Ethics — Part 4

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Benedict de Spinoza, THE ETHICS

(Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata)

Translated by R. H. M. Elwes

PART IV: Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions


Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage:
for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but
lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled,
while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.
Why this is so, and what is good or evil in the emotions, I propose to
show in this part of my treatise. But, before I begin, it would be well
to make a few prefatory observations on perfection and imperfection,
good and evil.

When a man has purposed to make a given thing, and has brought it
to perfection, his work will be pronounced perfect, not only by
himself, but by everyone who rightly knows, or thinks that he knows,
the intention and aim of its author. For instance, suppose anyone sees a
work (which I assume to be not yet completed), and knows that the aim
of the author of that work is to build a house, he will call the work
imperfect; he will, on the other hand, call it perfect, as soon as he
sees that it is carried through to the end, which its author had purposed
for it. But if a man sees a work, the like whereof he has never seen
before, and if he knows not the intention of the artificer, he plainly
cannot know, whether that work be perfect or imperfect. Such seems to
be the primary meaning of these terms.

But, after men began to form general ideas, to think out types of
houses, buildings, towers, &c., and to prefer certain types to others,
it came about, that each man called perfect that which he saw agree
with the general idea he had formed of the thing in question, and called
imperfect that which he saw agree less with his own preconceived type,
even though it had evidently been completed in accordance with the idea
of its artificer. This seems to be the only reason for calling natural
phenomena, which, indeed, are not made with human hands, perfect or
imperfect: for men are wont to form general ideas of things natural, no
less than of things artificial, and such ideas they hold as types,
believing that Nature (who they think does nothing without an object)
has them in view, and has set them as types before herself. Therefore,
when they behold something in Nature, which does not wholly conform to
the preconceived type which they have formed of the thing in question,
they say that Nature has fallen short or has blundered, and has left
her work incomplete. Thus we see that men are wont to style natural
phenomena perfect or imperfect rather from their own prejudices, than
from true knowledge of what they pronounce upon.

Now we showed in the Appendix to Part I., that Nature does not work
with an end in view. For the eternal and infinite Being, which we call
God or Nature, acts by the same necessity as that whereby it exists. For
we have shown, that by the same necessity of its nature, whereby it
exists, it likewise works (I:xvi.). The reason or cause why God or Nature
exists, and the reason why he acts, are one and the same. Therefore,
as he does not exist for the sake of an end, so neither does he act for
the sake of an end; of his existence and of his action there is neither
origin nor end. Wherefore, a cause which is called final is nothing else
but human desire, in so far as it is considered as the origin or cause
of anything. For example, when we say that to be inhabited is the final
cause of this or that house, we mean nothing more than that a man,
conceiving the conveniences of household life, had a desire to build a
house. Wherefore, the being inhabited, in so far as it is regarded as
a final cause, is nothing else but this particular desire, which is
really the efficient cause; it is regarded as the primary cause,
because men are generally ignorant of the causes of their desires.
They are, as I have often said already, conscious of their own actions
and appetites, but ignorant of the causes whereby they are determined
to any particular desire. Therefore, the common saying that Nature
sometimes falls short, or blunders, and produces things which are
imperfect, I set down among the glosses treated of in the Appendix to
Part 1. Perfection and imperfection, then, are in reality merely modes
of thinking, or notions which we form from a comparison among one
another of individuals of the same species; hence I said above
(, that by reality and perfection I mean the same thing.
For we are wont to refer all the individual things in nature to one
genus, which is called the highest genus, namely, to the category of
Being, whereto absolutely all individuals in nature belong. Thus, in
so far as we refer the individuals in nature to this category, and
comparing them one with another, find that some possess more of being or
reality than others, we, to this extent, say that some are more perfect
than others. Again, in so far as we attribute to them anything implying
negation – as term, end, infirmity, etc., we, to this extent, call them
imperfect, because they do not affect our mind so much as the things
which we call perfect, not because they have any intrinsic deficiency,
or because Nature has blundered. For nothing lies within the scope of a
thing’s nature, save that which follows from the necessity of the nature
of its efficient cause, and whatsoever follows from the necessity of the
nature of its efficient cause necessarily comes to pass.

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in
things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or
notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another.
Thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and
indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy,
bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor

Nevertheless, though this be so, the terms should still be retained.
For, inasmuch as we desire to form an idea of man as a type of human
nature which we may hold in view, it will be useful for us to retain
the terms in question, in the sense I have indicated.

In what follows, then, I shall mean by, “good” that, which we
certainly know to be a means of approaching more nearly to the type
of human nature, which we have set before ourselves; by “bad,” that
which we certainly know to be a hindrance to us in approaching the
said type. Again, we shall that men are more perfect, or more imperfect,
in proportion as they approach more or less nearly to the said type.
For it must be specially remarked that, when I say that a man passes
from a lesser to a greater perfection, or vice versa, I do not mean
that he is changed from one essence or reality to another; for instance,
a horse would be as completely destroyed by being changed into a man,
as by being changed into an insect. What I mean is, that we conceive the
thing’s power of action, in so far as this is understood by its nature,
to be increased or diminished. Lastly, by perfection in general I shall,
as I have said, mean reality in other words, each thing’s essence, in so
far as it exists, and operates in a particular manner, and without paying
any regard to its duration. For no given thing can be said to be more
perfect, because it has passed a longer time in existence. The duration
of things cannot be determined by their essence, for the essence of
things involves no fixed and definite period of existence; but everything,
whether it be more perfect or less perfect, will always be able to persist
in existence with the same force wherewith it began to exist; wherefore, in
this respect, all things are equal.


