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Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination

[click on photo for larger image]

More on the Balling Letter

This is a follow up on the train of thought I began two days ago on the subject of Spinoza’s letter to Peter Balling where Spinoza brings up the curious notion of sharing in the essence of another person, and even the result that one could have phenomenological experiences of future events: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination. I wanted to really explore just how Spinoza is using or conceiving of the imagination as a wayward point between events of the body, and events of the mind, as it seems that this is most important to determining the value of Spinoza’s comments, in particular how they might reveal just how he conceived of the importance of the “imitation of the affects” and also our general capacity to know (and/or participate in) the essences of external things.

Spinoza displays some inconsistency in how he treats the imagination (and even the concept of order, discussed here: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order), throughout his work. And the problem of the standing of the “imagination” in 17th century thought is not something unique to Spinoza. By and large though I think we can assume that what Spinoza means by the imagination is what we commonly mean by phenomena, that is our experiences of things either being present to us, or our ability to conjure them up apart from their presence. Largely these are just what we would call our “experiences” in general. So when Spinoza and Peter Balling are talking about either a waking dream of a diseased slave or the sounds of an ailing child groan, these are hallucinatory effects which are not different in mechanism than the effects we experience when we perceive the world.

Spinoza early on takes these experiences of the imagination to be best seen as products of the body, and as sources of confusion. We do not understand their causes, and they kinda of erupt out of our ignorance, seemingly at random. They are the products of external bodies interacting with and stimulating our own body. Most importantly, it is this tendency towards randomness (in terms of their meaningfulness) that Spinoza is most concerned with, the way in which our phenomenal experiences occlude and confuse, something which Spinoza attributes to their bodily source. You can see this in his Emendation where he claims that the effects of the imagination are only caused by bodies, but it is interesting that when it comes down to it Spinoza himself seems a bit confused on how to classify them by their source in the body. Instead it is merely their tendency towards (apparent) randomness and also our passivity towards them and the world which distinguishes them from products of the Intellect. In this sense explanations of our experiences which turn to our body alone, due to our ignorance of causes, tend to create passive states to be contrasted with the workings of the Intellect which are activities of our being:

Thus we have distinguished between the true idea and other perceptions, and we have established that the fictitious, the false, and other ideas have their origin in the imagination, that is, in certain sensations that are (so to speak) fortuitous and unconnected, arising not from the power of the mind but from external causes, in accordance as the body, dreaming or waking, receives various motions. Or if you wish, you may here understand by imagination whatever you please, as long as it is something different from the intellect, and the soul has a passive relationship to it. It matters not how you understand it, now that we know that it is something random, and that the soul is passive to it, while we know how we may be delivered from it with the aid of the intellect [84].

Emendation of the Intellect

In this way our experiences are seen as simply the receiving of motions from external bodies, and our bodies become something of a “picture making machine” (citing the end of Willa Cather’s story “Paul’s Case“). But by the time of Spinoza’s writing of his letter to Balling in 1664, perhaps some six years after the Emendation (if we are to believe Mignini), Spinoza adopts a dual possible source for effects of the imagination and our experiences. They can come either from the states of our body, or from the Intellect. In fact, Spinoza regards a whole class of imaginary effects as near automatic traces of the ideas we form in the Intellect:

The effects of the imagination arise from the constitution either of body or of mind. To avoid all prolixity, for the present I shall prove this simply from what we experience. We find by experience that fevers and other corporeal changes are the cause of delirium, and that those whose blood is thick imagine nothing but quarrels, troubles, murders and things of that sort. We also see that the imagination can be determined simply by the constitution of the soul, since, as we find, it follows in the wake of the intellect in all things, linking together and interconnecting its images and words just as the intellect does its demonstrations, so that there is almost nothing we can understand without the imagination instantly forming an image.

Letter 17, To Peter Balling, July 20th 1664

Apart from the take in the Emendation, here the imagination actually “follows in the wake of the Intellect” and distinct from the opinion that it tends towards randomness in meaning, its images and words (!) are interconnected just as (one presumes, in a way similar to) the intellect’s linking of its proofs. It should be noted that Spinoza is reasoning from “experience” itself here, and not making a deductive determination, but it is clear that he has at the very least shifted his stance away from the significantly passive and randomesque sources of the imagination some years back. And even more evocative, the very concept of linked and interconnected images and words strongly calls to mind the linchpin proposition 13 of part II of the Ethics, wherein the order and connection of ideas and (extended) things is said to be the same. There is nearly a third “order and connection” going on here.

How Can The Imagination Have Two Sources?

This aspect of the letter actually has troubled me quite a bit. In fact any place Spinoza argued that there is either a bodily source or a mental source for an event I felt a deep objection arise in me that Spinoza’s parallel postulate strictly forbids any such ultimate distinction. As you can see from the diagram posted above, the order and connections of the bodily state expressions of an essence run necessarily parallel to their ideational expression; and Spinoza precludes the idea that one side of the parallel can have causal effect on the other. So any bodily state, when taken as the causal source of an event, must also have its parallel ideational state which additionally the causal source of the same event (read as an ideational expression). What determines whether one uses the bodily state as the causal source or not is whether the event is read as either a physical expression, or as an ideational one. But all events are necessarily both. So when Spinoza says in the Emendation that the imagination (those events) are bodily in nature, this can only mean that he is already speaking of them as physical (putting some strain on the future of the parallel postulate). By the time of writing of letter 17, the effects of the Imagination are dichotomized, but at first blush this is not at the level of description. Instead it seems rather for Spinoza there are kinds or classes of effects of the Imagination. Delirums and dispositional judgments spring from bodily constitutions, and in this case, prophetic imaginary experiences which spring from the mind or the constitution of the soul.

What are we to make of this supposedly confusion of the parallel postulate wherein some experiential events are predisposed to be explained through a physical causal chain, and others through an ideational one? And what are we to make of the causal difficulties involved in the notion of the imagination “following in the wake” of the Intellect, or even that such wake-following possesses its own order of expression? I think the answer lies within the kinds of relevant causes that get swept up in either chain of explanatory force. That is to say, while we may presume that the parallel postulate holds and that there is a causal chain of each kind flowing backwards for any one event, which chain we chose depends on both our access to information about that chain, but also what each explanation would reveal. And in the case of our experiences of our interactions with things external to us, indeed each chain gives us a different method of self-analysis and world orientation which is in some sense linked to the ontological lean each event has towards the world itself. Spinoza wants to say something of the effect, there could be two seemingly similar imaginative effects, waking dreams, but understanding one might tell us more about ourselves (if we take it to be the product of the physical states of our body), and the other might tell us something more about the world, something external to us, (if we take it to be the product of our ideational state and our relational juxtaposition to other things in the world). You can see this in the way that Spinoza justifies that Peter Balling’s hallucination would indeed be prophetic, born out of the love and literal union of the father to the son:

[continuing from the passage just cited] This being so, I say that none of the effects of the imagination which are due to corporeal causes can ever be omens of things to come, because their causes do not involve future things. But the effects of the imagination, or images, which have their origin in the constitution of the mind can be omens of some future event because the mind can have confused awareness beforehand of something that is to come. So it can imagine it has firmly and vividly as if such a thing were present to it…

The Logic of the Future

What I propose is that the dichotomy Spinoza uses is one quite natural to us. In lieu of the medical common place at the time, thickness of blood, we moderns need only replace “low dopamine levels” or “damage to the cerebral cortex” to see that physical causal explanations of our experiences and judgments gain their traction from the way in which those experiences fail to shed light upon the world. The meaningfulness of those mental events, in that they fail to reveal the world (for others or ourselves), drains away, and is recouped through a physical explanation. In Spinoza’s letter, a fever explains a hallucination when the vision does not seem to derive from events in the world. Physical dispositions explain those that are too morbidly or aggressively predisposed, when those mental events seem out of joint with what is going on. To take another example, “its the drink speaking” is a regular dismissal of the “truths” spoken by a drunk person. The recapture of explanatory force at the level of the physical is accomplished by understanding better the way in which physical causes are operating. One might cure a fever to ride oneself of delirium, or abstain from alcohol to avoid overly emotional outbursts (or take lithium to avoid depressions). Key though to Spinoza’s dual cause interpretation is that given that mental events lack traction in the real world (seemingly), such imaginary effects will simply seem to the person experiencing them to verge towards “random”. A cloak of ignorance covers much of the causal chain, leading to confusions.

