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Spinoza on Suicide: The Break Between the Imagination and the Body

Some Ruminations on the Metaphysics of Suicide

Below I list three translations of Spinoza’s denial that a person could will their own death (E4p20n):

latent external causes may so disorder [the suicide’s] imagination, and so affect his body, that it may assume a nature contrary to its former one, and whereof the idea cannot exist in the mind. But that a man, from the necessity of his own nature, should endeavour to become non-existent, is as impossible as that something should be made out of nothing, as everyone will see for himself, after a little reflection. (uncited).

because hidden external causes so dispose his imagination, and so affect his Body, that it takes on another nature, contrary to the former, a nature of which there cannot be an idea in the Mind (by 3p10). But that a man should, from the necessity of his own nature, strive not to exist, or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as that something should come from nothing. Anyone who gives this a little thought will see it (Curley).

Or it may come about when unobservable external causes condition a man’s imagination and affect his body in such a way that the latter assumes a different nature contrary to the previously existing one, a nature whereof there can be no idea in the mind (Pr. 10, III). But that man from the necessity of his own nature should endeavor to cease to exist or to be changed into another form, is as impossible as that something should come from nothing, as anyone can see with a little thought (Shirley).

Curley comes the closest I think to capturing Spinoza’s interesting use of “priori” as he argues through an significant construction. I give you the Latin, and my own rather literal translation:

…quod causae latentes externae eius imaginationem ita disponunt et corpus ita afficiunt, ut id aliam naturam priori  contrariam induat et cuius idea in mente dari nequit (per prop. 10. P. 3.). At quod homo ex necessitate suae naturae conetur non existere vel in aliam formam mutari, tam est impossibile, quam quod ex nihilo aliquid fiat, ut unusquisque mediocri meditatione videre potest.

…because causes, hidden and external, thus arrange his imagination and the body thus affect, such that it would assume an alternate nature opposed to the first, an idea of which is not possible to be given in the mind. But that a man out of the necessity of his own nature would strive to not exist, or into an alternate form to be changed, is as impossible as that out of nothing something would be made, as anyone with a bit of contemplation is able to see.

Despite the reading of the first two translations, it is not immediately conceptually clear that in the event of suicide the body is so much changed into a state that is only contrasted to is previous bodily state (though this can be assumed). More seems the case that Spinoza has in mind that the body, through external, unseen causes, is so changed that its link to the imagination itself is broken…it is not just a contrast, but contradition.

(Against this reading, I am assured by one knowledgable reader that if Spinoza meant a contradiction to the imagination as well, he would have used a phrase such as “ad istam”. But I would suggest that Spinoza intends the ambiguity of reference supplied by his constuction and his use of priori. If I were to delineate the form: external causes arrange A and affect B¹, such that B¹ changes into something other than B¹ [B²] which is opposed to what is prior, B¹ [or A], such that A, no matter its status, cannot hold an idea of B. The change is such that no idea, not even an deeply inadequate one, can be held of the Body.)

If the meaning was solely that one state of the body, later in time, would be opposed to an earlier state of the body, one would have to ask what this would mean, since future events do not determine or even affect past ones. Is my body after I have died, opposed to, or hostile to my body as it was when it was living? On the other hand one can readily understand how a present state of the body can be opposed to the state of the imagination (mind) which would parallel it, that is, the body expressed in such a state that the mind no longer is a mind. In a certain sense, a body radically altered is one which opposes, or is contrary to the function of the imagination altogether…remember, the mind tries to imagine those things which increase its power of acting  in Spinoza’s view (E2p12). (See how E4p19-26 cover the same imaginary ground already put forth in E3p10-13).

To read this relationship between the mind and body, one should remember that for Spinoza the object of the mind is a state of the body itself (E2p13). There he contends that we have “only a completely confused knowledge of our Body” (scholia). The moment of suicide for Spinoza is a cataclysmic moment, one in which not even a completely confused idea can be made in the mind. It seems a kind of breaking of the golden cord between soul and body, in the end, one not fundamentally different than any other death. In each case it is the external causes which are contrary to, or opposed to (repugnantibus ) the nature of the man (E4p18s).

If we were to lay out the tripod of Spinoza’s argument of priority:

1. E3p10s: An idea that would give the mind to not affirm the body is contrary to the mind itself (against the primum et praecipuum of its striving).

2. E4p20: External causes bring it about that the body becomes contrary to itself (?, and the mind), such that the mind cannnot hold an idea of the body, (i.e. the mind cannot hold an idea contrary to itself).

3. E422c: Striving to preserve oneself is the virtue prior to all virtues, and the first and only foundation concievable.

The Breaking of the Ratio

Now, once this body has changed its ratio (that is how Spinoza defines a body…as a ratio of parts in movement), the idea of this ratio still remains in the mind of God, as do the ideas of all ratio of parts in constant recombination. The latter part of Spinoza’s denial though holds additional interest, for Spinoza puts his denial of a will toward death in a rather metaphysical place, in the very fact that any striving (what he calls the conatus) is a expression not of a future event, but of the very physical state of the body at a particular moment in time. One could say that the striving results in, or is expressed as, a certain somethingness. It seems that Spinoza feels that one cannot strive for death because striving itself is already a living expression, as a living body. One can only will what one is, since willing expresses itself as IS, both physically and mentally.

