Spinoza with Wordsworth: substance and “the life of things”


Like many readers of this blog, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Wordsworth lately. As all who’ve read the “The Prelude” know, “nature” is really important to the developmental trajectory that Wordsworth traces in recursive manner throughout the various versions of the poem. It’s hard to say, however, what exactly Wordsworth’s concept of nature is. The relation between the speaker’s mind and “nature” is configured in different ways, and “nature” is continually being lost, subordinated to the poet’s creative impulse, and recovered.

 This semester, I’m finishing up course work with a class called ‘Romantic Concepts of Nature.’ The goal of the course is to get everyone thinking about how poetic representations of nature—particularly those of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Clare—overlap with or diverge from philosophic views of nature in circulation (mostly by way of Coleridge) during the Romantic period. So far, we’ve read Spinoza’s Ethics and Kant’s Critique of Judgment. While the extent to which Wordsworth actually read Kant and Spinoza remains unclear, Wordsworth would have been exposed to their ideas in his early conversations with Coleridge, to be sure.

My sense is that Wordsworth’s “nature” is meant to be protean and difficult, if not impossible, to pin down. I tend to agree with Paul Fry where he writes that, “for all who feel that the most characteristically brilliant verse of Wordsworth is always in some way an evocation of being as such, the subversion of meaning itself becomes a technique for making nature appear” (63). [1] The elusiveness of Wordsworth’s nature explains how it can have accommodated such a wide range of critical formulations. Hazlitt insisted that Wordsworth’s nature was a leveling muse, Matthew Arnold saw “joy” in it, Geoffrey Hartman taught us to see that nature sometimes leads the poet beyond nature and Jonathan Bate argued that Wordsworth was a poet of ecology. Ultimately, the speaker of “The Prelude” cannot himself say just how nature’s “dark, invisible workmanship” functions, and this an important point.

While it would be foolish to try to fit Wordsworth’s view of nature into a single philosophic schematic, this class I’m taking has helped me to see where and how Wordsworth’s nature aligns with Spinoza’s. I want to use this post to think about one of the most obvious of these inexact alignments, in “Tintern Abbey.” Anyone interested in a more comprehensive meditation on Spinoza’s relevance to Wordsworthian poetics should see Marjorie Levinson’s A Motion and a Spirit: Romancing Spinoza. Well-trodden as is the critical ground that I cover here, I’m hoping that it may be interesting to do a little review.

In the first book of the Ethics, Spinoza identifies “substance” with both God and nature. Needless to say, this was a thoroughly unorthodox way of talking about God in the early modern period. In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza went so far as to attack monarchical government and the religious laws that underwrote it. He claimed that scholars should be able to historicize the bible—that it was not, in other words, a book of revealed religion. Identifying God with nature in the Ethics, Spinoza insists that anyone can come to grasp the divine intellect. Out goes the need for mediation by the authorities.

It will make sense to define a few terms here. Spinioza’s monistic philosophy holds that everything in the universe has its being in “substance,” which is the free and eternal cause of all finite “modes.” One implication of this claim is that there can be no ‘afterlife’ or ‘noumenal’ realm outside of the world of “substance” that we humans are a part of. This inescapable “substance” gets expressed under two distinct attributes—that of “thought” and of “extension.” There can be no causal relationship between thought and extension, which means that there can be no causal relationship between mind and matter. The human mind is simply the idea of the body: ideas of the intellect move in parallel fashion to the way that bodies move in their relations of motion and rest.

An important insight of the first book of the Ethics is that God and nature do not operate to achieve ends—there is no place for an anthropocentric, teleological view of nature in Spinoza’s philosophy. All finite ideas and things are determined to action by a chain of causes that precede them: “In nature there is nothing contingent, but all things are determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in a certain manner” (EIP29). It follows that there can be no free will—under the influence of the passions, humans only imagine that they have wills undetermined by necessity.

Though we humans are always-already thoroughly embedded inside of larger causal networks, we are capable of forming “adequate ideas.” We develop this kind of rational knowledge by self-reflexively comparing ideas in our mind. As a result, our intellect forms active conceptions of its own causes and of the “properties of things” that we come into contact with. The Romantic poets were, however, drawn to Spinoza’s claim for an altogether different sort of knowledge. We find in Spinoza the surpassingly optimistic belief that the finite human mind can grasp substance, or “the essence of the body under the form of eternity” (EVP29). The claim that our mind “necessarily has a knowledge of God” (EVP29S) is a rather mysterious one, and there have been many interpretations of what Spinoza means when he asserts that, “we feel and know by experience that we are eternal” (EVP23).