There is another path to explanation, the path to order and sense-making, and it is to this that Spinoza sets up his alternate explanation of a waking dream. Imaginary effects, in that they follow in the wake of the Intellect actually can reveal the world itself – and in this case even indicate something of its future. Spinoza predicates this upon what he calls “participating” in the essence of another person (or perhaps more correctly, in the affections and ideas of another person), something he calls a union and a becoming as if one and the same, via love. For clarity sake I diagram out the two causal explanations of waking dreams below:

[click on photo for large image]

I think that there is more than our ability to interpret waking dreams at stake in these descriptions. In fact I think we have clue to the very picture of the world Spinoza holds as it underwrites all of his epistemic arguments for how we do and do not know things in the world. But first I would like take up the very notion that we might have premonitory imaginary experiences. This is something that strikes us as sheer superstition, and it is hard for us to accept that the quite sober Spinoza would indulge in such a fancy. But I think I can appeal to some very real, in fact everyday experiences which may clear up just what future-vision may be for Spinoza, or perhaps why he holds the claim that he does: that things of the Intellect involve things of the future. The first of these is obvious, the sciences indeed are, based on acts of intellection, quite predictive. But it is more than this, for Spinoza is talking about an outright hallucination of a future event, so much so it is as if the event is happening right in front of you. Do we have any instances of this sort we can draw on? The most instructive one I believe is the example shared by Spinoza and Wittgenstein, discussed here: Understanding in a Flash and the Mastery of Technique. This is when a mathematical series is being expressed and that there is a rule that is being followed in the succession of numbers. It don’t think it is too much of a stretch to refer to what Wittgenstein called “characteristic accompaniments” as effects of the imagination which are not understanding itself, but rather seem to come in the wake of understanding. If I say aloud “2, 4, 6, 8…” it is not out of the question that you might have an auditory hallucination of the sound “1o” in anticipation of the next number. This in fact would be an albeit confused but still imaginary premonition of a future event, even if I happen to stop at the number 8. In fact we get a glimpse at what Spinoza means by the “wake of the Intellect”. In some sense this power of anticipation through imaginary phenomena expresses our grasp of a situation is what Spinoza is appealing to when trying to explain how Balling’s vision differs from his own. And most importantly, the foundation of this difference is the participatory relationship the father has with his son’s essence, the literal union of the two.

How Adequate Are Our Ideas of External Things?

Much has been debated about the way Spinoza conceives the adequacy of our ideas of external things, and in this questions about just how adequate the ideas of Science are. Spinoza is restrictive to the value of abstractions (of which much of Sciences seems to be composed), and mathematics (which he calls both a product of, and an aid to, the imagination in letter 12). Spinoza’s theory of Common Notions introduced in the Ethics simply is too bare to do the weight of carrying  the whole load of how we gain knowledge about states of the world. Indeed I side with others such as Michael Della Rocca and Eric Schliesser who, for different reasons, renounce that completely adequate ideas could be held about things external to us, insofar as they are taken as separate things. And I think core to the issue of adequate knowledges is Spinoza’s Letter 17 notion of participating in the essence of another person to strong ideational effect. There seems to be an undercurrent of participation in essences between Spinoza’s intuitions about how we hold ideas of other things i the first place.

