# SPINOZA /// Episode 3: Power (Potentia) vs. Power (Potestas): The Story of a Joyful Typhoon


First of all, I would like to share with my readers the story of this article that first took me three hours to write and disappeared when I pressed ‘publish’! According to yesterday’s article however, it did occurred as the result of the ensemble of circumstances that preceded it in world history, so I suppose that I should not regret it!

Let’s continue to explore the Spinozist ‘conceptology’ with, today, a contrast that is difficult to be made in English as the word power includes two meanings whose difference is fundamental in the philosophy of Spinoza. For the purpose of this article I will therefore differentiate the two latin terms of potentia and potestas both contained in the English word of power (in French we would use the notion of puissance for the former and pouvoir for the latter). The referent and complex book examining this question is the Savage Anomaly written by Antonio Negri in 1981 when he was in prison. The original subtitle of this book is saggio su potere e potenza in Baruch Spinoza (essay on the potestas and potential in Baruch Spinoza’s work). Unfortunately, Michael Hardt, Negri’s friend and translator of the English version did not find a way to reconcile this problem and added a different subtitle, The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics.

I might first try to explain the difference between potestas and potentia in a simple way by defining the former as a relationship to another body while the latter as a capacity or an intensity to use a Deleuzian terminology. The potestas needs indeed a referent to dominate or to be dominated by to effectuate itself. On the contrary, the potentia is a relationship to the whole world (Spinoza might say God but since his god is immanent, this is the same thing) in the composition of a form of “harmony”. In the Abécédaire (J for Joy), Gilles Deleuze helps us to understand this difference while explaining the concept of joy and sadness (my translation, the original French transcript is at the end of the article):

There is no bad power (puissance), what is bad, we should say is the lowest degree of the power (puissance). And the lowest degree of the power (puissance), it is the power (pouvoir). I mean, what is malice? Malice consists in preventing someone to do what he can, malice consists in preventing someone to do, to effectuate his power (puissance). Therefore, there is no bad power (puissance), there are malicious powers (pouvoirs). Perhaps that all power (pouvoir) is malicious by nature. Maybe not, maybe it is too easy to say so… […] Power (pouvoir) is always an obstacle to the effectuation of powers (puissances). I would say, any power (pouvoir) is sad. Yes, even if those who “have the power” (pouvoir) are very joyful to “have it”, it is a sad joy; there are sad joys. On the contrary, joy is the effectuation of a power (puissance). Once again, I don’t know any power (puissance) that is malicious. The typhoon is a power (puissance), it enjoys itself in its very soul but…it does not enjoy because it destroys houses, it enjoys because it exists. To enjoy is to enjoy being what we are, I mean, to be “where we are”. Of course, it does not mean to be happy with ourselves, not at all. Joy is the pleasure of the conquest (conquête) as Nietzsche would say. But conquest in that sense, does not mean to enslave people of course. Conquest is for example, for painter to conquest the color. Yes, that yes, that is a conquest, yeah here this is joy.

In other words, and to go back to the notion of joy as we know it familiarly, the moment of true joy that we probably all experienced one day (like Deleuze’s typhoon) occurs when everything around us and in us seems to connect in a harmonious manner: what we see, what we hear, what we smell, how we feel etc. Whoever experienced this feeling would have trouble imagining that such pure happiness could occur when expressing a domination towards another individual. Using the play on word that Deleuze almost gives us, the sad joy he evokes might be observed more particularly in the literature of Sade in which pleasure is achieved through the absolute domination of a body over another (see previous article). However, such a pleasure through its “orgasmic” and violent characteristics does not seem to register within Spinoza’s concept of joy. The French word of jouissance, in its neutrality would probably be more appropriate to receive this meaning, but here again, the English language misses a word to express it.

Let us go back to the Savage Anomaly and how A. Negri associate the philosophy of the Ethics (1677) with the more pragmatic (in the sense of Machiavel’s) Theologico-Political Treatise (1670) and Political Treatise (1675). Negri’s thesis is that the two latter texts should not be interpreted the same way than Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) as it has been repeatedly done in their various historical interpretations. While those two books presupposes a human nature (a fundamentally bad one for Hobbes, a fundamentally good one for Rousseau) and dramatizes a sort of mythical original event for which individuals would have cede some of their rights to compose a society, Spinoza does not “dramatize” (and thus probably does not historicize either) anything; he simply examine the relationships of the multitude with its government. For him, The State constitutes the multitude’s effectuation of its potentia. Whether the government is an embodiment of The State or not is almost irrelevant. Of course, if it is not, the multitude may overthrow it to replace it by another in an attempt to get closer to the expression of its collective produced desire.

Let us not forget however, that the formulation of the multitude’s desire often constitutes an imperfect understanding (if not, sometimes, a complete misunderstanding) of its potentia as the latter is related to the whole world and cannot fully articulated and expressed. Spinoza, who had been horrified by the assassination of the De Witt Brothers by a crowd in 1672, knew too well that the expression of the multitude’s desire has sometimes more to do with the potestas than with the potentia. A legitimate political act would therefore constitute in an act that would formulate its desire as close as possible from the essence of its potentia. As I wrote in the last two articles, understanding the relation to the world is therefore a crucial point for our attempt to act politically, to be joyful.

Appendix: original French transcript of Gilles Deleuze in the Abécédaire:

il n’y a pas de puissances mauvaises, pas de puissances mauvaise, ce qui est mauvais, il faudrait dire, c’est le plus bas degré de la puissance. Et le plus bas degré de la puissance, c’est le pouvoir. Je veux dire, la méchanceté, c’est quoi? C’est empêcher quelqu’un de faire ce qu’il peut, la méchanceté c’est empêcher quelqu’un de faire, d’effectuer sa puissance. Si bien qu’il n’y a pas de puissances mauvaises, il y a des pouvoirs méchants. Et peut-être que tout pouvoir, tout pouvoir est méchant par nature. Pas forcément, c’est peut-être trop facile de dire ça… (…) Le pouvoir, c’est toujours un obstacle mis à l’effectuation des puissances. Je dirais, tout pouvoir est triste. Oui, même si ceux qui ont le pouvoir se réjouissent beaucoup de l’avoir, c’est une joie triste, hein, il y a des joies tristes, c’est une joie triste. En revanche, la joie, c’est l’effectuation d’une puissance. Encore une fois, je ne connais pas de puissances qui soient méchantes. Le typhon est une puissance, il doit se réjouir dans son âme mais… c’est pas d’abattre les maisons dont il se réjouit, c’est d’être. Se réjouir, c’est se réjouir d’être ce qu’on est, c’est à dire, d’être arrivé là où on en est. Alors, c’est pas, c’est pas la joie de soi-même, c’est pas une joie, c’est pas être content de soi, la joie, pas du tout, c’est pas le plaisir d’être content de soi. C’est, c’est le plaisir de la conquête, comme disait Nietzsche. Mais la conquête ça ne consiste pas à asservir des gens. La conquête, c’est par exemple pour un peintre, conquérir la couleur. Oui, ça, oui, ça c’est une conquête. Ouais. Là, c’est la joie.