem able to produce fully efficient strategies of liberation.

In order to understand this difficulty, I’d like to go back to the beginning of the reflection about prejudice made in modern thinking, and specifically to that author, who can’t be easily put in any simplistic category: Spinoza. He is hardly categorizable because his doctrine puts itself in the confluence of different traditions: the Renaissance’s immanentist naturalism,[15] the re-elaborations of elements already present in medieval philosophy[16] and in Jewish thinking,[17] and the study of the new mathematical science of nature. All this makes Spinoza not so much a forerunner of the radical Enlightenment,[18] but an “anomalous” thinker, as Toni Negri writes, an atypical modernity.[19] This atypical modernity can perhaps allow us to shed light on the complex phenomenon of prejudice. According to Spinoza, this phenomenon lies at the confluence of different elements: language, habit, experience, and daily morality.

Spinoza is among those who think that it’s necessary to remove prejudices from the mind, prejudices “quae impedire poterant quominus meae demonstrationes percipererunt”.[20] In his writings, we find a very long list of prejudices: the final causality attributed to God or to nature; the illusion of human free will; moral concepts of right and wrong, merit and sin, reward and punishment; the aesthetic concepts of beautiful and ugly, perfection and imperfection, order and confusion; concepts elaborated by theologians; miracles as a God’s works that lie outside the natural order.[21]

According to Spinoza, where do all these prejudices that he enumerates come from? Spinoza’s reflection about the category of prejudice runs through different levels, from the epistemological to the political one and it strictly connects to his theory of language.[22] Spinoza didn’t write a treatise on language, but nearly every one of his writings attempts some analysis of language. Let’s see what he says about this subject.

Words are conventional and arbitrary signs of things “prout sunt in imaginatione”.[23] Signs are images in the way explained by the scholium of the second part of his E. after proposition 17, that is affections of the human body whose ideas represent to us exterior bodies as if they were present to us. These images, as Spinoza explains, aren’t figures or the more or less objective reproduction of things. They are the product of interaction of our body with other bodies and they simultaneously express both the power of our body and the power of other bodies. Images are bodily traces of these meetings that “say” of both bodies, and that “confuse” both bodies in a unique sign. The body’s affection corresponding to the idea of this affection is what Spinoza calls “affect”. In turn affect expresses the increased or decreased power of the body (corporis agendi potentia).[24] Thus language is a web of patterns of affectivity.

The origin of the language is so explained thanks to the body.[25] In this way language is part of an immediate and not adequate knowledge, and so it’s always the expression of a confused knowledge. There is a double confusion: in front of the infinite complexity of reality, the human body, which is finite for definition, makes a process of practical simplification of which language is one of the products. In the scholium of proposition 40 E.II, when Spinoza explains to us the origin of the notions we call “Transcendental” and “Universal”, he illustrates this process of confusion and simplification. Our limited body is able to form just a limited number of distinct images. When the number of images becomes excessive, Spinoza says that images will be confused in the body and also the mind will be unable to distinguish all those images, and therefore it will apply only one tag: that is a general term, a word (e.g. a being, a thing, a man, a horse, etc.). Language is what is used to classify.[26]

It’s interesting to remember the development of the “term” human being. When the human body is affected by a lot of traces that form a lot of images of man as the mind can’t record the distinctive traits of each human being, such as his colour or his height, it tends to clearly imagine just those aspects that have almost the same effect on the body, i.e. those aspects that hit it with more vividness and that the mind more easily reminds: the term “man” (human being) will be applied to this group of aspects. But Spinoza goes on saying that those aspects that the mind retains with more vividness, can change in each individual according to the particular “ingenium” (temper) of the individual itself or the particular tendency to admire some aspects more than others:

Exempli gratia qui saepius cum admiratione hominum staturam contemplati sunt, sub nomine hominis intelligent animal erectae staturae; qui vero aliud assueti sunt contemplari, aliam hominum communem imaginem formabunt nempe hominem esse animal risibile, animal bipes sine plumis, animal rationale et sic de reliquis unusquisque pro dispositione sui corporis rerum universales imagines formabit.[27]

