I. The nature and significance of the conatus
Spinoza’s conatus is a signal concept of his thought and one which appears as an axiom of modern treatments, particularly those of a political nature. Famously, the conatus doctrine provides:
Each thing insofar as it is in itself, endeavours to persevere in its being.
PROPOSITIO VI. Unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur.
Traditionally the source of this doctrine has been identified as an amalgam of Hobbes and Descartes. From Hobbes Spinoza takes the view that this endeavour is an infinitesimal striving which characterises (human) individuality and is the origin of consciousness; from Descartes he draws the idea that this striving is explicable in entirely rational terms as a kind of inertia. The result is a mechanisation of consciousness in which our lived duration is characterised by the struggle of continued being — the resistance to annihilation.
From this reading a characterisation of Spinoza’s philosophy flows in which all is struggle, an indefinite State of Nature in which Natural Right is regarded as a claim that ‘might makes right’ — each thing has as much natural right as it is actually able to exercise in the world.
But, like the rule in Foss v Harbottle (1843), the conatus is actually two principles which seem to have been run together at the expense of one. In fact it is worse — I believe no-one in the modern period has ever remarked that Spinoza posits another conatus, which reads as follows:
In this life therefore we endeavour [conamur] above all that the body of infancy be changed [mutetur] into another body which is capable of a great many things, and which is related to a mind which is very much conscious of itself, of God, and of things. Ethics V Proposition 39
In hac vita igitur apprime conamur, ut corpus infantiae in aliud, quantum eius natura patitur eique conducit, mutetur, quod ad plurima aptum sit, quodque ad mentem referatur, quae sui et Dei et rerum plurimum sit conscia;
Of course it is not enough merely to have spotted this. The question is, why is it there and why should it be granted the architectonic integrality of the classic conatus? After all, this could just be the throwaway comment of a man known for his small Latin. It is this that I would like to explore, with reference to Spinoza’s theory of natural right insofar as this is treated by him as a cornerstone of his political theory.