Purple Magazine
— F/W 2008 issue 10

Spinoza’s Ethics

In these disorienting times we need philosophical direction, not trendy theories. BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY, the French philosopher and star journalist, selected a text directly from the public domain for this new section of Purple. He chose an extract from a work he feels addresses something crucial about today’s world. He introduces an extract from BARUCH SPINOZA’s ETHICS, 1677,translated from the Latin by R.H.M. ELWES in 1883.

What purpose does philosophy serve? Well, let me tell you. To make the distinction, as in this case, between feeble passions and strong passions, sad passions and passions that give joy — between passions that enhance our potential being, dilate it, confer a higher perfection on it and those that, on the contrary, lead it to a lesser perfection, make it gloomier, tetanize it, paralyze it. Warning to the depressed, the saturnine, and other melancholics. Warning to men and women who take their sympathy for their fellow man to the point of embodying his bad vibrations, his pathetic and dark affects, his portion of resentment. Warning to those, especially, who might be tempted to believe that philosophy is only a matter of reason, of speculation, of abstraction, of pure understanding. This text, these fragments of text, say the opposite. They say that philosophy is worth nothing, is useless, isn’t worth an hour of effort, if it does not also have as a goal to create happiness. They say that metaphysics is a physics, almost a physiology, and a usage, indissoluble, of the soul and body, of the body and therefore the soul. They say, two centuries before Nietzsche, and like he later would, and like it will be said again, here, through other fragments of texts, extorted from other philosophers, that philosophy is firstly, above all, an exercise of life. To think this, it took breaking away from Greek philosophy (Aristotle, in particular) distinguishing between the two souls — “sensitive” and “reasonable.” It took going through Descartes, the brilliant but uncertain Descartes who wrote the treatise The Passions of the Soul, his last book, the most enigmatic of all and the first to have approached, but alas to only have approached (Book I, article 50), the critical intuition of a consubstantiality of the soul and the body. In a word, it took Spinoza. It took that materialist reelaboration of Descartes’ treatise that is Spinoza’s The Ethics. And with them, it took the emancipation from the Cartesian hypothesis, still so weighty, of a “pineal gland” assuring the “junction,” the “communication,” between those two regions of Being that are the affections of the body and those of the soul. Philosophy has a history. But it is also a dietetic regimen. Therefore a matter of taste and style. A reminder that, I suppose, will not surprise my friends at Purple.


Prop. XXXIII. Men can differ in nature, in so far as they are assailed by those emotions, which are passions, or passive states; and to this extent one and the same man is variable and inconstant.

Proof — The nature or essence of the emotions cannot be explained solely through our essence or nature (III. Def. i. and ii.), but it must be defined by the power, that is (III. vii.), by the nature of external causes in comparison with our own; hence it follows, that there are as many, kinds of each emotion as there are external objects whereby we are affected (III. lvi.), and that men may be differently affected by one and the same object (III. li.), and to this extent differ in nature; lastly, that one and the same man may be differently affected towards the same object, and may therefore be variable and inconstant.  Q.E.D.


Prop. XXXIV. Insofar as men are assailed by emotions which are passions, they can be contrary one to another. […]

Corollary I — There is no individual thing in nature, which is more useful to man, than a man who lives in obedience to reason. For that thing is to man most useful, which is most in harmony with his nature (IV. xxxi. Coroll); that is, obviously, man. But man acts absolutely according to the laws of his nature, when he lives in obedience to reason (III. Def. ii.), and to this extent only is always necessarily in harmony with the nature of another man (by the last Prop.); wherefore among individual things nothing is more useful to man, than a man who lives in obedience to reason.  Q.E.D.

Corollary II — As every man seeks most that which is useful to him, so are men most useful one to another. For the more a man seeks what is useful to him and endeavours to preserve himself, the more is he endowed with virtue (IV. xx.), or, what is the same thing (IV. Def. viii.), the more is he endowed with power to act according to the laws of his own nature, that is to live in obedience to reason. But men are most in natural harmony, when they live in obedience to reason (by the last Prop.); therefore (by the foregoing Coroll.) men will be most useful one to another, when each seeks most that which is useful to him.  Q.E.D.


Prop. XXXVIII. Whatsoever disposes the human body, so as to render it capable of being affected in an increased number of ways, or of affecting external bodies in an increased number of ways, is useful to man; and is so, in proportion as the body is thereby rendered more capable of being affected or affecting other bodies in an increased number of ways; contrariwise, whatsoever renders the body less capable in this respect is hurtful to man.

Proof — Whatsoever thus increases the capabilities of the body increases also the mind’s capability of perception (II. xiv.); therefore, whatsoever thus disposes the body, and thus renders it capable, is necessarily good or useful (IV. xxvi. xxvii.); and is so in proportion to the extent to which it can render the body capable; contrariwise (II. xiv. IV. xxvi. xxvii.), it is hurtful, if it renders the body in this respect less capable.  Q.E.D.

