Coming as it does from the pen of a hounded Jewish heretic, this view
of morality is as admirable as it is perverse. Spinoza would not have considered
anger or resentment to be appropriate responses to his persecution,
as he did not consider morality to be an emotive matter in the first place.
Human appetites and aversions spring from our conatus or built-in striving
for self-preservation, and as such lie no more within our mastery than the
Freudian unconscious or the capitalist mode of production. We must
adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion in our judgements, steadfastly purge all
reference to the subject, and take a speaker’s own account of her feelings
and motives as (in the Freudian sense) symptomatic, or (in the Freudo-
Marxist sense) a rationalisation. The truth is necessarily eccentric to one’s
experience: it resides in the physical and material causes underlying such
states of consciousness, and can never be captured within them. To be a
subject is to misinterpret.
The revolutionary force of this view is hard to underestimate. Louis
Althusser saw Spinoza as having ‘introduced an unprecedented theoretical
revolution in the history of philosophy, probably the greatest philosophical
revolution of all time’. These profoundly subversive doctrines, launched
by an obscure lens grinder widely honoured as a saint among philosophers,
undermine entire moral orthodoxies and sabotage whole reaches of human
prejudice. Everyday experience – the very homeland of morality for Locke,
Hutcheson and Hume – is confused, irrational, pre-scientific and spontaneously
self-interested; words like ‘vicious’ and ‘virtuous’, rather like aesthetic
judgements for Kant, indicate not objective properties of things but
a speaker’s attitudes to them; moral terminology cannot apply to human
beings, since they are no more free agents than goldfish; and the self is
never so thoroughly a slave to causality than when it imagines itself to be
at liberty. Men and women are causally determined natural objects, and in
learning and embracing this hardest of truths lie the paths to sanctity and


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