Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brainby Antonio Damasio
In the seventeenth century, the philosopher Spinoza examined the role emotion played in human survival and culture. Yet hundreds of years and many significant scientific advances later, the neurobiological roots of joy and sorrow remain a mystery. Today, we spend countless resources doctoring our feelings with alcohol, prescription drugs, health clubs, therapy,… See more details below
In the seventeenth century, the philosopher Spinoza examined the role emotion played in human survival and culture. Yet hundreds of years and many significant scientific advances later, the neurobiological roots of joy and sorrow remain a mystery. Today, we spend countless resources doctoring our feelings with alcohol, prescription drugs, health clubs, therapy, vacation retreats, and other sorts of consumption; still, the inner workings of our minds-what feelings are, how they work, and what they mean-are largely an unexplored frontier.
With scientific expertise and literary facility, bestselling author and world famous neuroscientist Antonio Damasio concludes his groundbreaking trilogy in Looking for Spinoza, exploring the cerebral processes that keep us alive and make life worth living.
"Damasio has the rare talent of rendering science intelligible while also being gifted in philosophy, literature and wit."
"In clear, accessible and eloquent prose, Damasio is outlining a new vision of the human soul."
PRAISE FOR LOOKING FOR SPINOZA
"Clear, accessible and at times eloquent . . . Nothing less than a new vision of the human soul."-San Francisco Chronicle
"Exceptionally engaging and profoundly gratifying."-Nature
"Damasio has the rare talent of rendering science intelligible while also being gifted in philosophy, literature and wit."
"Looking for Spinoza is exceptionally engaging and profoundly gratifying."
"In clear, accessible and eloquent prose, Damasio is outlining a new vision of the human soul."
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Feelings of pain or pleasure or some quality in between are the bedrock of our minds. We often fail to notice this simple reality because the mental images of the objects and events that surround us, along with the images of the words and sentences that describe them, use up so much of our overburdened attention. But there they are, feelings of myriad emotions and related states, the continuous musical line of our minds, the unstoppable humming of the most universal of melodies that only dies down when we go to sleep, a humming that turns into all-out singing when we are occupied by joy, or a mournful requiem when sorrow takes over.*
Given the ubiquity of feelings, one would have thought that their science would have been elucidated long ago-what feelings are, how they work, what they mean-but that is hardly the case. Of all the mental phenomena we can describe, feelings and their essential ingredients-pain and pleasure-are the least understood in biological and specifically neurobiological terms. This is all the more puzzling considering that advanced societies cultivate feelings shamelessly and dedicate so many resources and efforts to manipulating those feelings with alcohol, drugs of abuse, medical drugs, food, real sex, virtual sex, all manner of feel-good consumption, and all manner of feel-good social and religious practices. We doctor our feelings with pills, drinks, health spas, workouts, and spiritual exercises, but neither the public nor science have yet come to grips with what feelings are, biologically speaking.
I am not really surprised at this state of affairs, considering what I grew up believing about feelings. Most of it simply was not true. For example, I thought that feelings were impossible to define with specificity, unlike objects you could see, hear, or touch. Unlike those concrete entities, feelings were intangible. When I started musing about how the brain managed to create the mind, I accepted the established advice that feelings were out of the scientific picture. One could study how the brain makes us move. One could study sensory processes, visual and otherwise, and understand how thoughts are put together. One could study how the brain learns and memorizes thoughts. One could even study the emotional reactions with which we respond to varied objects and events. But feelings-which can be distinguished from emotions, as we shall see in the next chapter-remained elusive. Feelings were to stay forever mysterious. They were private and inaccessible. It was not possible to explain how feelings happened or where they happened. One simply could not get "behind" feelings.
As was the case with consciousness, feelings were beyond the bounds of science, thrown outside the door not just by the naysayers who worry that anything mental might actually be explained by neuroscience, but by card-carrying neuroscientists themselves, proclaiming allegedly insurmountable limitations. My own willingness to accept this belief as fact is evidenced by the many years I spent studying anything but feelings. It took me awhile to see the degree to which the injunction was unjustified and to realize that the neurobiology of feelings was no less viable than the neurobiology of vision or memory. But eventually I did, mostly, as it turns out, because I was confronted by the reality of neurological patients whose symptoms literally forced me to investigate their conditions.