Most readings that seek to resolve the difficulties of how adequate our knowledge of external thing is turn to either our necessarily adequate knowledge of “common notions” (supposedly ideas that are common to both ourselves and external things) or to the infinite modes like “motion and rest”, which in turn are taken to be common to all things. And Spinoza towards the end of his unfinished treatise on the Emendation gives us a good hint at how we should think about these very “real” things, things we must train our Intellect to:

As to the ordering of all our perceptions and their proper arrangement and unification, it is required that, as soon as possible and reason demands, we should ask whether there is a being – and also what kind of being – which is the cause of all things so that its essence objectified is the cause of all our ideas [ut  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”ut “>eius essentia obiectiva sit etiam causa omnium nostrarum idearum]. Then our mind, as we have said, will reproduce [referet] Nature as closely as possible, for it will possess the in the form of thought the essence, order and unity of Nature. Hence we can see that it is above all necessary for us always to deduce our ideas from physical things, i.e., from real beings, advancing, as far as we can, in accordance with the chain of causes from one real being to another real being, neither inferring something real from them nor inferring them from something real. For in either case the true progress of the intellect is interrupted.

But it should be noted that by the series of causes and real beings I do not here mean the series of mutable particular things, but only the series of fixed and eternal things. It would be impossible for human limitation to grasp the series of mutable particular things, not only because they are innumerable but also because of the infinite number of factors affecting one and the same thing, each of which can be the cause of the existence or nonexistence of the thing. For the existence of mutable particular things has no connection with their essence; that is (as we have said), their existence is not an eternal truth.

But neither is there any need for us to understand their series. For the essences of particular mutable things are not to be elicited from their series or order of existing, which would furnish us with nothing but their extrinsic characteristics, their relations, or, at most, their circumstances. All these are far from the inmost essence of things. This essence is to be sought only from the fixed eternal things, and at the same time from the laws in these things as well as in their true codes [veris codicibus] so inscribed, which govern the coming into existence and the ordering of all particular things [99-101]

The Emendation of the Intellect

In such a passage our modern scientific gaze turns to these “true codes” and “laws” which govern particular things, and we ask ourselves just how Spinoza conceives that we can know these laws within his framework of knowledges. And how are we to conceive of the passing from one real thing to another, without falling into abstraction? What does it mean for us to identify what kind of being is the cause of all our ideas so that we hold the essence of something in our mind, as the source of our own ideas of a particular thing? What I suggest is that Spinoza’s letter 17 notion of “participation” in an essence is precisely the relation that Spinoza is thinking of here. There is for Spinoza a genuine transformation of the self, through the power of its ideas, when it comes to perceive and think about particular things external to it. And I would suggest that this transformation involves the literal becoming other than itself, or rather, forming a mutuality with the object known such that the inter-relationship expresses a new essence: 


[click on photo for larger image]

In letter 17 the father is said to necessarily have an idea of the affections of the body of his son due to the degree of their union so as to have become one and the same. They have achieved a kind of identity which at the ideational level anchors the adequacy (or at least the greatly increased adequacy) of his idea of his son’s affections, so much so that the future of the son’s illness leaves a trace in the imagination of the present. That indeed a new essence is achieved through the father’s love could be argued in two ways, following two of the definitions of what makes any composition of physical parts an “individual”. The first is that any fixed ratio of a communication of parts achieves individuality, and there is no reason at all why one would not admit any cognitive inter-relationship between a knower and a known as just such a communication of parts (however mediated). The second is that Spinoza defines as an individual anything combination of causes which produces a singular effect. In the case of the father’s premonition, at least as Spinoza qualifies it, it is the union of the two, closely related to the level of essences, that produces this imaginary event, establishing this union itself as an individual. But I suggest further, participation in the essences of other things external to us is the FUNDAMENTAL mode of our knowing anything about anything in the world, and this is due to the fact that any particular modal expression shares its status as an expression of Substance with any other modal expression. If there are laws (and codes) which govern the expression of any two modal forms, these two modes are necessarily participating in the essences of each, at the very least through their sharing of the governance which brings them into being and order.

