Ethics and On the Improvement of the Understanding (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Ethics and On the Improvement of the Understanding (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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ISBN-13: 9781411429673
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 750,785
File size: 539 KB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza (1632-1677) is considered the earliest modern philosopher. He was born in Amsterdam to a Portuguese Jewish family who had fled to the Netherlands, escaping the persecutions of the Catholic Inquisition. He was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at age twenty-four probably for holding radical views on the immortality of the soul.


Baruch Spinoza, writing in the mid-seventeenth century, has been considered the first modern philosopher for he was the first to write philosophy from a standpoint beyond commitment to any particular religious persuasion. He was also among the first philosophers in modernity to advocate democracy as the best form of government. Spinoza was one of a group of free thinkers of cosmopolitan sensibility residing in the Netherlands, the most tolerant place in Europe and refuge to a number of philosophers in that period, including Hobbes and Descartes, both of whom influenced Spinoza greatly. Spinoza's philosophy, whose mature theoretical articulation is the Ethics, is marked by the most thorough going naturalism of any of its period, so much so that a number of its central tenets are still today a matter of lively debate. Central among these are Spinoza's claims that the mind is as natural as the body; that the mind and body are one thing described in two ways rather than two separate substances barely held together, a natural body but a divinely originating mind; and that ethics is fully explainable in psychological, sociological, and other scientific terms with no remaining dimension beyond scientific grasp, for there is no free will in nature. Spinoza regarded himself as having written, in the Ethics, the first truly scientific psychology. His ethical naturalism became the object of great controversy in the early twentieth century and remains so to this day. Also of lasting significance is Spinoza's commitment to the search for a comprehensive understanding of all things, a theory of everything. Einstein found this commitment of Spinoza to a universal naturalistic vision particularly inspiring and he believed that Spinoza's insight was essentially correct. Discoveries in the neurosciences in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are providing evidence that Spinoza's biological understanding of the emotions may also have been essentially on target. It was upon this prescient naturalistic scientific foundation that Spinoza developed a new approach to ethics. Spinoza's influence on modernity has been ubiquitous, varied, and certain lines of development also went underground. Spinoza was widely vilified in his lifetime and for a century after his death for his religious heresy, but he was rediscovered by and inspired the German Idealists in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most important heirs to Spinoza's thought are Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud but the Radical Enlightenment has recently been laid largely at his feet.

Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza (1632-1677) was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at age twenty-four probably for holding radical views on the immortality of the soul, and he never joined another religious group but kept a respectful distance, attending religious services of various persuasions. He was born in Amsterdam to a Portuguese Jewish family who had fled to the Netherlands, escaping the persecutions of the Catholic Inquisition that, in 1497, had forced all the Jews of Portugal to convert to Christianity. This was only the latest in a wave of forced conversions in the Iberian peninsula beginning with those in Spain in 1391. Some of those forced to convert secretly maintained loyalty to Judaism for generations, and Spinoza's parents were among these. In the Netherlands, crypto-Jews (or Marranos) escaping the Iberian peninsula could renew their Jewish commitments openly and return to a Jewish communal life, especially after 1609 when the Netherlands won its independence from Spain after battling for it for almost a century. It is not surprising that Spinoza in his political works was a great advocate of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Nor do we wonder that his overriding concern was how to lessen the dangers of religious fanaticism upon democratic institutions and political stability. In the Ethics Spinoza places freedom as the ultimate aim and central value of the life well lived. Spinoza had a traditional Jewish education and was particularly versed in and influenced by the Jewish philosophical tradition and especially by Maimonides, Gersonides, Crescas, and Hebreo Leone. The influence of Maimonides and Judaeo-Arabic scientific naturalism is evident throughout Spinoza's works, especially in his assessment of religion and its political function, but also in his sensitivity to language, to metaphor, literary genre, style, and rhetorical modes. Spinoza was influenced by a wide array of thinkers from Aristotle to Descartes and Hobbes to the Latin Stoics and historians. All of these various strains and others can be detected in Spinoza's philosophy but most important is the rich and new synthesis he develops from them. While Descartes can be seen as the originator of a modernity stemming from medieval Christianity, Spinoza is the originator of another version of the modern sensibility originating in the Judaeo-Arabic worldview.