Imagine, for example, meeting someone who, as a result of damage to a certain location of his brain, became unable to feel compassion or embarrassment-when compassion or embarrassment were due-yet could feel happy, or sad, or fearful just as normally as before brain disease had set in. Would that not give you pause? Or picture a person who, as a result of damage located elsewhere in the brain, became unable to experience fear when fear was the appropriate reaction to the situation and yet still could feel compassion. The cruelty of neurological disease may be a bottomless pit for its victims-the patients and those of us who are called to watch. But the scalpel of disease also is responsible for its single redeeming feature: By teasing apart the normal operations of the human brain, often with uncanny precision, neurological disease provides a unique entry into the fortified citadel of the human brain and mind.
Reflection on the situation of these patients and of others with comparable conditions raised intriguing hypotheses. First, individual feelings could be prevented through damage to a discrete part of the brain; the loss of a specific sector of brain circuitry brought with it the loss of a specific kind of mental event. Second, it seemed clear that different brain systems controlled different feelings; damage to one area of the brain anatomy did not cause all types of feelings to disappear at once. Third, and most surprising, when patients lost the ability to express a certain emotion, they also lost the ability to experience the corresponding feeling. But the opposite was not true: Some patients who lost their ability to experience certain feelings still could express the corresponding emotions. Could it be that while emotion and feeling were twins, emotion was born first and feeling second, with feeling forever following emotion like a shadow? In spite of their close kinship and seeming simultaneity, it seemed that emotion preceded feeling. Knowledge of this specific relationship, as we shall see, provided a window into the investigation of feelings.
Such hypotheses could be tested with the help of scanning techniques that allow us to create images of the anatomy and activity of the human brain. Step by step, initially in patients and then in both patients and people without neurological disease, my colleagues and I began to map the geography of the feeling brain. We aimed at elucidating the web of mechanisms that allow our thoughts to trigger emotional states and engender feelings.1
Emotion and feeling played an important but very different part in two of my previous books. Descartes' Error addressed the role of emotion and feeling in decision-making. The Feeling of What Happens outlined the role of emotion and feeling in the construction of the self. In the present book, however, the focus is on feelings themselves, what they are and what they provide. Most of the evidence I discuss was not available when I wrote the previous books, and a more solid platform for the understanding of feelings has now emerged. The main purpose of this book, then, is to present a progress report on the nature and human significance of feelings and related phenomena, as I see them now, as neurologist, neuroscientist, and regular user.
The gist of my current view is that feelings are the expression of human flourishing or human distress, as they occur in mind and body. Feelings are not a mere decoration added on to the emotions, something one might keep or discard. Feelings can be and often are revelations of the state of life within the entire organism-a lifting of the veil in the literal sense of the term. Life being a high-wire act, most feelings are expressions of the struggle for balance, ideas of the exquisite adjustments and corrections without which, one mistake too many, the whole act collapses. If anything in our existence can be revelatory of our simultaneous smallness and greatness, feelings are.
How that revelation comes to mind is itself beginning to be revealed. The brain uses a number of dedicated regions working in concert to portray myriad aspects of the body's activities in the form of neural maps. This portrait is a composite, an ever-changing picture of life on the fly. The chemical and neural channels that bring into the brain the signals with which this life portrait can be painted are just as dedicated as the canvas that receives them. The mystery of how we feel is a little less mysterious now.
It is reasonable to wonder if the attempt to understand feelings is of any value beyond the satisfaction of one's curiosity. For a number of reasons, I believe it is. Elucidating the neurobiology of feelings and their antecedent emotions contributes to our views on the mind-body problem, a problem central to the understanding of who we are. Emotion and related reactions are aligned with the body, feelings with the mind. The investigation of how thoughts trigger emotions and of how bodily emotions become the kind of thoughts we call feelings provides a privileged view into mind and body, the overtly disparate manifestations of a single and seamlessly interwoven human organism.
The effort has more practical payoffs, however. Explaining the biology of feelings and their closely related emotions is likely to contribute to the effective treatment of some major causes of human suffering, among them depression, pain, and drug addiction. Moreover, understanding what feelings are, how they work, and what they mean is indispensable to the future construction of a view of human beings more accurate than the one currently available, a view that would take into account advances in the social sciences, cognitive science, and biology. Why is such a construction of any practical use? Because the success or failure of humanity depends in large measure on how the public and the institutions charged with the governance of public life incorporate that revised view of human beings in principles and policies. An understanding of the neurobiology of emotion and feelings is a key to the formulation of principles and policies capable of reducing human distress and enhancing human flourishing. In effect, the new knowledge even speaks to the manner in which humans deal with unresolved tensions between sacred and secular interpretations of their own existence.
Now that I have sketched my main purpose, it is time to explain why a book dedicated to new ideas on the nature and significance of human feeling should invoke Spinoza in the title. Since I am not a philosopher and this book is not about Spinoza's philosophy, it is sensible to ask: why Spinoza? The short explanation is that Spinoza is thoroughly relevant to any discussion of human emotion and feeling. Spinoza saw drives, motivations, emotions, and feelings-an ensemble Spinoza called affects-as a central aspect of humanity. Joy and sorrow were two prominent concepts in his attempt to comprehend human beings and suggest ways in which their lives could be lived better.
The long explanation is more personal.
December 1, 1999. The friendly doorman of the Hotel des Indes insists: "You should not walk in this weather, sir, let me get a car for you. The wind is bad. It is almost a hurricane, sir. Look at the flags." True, the flags have taken wing, and the fast-moving clouds are racing toward the east. Although The Hague's Embassy Row seems about to lift off, I decline the offer. I prefer to walk, I say. I will be all right. Besides, see how beautiful the sky looks in between the clouds? My doorman has no idea where I am going, and I am not going to tell him. What would he have thought?
The rain has almost stopped and with some determination it is easy to overcome the wind. I actually can walk fast and follow my mental map of the place. At the end of the promenade in front of the Hotel des Indes, to my right, I can see the old palace and the Mauritshuis, festooned with Rembrandt's face-they are showing a retrospective of his self-portraits. Past the museum square the streets are almost deserted, although this is the center of town and it is a regular working day. There must be warnings telling people to stay indoors. So much the better. I arrive at the Spui without having to brave a crowd. After I get to the New Church, the route is entirely unfamiliar and I hesitate for a second, but the choice becomes clear: I turn right on Jacobstraat, then left on Wagenstraat, then right again on Stilleverkade. Five minutes later I am on the Paviljoensgracht. I stop in front of number 72-74.
The front of the house is much as I imagined it, a small building with three floors, three windows wide, a version of the average canal townhouse, more modest than rich. It is well kept and not very different from what it must have looked like in the seventeenth century. All the windows are closed, and there is no sign of activity. The door is well kept and well painted, and next to it there is a shiny brass bell, set in the frame. The word SPINOZAHUIS is etched in the rim. I press the button resolutely but without much hope. There is no sound from inside and no movement in any curtain. No one had answered the phone when I tried to call earlier. Spinoza is closed for business.
This is where Spinoza lived the last seven years of his brief life and where he died in 1677. The Theologico-Political Treatise, which he carried when he arrived, was published from here, anonymously. The Ethics was completed here and published after his death, almost as anonymously.
I have no hope of seeing the house today but all is not lost. In the landscaped middle section that separates the two lanes of the street, an unexpected urban garden, I discover Spinoza himself, semiobscured by the windswept foliage, sitting quietly and pensively, in sturdy bronze perpetuity. He looks pleased and entirely undisturbed by the meteorological commotion, as well he should, having survived stronger forces in his day.
For the past few years I have been looking for Spinoza, sometimes in books, sometimes in places, and that is why I am here today. A curious pastime, as you can see, and one that I had never planned to adopt. The reason why I did has a lot to do with coincidence. I first read Spinoza as an adolescent-there is no better age to read Spinoza on religion and politics-but it is fair to say that while some ideas made lasting impressions, the reverence I developed for Spinoza was rather abstract. He was both fascinating and forbidding. Later, I never thought of Spinoza as especially relevant to my work, and my acquaintance with his ideas was sparse. And yet there was a quote of his that I had long treasured-it came from the Ethics and pertained to the notion of self-and it was when I thought of citing it and needed to check its accuracy and context that Spinoza returned to my life. I found the quote, all right, and it did match the contents of the yellowed paper I had once pinned to a wall. But then I started reading backward and forward from the particular passage where I had landed, and I simply could not stop. Spinoza was still the same, but I was not. Much of what once seemed impenetrable now seemed familiar, strangely familiar, in fact, and quite relevant to several aspects of my recent work. I was not about to endorse all of Spinoza. For one thing, some passages were still opaque, and there were conflicts and inconsistencies of ideas unresolved after multiple readings. I still was puzzled and even exasperated. Mostly, however, for better or worse, I found myself in a pleasant resonance with the ideas, a bit like the character in Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, who read a few pages of Spinoza and who kept on going as though there were a whirlwind on his back: "...I didn't understand every word but when you're dealing with such ideas you feel as though you were taking a witch's ride."2 Spinoza dealt with the subjects that preoccupy me most as a scientist-the nature of emotions and feelings and the relation of mind to body-and those same subjects have preoccupied many other thinkers of the past. To my eyes, however, he seemed to have prefigured solutions that researchers are now offering on a number of these issues. That was surprising.
For example, when Spinoza said that love is nothing but a pleasurable state, joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause, he was separating with great clarity the process of feeling from the process of having an idea about an object that can cause an emotion.3 Joy was one thing; the object that caused joy was another. Joy or sorrow, along with the idea of the objects that caused either, eventually came together in the mind, of course, but they were distinct processes to begin with, within our organisms. Spinoza had described a functional arrangement that modern science is revealing as fact: Living organisms are designed with an ability to react emotionally to different objects and events. The reaction is followed by some pattern of feeling and a variation of pleasure or pain is a necessary component of feeling.
Spinoza also proposed that the power of affects is such that the only hope of overcoming a detrimental affect-an irrational passion-is by overpowering it with a stronger positive affect, one triggered by reason. An affect cannot be restrained or neutralized except by a contrary affect that is stronger than the affect to be restrained.4 In other words, Spinoza recommended that we fight a negative emotion with an even stronger but positive emotion brought about by reasoning and intellectual effort. Central to his thinking was the notion that the subduing of the passions should be accomplished by reason-induced emotion and not by pure reason alone. This is by no means easy to achieve, but Spinoza saw little merit in anything easy.
Of great importance for what I shall be discussing was his notion that both the mind and the body were parallel attributes (call them manifestations) of the very same substance.5 At the very least, by refusing to ground mind and body on different substances, Spinoza was serving notice of his opposition to the view of the mind-body problem that prevailed in his time. His dissent stood out in a sea of conformity. More intriguing, however, was his notion that the human mind is the idea of the human body.6 This raised an arresting possibility. Spinoza might have intuited the principles behind the natural mechanisms responsible for the parallel manifestations of mind and body. As I shall discuss later, I am convinced that mental processes are grounded in the brain's mappings of the body, collections of neural patterns that portray responses to events that cause emotions and feelings. Nothing could have been more comforting than coming across this statement of Spinoza's and wondering about its possible meaning.
This would have been more than enough to fuel my curiosity about Spinoza, but there was more to sustain my interest. For Spinoza, organisms naturally endeavor, of necessity, to persevere in their own being; that necessary endeavor constitutes their actual essence. Organisms come to being with the capacity to regulate life and thereby permit survival. Just as naturally, organisms strive to achieve a "greater perfection" of function, which Spinoza equates with joy. All of these endeavors and tendencies are engaged unconsciously.
Darkly, through the glass of his unsentimental and unvarnished sentences, Spinoza apparently had gleaned an architecture of life regulation along the lines that William James, Claude Bernard, and Sigmund Freud would pursue two centuries later. Moreover, by refusing to recognize a purposeful design in nature, and by conceiving of bodies and minds as made up of components that could be combined in varied patterns across different species, Spinoza was compatible with Charles Darwin's evolutionary thinking.
Armed with this revised conception of human nature, Spinoza proceeded to connect the notions of good and evil, of freedom and salvation, to the affects and to the regulation of life. Spinoza suggested that the norms that govern our social and personal conduct should be shaped by a deeper knowledge of humanity, one that made contact with the God or Nature within ourselves.