The word is a sign easy to remember and has a recognising function, which consists of advising that an object or a situation is already been recognised, i.e. that it is already known. This memory process of terms organises itself according to the concatenation of bodily affections:

ut exempli gratia ex cogitatione vocis pomi homo romanus statim in cogitationem fructus incidet qui nullam cum articulato illo sono habet similitudinem nec aliquid commune nisi quod ejusdem hominis corpus ab his duobus affectum saepe fuit hoc est quod ipse homo saepa vocem pomum audivit dum ipsum fructum videret et sic unusquisque ex una in aliam cogitationem incidet prout rerum imagines uniscujusque consuetudo in corpore ordinavit.[28]

The word is a sign that, moreover and above all, tells us about the relationship we establish between things and the use we usually do of them in relation with our needs: “Nam miles exempli gratia vivis in arena equi vestigiis statim ex cogitatione equi in cogitationem aratri, agri etc. incidet et sic unusquisque prout rerum imagines consuevit hoc vel alio modo jungere et concatenare, ex una in hanc vel aliam incidet cogitationem.”[29]

Words belong to the imagination, while language is the product of the immediate knowledge of the first immediate answer to our need. In the interaction with things, the body keeps traces of what more positively answers to the survival effort. In Spinoza’s terms, it increases or decreases its power to act, and we give a name to it. Language doesn’t tell us about the truth of things. We mustn’t search the meaning of words in the content of truth, but in its practical value, in its use value. For example, Spinoza says to us that the first meaning (prima significatio) of “true” and “false” seems to come from narrations: these tales have been called “true” when the told fact had really (revera)  happened; a fact that had happened nowhere, instead, was called “false”.[30] Here Spinoza puts in mutual relation the meaning of a word with an experience. And the experience has not a secondary place in Spinoza thinking, even if the majority of commentators deny the importance of the experience in the rationalist philosophy of the author of E. Returning to the acute observations by P.F. Moreau,[31] it is worth remembering that in his works, Spinoza does not strive to give the experience the lowest place as possible; on the contrary, in all his works experience is often shown with positive traits, and not only as the “vague experience” of the first kind of knowledge. Expressions such as “experientia docet”, “experientia docuit”, “experientia suadet”, “experientia monstrat”, “experientia comprobat”, “experientia confirmat” are frequent in all his works, including E.. Experience theaches, then; but what does it teach?

We have just one excerpt where Spinoza directly speaks about experience. In letter X to Simon de Vries,[32] Spinoza tells us that experience is necessary for that of which essence doesn’t involve existence: the “modi”. In other words, experience let us know facts that can’t be deducted from the definition of the object. It’s not just the existence of the finished modi; it’s something more: our actions, our soul’s affective impulses, all the infinite variations of our being, living and acting that are made by the meeting of our essence with the things surrounding us. We are not able to deduce “more geometrico” the infinite variety of the human events; we can just see them after that experience has presented them to us. However, we must pay a lot of attention: the teaching of experience has got some limits. Since experience does not teach about the essence, it never shows the cause of things, and it’s not able to tell us when such causes cease to act and others intervene. In any case, what experience tells us is always real. Experience does not cheat: it’s the reading that we do of experience that can be wrong. The ideologies, myths, superstitions and prejudices and also the language, with which we human beings redress the facts, prevent most times to take advantage from experience.

Language is also and in the same time the product of interaction of human bodies among them. In other terms, language is a social product. Therefore, Spinoza says, it’s common people who find and invent new words: “vulgus vocabula primum invenit.” Language is a product of collective interaction; it’s the language (langue) of a population. And, as such, it’s immediately in relation with collective experiences and needs of that population. Only later, with a metaphoric translation (metaphorice translata est) do “philosophers” use terms to indicate the agreement of an idea with its object and begin using them to indicate things. “Atque hanc philosophi postea usurparunt ad denotandam convenientiam ideae cum suo ideato”.[33] And so, when we use the terms “true” and “false” about, for example, gold, it’s as the represented gold told something about itself: it told that it’s or it’s not gold. But, as Spinoza continues, from the point of view of the meaning, this is an illegitimate use of words. This way to give meanings to the words is just rhetorical, and it has not a cognitive aim, but only a practical use for persuasion. It can open to manipulation and domination.