Beth Lord suggests that the mind’s intuitive comprehension of God is, for Spinoza, the imaginative fiction necessary to complete his rational system. She reflects on the implications of this for the Romantic poets: “The inability to achieve completion characterizes [Spinoza’s] universal philosophy. Yet it is also the primary criterion of Romantic poetry itself. Furthermore, since Romantic poetry strives to reveal the infinite in the finite, Spinoza’s philosophy—which claims that infinite substance is expressed through its finite modes—is its basis” (45). [2] Indeed, we need only turn to some of the most famous lines in British verse to find in them a version of the Spinozan fiction of the finite mind’s capacity to discover its identity with an infinite cause in nature.

I’m thinking, of course, of the lines from ‘Tintern Abbey’ where Wordsworth’s speaker reflects:

And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean, and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things. (94-103)

The enumeration of vast, inhuman bodies here (the “setting suns,” the “round ocean”) indicates that the “presence” that the speaker is claiming to have “felt” includes everything that moves. But it is the peculiar formulation of things as “thinking” entities and thoughts as “objects” that is, I think, uniquely Spinozan. I wouldn’t classify this as a moment of animism akin to the boat stealing spot of time in ‘The Prelude.’ The chiastic structure of “all thinking things, all objects of all thought” simply introduces the idea that matter is an expression of thought and vise-versa. And all is necessarily “impelled” by “a motion and a spirit.” Wordsworth here seems to agree with Spinoza that all bodies in the attribute of extension are simultaneously ideas in the attribute of thought, and that everything there is part of the divine intellect. Thoughts do not take priority over things, nor does any grand design direct the course of nature to a particular end.

Wordsworth’s vision of the “life of things” and Spinoza’s conception of “substance” seem to suggest that we ought learn how to “go with the flow.” The course of things may be within the reach of our “sense” and understanding but that course is not ours to control. Of course, this picture is quickly complicated, or undermined, by Wordsworth’s idealist claim that we “half-create” what we perceive. In doing so, we come to recognize nature as “the nurse, the guide” of our “moral being.” Nature, then, does serve a purpose. It is good because it helps us become moral agents—a view that Spinoza would reject. This returns us to the insight that Wordsworth’s concept of “nature” is always in flux.

I want to make one final suggestion, which is that we might read the melancholic turn taken in the final verse paragraph of “Tintern Abbey” as a very non-Spinozan response to the mind-body’s experience of substance. For Spinoza, the affective pulse of this experience is invariably positive. The “highest joy” (EVP32) and the greatest achievement of “blessedness” (EVP33) arise when the human intellect grasps the “immutable and eternal object of which we are really partakers” (EVP20S).In this instance, one comes to know oneself outside of durational time; one recognizes that a part of the self exists eternally, out of all relation to fixed times and places. One in possession of such a knowledge “scarcely fear[s] death” (EVP39). But readers of Spinoza might puzzle over how this recognition involve the highest joy. Might it not be terrifying?

In the final verse paragraph of “Tintern Abbey,” the speaker turns to his sister and anticipates a time when, “I should be, where I no more can hear / Thy voice.” If Wordsworth’s “sense sublime” can be seen to precipitate his fear of dissolution, then the affective pulse of Wordsworth’s discovery of “substance” is distinct from the joy that Spinoza describes. Wordsworth’s speaker wants to believe that the “plots of cottage-ground,” and “orchard tufts” present to him at the beginning of the poem serve a moral purpose to which poetry can give enduring form. But, as many a commentator has noted, the configuration of Dorothy as insurance for the continuity of the speaker’s past and future exposes the frailty of his authorial ego and moral vision to boot. Wordsworth’s Spinozan discovery that bodies and ideas are determined by an intellect directed to no particular end sits uneasily with his more conventionally bourgeoisie faith that a pattern of moral progress may be discerned with nature’s help.

[1] Fry, Paul H. Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

[2] Gray, Richard T. Inventions of the Imagination Romanticism and beyond. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.