Spinoza: on potestas and potentia in Ethics V

In a wonderful essay on the question of whether the State is an individual in Spinoza’s sense, Alexandre Matheron notes, almost as an aside, that the distinction between potestas and potentia is not always dispositive.

This distinction has received a lot of scholarly attention, although it is notoriously difficult to capture in English, where both terms are often translated simply as ‘power’. Gueroult argued at length for its importance in the first volume of his study on Spinoza, Dieu. Through Deleuze, but also Foucault, it has made its way into the vocabulary of French political philosophy, where it is rendered as pouvoir and puissance. It also runs through Agamben and Negri to Italian theoretical writings, as potere and potenza; Negri makes the distinction central to his reading of Spinoza in The Savage Anomaly.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand this distinction is as the difference between, on the one hand, the kind of power involved in political power—potestas, as in summa potestas, or potestas ordinata; and, on the other hand, the kind of power involved in a pure capacity to act—potentia. In a Deleuzian vein, it can also be glossed as the difference between a power that is immanent to a body (potentia or puissance) and the transcendent power of a ruler’s command (potestas or pouvoir). As Beth Lord has pointed out, the latter isn’t necessarily restrictive of the former, but it can be; Deleuze and Negri certainly have a marked tendency to push the distinction in that direction, as though potestas is always only detrimental from the perspective of potentia. Hardt notes that Negri often writes as though the distinction can be unproblematically mapped onto the antagonism between capitalist potestas or potere and proletarian potentia or potenza.

To be sure, this distinction is sometimes operative in Spinoza’s writing. The question is of its limits. Negri cites a beautiful example of the positivity of potentia in the Ethics, III P12: ‘The mind, as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the Body’s power of acting’ (Mens, quantum potest, ea imaginari conatur, quae Corporis agendi potentia augent, vel juvant).

By contrast, to get a sense of Spinozist potestas as ruling power, consider these lines from Chapter XVII of the Theologico-Political Treatise: ‘Nevertheless, to understand rightly how far the right and power of the state extend, we must note that its power is not limited to what it can compel men to do from fear, but extends to absolutely everything it can bring men to do in compliance with its commands. It’s obedience which makes the subject, not the reason for the obedience’ (Attamen ut recte intelligatur, quousque imperii jus & potestas se extendat, notandum imperii potestatem non in eo praecise contineri, quod homines metu cogere potest, sed absolute in omnibus, quibus efficere potest, ut homines ejus mandatis obsequantur: non enim ratio obtemperandi, sed obtemperantia subditum facit). This is the kind of power involved in producing subjects, and Spinoza already sees that such potestas doesn’t necessarily have to invoke fear like the Hobbesian sovereign, but can operate through subtler channels.

But the distinction isn’t quite as rigid for Spinoza as has sometimes been suggested. Take this passage from Chapter III of the Political Treatise, which is often invoked as a place where we catch a glimpse of the purportedly revolutionary communi multitudinis potentia: ‘Because the Commonwealth’s Right is defined by the common power of a multitude, it’s certain that its power and Right are diminished to the extent that it provides many people with reasons to conspire against it’ (quia jus civitatis communi multitudinis potentia definitur, certum est, potentiam civitatis et jus eatenus minui, quatenus ipsa causas praebet, ut plures in unum conspirent). The jus of the state is defined (de/limited) by the potentia multitudinis, no doubt. But shouldn’t we have expected a potestatem civitatis here, rather than a potentiam civitatis? Since it has sometimes been claimed that the potestas / potentia distinction is more significant in the political writings than in the Ethics, this is all the more striking.

In fact, let’s turn to the Ethics. Matheron points out two places where Spinoza doesn’t just use the word that one wouldn’t expect: he actually equivocates, actively treating the terms as interchangeable.

First, in the demonstration to V P29, Spinoza initially writes that the mind ‘has only the power of conceiving things in relation to time’ (eatenus tantum potentiam habet concipiendi res cum relatione ad tempus). ‘But eternity cannot be explained by duration. Therefore, to that extent the Mind does not have the power of conceiving things under a species of eternity’ (ergo mens eatenus potestatem non habet concipiendi res sub specie aeternitatis). But that’s not the end of the story. Reason, for Spinoza, consists precisely in just this kind of conceiving of things sub specie aeternitatis, and it does pertain to the mind to conceive the Body’s essence sub specie aeternitatis; therefore, ‘this power of conceiving things under a species of eternity pertains to the Mind only insofar as it conceives the Body’s essence under a species of eternity’ (ergo haec potentia concipiendi res sub specie aeternitatis ad mentem non pertinet, nisi quatenus corporis essentiam sub specie aeternitatis concipit).