The Participatory Ontology of Knowing

But something more is meant by “participation” by Spinoza in this letter, in particular how it is due to the deep love of the father for his son. In the Ethics “love” is relegated to the order of the passions, a complimentary psychological part to hate, each echoing back into the other. Here in the letter to Balling instead love is seen as the source of a deep ideational union between two persons, and a kind of prophetic power of epistemological imagination: a father that can foreseen his son’s death, however confusedly. In the Ethics Love is defined as the increase of perfection accompanied by the idea of an external cause, and in this sense the father loves his son because he regards the son as the source and cause of his own increases in perfection and joy. I have always taken this phrase “accompanied by the idea of an external cause” to be a reprovement for the human tendency to select out only ONE cause for the complexity of relations which compose our mental and physical events. Indeed the beloved is “a” cause of our increase in joy and active perfection, but what makes this a passive relation is the exclusion of all other causes, the entire matrix of intimate connections which for Spinoza go all the way up to God-Substance, and all the way into our own individual states, which have brought about this change. What distinguishes Spinoza’s participatory love from just this sort of passion, at least so far as how he exemplifies it (and notice he speaks of an ideal relation, and not necessarily the Balling experience), is that it creates a participation in essence which connects one’s own ideas with the affections of the other person. And implicitly, I would propose, such a love-paricipation must involve all the common notions, the mutuality of human nature and the infinite modes as determining and shared expressions. One has, at least potentially, ideas of all these mediating things in just the same way that one has ideas of the affections of the son.

If this line of thinking is to be embraced as underwriting knowledge for Spinoza, that is, degrees of participation qualified by the degree of adequacy of one’s ideas, the degree of one’s being, and even the strength of intellectual love, then Spinoza’s principle of the “imitation of the affects” has to be reconsidered or at least put into juxtaposition with the participation in essences, due to love:

 E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect…

Such a proposition puts the imagination front and center in the processes which allow us to achieve social bonds, not only with other humans but with almost all things in the world; (I argue this at some length here: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV) The question always is, How can mere processes of projective imagination gain any ground on which such imagining and experiencing the world through others actually proves efficacious and informative. When Spinoza says “If we imagine a thing like us” is there a concrete, or real “like us” which makes this process gain traction and ultimately real? If we take up Spinoza’s Letter 17 musings on the prophetic, and if we grant that essence participation is fundamental to the access of at least some of our intellectual activity and awarenesses, it would seem that the imitation of the affects is an imaginary expression “in the wake of” real intellectual, ideational unions, unions which vary by degrees of adequacy and being. The question is not whether we can have adequate ideas of external, particular things, but rather how adequate ideas express themselves in varying degrees of our occasions of cybernetic union with things in the world. It is for this that Spinoza wants us to concentrate on “real beings” which constitute our very combinative participation with those things we know, use and ultimately love.

Revelation in the Wake of Intellect

Lastly, this would suggest, that if our world being – quite in contrast with Heidegger is not a “thrown-into-ness” of alienation – is one of a necessarily participation and overlapping, boundary-defying mutuality of expression, in which our knowing of things is to some degree our being them (Campanella), then our imaginations may very well be capable of producing phenomenal presentations of our futures, however confusedly, in much the same fashion that Peter Balling foresaw his son via participation. Additionally, it is my suspicion that Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian slave was no mere random eruption of the physical states of his body, as he would have it, but likely an expression, however mitigated, of the actual relations of Spinoza to the Jewish community back in Amsterdam, and the slave trade discussed some here: Spinoza and the Caliban Question.


Spinoza Doubt? The Sephardim and the Slave Trade


Spinoza Doubt

Working slowly along the edge of a soft hypothesis, one comes upon a curious aporia in history when looking into Brazilian and West Indies sugar, the Sephardim, and the slave trade. It is the movement away from share-cropping and indentured labor to imported, enslaved Africans that really fueled the dramatic rise of sugar plantation production; and the spread of these production techniques seems to fall heavily upon the same webbed, merchantile networks Sephardi Jewry had made in its New Christian, Marrano and Jewish forms, stretching across the Atlantic. Yet despite the thoroughly integrated place Sephardic Jews had in the sugar trade, during this document-rich time there is an absence of historical evidence of their direct role in the slave trade, at least for practicing Jews. New Christians, it seems, held the very lucrative slave licenses, and though a natural line of business would extend to family relations (unconverted), this was not the evidentury case. I look into this under the thought that Spinoza’s repulsion/explusion from both his community and the firm, may have had in some measure something spiritual-political-ethical to do with the firm’s sugar trade connections. This of course is very hard to assess from this distance, but like good 17th century telescopists, we have to make educated guesses at the specks seen through very poor glass, and it is worthwhile to at the least raise the question.

