Eternity and Duration in Spinoza

In the context of Spinoza’s famous letter to Lodewijk Meyer (Letter 12) where Spinoza lays forth the differences, as he sees it, between the infinite and the finite, substance and modes, Spinoza makes an important distinction between eternity and duration:

The difference between Eternity and Duration arises from this. For it is only of Modes that we can explain the existence by Duration. But [we can explain the existence] of Substance by Eternity, i.e., the infinite enjoyment of existing, or (in bad Latin) of being.

This letter is important for many reasons, but it helps to make sense of Spinoza’s ethical concerns that were covered in an earlier post (here). As we saw, Spinoza’s concern was to overcome misery and suffering, and to do so, as he ended the first paragraph of TIE, by determining whether ‘there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity.’ Now we find Spinoza equating substance both with eternity and ‘the infinite enjoyment of existing,’ or being [I resist here the temptation to argue for Spinoza as a precursor to Heidegger’s understanding of the disclosedness of being as the temporalization of the temporal]. For this reason, among many others, this letter serves as an important bridge between the TIE and the Ethics. In particular, what has caused so many commentators fits in their attempts to understand the final half of Part 5 of the Ethics is that our singular mind itself seems to be understood to be both eternal and unchanging and becomes increasingly eternal as it knows more of God. Among the many propositions of Part 5 that cause problems is P23: ‘The human Mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the Body, but something of it remains which is eternal.’ To resolve this difficulty it is important to differentiate between the something of the mind that remains and the mind that Spinoza defines as being nothing but the idea of the body, and hence the mind that would be destroyed with the body. With this differentiation we bring into play the eternity/duration distinction. Thus the Demonstration to P23 reads:

In God there is necessarily a concept, or idea, which expresses the essence of the human Body (by P22), an idea, therefore, which is necessarily something that pertains to the essence of the human mind (by 2P13). But we do not attribute to the human Mind any duration that can be defined by time, except insofar as it expresses the actual existence of the Body, which is explained by duration, and can be defined by time, i.e. (by 2P8C), we do not attribute duration to it except while the Body endures. However, since what is conceived, with a certain eternal necessity, through God’s essence itself (by P22) is nevertheless something, this something that pertains to the essence of the Mind will necessarily be eternal, q.e.d.

To restate this drawing from earlier posts, the human Mind that is eternal is not the determinate, identifiable mind, but rather the immanent condition for the possibility of such a determinate identification; it is, in short, the infinite power of self-ordering becoming (the ‘infinite enjoyment of existing’) that allows for the possibility of determinate, singular bodies, and for the determinate singular minds that are the ideas of these bodies. We can also clarify another of Spinoza’s late propositions: ‘He who has a Body capable of a great many things has a Mind whose greatest part is eternal.’ Following from Spinoza’s claim, discussed in an earlier post, that ‘God’s power is his essence’ (1P34), namely the infinite power and enjoyment of existing, we can see that the more one is ‘capable of a great many things’ with one’s body, and hence the less one needs to select against differences, then the more one expresses God’s power and can embrace and affirm the coming into being of other, determinate identities. Much as a political State in Spinoza’s mind is strengthened by allowing for the freedom to philosophize since this freedom better facilitates the possibility of allowing for the immanent order of nature (or God) to become determinate and known, similarly for Spinoza the more one is able to do with one’s body, the more one allows for the possibility that the order immanent to self-ordering becoming can become known and determinate. So when Deleuze asks the question, “what can a body do?” he too is tapping into the heart of Spinoza’s ethical concerns.

But how does all this help us in overcoming our attachment to things that are ‘liable to many variations and which we can never fully possess’? If I were to add biking and swimming to my regular runs and become, like some of my good friends, a triathlete, would I become more eternal? The short answer to this question is no. A full answer would entail returning to Letter 12 and to the discussion of the difference between substance and modes. But to end this post with a few suggestions, and to recall the notion of Deleuzian supervenience sketched in an earlier post, it would be a mistake for Spinoza if we were to equate the eternity with the precise, determinate activities of the body. This would be to confuse modes with substance, and hence not rightly understand substance; or it would be to confuse the axiomatic with the problematic upon which the axiomatic supervenes, and likewise fail to grasp the inseparability of problems from their solutions. As Deleuze argued, the problematic, or minor science, would be nothing if it were not for major science and the axiomatic, just as major science would be nothing without the problematic. Similarly for Spinoza, the question ‘what can a body do?’ is to be understood as the problematic that requires the modifications and affections of determinate bodies and minds to be anything just as our determinate bodies and minds require the problematic as the ‘infinite enjoyment of existing.’ To overcome our attachment to things that are ‘liable to many variations and which we can never fully possess’ thus entails a move from the actual and determinate, to what this body is actually doing or has done, to the problematic and the virtual, the body as an eternity that is not to be confused with the determinate and which is indeed subject to many variations and which we can never fully possess. Much more needs to be said to clear up a host of problems that still persist. Most notably, what is the epistemological status of the third kind of knowledge? And can this knowledge be understood in a way that doesn’t reintroduce transcendence and consequently undermine Deleuze and Guattari’s claim in What is Philosophy? that Spinoza is perhaps ‘the only philosopher never to have compromised with transcendence and to have hunted it down everywhere.’


5 responses to “Eternity and Duration in Spinoza

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: