Spinoza’s Ethics of Strength of the Emotions in W Somerset Maughm’s Of Human Bondage

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The writer probes on the complex world of W. Somerset Maughm’s protagonist in the novel Of Human Bondage, using the propositions the Jewish Portuguese philosopher Baruch Spinoza postulated in his book Ethics in 1674. Some of Spinoza’s propositions are as follows( Morgan, 2006, pp 108-120):

The following propositions of Spinoza enlighten the changing character of Philip in his own bildungsromans of his life. The force and increase of any passive emotion and its persistence in existing is defined not by the power whereby we ourselves endeavour to persist in existing, but by the power of external causes compared with our own power;

The force of any passive emotion can surpass the rest of man’s activities or power so that the emotion stays firmly fixed in him;

An emotion cannot be checked or destroyed except by a contrary emotion which is stronger than the emotion which is to be checked;

Knowledge of good and evil is nothing other than the emotion of pleasure or pain insofar as we are conscious of it;

An emotion whose cause we think to be with us in the present is stronger than it would be if we did not think the said cause to be with us;

We are affected toward a future thing which we imagine to be imminent mo intensely than if we were to imagine its time of existence tofarther away from the present. We are also affected by a remembrance of a thing we imagine to belong to the near past more intensely if we were to imagine it to belong to the distant past;

An emotion toward a thing which we think of as inevitable [necessarius] is more intense, other things being equal, than emotion toward a thing possible or contingent, that is, not inevitable;

Emotion toward a thing which we know not exist in the present, and which we imagine to be possible, is, other things being equal, more intense than emotion toward a contingent thing;

Emotion toward a contingent thing which we know not to exist in the present, is, other things being equal, feebler than emotion toward a thing past;

No emotion can be checked by the true knowledge of good and evil, insofar as it is true, but only insofar as it is;

Desire that arises from the true knowledge of good and evil can be extinguished or checked by many other desires that arise from the emotions by which we are assailed;

The desires that arises from a knowledge of good and evil insofar as this knowledge has regard to to the future can be the more easily checked or extinguished by desire of things that are attractive in the present;

Desire that arises from the true knowledge of good and evil insofar as this knowledge is concerned with contingent things can be even more easily checked by desire for things which are present;

Desire arising from pleasure is, other things being equal, stronger than desire arising from pain;

Every man, from the laws of his nature, necessarily seeks or avoids what he judges to be good or evil.

The more every man endeavours and is able to seek advantage, that is, to preserve his own being, the more he is endowed with virtue. On the other hand insofar as he neglects to preserve what is to his advantage, that is, his own being to that extent he is weak.

Philip is highly affected by nature. There is in Nature no individual thing that is surpassed in strength and power by some other thing. Whatsoever thing there is, there is another more powerful by which the said thing can be destroyed. And he was able to surpass all his problems because of the incoming different emotions, problems which proved to make him stronger if not released from „Human Bondage“.

The force whereby a man persist in existing is limited, and infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes.

Philip’s deformity limits his own persistence to live. But his meeting with Hayward, Clutton and Lawson, his former classmates in France, who taught him that life is all about passion and the pursuit of it, he became engross in his art. France did not also care about his clubfoot. Cronshaw taught him more philosophy in life about living in let live. Cronshaw even on his death bed, defied doctors‘ prohibition. His life is anyway to end just like any other’s lives.

Set in Kent, England, a sub-urban near London, the novel presents the multifaceted personal, social, political and religious experiences of Philip carey from his childhood to his middle age of thirty. A bildungsroman (1991, Smiley) in style, which highlights the formation of a youngman’s character through education, travels and early life experiences. Philip at the age of nine, as a young boy, is set apart from his peers by some misfortune and undergoes a humiliating experience that later proves strengthening. his first experience of love is unsuccessful or problematic one that nevertheless paves the way to a happy marriage with a suitable mate. The novel has ample observation, if not criticism, with the character’s institutions such as schools, churches and class structures.

Philip’s personal life is truly an amalgam of life’s tragedies. But how he surpassed the seemingly insurmountable heap of oppressing weight, if not the meaninglessness or nothingness of life, is the focus of this attempt anchored on Spinoza’s propositions. To enumerate, at an early age, his mother died of tuberculosis and his father, a medical doctor, died of lung cancer. His innocence never understood the situation. He has only the temporary joy of travelling to Blackstable to live with his uncle William and childless Auntie Louisa. Forcibly liking his second family as an orphan, he is left reading his books without noise for his uncle, a Vicar in the community, is irated with children’s unruly behaviour. Aunt Louisa is incapable of understanding Philip. he is left with the care of the governess. His personal disability or deformity, being born with a club-foot, proves to be the stigma of his life forever. His early education in Kingston School, caused his early childhood bitter as his peers laughed at him, mocked and physically abused him because of his physical abnormality. Then, his adolescence which brings him to Heidelberg, Germany to study foreign languages, is never sweet. Girls chided him for his deformity. the consolation is meeting friends like Hayward and Miss Wilkinson, who flirted with him, to his disgust. His sojourn to France, albeit, his uncle’s disappointment, proves to be annihilating. His lack of talent in painting plus his deformity, made him a mediocre student. His classmate Fanny Price, who fell in love with him, on the pretext of sharing the same abnormality (hers is lack of beauty), committed suicide out of hunger and wretchedness.

Then everything escalated to its height, when realizing that painting is not his passion, he goes back to England. He decides to change again to pursue what his uncle William tells him to do: to follow the footsteps of his father. To be a doctor. feeling he has nothing to do, he embraces the new idea. Sauntering along the Parliamentary Street of London, he is driven to dine in a cafe where he meets the slatternly waitress Mildred Rogers who awakens his sexual desire. But his languid mien, caused by his club-foot proves to be a disadvantage. the waitress prefers rugged and rich men. But his desire to pursue the pale, anaemic, aloof Mildred, beomes a challenge to him. Gradually, the two becomeclose. But the ambitious and materialistic waitress always insults him because of his deformity. to slander him cripple, would totally „cripple“ his mood and emotion. Even when Philip is generous to the moody Mildred, she hurt him by marrying a German businessman Miller. His desperation is tantamount to his yearning for Mildred. He is left believing that one day, he would see Mildred again. His concentration with his medical study is forlorned. And Mildred came back,looking sickly, with a child. His generosity and forgiveness for his first love, who hurts him the most, is even greater than life. The ingrate waitress after a little recovery from poverty, elopes with Griffith, Philip’s handsome and robust classmate. That is the height of Mildred’s shamelessness. So her expected return is welcomed with derision by the newly awakened Philip. Even when Mildred turns into a prostitute, Philip is only capable of compassion, without passion or sexual desire. She is freed at last. And Philip is extricated from the pains excruciatingly caused by the destitute Mildred.

His obsession to Mildred costs Philip his fortune and gradually his savings is left with seven pounds. He is forced to stop from his medical studies that brings him to experience unbelievable poverty. He meets the generous Athelneys who fed and sheltered him in his misery. His uncle’s death, leaving an average fortune, helps him to finish his medical studies. His fateful shelter with the Athelneys brings him to his final, harmonious and peaceful resolution to marry Sally Athelney and go on with his life beautifully. Shakespeare is affirmed by saying that „all is well that ends well.

At this juncture, it is noteworthy to enumerate Spinoza’s propositions to elucidate Philip’s „bondage“ and his strength of his emotion. Spinoza in his preface to his philosophical treatise wrote:

I assign the term „bondage“ to man’s lack of power to control and check the emotions. For a man at the mercy of his emotions is not his own master but is subject to fortune, in whose power he so lies that he is often compelled, although he sees the better course, to pursue the worse. In this Part I have set myself the task of demonstrating why is so, and also what is good and what is bad in emotions. But before I begin, I should like to make a few preliminary observations on perfection and imperfection, and on good and bad ( Morgan, 2006).

In the beginning, Philip is a slave if not a victim of his emotion. His physical deformity, his club-foot, caused him too much pain. He learned to hate his classmates and,worst, abandoned his belief in God. He could not appreciate the God of his uncle vicar when God cannot give him the miracle he wanted to have normal feet. His painful childhood in school changed him to be rough character. He never wanted to become a vicar anymore. His obsession to Mildred indeed showed his real weakness as a man, and even wretchedness as a human being because of his deformity. he would always think that women cannot love him as he is because of his deformity.