Below I post a lengthy selection from Bernardini and Fiering’s Jews and the Expansion of Europe 1450 to 1800. It sets the context of the question within a historical example. The relatively successful New Christian Slave trader Manuel Dias Henriques, as he returns to Amsterdam and Judiasm, once he arrives in Amsterdam apparently stops trading in slaves despite being well-connected to the sugar trade. 

From these sparse data alone we can glean that New Christians and SepharicJews appear to have played a direct role in developing at least 20 percent of Brazil’s sugar productive capacity. Substantial as that was, their role was greater still when we consider the New Christians’ financial of sugar cultivation through the slave trade. Slaves and slave labor were indispensable to the colony’s economy. Slaves not only cleared the land and planted, harvested, cultivated, and processed the sugar cane, but were also ubiquitous as domestic labor and were even represented in certain positions of skilled labor. In the early seventeenthcentury, Brazil’s merchants and sugar cultivators imported up to four thousand slaves annually. New Christians provided the bulk of these slaves. They contracted withthe Portuguese king to administer the slave licensing regime in Portuguese slave stations in Guinea and Cape Verdeislands, and in Angola. The contractor paid the Portuguese king a flat sum for the right to sell the licenses. Although New Christians certainly were not the only slave traders among the Portuguese, the evidence is conclusive that the contractors reserved the bulk of the licenses – and therefore the bulk of the slave trade – for their relatives and other New Christian associates.

At an average of 70 cruzadosa head delivered in Brazilian ports, the four thousand were worth 280,000 cruzados annually. Most would have been sold to lavradores and mill owers on credit. The parties typically drew up a bill of exchange or other evidence of debt providing for payment of the debt in Brazil at a certain future date when the year’s sugar production would have been available. Such financing enabled planters to expand cultivation and yet maintain the lavish lifestyles many were pursuing in the tropical colony.

It is noteworthy that there is little evidence that the Sephardim(what is, observant Jews) participated in the slave tradeof their New Christian relatives and associates, or did so on their own – at least not prior to the development of Dutch Brazil in the late 1630s and 1640s. This apparent lack of participation in the slave tradeis puzzling, since the New Christian role in the slave trade was so important and the Sephardim’scooperation withNew Christian merchants in trade was so intimate. This is particularly true when we consider that family ties were the only reliable vehicle for extended commercial operations and the only guarentee of reasonable transaction costs.

Take, once again, the example of Miguel Dias de Santiago and his couisn Manuel Dias Henriques. Bothlived for a period in Brazil as New Christians. Miguel resided in Bahia and traded with Portugal and Norther Europe between 1595 and 1615. Miguel’s account books from that period demonstrate his interest in the exchange of all manner of European and Asian commodities for sugar, but there is not one entry recording the exchange of slaves for sugar. When Miguel departed from Brazil, he settled in Antwerp and continguedtrading in association with Manuel Dias Henriques, who was established by the 1620s in Amsterdam and had assumed the name Matathias Aboab after he reverted to Judaism.

While still a New Christian, Manuel Dias Henriques had shuttled slaves between Angola and Brazil and had finally delivered slaves to Mexico and Guatemala in the early 1620s. He certainly acquired slaves under licenses obtained through another New Christian cousin, Duarte Dias Henriques, who held the slave contract for Angola from 1607 to 1614. Manuel departed suddenly in 1621, when the Mexican Inquisition initiated a manhunt for him in Guatemala. Manuel arrived in Amsterdam in 1626 (following his late cousin Duarte Fernandes, alias Josua Habilho, another associate in Atlantic sugar trading who had preceded him there by more than a decade). Once established in Amsterdam, it would have been natural for Manuel (now an observant of the “law of Moses”) to continue the slave trade he obviously knew from his earilierdays and to combine it with his cousin Dia’s sugar trading (now from Antwerp).

