Ethics — Part 5

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Benedict de Spinoza, THE ETHICS

(Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata)

Translated by R. H. M. Elwes

PART V: Of the Power of the Understanding, or of Human Freedom

At length I pass to the remaining portion of my Ethics, which is concerned
with the way leading to freedom. I shall therefore treat therein of the
power of the reason, showing how far the reason can control the emotions,
and what is the nature of Mental Freedom or Blessedness; we shall then be
able to see, how much more powerful the wise man is than the ignorant.
It is no part of my design to point out the method and means whereby the
understanding may be perfected, nor to show the skill whereby the body may
be so tended, as to be capable of the due performance of its functions. The
latter question lies in the province of Medicine, the former in the province
of Logic. Here, therefore, I repeat, I shall treat only of the power of the
mind, or of reason; and I shall mainly show the extent and nature of its
dominion over the emotions, for their control and moderation. That we do
not possess absolute dominion over them, I have already shown. Yet the
Stoics have thought, that the emotions depended absolutely on our will, and
that we could absolutely govern them. But these philosophers were compelled,
by the protest of experience, not from their own principles, to confess,
that no slight practice and zeal is needed to control and moderate them:
and this someone endeavoured to illustrate by the example (if I remember
rightly) of two dogs, the one a house-dog and the other a hunting-dog. For
by long training it could be brought about, that the house-dog should become
accustomed to hunt, and the hunting-dog to cease from running after hares.
To this opinion Descartes not a little inclines. For he maintained, that the
soul or mind is specially united to a particular part of the brain, namely,
to that part called the pineal gland, by the aid of which the mind is
enabled to feel all the movements which are set going in the body, and also
external objects, and which the mind by a simple act of volition can put in
motion in various ways. He asserted, that this gland is so suspended in the
midst of the brain, that it could be moved by the slightest motion of the
animal spirits: further, that this gland is suspended in the midst of the
brain in as many different manners, as the animal spirits can impinge
thereon; and, again, that as many different marks are impressed on the said
gland, as there are different external objects which impel the animal
spirits towards it; whence it follows, that if the will of the soul suspends
the gland in a position, wherein it has already been suspended once before
by the animal spirits driven in one way or another, the gland in its turn
reacts on the said spirits, driving and determining them to the condition
wherein they were, when repulsed before by a similar position of the gland.
He further asserted, that every act of mental volition is united in nature
to a certain given motion of the gland. For instance, whenever anyone
desires to look at a remote object, the act of volition causes the pupil of
the eye to dilate, whereas, if the person in question had only thought of
the dilatation of the pupil, the mere wish to dilate it would not have
brought about the result, inasmuch as the motion of the gland, which serves
to impel the animal spirits towards the optic nerve in a way which would
dilate or contract the pupil, is not associated in nature with the wish to
dilate or contract the pupil, but with the wish to look at remote or very
near objects. Lastly, he maintained that, although every motion of the
aforesaid gland seems to have been united by nature to one particular
thought out of the whole number of our thoughts from the very beginning of
our life, yet it can nevertheless become through habituation associated with
other thoughts; this he endeavours to prove in the Passions de l’ame, I. 50.
He thence concludes, that there is no soul so weak, that it cannot, under
proper direction, acquire absolute power over its passions. For passions as
defined by him are “perceptions, or feelings, or disturbances of the soul,
which are referred to the soul as species, and which (mark the expression)
are produced, preserved, and strengthened through some movement of the
spirits.” (Passion del l’ame,I.27.) But, seeing that we can join any motion
of the gland, or consequently of the spirits, to any volition, the
determination of the will depends entirely on our own powers; if, therefore,
we determine our will with sure and firm decisions in the direction to which
we wish our actions to tend, and associate the motions of the passions which
we wish to acquire with the said decisions, we shall acquire an absolute
dominion over our passions. Such is the doctrine of this illustrious
philosopher (in so far as I gather it from his own words); it is one
which, had it been less ingenious, I could hardly believe to have proceeded
from so great a man. Indeed, I am lost in wonder, that a philosopher, who
had stoutly asserted, that he would draw no conclusions which do not follow
from self-evident premisses, and would affirm nothing which he did not
clearly and distinctly perceive, and who had so often taken to task the
scholastics for wishing to explain obscurities through occult qualities,
could maintain a hypothesis, beside which occult qualities are commonplace.
What does he understand, I ask, by the union of the mind and the body? What
clear and distinct conception has he got of thought in most intimate union
with a certain particle of extended matter? Truly I should like him to
explain this union through its proximate cause. What clear and distinct
conception has he got of thought in most intimate union with a certain
particle of extended matter? What clear and distinct conception has he got
of thought in most intimate union with a certain particle of extended
matter? But he had so distinct a conception of mind being distinct from
body, that he could not assign any particular cause of the union between the
two, or of the mind itself, but was obliged to have recourse to the cause of
the whole universe, that is to God. Further, I should much like to know,
what degree of motion the mind can impart to this pineal gland, and with
what force can it hold it suspended? For I am in ignorance, whether this
gland can be agitated more slowly or more quickly by the mind than by the
animal spirits, and whether the motions of the passions, which we have
closely united with firm decisions, cannot be again disjoined therefrom by
physical causes; in which case it would follow that, although the mind
firmly intended to face a given danger, and had united to this decision the
motions of boldness, yet at the sight of the danger the gland might become
suspended in a way, which would preclude the mind thinking of anything
except running away. In truth, as there is no common standard of volition
and motion, so is there no comparison possible between the powers of the
mind and the power or strength of the body; consequently the strength of one
cannot in any wise be determined by the strength of the other. We may also
add, that there is no gland discoverable in the midst of the brain, so
placed that it can thus easily be set in motion in so many ways, and also
that all the nerves are not prolonged so far as the cavities of the brain.
Lastly, I omit all the assertions which he makes concerning the will and its
freedom, inasmuch as I have abundantly proved that his premisses are false.
Therefore, since the power of the mind, as I have shown above, is defined by
the understanding only, we shall determine solely by the knowledge of the
mind the remedies against the emotions, which I believe all have had
experience of, but do not accurately observe or distinctly see, and from the
same basis we shall deduce all those conclusions, which have regard to the
mind’s blessedness.