Let’s first note another possible frustrated expectation here. One might reasonably have guessed that the potentia-potestas dyad would map onto another of Spinoza’s conceptual couplets: that is, the (intrinsically limited) power to conceive things merely in relation to duration, potestas concipiendi res cum relatione ad tempus, against the (intrinsically infinite) power to conceive things under an aspect of eternity, potentia concipiendi res sub specie aeternitatis. But this is not what we find. Instead, first we encounter potentia concipiendi res cum relatione ad tempus; then we get potestas concipendi res sub specie aeternitatis; finally, potentia res sub specie aeternitatis. So what accounts for the difference, then?

I also don’t think the dilemma here can be resolved by suggesting that we find potentia in the first and third cases because Spinoza is describing a power that we do have, whereas in the second case we find potestas because he’s describing a power that we don’t. To begin with, without claiming to be an expert in the subtleties of Latin grammar, I don’t think actual-existence-versus-actual-nonexistence is sufficient to justify the terminological switch here. Certainly this wouldn’t fit at all with how the distinction definitely is mobilized most of the time: it’s not as though the power of the State is potentia when it’s actual and potestas when it’s not. In any case, it seems clear that, here in this demonstration, the selective usage of potentia and potestas is not a function of the kind of power being described.

Let’s take a look at the other instance, from the demonstration for V P42:

‘Next, the more the Mind enjoys this divine Love, or blessedness, the more it understands, i.e., the greater the power it has over the affects, and the less it is acted on by evil affects’ (Deinde quo mens hoc amore divini seu beatitudine magis gaude, eo plus intelligit, hoc est, eo majorem in affectus habet potentiam et eo minus ab affectibus, qui mali sunt, patitur). ‘So because the Mind enjoys this divine Love or blessedness, it has the power of restraining lusts‘ (atque adeo ex eo, quod mens hoc amore divino seu beatitudine gaudet, potestatem habet libidines coercendi). ‘And because human power to restrain the affects consists only in the intellect, no one enjoys blessedness because he has restrained the affects. Instead, the power to restrain lusts arises from blessedness itself’ (et quia humana potentia ad coercendos affectus in solo intellectu consistit, ergo nemo beatitudine gaudet, quia affectus coercuit; sed contra potestas libidines coercendi ex ipsa beatitudine oritur).

Here we see that one and the same power, that of the mind to restrain lusts, is being spoken of as both a potentia and a potestas; there is no sense in which what is at stake is a power of the mind that we may or may not have. So this case provides us with grounds to think that the terminological shift doesn’t have to do with the presence or absence of the same kind of power. Moreover, one could even argue that the kind of power here is restrictive in the same sort of way that political potestas is typically supposed to be, but this restraining of the affects is called a potentia of the mind.

Now Matheron doesn’t really say too much about this. He says only that these cases can be adduced to show that the potestas-potentia distinction isn’t as hard, for Spinoza, as some have claimed; and he does so in order to defuse objections predicated on this distinction raised against his (highly interesting) reading of the Spinozist concept of individuality, and the question of whether it is applicable to the State such as Spinoza understands it (yes, it is). In short: if you think you can take down his reading by invoking this distinction, think again.

But it seems to me that it is significant that this distinction, which had a certain consistency in earlier parts of the text, begins to collapse here, in Part V. I follow Deleuze in reading the Ethics in the prior parts as being written from the perspective of the second kind of knowledge, adequate knowledge through common notions, whereas Part V is written from the perspective of the third kind of knowledge: intuitive knowledge of singular things, beatitude, or the intellectual love of God. And as Deleuze says, this is what accounts for the ‘infinite speed’ of this fifth part; sub specie aeternitatis, we are able to recognize immanent identities where finite understanding, in and of duration, may have led us to think we encounter real distinctions. What I am suggesting is that, from the perspective of the common notions, potestas and potentia constitute a genuine opposition; whereas from the perspective of the third kind of knowledge, they amount to a kind of speculative identity-in-difference. And it would be worth exploring the consequences of this hypothesis.


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