Some of Spinoza's ideas are part and parcel of our culture, but to the best of my knowledge Spinoza is absent as a reference from the modern efforts to understand the biology of the mind.7 This absence is interesting in itself. Spinoza is a thinker far more famous than known. Sometimes Spinoza appears to rise out of nothing, in solitary and unexplained splendor, although the impression is false-in spite of his originality he is very much a part of his intellectual times. And he appears to dissolve as abruptly, without succession-another false impression given that the essence of some of his forbidden proposals can be found behind the Enlightenment and well beyond in the century that followed his death.8
One explanation for Spinoza's status as unknown celebrity is the scandal he caused in his own time. As we shall see (in Chapter Six), his words were deemed heretical and banned for decades and with rare exceptions were quoted only as part of the assault on his work. The attacks paralyzed most attempts by Spinoza admirers to discuss his ideas publicly. The natural continuity of intellectual acknowledgment that follows a thinker's work was thus interrupted, even as some of his ideas were used uncredited. This state of affairs, however, hardly explains why Spinoza continued to gain fame but remained unknown once the likes of Goethe and Wordsworth began to champion him. Perhaps a better explanation is that Spinoza is not easy to know.
The difficulty begins with the problem that there are several Spinozas with which to reckon, at least four by my count. The first is the accessible Spinoza, the radical religious scholar who disagrees with the churches of his time, presents a new conception of God, and proposes a new road to human salvation. Next comes Spinoza as political architect, the thinker who describes the traits of an ideal democratic state populated by responsible, happy citizens. The third Spinoza is the least accessible of the set: the philosopher who uses scientific facts, a method of geometric demonstration and intuition to formulate a conception of the universe and the human beings in it.
Recognizing these three Spinozas and their web of dependencies is enough to suggest how convoluted Spinoza can be. But there is a fourth Spinoza: the protobiologist. This is the biological thinker concealed behind countless propositions, axioms, proofs, lemmas, and scholia. Given that many of the advances on the science of emotions and feeling are consonant with proposals that Spinoza began to articulate, my second purpose in this book is to connect this least-known Spinoza to some of the corresponding neurobiology of today. But I note, again, that this book is not about Spinoza's philosophy. I do not address Spinoza's thinking outside of the aspects I regard as pertinent to biology. The goal is more modest. One of the values of philosophy is that throughout its history it has prefigured science. In turn, I believe, science is well served by recognizing that historical effort.
Looking for Spinoza
Spinoza is relevant to neurobiology in spite of the fact that his reflections on the human mind came out of a larger concern for the condition of human beings. Spinoza's ultimate preoccupation was the relation of human beings to nature. He attempted to clarify that relationship so he could propose realistic means for human salvation. Some of those means were personal, under the sole control of the individual, and some relied on the help that certain forms of social and political organization provided the individual. His thinking descends from Aristotle's, but the biological grounding, not surprisingly, is firmer. Spinoza seems to have gleaned a relation between personal and collective happiness, on the one hand, and human salvation and the structure of the state, on the other, long before John Stuart Mill. At least regarding the social consequences of his thinking there seems to be considerable recognition.9
Spinoza prescribed an ideal democratic state, where the hallmarks were freedom of speech-let every man think what he wants and say what he thinks, he wrote10-separation of church and state, and a generous social contract that promoted the well-being of citizens and the harmony of government. Spinoza offered this prescription more than a century ahead of the Declaration of Independence and First Amendment. That Spinoza, as a part of his revolutionary endeavors, also anticipated some aspects of modern biology is all the more intriguing.
Who was this man, then, who could think about mind and body in ways that were not only profoundly opposed to the thinking of most of his contemporaries, but remarkably current three hundred and some years later? What circumstances produced such a contrary spirit? To attempt an answer to these questions, we must consider yet another Spinoza, the man behind three distinct first names-Bento, Baruch, Benedictus-a person at once courageous and cautious, uncompromising and accommodating, arrogant and modest, detached and gentle, admirable and irritating, close to the observable and the concrete and yet unabashedly spiritual. His personal feelings are never revealed directly in his writings, not even in his style, and he must be pieced together from a thousand indirections.
Almost without noticing, I began looking for the person behind the strangeness of the work. I simply wanted to meet the man in my imagination and chat a little, have him sign The Ethics for me. Reporting on my search for Spinoza and the story of his life became the third purpose of this book.