A word does not guarantee the correspondence between representations and things. Human beings (all together as vulgus) understand their relation to things not in the order of truth, but in relation to their immediate needs, through bodily affections. The analysis about the terms “true” and “false” of CM is the first example of what P. F. Moreau[34] called an operation of “philosophical etymology” that Spinoza will repeat in the fourth part of his E. for the term “perfect” and in the TTP for the term “Law”. Thanks to this operation of philosophical etymology, Spinoza shows in the appendix of the first part of his Ethics how the finalist prejudice always requires a critical analysis of language based on this philosophical etymology.

We remember that language is invented by the “vulgus”, i.e. by common people, by ignorant people, and so it’s from the beginning (ab origine) connected to inadequate ideas. The “genetic” or generative cause of language is imagination. That means that it belongs to the order and structure of this kind of spontaneous knowledge; this knowledge that Spinoza calls “cognitio ab experientia vaga”, where “vaga” means wandering, precarious, without a precise direction. Obviously, the word as a sign of an inadequate knowledge conserves a trace of the actual idea, but this idea of affection of the bodies of common people in the interaction with other bodies is an inadequate and confused idea: it’s an image.  And the word as the term that designates this idea is the image of an image. The totality of words leans on the mechanism of memory thanks to some disposition of the body: “verba… prout vage et aliqua dispositiones corporis componuntur in memoria.”[35]

We said that the improper use of words can open to the manipulation and to the subjection. Spinoza warns us that prejudices and superstitions are not only the product of manipulation of dominants over the dominated ones. They can rise spontaneously. Let’s suppose for example a group of individuals that live together. These people are common people who don’t use reason, but live under the yoke of imagination. They impose names to images born from affections of their bodies that interact with each other. As we have already see their imagination is not able to distinguish every specific aspect of each individual, but it will fix in mind those aspects that, for their inclination and habit, strike them most: white skin, size, colour of eyes and hair, etc. This image of human being has characteristics corresponding exactly to the instinctive bent of the group, and to what causes admiration. These individuals are so brought to recognise that sort of human being as the neighbour, and they find the term “man” to designate it. Considering the term as the object they will tend not to recognise as man or human being individuals that don’t fit well with that image. Racial prejudice is thus born.

If then we consider that the effects are an idea of the mind to which an affection of the body corresponds at the same time, and that when the mind has confused and inadequate ideas it’s passive, and that a confused idea is a passion of the soul, then we understand that prejudice is inevitably accompanied by a passion: admiration for the counterpart, diffidence or fear for the different, etc. And since men tend by nature to strictly associate when they fall prey to a common passion such as hope, fear or common desire of revenge,[36] prejudice (which always goes with a passion) risks of being among the natural foundations of political society. However, what characterises a society of human beings, a nation from another, has not its origins in nature. Nature just creates individuals. The habit, the reiterated experience of custom and laws shape the people’s “ingenium”. In the TTP, Spinoza wonders why the Jewish people had moved away so often from the observance of the laws. Was it by nature? No, he answers. The language, the laws and the customs distinguish a community from another and it is just from this the particular nature of a community that its condition and its prejudices derive.[37] Through the language, the customs and the laws, prejudices shape the character of a community, and therefore they participate in the constitutive power of imagination.  At the same time, individual and collective experiences are often misinterpreted by prejudices.

How can we escape from the chain of prejudices? Is knowledge—theoretical, rational—enough to modify prejudices that revealed to be behavioural attitudes, collective affects in addition to illusory tales? Without going back to all aspects of Spinoza’s theory, I’m going to touch upon some suggestions that we can infer from his theory to develop strategies for liberation.