This poses some problems though. It is interesting that Spinoza denies not only the impossibility of willing to not exist, but also the will to be an alternate, or even alien form (aliam formam ). Willing instead is expressed as form, so to speak. One must keep in mind that it seems that Spinoza is likely focusing specifically on the Stoic ideal of suicide as a rational act of autonomy, suicide as a virtue. Yet his arguments are intended I believe to cover all forms of suicide imaginable, gathering them up in a logic of what a mind is and does. Considering this, contrasted to Spinoza’s denial that there can be a will to transformation, psychologist James Hillman in his insightful book Suicide and the Soul  instead offers the idea that suicide can be seen as the hastening of a transformation too long delayed:

Under the pressure of “too late,” knowing that life went wrong and that there is no longer a way out, suicide offers itself. Then suicide is the urge for hasty transformation. This is not premature death, as medicine might say, but the late reaction of a delayed life which did not transform itself as life went along.

This hastening appears to up against Spinoza’s claim that a person could not even will that he or she be an alternate form, something other than it is. Are the two understandings at odds with each other? The way that Spinoza sees it, the desire to commit suicide is a passive reaction to external events, ones which determine the mind in such a way, and give the body such affects that there results a break between the two, the mind and the body. Hillman though would say though that the soul presses towards the “transformation” of itself, its life, because transformation is overdue, even if this idea of transformation is mistaken or confused.

There are the lasting moments after Socrates has already swallowed the hemlock, over which Hillman’s explanation may preside. Here Spinoza’s idea that it is literally impossible that the conatus of the soul could will its non-existence seems to hold little traction. But perhaps Spinoza, who wants the onus of causation to lie entirely with external causes, and not upon the adequacy of one’s own ideas, would want to say that the passing into passivity of Socrates’s Body (and thus his mind), expresses itself in the knowing ingestion of the poison. Latent causes organize us to do all sorts of things, the freedom of the will being for Spinoza an illusion born out of our ignorance of true causes. He wants us to separate out the nature of the choice from its future results, even in cases where one “desires to avoid a greater evil by [submitting to] an lesser one” (an alternate explanation Spinoza offers for suicide, exemplified by Seneca). Each moment is an eternity for Spinoza.

If Spinoza reads suicide as fundamentally a break between the imagination and the body, the body coming into a state which not longer will bear an idea of that state in the mind (dari nequi), this seems something more than becoming what is unimaginable. Even the most monstrous imaginary transformations perpetuate the capacity of the mind, as mental expressiveness — they bring with them the cord of affective capacity and thought (however dim). If one is imagining somehow that one would be more powerful in committing suicide (Hillman and E2p12), fulfilling the conatus of the imagination, Spinoza still says that in the very act it is external causes that have determined your body in such a way that your mind can no longer hold an idea of its body. This breaking of the mind appears a conflation of two moments, first, the inability of the mind to function as a mind, and then the final snapping of the cord between the two, mind and body, at the moment of death.

One must note that the word “virtue”, virtus, fundamentally means strength, vigor. If the body will be transformed into a new ratio which will not bear an idea of that ratio in the mind, for Spinoza this can solely occur due to external causes. In a sense, a suicide can never been seen as an action.

Spinoza and the Death Drive?

This appears to preclude of course modes of analysis as suggestive as Freud’s Death Drive, the drive for circulations which simply turn upon themselves, mindlessly, the trieb “to restore an earlier state of things”, for the animate to return to the inanimate. One can perhaps find the orgin of the denial of the Death Drive in Spinoza’s reading that all things are already an expression of an earlier state of things, in the sense that all things already express their immanent cause (God, Nature, Substance), that which is prior. They are already circulating emptily (God neither hates or loves). The drive of repetition is already so subsumed at the Infinite level, there is no room left for any one modal expression of God to be defined by this circulation, without already having this expression being contextualized by the whole. If someone compulses to repeat an earlier state, moving toward the inanimate, this very state is, ipso facto, a life drive taken to its limit, Substance expressing itself. Part of this can perhaps be seen to be reflected in the way that Spinoza views the “negative” or supposedly anti-social emotions, fear, hate, anger, which the death-drive is supposed to help explain through its dichotomization to pleasure. These anti-social emotions are for Spinoza are primordially social ones, based on a logic of the imitation of affects, seeing others like ourselves.

The fixations of repeated actions, seen from Spinoza’s point of view, are attempts at body consonance, integrity actions, under a variety of efficacious ideas or dispositions. The worst of these, suicide, falls out of the very metaphysical category of action altogether.  There is a reason why Lethe is the river of forgetting. For Spinoza such forgetting marks out boundary of the ontological status of action, where as for Freud forgetting provides aporia upon which the ontological is established.



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