Why did Manuel cease slave trafficking when he arrived in Amsterdam? A personal moral aversion to slavery and the slave trade, after his experience in Atlantic slave trading, is possible in Manuel’s case. But why did other Sephardic merchants who has similar family commercial connections in Portugal, Spain and Brazil, and the Americas not participate in the slave trade? If the reversion to the Jewish faithwas a factor in the Sephardi avoiding the very profitable trade in human cargo, why did many of the Sephardim become slave owners and some SephardicJews become slave merchants later, beginning withthe development of the sugar industry in Dutch Brazil? Did the licensing regime for the introduction of slaves into Brazil precludeJews from the trade? If New Christians in Portugal and Brazil could includeJewish relatives in shares of sugar cargoes surreptitiously, why not includethem in licenses and cargoes for slave trading? Or did they obscure Jewish participation in the profitable trade so well that today no evidence has survived? We shall probably never have entirely satisfactory answers (476-477).

from Jews and the Expansion of Europe 1450 to 1800, Paulo Bernardini and Norman Fiering

History’s Aporia

For my part, Spinoza’s repulsion from slavery (given in the symptomatic dream-figure of the scabrous Brazilian) and his close proximity to ideal democratic and freedom solutions to the upheavals of the time (the tracts of his teacher Van den Enden are among the most radical in modern history), is suggestive. One cannot count out the idea that Spinoza in his break from his family firm was also from its likely, if only tangential, connection with sugar and the slave trade; his brother and partner Gabriel in a few years would move to trade in sugar in Barbados where he certainly would own slaves. This fit properly into a schism of consciousness within the Amsterdam Sephardic community itself. It was on the backs of human trafficking that wealth in the sugar trade was made possible, and a great number of Amsterdam Sephardim, or their relatives, lived the reality at Recife Brazil. Can one discount entirely that the rabbi that read Spinoza’s cherim(pronouncement of excommunitication), his boyhood school teacher Aboab de Fonseca, in Brazil must have been a slave holder, and the leader of that community which brought slaves? It is very hard to assess the feelings a community might have held regarding something as historically distant as the slave trade. Now, with it rightfully secured as the evil of that age, it is tempting and easy to project backwards and try to separate out the ethical wheat from the self-serving chaff. Sephardic Jews found themselves in a questionable, tenuous historical situation. Recently fled from physical and systematically psychological brutalities of the Inquisition which still actively shadowed them with spies to every corner of the world, their social standing in European communities was nearly entirely guaranteed through their successes in trade. They were a quintessential people of the margin, securing their place at the nexus-points of transit, while their own coherent identity rested upon the reclamation of the past religious, moral heritage. The messianic strain for fulfillment as millenarian Christians joined Kabbalists adventitious hopes, operated at the taut limit of these two factors: a horizontal spread across the globe, and a vertical ascension of the past. As Jews spread forth in an acceleration of the exile and fulfillment, the African followed them like their shadow, reminding them, manifesting their extreme subjection and near extinctionas a People. So as the Sephardim stretched out, so came with them their “Ethiopian” brothers, to whom it was nearly impossible to position themselves, either in embrace or rejection.

The absence of an evidentiary direct hand in the African slave trade by the Sepharidim is quite interesting in this overview. As the authors above suggest. At worse, it could have come from an imagined-to-be uniform, almost insidious, precision in cloaking their connection to slavery through name aliases and company share-holdings; at best it came from a natural aversion to human debasement, born from the Jewish conception of themselves as Jews, and their experiences in history. While Jews established their social efficacy by carrying for centuries the very serious stigma of money-lenders and interest chargers (a stain we cannot now viserally imagine), they would not do so as known slave traders.

