‘Spinoza Lector: On What Reading The Ethics Out Loud Brings To and Takes From the Text’, §16, The Swerve of Freedom After Spinoza

Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield

“One dreams of Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ read by Alain Cuny.” Why? Because the voice dramatizes the concept thus giving up new affects and perceptions of it. So Deleuze. He is speaking of the actor’s voice, or rather of the voice that acts the text. Well let’s see. We propose to read Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ out loud. Over a period of 24 hours. Inviting comment question intervention. Let us de-abstract and actualise Spinoza’s concepts under what Lyotard calls “the responsibility of mouths and eyes of the flesh”. For Deleuze the ‘Ethics’ is a composition – of speeds and slownesses and differential rhythm. And an affective reading would begin anywhere within it without an idea of the whole. In other words, it does not matter at what point over the 24 hours you enter the text. “Anyone can read the ‘Ethics'” – if that is they are prepared to be “swept up in its wind, its fire”.

Our reading will be recorded, and the transcript of every word we say published unedited.

Below are some possible guides to reading. For instance, Deleuze remarks that there “may be some interest in reading the second Ethics underneath the first, by jumping from one scholium to another”.

Any translation can be used – see below for on-line versions.

Deleuze on reading Spinoza’s Ethics

“One dreams of Spinoza’s Ethics read by Alain Cuny. A voice carried by a wind driving the waves of demonstrations. The powerful slowness of the rhythm is broken here and there by unprecedented precipitation. Waves, but also lines of fire. From them rise all the perceptions through which Spinoza lets us grasp the world, and all the affects to grasp the soul. An immense slowness capable of measuring all the speeds of thought.”

Gilles Deleuze, ‘What voice brings to the text’ [1987], in Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995, trans Ames Hodges & Mike Taormina, New York City: Semiotext(e), 45

“In short, scholia are positive, ostensive and aggressive. Given their independence relative to the propositions they double, one might say that the Ethics was written twice, in two different tones, on two levels, at the same time. For in their own discontinuous way the scholia jump one to another, echo one another, reappear in the preface to some Part of the Ethics, or in the conclusion to another, forming a broken line which runs right through the work at a certain depth, but which rises to the surface only at particular points (of fracture). The Scholium to I.8, for example, forms such a line together with those to I.15, I.17, I.33, II.3 and II.10: these deal with the different kinds of disfigurement to which God is subjected by man. Similarly, the Scholium to II.13, which sets up the model of the body, jumps to that at III.2, and ends up in the Preface to Part Five. A broken line of scholia, similarly, forms a kind of hymn to joy, constantly interrupted, in which those who live on sadness, those whose interest lies in our sadness, and those who need human sadness to secure their power are violently denounced: IV.45s2, IV.50s, IV.63s and V.I0s.”

“There are thus as it were two Ethics existing side by side, one constituted by the continuous line or tide of propositions, proofs and corollaries, and the other, discontinuous, constituted by the broken line or volcanic chain of the scholia. The first, in its implacable rigor, amounts to a sort of terrorism of the head, progressing from one proposition to the next without worrying about their practical consequences, elaborating its rules without worrying about individual cases. The other assembles the indignation and the joys of the heart, presenting practical joy, setting out the practical struggle against sadness, expressing itself at each point by saying “such is the case.” The Ethics is in this sense a double book. There may be some interest in reading the second Ethics underneath the first, by jumping from one scholium to another.”

“[T]he most polemical of the scholia bring together, in their particular style and tone, the two supreme registers of speculative affirmation (of substance) and practical joy (in modes): a double language, inviting a double reading of the Ethics. What is most important in the greatest scholia is their polemic, but its power is all the more developed for being in the service of speculative affirmation and practical joy, and for bringing them together in univocity.”

Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, trans Martin Joughin, New York: Zone Books, 344 345 and 350 respectively

“Writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers – painters too, even chance readers – may find that they are Spinozists; indeed, such a thing is more likely for them than for professional philosophers. It is a matter of one’s practical conception of the “plan.” It is not that one may be a Spinozist without knowing it. Rather, there is a strange privilege that Spinoza enjoys, something that seems to have been accomplished by him and no one else. He is a philosopher who commands an extraordinary conceptual apparatus, one that is highly developed, systematic, and scholarly; and yet he is the quintessential object of an immediate, unprepared encounter, such that a nonphilosopher, or even someone without any formal education, can receive a sudden illumination from him, a “flash.” Then it is as if one discovers that one is a Spinozist; one arrives in the middle of Spinoza, one is sucked up, drawn into the system’ or the composition. When Nietzsche writes, “I am really amazed, really delighted … I hardly knew Spinoza: what brought me to him now was the guidance of instinct,” he is not speaking only as a philosopher. A historian of philosophy as rigorous as Victor Delbos was struck by this dual role of Spinoza, as a very elaborate model, but also as a secret inner impulse. There is a double reading of Spinoza: on the one hand, a systematic reading in pursuit of the general idea and the unity of the parts, but on the other hand and at the same time, the affective reading. without an idea of the whole, where one is carried along or set down, put in motion or at rest, shaken or calmed according to the velocity of this or that part. Who is a Spinozist? Sometimes, certainly, the individual who works “on” Spinoza, on Spinoza’s concepts, provided this is done with enough gratitude and admiration. But also the individual who, without being a philosopher, receives from Spinoza an affect, a set of affects, a kinetic determination, an impulse, and makes Spinoza an encounter, a passion. What is unique about Spinoza is that he, the most philosophic of philosophers (unlike Socrates himself, Spinoza requires only philosophy… ), teaches the philosopher how to become a nonphilosopher. And it is in Part V – not at all the most difficult, but the quickest, having an infinite velocity-that the two are brought together, the philosopher and the nonphilosopher, as one and the same being. Hence what an extraordinary composition this Part V has; how extraordinary is the way in which the meeting of concept and affect occurs there, and the way in which this meeting is prepared, made necessary by the celestial and subterranean movements that together compose the preceding parts.”

Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (1970), trans Robert Hurley, San Francisco: City Light Books, 1988, 129-130

“Philosophy has an essential and positive relation to nonphilosophy: it speaks directly to nonphilosophers. Take the most remarkable case, Spinoza: the absolute philosopher, whose Ethics is the foremost book on concepts. But this purest of philosophers also speaks to everyone: anyone can read the Ethics if they’re prepared to be swept up in its wind, its fire.”

“[Spinoza] seems, on the face of it, to have no style at all, as we confront the very scholastic Latin of the
Ethics. But you have to be careful with people who supposedly “have no style”; as Proust noted, they’re often the greatest stylists of all. The Ethics appears at first to be a continuous stream of definitions, propositions, proofs, and corollaries, presenting us with a remarkable development of concepts. An irresistible, uninterrupted river, majestically serene. Yet all the while there are “parentheses” springing up in the guise of scholia, discontinuously, independently, referring to one another, violently erupting to form a broken volcanic chain, as all the passions rumble below in a war of joys pitted against sadness. These scholia might seem to fit into the overall conceptual development, but they don’t: they’re more like a second Ethics, running parallel to the first but with a completely different rhythm, a completely different tone, echoing the movement of concepts in the full force of affects. And then there’s a third Ethics, too, when we come to Book Five. Because Spinoza tells us that up to that point he’s been speaking from the viewpoint of concepts, but now he’s going to change his style and speak directly and intuitively in pure percepts. Here too, one might imagine he’s still proving things, but he’s certainly not continuing the same way. The line of proof begins to leap like lightning across gaps, proceeding elliptically, implicitly, in abbreviated form, advancing in piercing, rending flashes. No longer a river, or something running below the surface, but fire. A third Ethics that, although it appears only at the close, is there from the start, along with the other two. This is the style at work in Spinoza’s seemingly calm Latin. He sets three languages resonating in his outwardly dormant language, a triple straining. The Ethics is a book of concepts (the second kind of knowledge), but of affects (the first kind) and percepts (the third kind) too. Thus the paradox in Spinoza is that he’s the most philosophical of philosophers, the purest in some sense, but also the one who more than any other addresses non philosophers and calls forth the most intense nonphilosophical understanding. This is why absolutely anyone can read Spinoza, and be very moved, or see things quite differently afterward, even if they can hardly understand Spinoza’s concepts.

Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations 1972-1990 (1990), trans Martin Joughin, New York City: Columbia University Press, 1995, 139-40 and 165-6

Butler on first reading Spinoza

“My first introduction to philosophy was a radically deinstitutionalized one, autodidactic and premature. This scene might best be summed up by the picture of the young teenager hiding out from painful family dynamics in the basement of the house where her mother’s college books were stored, where Spinoza’s Ethics (the 1934 Elwes translation) was to be found. My emotions were surely rioting, and I turned to Spinoza to find out whether knowing what they were and what purpose they served would help me learn how to live them in some more manageable way. What I found in the second and third chapters of that text was rich indeed. The extrapolation of emotional states from the primary persistence of the conatus in human beings impressed me as the most profound, pure, and clarifying exposition of human passions. A thing endeavors to persist in its being. I suppose this signaled to me a form of vitalism that persists even in despair.”

Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, London: Routledge, 2004, 235

Lyotard on vocalizing

“Vocalizing writing in order to actualize it, like visualizing it, is not without danger. It is a kind of incarnation, but one made under the responsibility of mouths or eyes of the flesh, and not through the gracious gift of the Voice. It is an incarnation that marks and recalls the ‘present’ absence of the Voice from the letter in making the Voice heard in the equivocality and multiplicity of earthly voices.”
Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Foreword: After the words’, in Joseph Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966-1990, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1991, xv-xviii.

Spinoza on reading aloud

“I shall now discuss the motive that induced the scribes to mark certain words to be read expressly from the margin. For not all marginal notes are doubtful readings; they also occur in the case of expressions that had passed out of common usage, namely, obsolete words, and terms that the approved manners of the time did not permit to be read aloud in a public assembly. Writers of old, in their simple way, called things plainly by their names with no courtly circumlocution. Later on, when vice and intemperance were rife, words which in the mouths of the ancients were free from obscenity began to be regarded as obscene. There was no need to alter Scripture on this account, but in concession to the weak-mindedness of the common people they introduced the custom in public readings of substituting more acceptable words for sexual intercourse and excrement, as are marked in the marginal notes.”

Baruch Spinoza, ‘Theological-Political Treatise’ (1670, published anonymously), in Complete Works, trans Samuel Shirley, Indianapolis: Hackett Books, 2002, 487

Reading aloud

“But most of the time I simply enjoyed the luxurious sensation of being carried away by the words, and felt, in a very physical sense, that I was actually travelling somewhere wonderfully remote, to a place I hardly dared glimpse on the secret last page of the book. Later on, when I was nine or ten, I was told by my school principal that being read to was suitable only for small children. I believed him, and gave up the practice – partly because being read to gave me enormous pleasure, and by then I was quite ready to believe that anything that gave pleasure was somehow unwholesome. It was not until much later, when my lover and I decided to read to each other, over a summer, The Golden Legend, that the long-lost delight of being read to came back to me.” 

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, 110

“The relationship of bodies is didactic, they must learn, learn each other; such a relationship is also established (I would even say indissolubly so) through the voice.”

Jacques Roubaud, The Great Fire of London, 296

Jean Eustache, The Mother and the Whore, 1973

Ways of Reading The Ethics

Spinoza’s Ethics 2.0
“this site provides a representation of the structure of the geometrical demonstrations of Spinoza’s Ethics.”

Ethica Web
“Ethica’s original deductive self-references are made into hyperlinks. But not only the 76 defined terms … also 55 philosophical primitive terms used but not formally defined in Ethica are linked to a note page of their own (see lists through geometrical report).” 

Translations of The Ethics

Ethica DB
Digital and multilingual publication of Spinoza’s Ethics

Bennett translation:
Ethics demonstrated in geometrical order

Elwes translation
Spinoza’s Ethics translated from the Latin (1883)

The Swerve of Freedom After Spinoza

A book ‘to come’, written in response to openings in which it might speak.