First, we must remember what Spinoza demonstrates in the fourth part of his E.. Till the real knowledge of good and bad remains purely theoretical, it doesn’t modify the human condition; on the contrary, it risks making it worse, because it’s unarmed in front of the power of the affects.[38] It’s therefore useful to develop a strategy of the affects—what Spinoza does in the  fourth part of his E., where he develops what P. Macherey calls “a daily ethics” that  “introduit dans l’espace qui paraît séparer la servitude de la liberté toutes un monde de nuances microscopiques, de determinations intermediaires”.[39] This strategy of the affects can’t get out of being also a strategy of the language. Perhaps this is also the very difficult (perardua) way which Spinoza speaks about at the end of his E.; very difficult because, as we have seen, language is a sign of inadequate knowledge, corresponding the bondage of passions. The dominion of words is such that also philosophy remained prisoner of words and has fallen into a lot of mistakes: “Attamen non miror philosophos verbales, sive grammaticales in similes errores incidere: res enim ex nominibus judicant.”[40] Nevertheless, at the heart of the philosophical project, Spinoza puts the achievement of a Real Good that is communicable.[41]

How can we communicate, speak and, for the philosopher, write, in order to stay clear from illusions, mistakes and prejudices of the imagination, if the language takes root in the imagination?

Spinoza’s answer is not the one to create another language, as for example mathematics did. Neither we can change the language that means to eliminate some words, in order to create others or substitute them with others. We have to transformer the use of the language, by using the same words, the words of common use, to signify something else: “Haec nomina ex communi usu aliud significare scio. Sed meum institutum non est verborum significationem sed rerum naturam explicare easque iis vocabulis indicare quorum significatio quam ex usu habent, a significatione qua eadem usurpare volo, non omnino abhorret, quod semel monuisse sufficiat.”[42]  That’ s what Spinoza does in his E., when he asks himself about definitions. But not only this; the whole of Spinoza’s work urges attention and caution in the use of language: “Caute”. In the whole E., he uses this motto just once and exclusively when referring to human language: “Nam quia haec tria, imagines scilicet verba et ideae, a multis vel plane confunduntur vel non satis accurate vel denique non satis caute distinguuntur”.[43] Caution in the use of words, caution in expressions, caution in the use of metaphors.

Spinoza’s philosophical etymology is therefore a criticism of the use of language, which results into a double consciousness.

First: language is a collective product and it’s meant for the community. Also, the philosophic discourse can be a discourse that really redirects the human being on the real communicable good, when it is within common people’s reach, when language can bond with the common people, and thus prepare them to listen to the truth: “Ad captum vulgi loqui, et illa omnia operari, quae nihil impedimenti adferunt, quominus nostrum scopum attingamus. Nam non parum emolumenti ab eo possumus acquirere, modo ipsius captui, quantum fieri potest, concedamus ; adde, quod tali modo amicas praebebunt aures ad veritatem audiendam.”[44]  Modifying the use of language can’t be just the work of a person or of a group of intellectuals. The wiser person too is always exposed to the danger of the passions and so she’s exposed to the risk of obtuseness; but human beings can also correct their faults by examining the questions, listening, discussing and trying all the intermediate solutions to find what nobody had already thought.[45]

Second: language has an ambiguous strength in itself; words are useful to produce transformations towards the better or the worse. When we make an improper use of it, unknowingly or deliberately, and we manipulate the meanings, the effect can be the loss of individual or social freedom. From here follows Spinoza’s call for caution and attention in the use of words, but at the same time the lack of any specific strategy of and about language divided from that strategy for mastering affects, i.e. the daily morality in the fourth part of his E.