I. If two contrary actions be started in the same subject, a change must
necessarily take place, either in both, or in one of the two, and continue
until they cease to be contrary.

II. The power of an effect is defined by the power of its cause, in so far
as its essence is explained or defined by the essence of its cause. (This
axiom is evident from III.vii.)


Prop.I. Even as thoughts and the ideas of things are arranged
and associated in the mind, so are the modifications of body or
the images of things precisely in the same way arranged and
associated in the body.

Proof.- The order and connection of ideas is the same (II:vii.) as the order
and connection of things, and vice versa the order and connection of things
is the same (II:vi.Coroll. and II:vii.) as the order and connection of
ideas. Wherefore, even as the order and connection of ideas in the mind
takes place according to the order and association of modifications of the
body (II:xviii.), so vice versa (III:ii.) the order and connection of
modifications of the body takes place in accordance with the manner, in
which thoughts and the ideas of things are arranged and associated in the
mind. Q.E.D.

PROP.II. If we remove a disturbance of the spirit, or emotion,
from the thought of an external cause, and unite it to other
thoughts, then will the love or hatred towards that external cause,
and also the vacillations of spirit which arise from these
emotions, be destroyed.

Proof.- That, which constitutes the reality of love or hatred, is pleasure
or pain, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (Def. of the
Emotions:vi.,&vii.); wherefore, when this cause is removed, the reality of
love or hatred is removed with it; therefore these emotions and those
which arise therefrom are destroyed. Q.E.D.

Prop.III. An emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a
passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof.

Proof.- An emotion, which is a passion, is a confused idea (by the general
Def. of the Emotions). If, therefore, we form a clear and distinct idea of a
given emotion, that idea will only be distinguished from the emotion, in so
far as it is referred to the mind only, by reason (II:xxi.,&Note); therefore
(III:iii.), the emotion will cease to be a passion. Q.E.D.

Corollary.- An emotion therefore becomes more under our control, and the
mind is less passive in respect to it, in proportion as it is more known to

Prop.IV. There is no modification of the body, whereof we
cannot form some clear and distinct conception.

Proof.- Properties which are common to all things can only be conceived
adequately (II:xxxviii.); therefore (II:xii.and Lemma. ii. after II:xiii.)
there is no modification of the body, whereof we cannot form some clear and
distinct conception. Q.E.D.

Corollary.- Hence it follows that there is no emotion, whereof we cannot
form some clear and distinct conception. For an emotion is the idea of a
modification of the body (by the general Def. of the Emotions), and must
therefore (by the preceding Prop.) involve some clear and distinct

