How to educate your children against hate? Lessons from Spinoza


“So many worn hands, So many chains. So many broken teeth, So much hatred. Raymond Queneau, sung by Guy Béart, seems to have identified the sad face of our time. So much so that the head of state thought he had to forcefully call for the erection of “bulwarks” against hatred . Couldn’t education, shouldn’t it, constitute the first of these ramparts? But can we really, and how, educate our children against hatred?

In his Ethics , Spinoza defines hatred as sadness accompanied by the idea of ​​an external cause  : “To hate someone is to imagine that he is the cause of sadness”. Sadness is, along with joy and desire, one of the three “primitive” human feelings. A feeling is a state that affects the body by modifying (increasing, or decreasing) its power to act. Generally speaking, joy increases this power of action, and marks the passage to a greater perfection; and sadness diminishes it, which leads to less perfection.

Hate is thus a sad passion. As such, it is “necessarily bad”. It pushes to “remove” or “destroy” what is its object. We must therefore strive to combat it. But the tragedy is that “men are by nature inclined to hate”. How then can it be possible to fight against such a “natural” tendency? Should education, in particular, be distorted on this point?

Spinoza’s whole effort is to show how one can access a “good way of life” while remaining within the framework of the possibilities offered by human nature. Better, by fully realizing this nature (which, for him, is a part of the divine nature). Because man has, by nature, the ability to overcome hatred. For this, three main ways are offered to him.

Make reason prevail over passion

“Man is always necessarily subject to the passions”. But action and passion have the same origin: “it is one and the same tendency which makes us say that man is active or passive”. This tendency becomes passion when it is linked to inadequate ideas; and virtue when linked to adequate ideas.

Passion is only deprivation of knowledge. It manifests the impotence of the spirit. Conversely, the power of the mind manifests itself in clear and distinct knowledge, in the very act of understanding.

Because passion does not have the power to erase reason. On the contrary, “all the acts that we do determined by a feeling-passion, we can make them determined without it, by reason”. Through knowledge, one acquires power over feelings. In particular, “a feeling-passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of ​​it.” It is reason – liberating, source of joy – which saves us from passion – cause of servitude , synonymous with sadness. Man can therefore be, in fact, subject to the passions; but also freed from this submission.

Since “to act by virtue is to act under the guidance of reason”, the first remedy for feelings such as hatred lies in their “true knowledge”. To make reason prevail is therefore to orient all education towards bringing into play the very act of understanding. To understand is “the good which he who acts by virtue desires for himself,” and which he “will also desire for all other men.”

From the educational point of view, anything that leads to understanding is good; bad, anything that has the effect of preventing understanding. “Leading the intelligence to perfection is nothing other than understanding.” This is why the child must be taught to be determined to act “from what he understands”. The first way to erect an educational rampart against hatred is thus to make children understand that it is always necessary, and above all, to try to understand. And to support them in this effort.

Experience the power of love

“It is rare, however, that men live under the guidance of reason.” And, on the other hand, some might think that a life without passion would be pretty cutesy. Fortunately, a second track is available to educators, which allows them to act while remaining on the level of feelings themselves: to fight, and overcome, a negative feeling-passion (hate), by an active, positive feeling (the ‘love). Because “a feeling can only be repressed or suppressed by an opposite feeling stronger than it”. In this case, “hate must be overcome by love (or generosity) and not compensated by reciprocal hatred”.

But by what miracle can love, which is “the joy associated with the idea of ​​an external cause”, be stronger than hate? Quite simply, because the power to act is increased by joy, while it is diminished by sadness. This is why “whoever lives under the guidance of reason strives, as much as he can, to give love (or generosity) in exchange for hatred, anger, contempt, etc. he receives from others. Especially since “if one has at heart to overcome hatred with love, one fights with joy and security”.

But this is experienced, more than it is demonstrated. The best way for parents and educators to combat hatred is therefore, as far as this second track is concerned, to love both their children and their students. That is to say, to experience joy in thinking of them, and in being with them. This implies, it must be observed, that we also love ourselves, that is to say that we experience joy from the simple fact of being ourselves. But that leads to the third track.

Reinforce the power to act

The secret of the miracle of love is simple: it helps to reinforce the power to act in each child. The power to act merges with the power to understand. But hatred is a sign and an admission of powerlessness. Bondage can be precisely defined as “the powerlessness of man to govern and repress his feelings”.

Everything rests on the “tendency”, which “is nothing other than the essence (or nature) of man”. It is therefore nothing other than the power or effort (conatus) by which each thing perseveres in its being. The trend feeds on itself. “The more one strives to seek what is useful (to preserve one’s being) the more one can; on the contrary, insofar as one neglects to preserve what is useful (one’s being), one is powerless”.

This is why it is necessary to help the child to safeguard his power. How ? Power develops in and through action. The philosopher Alain will explain it clearly: “the great thing is to give the child a high idea of ​​his power, and to support it with victories”. The “difficulty conquered” is “the bait that suits man” ( Propos sur l’éducation ). The power to act is always joyful. “When the mind considers itself and its power to act, it is in joy”. The joy of being able to pass, by being active, to a greater perfection.

To overcome hatred, it is therefore necessary, according to this third path, to experience self-satisfaction. Indeed, “the joy that results from self-esteem is called self-love or self-satisfaction”; whence the necessity, noted above, of loving oneself!

Finally, it should be noted that the power to act concerns the body as much as the mind. For Spinoza, “thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same substance”. So that:

“The effort (or power) which animates the mind when it thinks is, by nature, equal and contemporaneous with the effort (or power) which animates the body when it acts”. Therefore, anything that increases is useful, harmful anything that decreases, the “capacity of the body”:

“The more a body is apt, compared to others, to do or undergo several things at the same time, the more its mind is apt, compared to others, to perceive several things at the same time”. Can we praise more highly physical education and sports, which will add its benefits to the implementation of love, and to the development of reason?

Understand, love, act, these could therefore be, if we follow Spinoza, the three key words of an educational project whose ambition would be to arm against hatred. And to live happily.

Author Bio: Charles Hadji is Honorary Professor (Educational Sciences) at the University of Grenoble Alpes (UGA)