Two aspects of the Ethics immediately become apparent as soon as one opens the book: first, it is in geometrical form, the form of Euclid's geometry with propositions and proofs, axioms and corollaries; second, its frequently interspersed notes, called in Latin scholia, offer a narrative presentation of the subject matter. Spinoza's geometric method, a not unfamiliar scientific form of presentation at the time, expresses the systematic and logical structure of knowledge and its claim to a mathematical kind of certainty. It embodies Spinoza's belief that all knowledge can be integrated into one complete theoretical explanation that is also demonstrable across culture and language. The scholia, on the other hand, elaborate and explain. They are immensely helpful in coming to understand the Ethics, making it far more accessible than it would otherwise be. The scholia are helpful to the reader coming to the philosophy of Spinoza for the first time.

Baruch Spinoza begins the Ethics with the nature of God and ends it with a discussion of true spiritual contentment. Between the beginning and the end he offers three sections on the nature of the human mind: one on its cognitive capacities and two on the emotions. Yet Spinoza calls his great work Ethics (after initially referring to it in letters as 'my philosophy'). In what sense is this work about ethics and how can Spinoza's understanding of the word broaden or even correct our own? One hint of what Spinoza is up to comes from the subtitle of the final fifth section of the book: Of Human Freedom. The Ethics ends with a discussion of freedom rather than of the Good or of the rules of right action as we might expect in a book devoted to ethics. These will be subordinated to a new understanding of freedom as the goal of human striving. In setting freedom as the human value and virtue par excellence, Spinoza anticipates the European Enlightenment. More than that, Spinoza's embrace of freedom will also have great influence in shaping that modernity.

If we look back at part four of the Ethics we see that the freedom in question is freedom from bondage to the passions. By this Spinoza does not mean that all emotions are bad and that the ideal is an emotional neutrality and unresponsiveness. We realize the extent to which it would be a mistake to regard emotional flatness as Spinoza's ideal when we look at the very beginning of his early treatise on philosophic method, his unfinished Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding. This work is perhaps Spinoza's earliest attempt at a systematic presentation of his philosophic views and his most personal statement of the psychological and moral value of the philosophic life, positions developed to their full mature articulation in the Ethics. In the early treatise Spinoza tells the reader that he is seeking "continuous, supreme, and unending happiness." The end of the Ethics bears out that the goal has not changed in the interim and that Spinoza believes that he has discovered the path to its realization.

Spinoza is setting out a way to free us from what he calls emotional passivity. Passions are exactly that: passive emotions. We are passive to them; they rule us and control our lives, causing us great anguish and melancholy as well as great (but generally unpredictable) joy often followed by dashed hopes. We live on a roller coaster. Spinoza opens the Treatise on the Improvement in a state of great emotional suffering, a sickness unto death, which issues in a cry from the heart. These beginning passages are Spinoza's only known autobiographical reflections, his personal letters having been destroyed upon his death. Yet Spinoza tells us here, and then elaborates upon the discovery in the Ethics, that our bondage to the passions can be remedied. For the passions can become what he calls "active emotions," their pain cured and their grip loosened. So the Ethics aims to guide the reader on a path of emotional transformation. Spinoza believes that ethics is concerned with our emotions and our emotional health and development as the basis for caring about others. The freedom from emotional distress and irrationality that he hopes to foster in us through the Ethics will be central also to our capacity to be subjects of political freedom and democracy.

Emotions are not just subjective feelings according to Spinoza but also actual states of our overall organic functioning. Spinoza calls them "the affects" thereby alerting us that they register how the overall state of the human organism is affected. They express the changes in general condition in response to the environment-internal and external, and natural and social-as it impinges upon us moment by moment. The passive affects, the passions, are indications that our overall functional state as an organic system has been weakened by being overwhelmed by circumstances beyond our control. The active emotions, on the other hand, are indications of overall health-we are a well-oiled machine running in top form and able to bear up to the onslaughts of life. Our goal is to be able to keep ourselves in top form even when times are tough and life's vicissitudes might be expected to unsettle us. Spinoza is concerned that unexpected setbacks will lead us to careen into despondency, or pervasive anxiety, tempting us to rush madly after rash promises of magical cures or unrealistic fantasies rather than pursue practical solutions to our pressing needs. In his political works, Spinoza analyzes how our passions render us vulnerable to fanatic causes and false messiahs. We are all too willing to fight for our servitude as if it were our salvation, Spinoza remarks in the preface to his Theological Political Treatise. The latter was the only work of his original philosophy that he published during his lifetime and he wrote it to try to stave off a rising tide of political repression and authoritarianism in the Netherlands. We see from this that Spinoza's political and ethical concerns were deeply intertwined.