Allport, The nature of prejudice, Reading, MA, USA, Addison-Wesley, 1979

Biasutti, La dottrina della scienza in Spinoza, Padova, Patron, 1979, pp. 140-145

Bove, “La théorie du langage chez Spinoza”, in L’Enseignement Philosophique, 1991, 4, pp. 16-33 and 2005, 1, pp. 24-38

Brunelli, “Religione e dottrina del linguaggio”, in Verifiche, VI, 1977, 4, pp. 755-787

Chiereghin, “Introduzione a Spinoza. La critica del sapere matematico e le aporie del linguaggio”, in Verifiche, V, 1976, 1, pp. 3-23

Descartes, Œuvres, publiées par Charles Adam et Paul Tannery, Paris, Cerf, 1897-1913

d’Holbach,  Essai sur les préjugés ou De l’influence des opinions sur les moeurs et sur le bonh.ur des Hommes. Ouvrage contenant L’apologie de la philosophie par Mr. D.M., Londres: Editeur anonyme, 1770

Gadamer, Wharheit und Methode, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1960

Kant, Logik, in Sämmtliche Werke, bind 4, herausgegeben von Karl Rosenkranz und Fried. Wilh. Schubert, Leopold Voss, Leipzig, 1838

Misrahi, Le désir et la réflexion dans la philosophie de Spinoza, Paris – London – New York, Gordon and Breach, 1972

Moreau, Spinoza, l’ expérience et l’éternité, PUF, Paris, 1994

Moreau, “Langage et pouvoir chez Spinoza”, in P.-F. Moreau, J. Robelin (éd. par), Langage et Pouvoir à l’Âge Classique, Besançon, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2000, pp. 57-67

Spinoza, Opera, Hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt Heidelberg: Carl Winters Verlag, Heidelberg, 1925, 4 Bände

Vinciguerra, Spinoza et le signe. La genèse de l’imagination, Paris, J. Vrin, 2005

Volpato & Manganelli-Rattazzi, “Pregiudizio e immigrazione. Effetti del contatto sulle relazioni interetniche”, in Ricerche di psicologia, 3-4, 2000

Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif. Nouvelle edition. Avec des notes; beaucoup plus correcte & plus ample que les précédentes, vol. 2, Amsterdam, chez Varberg, 1765



[1] René Descartes, Meditationes de prima philosophia, AT, VII, 9 (“I yet apprehend that they cannot be adequately understood by many, both because they are also a little lengthy and dependent the one on the other, and principally because they demand a mind wholly free of prejudices, and one which can be easily detached from the affairs of the senses.” René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, ed. Stanley Tweyman, Routlegde, New York, 1993, p. 36, translated by Elisabeth S Haldane and G.R.T Ross).

[2] Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique portatif. Nouvelle edition. Avec des notes; beaucoup plus correcte & plus ample que les précédentes, vol. 2, Amsterdam, chez Varberg, 1765, p. 216: “Prejudice is an opinion without judgment. Thus all over the world do people inspire children with all the opinions they desire, before the children can judge.” Voltaire, The Philosophical Dictionary, Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf, Knopf, New York, 1924.

[3] Ibidem. “they are those which are ratified by judgment when one reasons.” Ibidem.

[4] Immanuel Kant, Logik, Sämmtliche Werke, bind 4, herausgegeben von Karl Rosenkranz und Fried. Wilh. Schubert, Leopold Voss, Leipzig, 1838, p. 89. “It is astonishing that in our age such question can still be advanced, especially that concerning the encouragement of prejudices.” Immanuel Kant, Lectures on logic, translated and edited by J. Michael Young, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[5] See ibidem.

[6] See ibidem.

[7] Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach, Essai sur les préjugés ou De l’influence des opinions sur les moeurs et sur le bonheur des Hommes. Ouvrage contenant L’apologie de la philosophie par Mr. D.M. Londres: Editeur anonyme, 1770, p. 1.  “Human beings’ ignorance, errors and prejudices are the sources of their evils. The truth is the remedy. …. The truth must sooner or later triumph over error. ” (my own translation)

[8] Ibidem, p. 36.

