At the very heart of Spinoza’s philosophy is the notion of active and passive states. The word “act” and its derivatives (action, acting, activity) are crucial to Spinoza since it indicates a state where a person is operating from their initiative instead of being a passive responder to events. Ultimately it is a question of whether we allow events and things to have power over us, or whether we have control over them.
As I’ve mentioned many times in podcasts and blog articles, the fundamental driver of all sentient beings is the desire to persist in existence – or the survival drive. When our survival is more assured we are happy – it’s as simple as that. When it is under threat in even the most indirect way, we feel unhappy. And power is another critical element in Spinoza’s philosophy, so much so that he equates it with virtue. The more power a person has to persist in their existence, the more virtue they have. However please do not confuse “persist in existence” simply with the act of staying alive. More than this he means to be what we are.
Having said these things I want to focus on this notion of “acting” – of being active. We are active when we deliberately process and try to understand our interactions with the world. We are passive when there is no such inner process, and we merely respond automatically. An example will clarify.
Let’s say you were expecting a promotion at work, but someone else got it. The chances are that this will make you feel diminished, unhappy – or to use the technical term, pissed off. Most of us will feel miserable to some extent. Maybe we start to complain about the boss and say derogatory things about the person who got the promotion. Our inner state just reacts automatically, and perhaps we become depressed or fly into a rage. Either way, there is no active mentation taking place, just a response to events that have not gone our way. We are passive, with no inner power to understand.
There is another way of dealing with a situation like this. First of all, we can look at our feeling of disappointment. Yes, of course, we are going to feel disappointed. A better job with more money automatically registers within us as better survival prospects. The sense of loss will subconsciously cause feelings of loss to arise. But we can look at it, reason and understand – “I feel diminished because my survival prospects have not been enhanced in the way I expected.” It sounds a bit mechanical, but this is the sort of analysis that needs to take place. Acting in this way the mind becomes active – it has more power, and this inner activity will bring about a certain amount of pleasure. We can then go on to look at the fact that we became unhappy because at that moment in time there was going to be absolutely no other response. We do not have free will, and so there is no reason for regret or remorse.
I’m trying to explain in less than a thousand words what takes years to understand and master. However, hopefully, you get the gist. In any situation, we can either be active or passive.
The Stoics had a similar philosophy, and Spinoza was influenced by them. But the essence of the whole thing is to use reason and understanding in situations where we would otherwise be passive – and suffer.
The reason for doing this kind of work is to reduce suffering and take pleasure in our inner power. If a person is happy to be passive in life and to suffer accordingly, then there is no reason to consider becoming active at all.