There is something about this which is tremendous. To take an example: one can imagine the Sephardimdeparted across the Atlantic to fortify a tenuous Jewish community in Recife Brazil, built upon the onerous practices of sugar plantations. The numbers of Sephardim there would grow to nearly equal the number in Amsterdam. Their rabbi would be a Kabbalist. Their connections to Old Europe and their conditions of Self-identity must have fluctuated within a sphere of both moral and economic compass, thick with a sense of returning to a lost past and being on a literal cusp of civilization (how different Amsterdam was from remembered Portugal, or even cosmopolitan Amsterdam). There they would find Portuguese Catholics newly free from Spain’s yoke, Jews legitimately converted to Catholism, and practicing Jews. The encounter with the facts of African slavery must have been something of a morass, as realities of a Catholic embrace of slavery surely affixed themselves to the immigrants. But there seems to have been a split between a consciousness of working and living within a sphere of New Christian, Inquisition-fear, where slave-trading was a normative and indeed lucrative practice, and the social Jewish identity which distanced itself from such. As the authors above allow us to imagine, one might very well, even whole-heartedly, engage in such practices as a New Christian or a crypto-Jew, as an outright Jew this was to some degree shunned. As Jews shuttled between these two para-realities, so too their participation in slave trade seemed to.

What I suggest is that the question of slavery and sugar was not one that was unique to Spinoza, but rather part of an emblematic difficulty the entire Amsterdam Sephardic community struggled with, as again and again they had to position themselves between Empires that had every ideological reason to turn upon them. In a sense, the hands-off policy regarding slave trade (whether it be found only in book-keeping records, or in the conscience of the people), expressed the safe distance that needed to be kept from the moral ambiguities of trade itself. As Jews, perhaps, as the ultimate traffickers, it was necessary to keep clean of the ultimate traffic, so as to retain a moral and historical identity, for themselves, though as Brazilian colonists, they indeed bought and sold them at market (the market, I have read, closed on Jewish days of observance).

One wonders if, apart from so many other very significant factors, Spinoza in some way recoiled from the taint of what historical trade involved, both in its political manifestations, and is moral failures. The free exchange of ideas and reason that Spinoza would champion can be seen as abstracted from, and a rebellion to, the harsh actualities of what was traded, and as part of a merchant family, as a merchant himself, he knew this. He was excommunicated in an act said to be carried through the voice of the ex-sugar colonist and kabbalist rabbi Aboab, returned from Brazil. In a sense, it was out from the issue of Brazil that Spinoza’s excommunication came. The point certainly is not to frame Spinoza as a great moralist, or at that young age, as the great ethicist he would become, but rather to suggest that Spinoza’s excommunication from his community reads symptomatically upon it. One should not forget that he was a merchant, the son of a merchant, and that sugar, and thus the problematic of slavery, ran very deeply into the subsistence and psyche of that community, in particular as it came to grips with the ambitions and failures (political, economic, theological) of Recife Brazil.

When Spinoza writes in what is thought to be his earliest work,

I say “I resolved at length,” for at first sight it seemed ill-advised to risk the loss of what was certain in the hope  of something that seemed at that time uncertain. I could well see the advantages that derive from honour and wealth, and that I would be forced to abandon their quest if I were to devote myself to some new and different objective.

he sees his departure both from wealth itself, but also from the public esteem that stems from it. It is a break with the entire apparatus of human measure in which profit becomes symbolized instead of enacted. Spinoza seems to take the messianic and trade expansion in which his people were engaged in to entirely different magnitude of a universalized capacity to act, in which the incipient question of human slavery becomes broadcast large. It must be understood, I believe, not just metaphorically that Spinoza titles the Fourth part of his Ethics, “Of Human Bondage, or the Powers of the Affects”. It is on the question of Slavery and freedom that his entire ethical project turns. His divorce from wealth, for what he perceived to be another kind of wealth, must have in some sense come from a separation from the means of human wealth becoming proliferate at the time, certainly something he understood clearly as a merchant with ties to sugar and Recife. The distructive interventions of the Portuguese against Dutch and Sephardic interests in Brazil 1645 and 1654) were driving the community toward the British and with it, the West Indies, involving both slavery and sugar. His breach likely reflected a breach within the community itself.