[9] Ibidem, p. 250; “In order to get morals has ascendancy over human beings, it is necessary to enlighten them on their true interests; in order to make them enlightened, it is necessary that the truth can educate them, for educate them, it is necessary that prejudice is disarmed by reason, then, the nations, free from the childhood  that their tutors strive to make eternal, will engage themselves to reform their institutions, to fight against the abuse of legislation, the false ideas that inspire education, the harmful practices of which they suffer at every moment.”(my own translation)

[10] Ibidem, p. 168.

[11] Ibidem, p. 170 : “Truth has two ways to triumph over error: either by going down from the chiefs to the nations, or by ascending from the nations to their chiefs.” (my translation).

[12]  See cfr  H.G. Gadamer, Wharheit und Methode, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1960.

[13] Gordon Allport, The nature of prejudice, Reading, MA, USA: Addison-Wesley, 1979, p. 9.

[14] See Chiara Volpato and Anna Maria Manganelli-Rattazzi, “Pregiudizio e immigrazione. Effetti del contatto sulle relazioni interetniche”, in  Ricerche di psicologia, 3-4, 2000.

[15] See Ernst Cassirer, Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit. Berlin, Verlag: Bruno Cassirer, 1922, pp. 73 and following.

[16] See Pietro di Vona, Studi sull’ontologia di Spinoza I, Firenze, Nuova Italia, 1960.

[17] See I. S. Revah, “Spinoza et les Heretiques de la communauté judéo-portuguais  d’ Amsterdam”, in Revue d’histoire et des religions, 154, 1958, pp. 173-2I8; Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza, Cambridge Mass.  2 voll., 1934; Geneviève Brykman, La Judêité de Spinoza, Paris, Ed. Vrin, 1973.

[18] See J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment, Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

[19] Toni Negri, L’anomalia selvaggia: saggio su potere e potenza in Baruch Spinoza, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1981

[20] E.I, appendix, G. II, pp. 77: “which might impede the comprehension of my demonstrations”, Elwes,pag 55. The critical edition used in the text is: Spinoza Opera, Hrsg. von Carl Gebhardt Heidelberg: Carl Winters, 1925. 4 Bände. For the English translation of Ethica we have here referred to: Spinoza, Ethics, translated by R.H.M.Elwes, the Floating press publishing, 2009. The following abbreviations have been used to refer to Spinoza’s writings: E = Ethica, Epistolae = Correspondence, CM = Cogitata Metaphysica, TTP = Tractatus theologico- politicus, TP = Tractatus politicus.

[21] See .E.I, appendix, G.II, pp. 77-83.

[22] The attention on the problem of language in Spinoza is quite recent. Robert Misrahi had already dedicated several enlighting pages of this problem in his  R. Misrahi, Le désir et la réflexion dans la philosophie de Spinoza, Paris – London – New York, Gordon and Breach, 1972, pp. 186-206. We also remeber F. Chiereghin, “Introduzione a Spinoza. La critica del sapere matematico e le aporie del linguaggio”, in Verifiche, V, 1976, 1, pp. 3-23; V. Brunelli, “Religione e dottrina del linguaggio”, in Verifiche VI ,1977, 4, pp. 755-787;  F. Biasutti, La dottrina della scienza in Spinoza, Padova, Patron, 1979, pp. 140-145; L. Bove, “La théorie du langage chez Spinoza”, in L’Enseignement Philosophique ,1991, 4, pp. 16-33 e 2005, 1, pp. 24-38; P.-F. Moreau, Spinoza: L’expérience et l’éternité, Paris, PUF, 1994, pp. 307-378, and “Langage et pouvoir chez Spinoza”, in P.-F. Moreau, J. Robelin (éd. par), Langage et Pouvoir à l’Âge Classique, Besançon, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2000, pp. 57-67. Lastly let’s remember L. Vinciguerra, Spinoza et le signe. La genèse de l’imagination, Paris, J. Vrin, 2005.

[23] TI, G.I, , p. 33: “as they are in the imagination”.

[24] E.III, def.3, G.II, p. 139.

[25] See L. Bove, cit. p. 18.

[26] See CM. I, 1, G.I, p. 231.