Spinoza was born in the prosperous city of Amsterdam in 1632, literally in the middle of Holland's Golden Age. That same year, a brief walk from the Spinoza household, a twenty-three-year-old Rembrandt van Rijn was painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, the picture that began his fame. Rembrandt's patron, Constantijn Huygens, statesman and poet, secretary to the Prince of Orange, and friend of John Donne, had recently become the father of Christiaan Huygens, who was to be one of the most celebrated astronomers and physicists of all time. Descartes, the leading philosopher of the day, then thirty-two, also was living in Amsterdam, on the Prinsengraacht, and worrying about how his new ideas on human nature would be received in Holland and abroad. Soon he would come to teach algebra to young Christiaan Huygens. Spinoza came into the world amid embarrassing riches, intellectual and financial, to draw on Simon Schama's apt descriptor of the place in this age.11
Bento was the name Spinoza received at his birth from his parents, Miguel and Hana Debora, Portuguese Sephardic Jews who had resettled in Amsterdam. He was known as Baruch in the synagogue and among friends while he was growing up in Amsterdam's affluent community of Jewish merchants and scholars. He adopted the name Benedictus at age twenty-four after he was banished by the synagogue. Spinoza abandoned the comfort of his Amsterdam family home and began the calm and deliberate errancy whose last stop was here in the Paviljoensgracht. The Portuguese name Bento, the Hebrew name Baruch, and the Latin name Benedictus, all mean the same: blessed. So, what's in a name? Quite a lot, I would say. The words may be superficially equivalent, but the concept behind each of them was dramatically different.
I need to get inside the house, I think, but for now the door is closed. All I can do is imagine someone emerging from a barge moored close to it, walking into the house, and inquiring after Spinoza (the Paviljoensgracht was a wide canal, in those days; later it was filled in and turned into a street, as were so many canals in Amsterdam and Venice). The wonderful Van der Spijk, the owner and a painter, would open the door. He would amiably usher the visitor into his studio, behind the two windows next to the main door, invite him to wait, and go tell Spinoza, his lodger, that a caller had arrived.
Spinoza's rooms were on the third floor, and he would come down the spiral staircase, one of those tightly curled, horrifying stairs for which Dutch architecture is infamous. Spinoza would be elegantly dressed in his fidalgo garb-nothing new, nothing very worn, all well kept, a white starched collar, black breeches, a black leather vest, a black camel-hair jacket nicely balanced on his shoulders, shiny black leather shoes with large silver buckles, and a wood cane, perhaps, to help negotiate the stairs. Spinoza had a thing for black leather shoes. Spinoza's harmonious and clean-shaven face, his large black eyes shining brilliantly, would dominate his appearance. His hair was black too, as were the long eyebrows; the skin was olive; the stature medium; the frame light.
With politeness, even affability, but with economic directness, the visitor would be prompted to come to the matter at hand. This generous teacher could entertain discussions of optics, politics, and religious faith during his office hours. Tea would be served. Van der Spijk would continue painting, mostly silently, but with salubrious democratic dignity. His seven ebullient children would stay out of the way in the back of the house. Mrs. Van der Spijk sewed. The help toiled away in the kitchen. You see the picture.
Spinoza would be smoking his pipe. The aroma would do battle with the fragrance of turpentine as questions were pondered, answers given, and daylight waned. Spinoza received countless visitors, from neighbors and relatives of the Van der Spijks to eager young male students and impressionable young women, from Gottfried Leibniz and Christiaan Huygens to Henry Oldenburg, president of the newly created Royal Society of Britain. Judging from the tone of his correspondence he was most charitable with the simple folk and least patient with his peers. Apparently he could suffer modest fools easily but not the other kind.
I also can imagine a funeral cortege, on another gray day, February 25, 1677, Spinoza's simple coffin, followed by the Van der Spijk family, and "many illustrious men, six carriages in all," marching slowly to the New Church, just minutes away. I walk back to the New Church retracing their likely route. I know Spinoza's grave is in the churchyard, and from the house of the living I may as well go to the house of the dead.