Note.- Seeing that there is nothing which is not followed by an effect
(I:xxxvi.), and that we clearly and distinctly understand whatever
follows from an idea, which in us is adequate (II:xl.), it follows that
everyone has the power of clearly and distinctly understanding himself and
his emotions, if not absolutely, at any rate in part, and consequently of
bringing it about, that he should become less subject to them. To attain
this result, therefore, we must chiefly direct our efforts to acquiring, as
far as possible, a clear and distinct knowledge of every emotion, in order
that the mind may thus, through emotion, be determined to think of those
things which it clearly and distinctly perceives, and wherein it fully
acquiesces: and thus that the emotion itself may be separated from the
thought of an external cause, and may be associated with true thoughts;
whence it will come to pass, not only that love, hatred, &c. will be
destroyed (V:ii.), but also that the appetites or desires, which are wont to
arise from such emotion, will become incapable of being excessive (IV:lxi.).
For it must be especially remarked, that the appetite through which a man is
said to be active, and that through which he is said to be passive is one
and the same. For instance, we have shown that human nature is so
constituted, that everyone desires his fellow-men to live after his own
fashion (III:xxxi.Note); in a man, who is not guided by reason, this
appetite is a passion which is called ambition, and does not greatly differ
from pride; whereas in a man, who lives by the dictates of reason, it is an
activity or virtue which is called piety (IV:xxxvii.Note.i. and second
proof). In like manner all appetites or desires are only passions, in so far
as they spring from inadequate ideas; the same results are accredited to
virtue, when they are aroused or generated by adequate ideas. For all
desires, whereby we are determined to any given action, may arise as much
from adequate as from inadequate ideas (IV:lix.). Than this remedy for the
emotions (to return to the point from which I started), which consists in a
true knowledge thereof, nothing more excellent, being within our power, can
be devised. For the mind has no other power save that of thinking and of
forming, adequate ideas, as we have shown above (III:iii.).

Prop.V. An emotion towards a thing, which we conceive
simply, and not as necessary, or as contingent, or as possible, is,
other conditions being equal, greater than any other emotion.

Proof.- An emotion towards a thing, which we conceive to be free, is greater
than one towards what we conceive to be necessary (III:xlix.), and,
consequently, still greater than one towards what we conceive as possible,
or contingent (IV:xi.). But to conceive a thing as free can be nothing else
than to conceive it simply, while we are in ignorance of the causes whereby
it has been determined to action (II:xxxv.Note); therefore, an emotion
towards a thing which we conceive simply is, other conditions being equal,
greater than one, which we feel towards what is necessary, possible, or
contingent, and, consequently, it is the greatest of all. Q.E.D.

Prop.VI. The mind has greater power over the emotions and is
less subject thereto, in so far as it understands all things as

Proof.- The mind understands all things to be necessary (I:xxix.) and to be
determined to existence and operation by an infinite chain of causes;
therefore (by the foregoing Proposition), it thus far brings it about, that
it is less subject to the emotions arising therefrom, and (III:xlviii.)
feels less emotion towards the things themselves. Q.E.D.

Note.- The more this knowledge, that things are necessary, is applied to
particular things, which we conceive more distinctly and vividly, the
greater is the power of the mind over the emotions, as experience also
testifies. For we see, that the pain arising from the loss of any good is
mitigated, as soon as the man who has lost it perceives, that it could not
by any means have been preserved. So also we see that no one pities an
infant, because it cannot speak, walk, or reason, or lastly, because it
passes so many years, as it were, in unconsciousness. Whereas, if most
people were born full-grown and only one here and there as an infant,
everyone would pity the infants; because infancy would not then be looked on
as a state natural and necessary, but as a fault or delinquency in Nature;
and we may note several other instances of the same sort.

Prop.VII. Emotions which are aroused or spring from reason, if
we take account of time, are stronger than those, which are
attributable to particular objects that we regard as absent.

Proof.- We do not regard a thing as absent, by reason of the emotion
wherewith we conceive it, but by reason of the body, being affected by
another emotion excluding the existence of the said thing (II:xvii.).
Wherefore, the emotion, which is referred to the thing which we regard as
absent, is not of a nature to overcome the rest of a man’s activities and
power (IV:vi.), but is, on the contrary, of a nature to be in some sort
controlled by the emotions, which exclude the existence of its external
cause (IV:ix.). But an emotion which springs from reason is necessarily
referred to the common properties of things (see the def. of reason in
II:xl.Note.ii.), which we always regard as present (for there can be nothing
to exclude their present existence), and which we always conceive in the
same manner (II:xxxviii.). Wherefore an emotion of this kind always remains
the same; and consequently (V:Ax.i.) emotions, which are contrary thereto
and are not kept going by their external causes, will be obliged to adapt
themselves to it more and more, until they are no longer contrary to it; to
this extent the emotion which springs from reason is more powerful. Q.E.D.

Prop.VIII. An emotion is stronger in proportion to the number of
simultaneous concurrent causes whereby it is aroused.

Proof.- Many simultaneous causes are more powerful than a few (III:vii.):
therefore (IV:v.), in proportion to the increased number of simultaneous
causes whereby it is aroused, an emotion becomes stronger. Q.E.D.

Note.- This proposition is also evident from V:Ax.ii.

Prop.IX. An emotion, which is attributable to many and diverse
causes which the mind regards as simultaneous with the emotion
itself, is less hurtful, and we are less subject thereto and less
affected towards each of its causes, than if it were a different and
equally powerful emotion attributable to fewer causes or to a
single cause.

Proof-. An emotion is only bad or hurtful, in so far as it hinders the mind

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