In my quirky reading, Spinoza’s Ethics is a book of friendship. Spinoza’s vitalist principle of life, the conatus, states that “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (Ethics 3P6). Very well then, but what’s the best way to persevere in one’s being? My quirky Spinoza replies, “Surround oneself with a small group of friends. But not just anyone will do. Each has to be the right one.”
Good friends are not individuals who make us “feel good about ourselves” (they’re not backstage groupies) nor are they starchy moralists who demand that we live better (the menacing Jane Eyre schoolmasters). Good friends are neither cheerleaders nor stick wielders. They are instead more like members of an exclusive group, a small society, a private commune, a club to which we voluntarily belong.
At 3P11, Spinoza writes, “The idea of any thing that increases or diminishes, aids or restrains, our body’s power of acting, increases or diminishes, aids or restrains, our mind’s power of thinking.” And then at 3P54 he says, “The mind strives to imagine only those things which posit its power of acting.” So, the body is most active when it is surrounded by things that increase its power of acting. Similarly, the mind is most potent when it can readily imagine those things that increase its vitality.
It’s not too much of a stretch, I don’t think, to see that Spinoza would have wanted to gather round himself close friends who make him more alive. I hope you’ve had that feeling, the feeling that with the right people around you you feel your powers increase. You feel, without the grandiosity, delusion, or pomposity of Whitman (“I am great; I contain multitudes.”), more powerful.
My quirky Spinoza also alerts me to the risk of associating myself with “toxic” kinds of people. He tells me that in the modern world we’ve become far too sloppy about our cliques, associations, and alliances. And, in so doing, we’ve risked self-deception (we gather around us those who feed our self-esteem) and self-depletion (we feel absolutely exhausted and undeniably drained by those who always, always suck our spirit clean).
For Spinoza, the aim of life is joy. To that end, he would have needed to stock his bookshelf with 5 beautiful books, his table with 5 hand-picked friends, and he would have needed to orchestrate a conversation consisting of careful, caring, intimate thoughts. And, after 5 hours, everyone gathered round would have felt, because they would been, more alive than ever.