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Spinoza and His Courtesan

Spinoza’s Courtesan.

There is in Spinoza several unSpinozic elements that float in his texts, a quoted poem here, a poetic aphorism there. One of these though is his reference to the courtesan (meretrix in Latin), actually translated out of the English by the usually accurate Curley, as if the specificity of the reference had to be suitably Spinozified and abstracted. It is always interesting to watch the “anomalous” features of a thinker, especially those that interpreters and translators seek to erase, for sometimes these “exceptions” prove to be guides of how wrong translators and interpreters are.

I’d like to focus on these rare references to The Prostitute. As Curley in his notes suggests, one must understand that the meretrix is a particular figure in history. She is not the street-walker, that is to be sure, but a woman well-cliented. In fact it is suspected that Spinoza has in mind the meretrix from the plays of Terence (and perhaps Plautus), a woman whose designs and seductions actually operate in such a way as to make a plot turn, comically. So she is not necessarily a figure of moral reprobation though she is still problematic.

Spinoza approaches the problem of the meretrix, (literally: she who earns), in the Appendix to Part IV of the Ethics where the general problem of Compassion, generosity and right living is considered in the view of the facts of sociability. She enters at section XIX, which has just followed the call for “care” in “accepting favors and returning thanks”. The call is for prudence. The Spinoza attempts to specify:

Spinoza wrote:

XIX. Moreover, love of a meretrix [Curley translates Amor praeterea meretrix: A purely sensual love], that is the desire of begetting that arises from external appearance, and absolutely, all love that has a cause other than the freedom of the mind, easily passes into hate—unless (which is worse) it is a species of madness. And then it is encouraged more by discord than by harmony.

Spinoza’ criticism is two fold. One is that the love a prostitute arises from (oritur: it is stirred up by) form alone (ex forma). It is fundamentally a reaction. From a form the libido is passively stirred up, and as such, it does not have as its cause, “the freedom of the Mind”. The question therefore is not whether such a love of form results in the freedom of the Mind, but rather what is the cause of such an action. Because the cause of the love of a courtesan is not the freedom of the Mind, it is lesser. And thus, the accepting of her favors, however equal the exchange, is not optimum. The second half of the criticism is that such a love, because its cause is from the form alone, the passions that it gives birth to can easily pass into hate or madness. It is unstable. Because men seek to own and be master of their passions, they become jealous, or drunk on them. The last sentence of the section is ambiguous in the Latin, it can alternatelhy mean that such a love feeds on discord, or that it encourages discord in the world. In either case, the love of the favors of the prostitute produces a fundamental discord, both in oneself and in society.

Spinoza contrasts this state with marriage:

XX. As for marriage, it certainly agrees with reason, if the Desire for physical union is not generated only by external appearance [ex sola forma] but also Love of begetting children and educating them wisely, and moreover, if the Love of each, of both man and woman, is caused not by external appearance only, but mainly by the freedom of the mind.

It is interesting that here Spinoza reverses the emphasis, attempting to qualify the institution of marriage. First, it is insofar as it is not by form alone, but also to beget children (have legitimate results) and lastly, mainly (another qualification) that its cause is from the freedom of the mind. He seems uncomfortable with the institution itself, but attempts to position it the context of courtesan love, being well aware of the weaknesses of real life marriages. It is as if Courtesan love is simpler and easier to assess.

He moves then immediately back onto the sure ground he is attempting to weigh:

Spinoza wrote:

XXI. Flattery also gives rise to harmony, but by the foul crime of bondage, or by treachery. No one is more taken in by flattery than the proud, who wish to be the first and are not.

This is really the core of his critique of meretrix love. For what is weakening in the Courtesan, and the job by which she is forced or chooses to earn her living, is that the prostitute is essentially a flatterer, someone who tells you what you would like to hear. What Spinoza is really trying to assess is the role of flattery in social relations. Flattery makes for social harmony, but at a cost. It is born out of fear [Appendix XVI].

“Only free men are very thankful to one another,” he writes at EIVp71, and this is the razor edge that Spinoza is trying to walk in examining the nature of sociability. Thankfulness does not include the acceptance of all gifts, and it is for this reason that the meretrix is brought in as an example.

For one who, out of foolishness, does not know how to reckon one gift against another, is not ungrateful; much less one who is not moved by the gifts of a courtesan to assist her lust (ipsius libidini inserviat: or, assist in his lust), nor by those of a thief to conceal his thefts (EVIp71s)

Thankfulness is a special prudence in the understanding of what is being produced. It is not the love of the meretrix that is in error, but the specific relation that does not make the most of itself. This is a sub-example of the exchange of flattery itself, as a form of societal transaction, the offering of a surface that does not have freedom in mind as its cause.

Spinoza, in examining the kind of exchanges that are best calls for great care, for gifts even of flattery cannot be simply shunned without respect of consequences:

To this we may add that we must be careful in declining favors, so that we do not seem to distain them, or out of Greed to be afraid of repayment. For in that way, in the very act of avoiding their Hate, we would incur it. So in declining favors we must take into account both what is useful and honorable (EIVp70s).

The issue of the courtesan cannot be closed so easily though, as one becomes careful in the kinds of relations one takes to external forms, as causes. For any philosophical discussion of courtesans must take in account the figure of Diotima, a Courtesan who supposedly taught Socrates his greatest understanding of Love (told in the Symposium). The Courtesan, as she is the symbol of affective passions, the Latin Comedy spur to action and resolution, and as she is also the fabled source of Socratic wisdom bringing us to understand the power of sociability itself, becomes not so much an example to be avoided, but really more, a historical figure, a paradigm of the fact of our affective state. For the Courtesan is one who works (again, the meretrix being the woman who earns), who must gather around her those that support her, by any lights she can muster, out of necessity. This seems our natural state, one of dependence upon others. Further, as such, she understands better than most, or perhaps any, the nature of desire, of human need and libido, by virtue of the position she occupies. It is notable that Spinoza places his discussion of the Courtesan in the context of greater human need for generosity:

XVII. Men are also won over by generosity, especially those who do not have the means of acquiring the things they require to sustain life. But to bring aid to everyone in need far surpasses the powers and advantage of private person. For his riches are quite unequal to the task. Moreover the capacity of one man is too limited for him to be able to unite all men to him in friendship. So the case of the poor falls upon society as a whole, and concerns only the general advantage. (EVI, appendix).

When Spinoza speaks of “riches” I believe he has in mind not only the material wealth that one might have, but also the conceptual wealth. The generosity to save and socialize is beyond the capacity of a single man. I suggest that the Courtesan actually stands as a figure in Spinoza for what actually is. She holds the secret of our interdependence, and our fundamentally passive states, and the secret of our desire to beget ourselves. She also shows our necessity to flatter. But Spinoza is calling for a deeper gift, a freer meretrix, one closer to the Socratic Diotima, who has transcended her economic reality of power, and finds in the gift and giving, something more…powerful.

[written September 11, 2006]