Gates surround the churchyard but they are wide open. There is no cemetery to speak of, only shrubs and grass and moss and muddy lanes amid the tall trees. I find the grave much where I thought it would be, in the back part of the yard, behind the church, to the south and east, a flat stone at ground level and a vertical tombstone, weathered and unadorned. Besides announcing whose grave it is, the inscription reads CAUTE! which is Latin for "Be careful!" This is a chilling bit of advice considering Spinoza's remains are not really inside the tomb, and that his body was stolen, no one knows by whom, sometime after the burial when the corpse lay inside the church. Spinoza had told us that every man should think what he wants and say what he thinks, but not so fast, not quite yet. Be careful. Watch out for what you say (and write) or not even your bones will escape.
Spinoza used caute in his correspondence, printed just beneath the drawing of a rose. For the last decade of his life his written words were indeed sub-rosa. He listed a fictitious printer for the Tractatus, along with an incorrect city of publication (Hamburg). The author's page was blank. Even so, and even though the book was written in Latin rather than Dutch, authorities in Holland prohibited it in 1674. Predictably, it also was placed in the Vatican's Index of dangerous books. The church considered the book an all-out assault on organized religion and the political power structure. After that Spinoza refrained from publishing altogether. No surprise. His last writings still were in the drawer of his desk on the day of his death, but Van der Spijk knew what to do: He shipped the entire desk aboard a barge to Amsterdam where it was delivered to Spinoza's real publisher, John Rieuwertz. The collection of posthumous manuscripts-the much-revised Ethics, a Hebrew Grammar, the second and unfinished Political Treatise, and the Essay on the Improvement of the Understanding-was published later that same year, anonymously. We should keep this situation in mind when we describe the Dutch provinces as the haven of intellectual tolerance. Without a doubt they were, but the tolerance had its limits.
For most of Spinoza's life Holland was a republic, and during Spinoza's mature years the Grand Pensionary Jan De Witt dominated political life. De Witt was ambitious and autocratic but also was enlightened. It is not clear how well he knew Spinoza, but he certainly knew of Spinoza and probably helped contain the ire of the more conservative Calvinist politicians when the Tractatus began to cause scandal. De Witt owned a copy of the book since 1670. He is rumored to have sought the philosopher's opinion on political and religious matters, and Spinoza is rumored to have been pleased by the esteem De Witt showed him. Even if the rumors are untrue, there is little question De Witt was interested in Spinoza's political thinking and at least sympathetic to his religious views. Spinoza felt justifiably protected by De Witt's presence.
Spinoza's sense of relative safety came to an abrupt close in 1672 during one of the darkest hours of Holland's golden age. In a sudden turn of events, of the sort that define this politically volatile era, De Witt and his brother were assassinated by a mob, on the false suspicion that they were traitors to the Dutch cause in the ongoing war with France. Assailants clubbed and knifed both De Witts as they dragged them on the way to the gallows, and by the time they arrived there was no need to hang them anymore. They proceeded to undress the corpses, suspend them upside down, butcher-shop style, and quarter them. The fragments were sold as souvenirs, eaten raw, or eaten cooked, amid the most sickening merriment. All this took place not far from where I am standing now, literally around the corner from Spinoza's home, and it was probably Spinoza's darkest hour as well. The attacks shocked many thinkers and politicians of the time. Leibniz was horrified and so was the unflappable Huygens, in the safety of Paris. But Spinoza was undone. The savagery revealed human nature at its shameful worst and jolted him out of the equanimity he had worked so hard to maintain. He prepared a placard that read ULTIMI BARBORORUM (Ultimate barbarians) and wanted to post it near the remains. Fortunately Van der Spijk's dependable wisdom prevailed. He simply locked the door and kept the key, and Spinoza was thus prevented from leaving the house and facing a certain death. Spinoza cried publicly-the only time, it is said, that others saw him in the throes of uncontrolled emotion. The intellectual safe harbor, such as it was, had come to an end.