I. By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.

II. By evil I mean that which we certainly know to be a hindrance
to us in the attainment of any good. (Concerning these terms see the
foregoing preface towards the end.)

III. Particular things I call contingent in so far as, while regarding
their essence only, we find nothing therein, which necessarily asserts
their existence or excludes it.

IV. Particular things I call possible in so far as, while regarding the
causes whereby they must be produced, we know not, whether such causes
be determined for producing them.

(In I:xxxiii.note.i., I drew no distinction between possible and
contingent, because there was in that place no need to distinguish
them accurately.)

V. By conflicting emotions I mean those which draw a man in different
directions, though they are of the same kind, such as luxury and
avarice, which are both species of love, and are contraries, not
by nature, but by accident.

VI. What I mean by emotion felt towards a thing, future, present, and
past, I explained in III:xviii.,notes.i.,&ii., which see.

(But I should here also remark, that we can only distinctly conceive
distance of space or time up to a certain definite limit; that is, all
objects distant from us more than two hundred feet, or whose distance
from the place where we are exceeds that which we can distinctly conceive,
seem to be an equal distance from us, and all in the same plane; so also
objects, whose time of existing is conceived as removed from the present
by a longer interval than we can distinctly conceive, seem to be all
equally distant from the present, and are set down, as it were, to the
same moment of time.)

VII. By an end, for the sake of which we do something, I mean a desire.

VIII. By virtue (virtus) and power I mean the same thing; that is
(III:vii.), virtue, in so far as it is referred to man, is a man’s
nature or essence, in so far as it has the power of effecting what
can only be understood by the laws of that nature.


There is no individual thing in nature, than which there is not
another more powerful and strong. Whatsoever thing be given, there is
something stronger whereby it can be destroyed.

Prop. I. No positive quality possessed by a
false idea is removed by the presence of
what is true, in virtue of its being true.

Proof.- Falsity consists solely in the privation of knowledge which
inadequate ideas involve (II:xxxv.), nor have they any positive
quality on account of which they are called false (II:xxxiii.); contrariwise, in so far as they
are referred to God, they are true
(II:xxxii.). Wherefore, if the positive quality possessed by a false
idea were removed by the presence of what is true, in virtue of its
being true, a true idea would then be removed by itself, which
(IV:iii.) is absurd. Therefore, no positive quality possessed by a
false idea, &c. Q.E.D.

Note.- This proposition is more clearly understood from II:xvi.Coroll.ii.
For imagination is an idea, which indicates rather the present disposition
of the human body than the nature of the external body; not indeed
distinctly, but confusedly; whence it comes to pass, that the mind is
said to err. For instance, when we look at the sun, we conceive that it
is distant from us about two hundred feet; in this judgment we err, so
long as we are in ignorance of its true distance; when its true distance
is known, the error is removed, but not the imagination; or, in other
words, the idea of the sun, which only explains tho nature of that
luminary, in so far as the body is affected thereby: wherefore, though
we know the real distance, we shall still nevertheless imagine the sun
to be near us. For, as we said in III:xxxv.note, we do not imagine the sun
to be so near us, because we are ignorant of its true distance, but because
the mind conceives the magnitude of the sun to the extent that the body is
affected thereby. Thus, when the rays of the sun falling on the surface of
water are reflected into our eyes, we imagine the sun as if it were in the
water, though we are aware of its real position; and similarly other
imaginations, wherein the mind is deceived whether they indicate the
natural disposition of the body, or that its power of activity is
increased or diminished, are not contrary to the truth, and do not vanish
at its presence. It happens indeed that, when we mistakenly fear an evil,
the fear vanishes when we hear the true tidings; but the contrary also
happens, namely, that we fear an evil which will certainly come, and our
fear vanishes when we hear false tidings; thus imaginations do not vanish
at the presence of the truth, in virtue of its being true, but because
other imaginations, stronger than the first, supervene and exclude the
present existence of that which we imagined, as I have shown in II:.xvii.

Prop. II. We are only passive, in so far as
we are apart of Nature, which cannot be
conceived by itself without other parts.

Proof.- We are said to be passive, when something arises in us, whereof
we are only a partial cause (III:Def.ii.), that is (III:Def.i.), something
which cannot be deduced solely from the laws of our nature. We are passive
therefore in so far as we are a part of Nature, which cannot be conceived
by itself without other parts. Q.E.D.

Prop. III. The force whereby a man persists
in existing is limited, and is infinitely
surpassed by the power of external causes.

Proof.-This is evident from the axiom of this part. For, when man is
given, there is something else – say A – more powerful; when A is given,
there is something else – say B – more powerful than A, and so on to
infinity; thus the power of man is limited by the power of some other
thing, and is infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes. Q.E.D.

Prop. IV. It is impossible, that man should

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