[27] E.II, prop.XL, sch.1, G.II, p.107. “For instance, those who have most often regarded with admiration the stature of man, will by the name of man understand an animal of erect stature; those who have been accustomed to regard some other attribute, will form a different general image of man, for instance, that man is a laughing animal, a two-footed animal without feathers, a rational animal, and thus, in other cases, everyone will form general images of things according to the habit of his body.” Elswer, p. 122.

[28] Ibidem, “from the thought of the word pomum (an apple), a Roman would straightway arrive at the thought of the fruit apple, which has no similitude with the articulate sound in question, nor anything in common with it, except that the body of the man has often been affected by these two things; that is, that the man has often heard the word pomum, while he was looking at the fruit; similarly every man will go on from one thought to another, according as his habit has ordered the images of things in his body.” Ibidem

[29]  E.II, prop. XVIII, sch.G.II, p. 63  “For a soldier, for instance, when he sees the tracks of a horse in sand, will at once pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a horseman, and thence to the thought of war, &c.; while a countryman will proceed from the thought of a horse to the thought of a plough, a field, &c. Thus every man will follow this or that train of thought, according as he has been in the habit of conjoining and associating the mental images of things in this or that manner.” Elwes, p.102.

[30] See CM, I,6, G.I, p. 246.

[31] See P.F. Moreau, Experience, cit. These remarks on experience are taken from my own work, Paola de Cuzzani: ““Essere donna” e cittadinanza. La differenza sessuale nella filosofia di Spinoza” in Donne e filosofia, a cura di M. Marsonet, ERGA ed. Genova, 2011, pp. 27-37.

[32] See Epistolae, G. IV, p. 47.

[33] CM, I,VI. G.I. p. 246: “later philosophers made use of this signification to denote the agreement or disagreement of an idea with his object” in Spinoza Principles of Cartesian Philosophy: with Metaphysical Thoughts , transl. by Samuel Shirley, ed by S. Barbone and L.Rice, Hackett publishing C.Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1998, p. 107.

[34] See P. F. Moreau, Spinoza, l’ expérience et l’éternité, PUF, p. 366.

[35] TI G. I, p. 33: “we   form many  conceptions  in  accordance  with  confused arrangements  of  words  in  the  memory,   dependent  on  particular bodily  conditions”. Translated by R. H. M.  Elwes.

[36] See TP, III, 9, G.III, p. 284.

[37] See TTP, cap.XVII, G.III, p.217.

[38] See E. IV, 17. sch, G. II, p.177.

[39] P. Macherey, “Ethique IV, propositions 70-71. La vie sociale des hommes libres”, Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 1994, n°4, p. 459. “…that introduces into space, which seems to separate servitude from liberty, a whole world of microscopic nuances, of intermediate determinations” (my own translation).

[40] CM.I1, G.I, p. 235: “Still, I am not surprise that verbal or grammatical philosophers fall into errors like these, for they judge things from words”, transl. by Samuel Shirley, op. cit. p. 96.

[41] See TI, G. I,  p. 5.

[42] E.III, aff. Def.20, expl. “I am aware that these terms are employed in senses somewhat different from those usually assigned. But my purpose is to explain, not the meaning of words, but the nature of things. I therefore make use of such terms, as may convey my meaning without any violent departure from their ordinary signification. One statement of my method will suffice.” Trans. Elwes, p. 235.

[43] E. II, prop 49, sch, “These three–namely, images, words, and ideas–are by many persons either entirely confused together, or not distinguished with sufficient accuracy or care” Elwes, p.138.

[44] TI.G.II,  p. 9, “To  speak   in a manner  intelligible to the multitude,  and to comply  with  every  general  custom  that  does  not  hinder  the attainment  of  our  purpose.  (17:3) For we can gain from the multitude  no  small  advantages,  provided  that  we  strive to accommodate  ourselves  to its understanding as far as possible: moreover,  we  shall in this way gain a friendly audience for the reception of the truth.” Transl. by Elwes.

[45] TP. 9, XIV, G.III, p. 352.