Each of us "in essence," Spinoza says, strives to maintain and enhance our individual overall organic stability and integrity. Not only is each person a process of individual striving or endeavor, but all things in nature are examples of such striving from rocks to humans. Spinoza calls this force, individuated in each natural thing, "the conatus," a term going back in the Latin tradition at least to Cicero and a concept commonplace in the seventeenth century. We have no choice but to follow its promptings. In fact we are its promptings. It is our fundamental desire and we are that desire. All our emotions are expressions of this fundamental desire for self-maintenance and self-determination. Now we begin to see how the conatus is also the source of our freedom for its truest expression is that of our individual nature acting to integrate outside forces through ever greater understanding of them. We thereby free ourselves from mere reactivity or subservience. This is our virtue, Spinoza proposes. For he tells us that this conatus that each of us has, or really is, is the "sole basis of virtue." We are our bodily, emotional, and intellectual integrity-both the honesty with which we face the experiences of our lives and also integrate them into our developing sense of self.

A common objection raised at this point is to suggest that Spinoza's way of thinking about ethics seems rather selfish, for when we think of ethics we usually think first about how we treat other people. While Spinoza's focus begins with the self it quickly extends to other people and also our treatment of the larger world, its peoples and the environment. Spinoza's ethics might be a selfish way of looking at ethics if it were not also the case, according to him, that a person's very self is social and defined by many, in fact by infinite interlocking webs of relation, social and natural. We are our relations. We are not atomic individuals floating around fulfilling our survival needs in a dog-eat-dog world. We may have a Hobbesian desire for self but the self whose well-being and interests we wish to fulfill is a self-in-relationship. And so rational self-interest leads us to pursue the well-being of the infinitely extended webs of relation in which we are embedded. That is the task of ethics and of the Ethics, namely, to educate our conatus, our deep desire for self-maintenance and self-determination, to expand its narrow self-furthering into a full-blown furthering of self in all its relation to others. We must learn to love all others as our self for we all stand or fall together.

Maintaining and enhancing the self turns out to mean maintaining and contributing to the multiple contexts and relations in which each self is embedded. For we are not dots, like stars in the sky between empty space. Rather, we are like intersections on the most complex road map of multiple levels and parts. We are each an organic system, and each web of relation in which we are embedded is also a system. The universe as a whole, according to Spinoza, is such a system of which we are an infinitesimal locus of being. The universe consists in systems embedded within systems, and each component system flourishes not against the others and in competition with them but together. Read part two proposition thirteen and its aftermath carefully, and you will discover Spinoza's understanding of Nature as a system. If Spinoza were alive today he would no doubt welcome the notion of an ecosystem. Environmentalists have drawn inspiration from Spinoza, and scholars have called Spinoza's ethic an "eco-ethic."

We come to understand ourselves as extending beyond the narrow boundaries we usually attribute to ourselves, those of the skin, because we recognize our permeability and also our social and natural constitution. We are the products of far wider social and natural forces than we can ever completely grasp; they work both upon us and within us, as self and as world. Where we set the boundary between self and world is constantly shifting-and in understanding it we also broaden it. The result is that we become increasingly open to others and to our environment and contexts; they become a part of us as we are of them. So we come to desire for others the enhancement and self-determination we desire for ourselves. We do so when we realize that our very self is defined by our relations and our contexts, beginning with our bodies but extending infinitely outward to peoples, places, universes, and natures unknown. Ironically, in the end, we are left with a familiar ethic, the Golden Rule. But we have traveled quite a different route to arrive at so familiar a destination. And in the process it has become something other than the mere imperative to be nice to others. It is no longer a mere edifying sentiment, for it has become who we are and what we desire.