I look at Spinoza's grave one more time and am reminded of the inscription Descartes prepared for his own tombstone: "He who hid well, lived well."12 Only twenty-seven years separate the death of these two part-time contemporaries (Descartes died in 1650). Both spent most of their lives in the Dutch paradise, Spinoza by birthright, the other by choice-Descartes had decided early in his career that his ideas were likely to clash with the Catholic Church and monarchy in his native France and left quietly for Holland. Yet both had to hide and pretend, and in the case of Descartes, perhaps distort his own thinking. The reason should be clear. In 1633, one year after Spinoza's birth, Galileo was questioned by the Roman Inquisition and placed under house arrest. That same year Descartes withheld publication of his Treatise of Man and, even so, had to respond to vehement attacks on his views of human nature. By 1642, in contradiction with his earlier thinking, Descartes was postulating an immortal soul separate from the perishable body, perhaps as a preemptive measure to forestall further attacks. If that was his intent, the strategy eventually worked, but not quite in his lifetime. Later he made his way to Sweden to mentor the spectacularly irreverent Queen Christina. He died midway through his first winter in Stockholm, at age fifty-four. Amid the thanks we must give for living in different times, even today one shudders to think of the threats against such hard-won freedoms. Perhaps caute still is in order.
As I leave the churchyard, my thoughts turn to the bizarre significance of this burial site. Why is Spinoza, who was born a Jew, buried next to this powerful Protestant church? The answer is as complicated as anything else having to do with Spinoza. He is buried here, perhaps, because having been expelled by his fellow Jews he could be seen as Christian by default; he certainly could not have been buried in the Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk. But he is not really here, perhaps, because he never became a proper Christian, Protestant or Catholic, and in the eyes of many he was an atheist. And how fitting it all is. Spinoza's God was neither Jewish nor Christian. Spinoza's God was everywhere, could not be spoken to, did not respond if prayed to, was very much in every particle of the universe, without beginning and without end. Buried and unburied, Jewish and not, Portuguese but not really, Dutch but not quite, Spinoza belonged nowhere and everywhere.
Back at the Hotel des Indes the doorman is glad to see me in one piece. I can't resist. I do tell him that I am looking for Spinoza, that I have been to his house. The solid Dutchman is taken aback. He stops in bewilderment and utters, after a pause, "You mean...the philosopher?" Well, he does know who Spinoza was, after all, Holland being one of the best educated places on earth. But he has no idea that Spinoza lived the last part of his life in The Hague, finished his most important work here, died here, is buried here-well, sort of-and has a house and a statue and a tomb to his credit here, a mere twelve blocks away. To be fair, few people have any idea of this either. "They don't speak much of him, these days," says my friendly doorman.
In the Paviljoensgracht
Two days later I return to 72 Paviljoensgracht, and this time my gracious hosts have arranged for me to visit the house. The weather is even worse today and something like a hurricane has been blowing in from the North Sea.
Van der Spijk's studio is only marginally warmer and certainly darker than outside. A mush of gray and green remains in my mind. It is a small space, easy to commit to memory, and easy to play with in one's imagination. Mentally, I rearrange the furniture, relight the room, and warm it up. I sit long enough to imagine the movements of Spinoza and Van der Spijk on this confined stage, and conclude that no amount of redecoration will turn the room into the comfortable salon that Spinoza deserved. It is a lesson in modesty. In this small space Spinoza received his countless visitors, Leibniz and Huygens included. In this small space Spinoza took his meals-when he was not too distracted with his work and forgot all about eating-and talked to Van der Spijk's wife and to their noisy children. In this small space he sat crushed by the news of the De Witts' assassination.
How could Spinoza have survived this confinement? No doubt by freeing himself in the infinite expanse of his mind, a place larger and no less refined than Versailles and its gardens, where, on those very same days, Louis XIV, barely six years younger than Spinoza and destined to survive him by another thirty, would be strolling with his large retinue in tow.
It must be that Emily Dickinson was right, that one single brain, being wider than the sky, can comfortably accommodate a good man's intellect and the whole world besides.
*The principal meaning of the word feeling refers to some variant of the experience of pain or pleasure as it occurs in emotions and related phenomena; another frequent meaning refers to experiences such as touch as when we appreciate the shape or texture of an object. Throughout this book, unless otherwise specified, the term feeling is always used in its principal meaning.
Copyright © 2003 by Antonio Damasio
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Meet the Author
Antonio Damasio is the Van Allen Professor and head of the department of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center and is an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in San Diego. Descartes' Error was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and has been translated into twenty-three languages. He lives in Iowa City and Chicago.
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