He who has undertaken something and has brought it to completion will say that the thing is completed; and not only he but everyone who rightly knew, or thought he knew, the intention and aim of the author of that work. For example, if anyone sees a work (which I assumed is not yet finished) and knows that the aim of author is to build a house, he will say the house is imperfect. On the other hand, as soon as he sees that the work has been brought to the conclusion that its author had intended to give it, he will say that the house is perfect. But if anyone sees a work whose like he had never seen before, and he does not know the artifecer’s intention, he cannot possibly know whether the work is perfect or imperfect.

This appears to have been the original meaning of these terms. But when men began to form general ideas and to devise ideal type of houses, buildings, towers, and so on, and to prefer some models to others, it came about that each called „perfect“ that which he saw at variance with his own preconceived ideal, although in the artifecer’s opinion it had been fully completed. There seems to be no other reason why even natural phenomena (those not made by human hand) should commonly be called perfect or imperfect. For men there are wont to form general ideas both natural phenomena and artifacts, and these ideas they regard as models, and they believed that Nature (which they consider does nothing without an end in view) looks to this ideas and holds them before herself as models. So when they see something occurring in Nature at variance with their preconceived ideal of the thing in question, they believed that Nature has then failed or blundered and has left that thing imperfect from their own preconceptions rather than from true knowledge.

So perfection and imperfection are in reality only models of thinking, notions which we are wont to invent from comparing individuals of the same species or kind; and it is for this reason that I previously said (Def. 6, II) that by reality and perfection I mean the same thing. For we are wont to classify all the individuals in Nature under one genus which is called the highest genus, namely, the notion of Entity, which pertains to all the individuals in Nature without exception. Therefore insofar as we classify individuals in Nature under this genus and compare them with one another and find that some have more being or reality than others, to that extent we say that some are more perfect than the others. And insofar as we attribute to them something involving negotiation, such as limit, end, impotence and so on, to that extent we call them imperfect because they do not affect our minds as much as those we call perfect, and not because they lack something of anything except that which follows from the necessity of nature of its efficient cause; and whatever follows from the necessity of the nature of its efficient cause must be necessarily be so.

To be a master of his emotion is to attain perfection. It may not be physical but spiritual, mental and emotional. His challenges may have hardened him but enlightened him to loosen up and later, embrace the beauty of life. The unattainable perfection, was answered, through his friend Cronshaw, a poet whom he met in France, that the meaning of life cannot be answered unless one lives it. he realized that men are born, study, work, marry, have children and die is the most beautiful pattern that the Persian rug edifies.

As for the terms „good“ and „bad,“ they likewise indicate nothing positive in things considered in themselves, and nothing but models of thinking, or notions which we form from comparing things with one another. For one and the same thing can at the same time be good and bad, and also indifferent. For example, music is good for one who is melancholy, bad for one in mourning, and neither good or bad for the deaf. However, although this is so, these terms ought to be retained. For since we desire to form the idea of man which we may look to as model of human nature, we shall find it useful to keep these terms in the sense I have indicated. So in what follows I shall mean by „good“ that which we certainly know to be the means for our approaching nearer to the model of human nature that we set before ourselves, and by „bad“ that which we certainly know prevents us from reproducing the said model. For it is important to note that when I say somebody passes from a state of less perfection, to a state of greater perfection, and vice versa, I do not mean that he changes from one essence or to form to another (for example, a horse is as completely destroyed if it changes into a man as it would be if it were to change into an insect), but that we conceive his power of activity, insofar as this is understood through his nature, to be increased or diminished.

Philip may have been both good and bad due to circumstances. he was good in the Blackstable with his Auntie Louisa and Uncle William. he became bad in school because his classmates taunted him because of his clubfoot. In Heidelberg, he is good to all the people even if he did not understand their silence and even their insolence. In France, was forced to become bad, to protect himself from the looming abuses of other foreigners. The death of an anti-social fanny Price, showed him to be the only compassionate painting student.

Hence, after a series of Philip’s tragedy, his experiences, his meeting with different people, his education, his travel to Heidelberg, to Paris and to London, his affluence and reversal of his fortune to poverty taught him greatest lessons in life. That life can be beautiful if man knows to master his emotion, moderate his desire and be reasonable in every decision. A man is finally freed from the chains and cufflinks “ Of Human Bondage“.

References:

Maughm, Somerset W. (1991). Of Human Bondage.

Canada: Bantam Book Doubleday.

Morgan, Michael (ed.). (2006). The Essential Spinoza: Ethics And Related Writings.

Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, Inc.

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