So while we find the goal familiar, Spinoza's route to it makes all the difference. For Spinoza firmly holds that we cannot get there in the ways we had supposed, by committing ourselves to being good or to following rules of right action. We cannot just choose to be good. We can only learn to be good through a transformation in our very desires, which is a transformation in our very being. For Spinoza holds to an unusual doctrine for a philosopher of ethics: He maintains that we cannot will to be good or to be nice or anything else. For he believes that free will is an illusion. Free will is the illusion that we are "a kingdom within a kingdom," Spinoza says, a position he attributes to Descartes. To be a kingdom within a kingdom means to have a divided self, a part that rules and a part that is ruled. Morals for Descartes, in contrast with Spinoza, his younger contemporary, concerned the strengthening of the will so that it could resist the body's lure and choose reason and reason's desires over corporeal impulse. But for Spinoza mind and body are one. In fact, Spinoza famously holds the identity of mind and body. Spinoza does not mean by this position that the mind consists merely of chemicals or electric charges but rather that its thoughts and feelings are those of a body and inseparable from it. The body and mind are deeply integrated and all their aspects intertwined with each other.

For Spinoza, mind and body are one thing described in two ways. What this boils down to is that the mind is the body made conscious. The mind minds the body; but it does not direct it as Descartes' proverbial ghost in the machine. An implication of the identity of mind and body is that all thinking is emotionally laden and expresses the conatus, which is to say, the desire for self-determination of each person. So our ideas and beliefs are never neutral but always interested. The key is not to become disinterested, as many modern ethics, especially the Kantian, would urge, for that is, in Spinoza's estimation, impossible. It would violate the very structure of our biology to envision mind and body, reason and desire as capable of that degree of independence from each other. What we can do, however, according to Spinoza, is to universalize our interestedness to all human and natural kind. And that universalizing is true to the scope of our real interests; for we all stand and fall together as points in infinite interlocking webs of relation. Our ultimate interest is to maintain and enhance those webs and we accomplish that by a spiritual turn.

Our desires are transformed when we come to understand ourselves and embrace ourselves as points on the map of Nature, which is to say, in Spinoza's words, when we come to see ourselves in God. Spinoza coins the phrase "God or Nature" to indicate that the two refer to the same thing. For Spinoza famously, and for many in history infamously, identified God and the natural universe. God is not outside the world as its director but is within (immanent in) the world as well as transcends it in the sense of being its causal structure and impetus. God is cause and caused, in Spinoza's medieval Latin terminology, natura naturans and natura naturata. Spinoza firmly rejects the notion of a teleological universe, that is, a universe that aims at the good, a good understood in human terms and answering to human purposes and notions. It is in his view perfect but it is not good in any moral sense or on any human scale.

The Ethics aims to guide us through a two-stage transformation and education of our own desire and understanding. It aims to induce in us a profound self-reflection. The first transformation is to come to understand ourselves in and through all the natural and social systems and contexts of relation in which we find ourselves. In the subsequent transformation, however, we come to an ultimate de-centered vision in which we see not just the world through ourselves but ourselves through the world. We become to ourselves mere points of convergence of various forces and systems in a web whose focus is not ourselves. At that point we are no longer the tail wagging the dog of the universe. The final ethical vision and transformation, achieved through our open embrace of the myriad contexts and relations that define us, bursts forth and we act as what we are: small local and brief expressions of eternal forces. For they survive our mortality and we find our immortality and blessedness in and through them-a realization that brings about our great joy and contentment.

Some have likened Spinoza's ultimate blessedness to the Buddhist universal compassion. It is a state in which our personal, ethical, and spiritual strivings coincide. The Ethics ends with the mystical union of self in God or Nature and the joy to all eternity sought first in the Treatise on the Improvement. We love God, and God loves us, with an infinite intellectual love, Spinoza says. Here at last is Spinoza as Novalis's "God intoxicated man" and Bertrand Russell's "most beloved of all philosophers." Nevertheless, Spinoza's last words in the Ethics sound a note of caution and perhaps even of warning: "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare." Time, however, is finally catching up with Spinoza and the journey through his philosophy is well worth the effort, as his views now more than ever capture the contemporary scientific imagination and ethical sensibility.


The importance of the Elwes translation has been to bring the works of Spinoza to an English speaking public. Elwes was not a professional Latinist. For those wishing to further their understanding of Spinoza, there are a several more technically precise translations into English available.

Heidi Morrison Ravven, Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College, has written extensively on Spinoza, the imagination, and the emotions; Spinoza and Jewish philosophy; and Spinoza and recent neuroscience. She currently has a grant from the Ford Foundation to work on a long-term project on Rethinking Ethics and American Pluralism through Spinoza.

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