Prop. XXXIX. Whatsoever brings about the preservation of the proportion of motion and rest, which the parts of the human body mutually possess, is good; contrariwise, whatsoever causes a change in such proportion is bad.

Proof — The human body needs many other bodies for its preservation (II. Post. iv.). But that which constitutes the specific reality (forma) of a human body is, that its parts communicate their several motions one to another in a certain fixed proportion (Def. before Lemma iv. after III. xiii.). Therefore, whatsoever brings about the preservation of the proportion between motion and rest, which the parts of the human body mutually possess, preserves the specific reality of the human body and consequently renders the human body capable of being affected in many ways and of affecting external bodies in many ways; consequently it is good (by the last Prop.). Again, whatsoever brings about a change in the aforesaid proportion causes the human body to assume another specific character, in other words (see Preface to this Part towards the end, though the point is indeed self-evident), to be destroyed, and consequently totally incapable of being affected in an in. creased numbers of ways; therefore it is bad.  Q.E.D.

Note — The extent to which such causes can injure or be of service to the mind will be explained in the Fifth Part. But I would here remark that I consider that a body undergoes death, when the proportion of motion and rest which obtained mutually among its several parts is changed. For I do not venture to deny that a human body, while keeping the circulation of the blood and other properties, wherein the life of a body is thought to consist, may none the less be changed into another nature totally different from its own. There is no reason, which compels me to maintain that a body does not die, unless it becomes a corpse; nay, experience would seem to point to the opposite conclusion. It sometimes happens, that a man undergoes such changes, that I should hardly call him the same. As I have heard tell of a certain Spanish poet, who had been seized with sickness, and though he recovered therefrom yet remained so oblivious of his past life, that he would not believe the plays and tragedies he had written to be his own: indeed, he might have been taken for a grown-up child, if he had also forgotten his native tongue. If this instance seems incredible, what shall we say of infants? A man of ripe age deems their nature so unlike his own, that he can only be persuaded that he too has been an infant by the analogy of other men. However, I prefer to leave such questions undiscussed, lest I should give ground to the superstitious for raising new issues.

Prop. XL. Whatsoever conduces to man’s social life, or causes men to live together in harmony, is useful, whereas whatsoever brings discord into a State is bad.

Proof — For whatsoever causes men to live together in harmony also causes them to live according to reason (IV. xxxv.), and is therefore (IV. xxvi. and xxvii.) good, and (for the same reason) whatsoever brings about discord is bad.  Q.E.D.

Prop. XLI. Pleasure in itself is not bad but good: contrariwise, pain in itself is bad.

Proof — Pleasure (III. xi. and note) is emotion, whereby the body’s power of activity, is increased or helped; pain is emotion, whereby the body’s power of activity is diminished or checked; therefore (IV. xxxviii.) pleasure in itself is good, &c.  Q.E.D.

Prop. XLII. Mirth cannot be excessive, but is always good; contrariwise, Melancholy is always bad.

Proof — Mirth (see its Def. in III. xi. note) is pleasure, which, in so far as it is referred to the body, consists in all parts of the body being affected equally: that is (III. xi.), the body’s power of activity, is increased or aided in such a manner, that the several parts maintain their former proportion of motion and rest; therefore Mirth is always good (IV. xxxix.), and cannot be excessive. But Melancholy (see its Def. in the same note to III. xi.) is pain, which, in so far as it is referred to the body, consists in the absolute decrease or hindrance of the body’s power of activity; therefore (IV. xxxviii.) it is always bad.  Q.E.D.


Prop. XLV. Hatred can never be good.

Proof — When we hate a man, we endeavour to destroy him (III. xxxix.), that is (IV. xxxvii.),
we endeavour to do something that is bad. Therefore, &c.  Q.E.D.

N.B. Here, and in what follows, I mean by hatred only hatred towards men.

Corollary I — Envy, derision, contempt, anger, revenge, and other emotions attributable to hatred, or arising therefrom, are bad; this is evident from III. xxxix. and IV. xxxvii.

Corollary II — Whatsoever we desire from motives of hatred is base, and in a State unjust. This also is evident from III. xxxix., and from the definitions of baseness and injustice in IV. xxxvii. note.

Note — Between derision (which I have in Coroll. I. stated to be bad) and laughter I recognize a great difference. For laughter, as also jocularity, is merely pleasure; therefore, so long as it be not excessive, it is in itself good (IV. xli.). Assuredly nothing forbids man to enjoy himself, save grim and gloomy superstition. For why is it more lawful to satiate one’s hunger and thirst than to drive away one’s melancholy? I reason, and have convinced myself as follows: No deity, nor anyone else, save the envious, takes Pleasure in my infirmity and discomfort, nor sets down to my virtue the tears, sobs, fear, and the like, which are signs of infirmity of spirit; on the contrary, the greater the pleasure wherewith we are affected, the greater the perfection whereto we pass; in other words, the more must we necessarily partake of the divine nature. Therefore, to make use of what comes in our way, and to enjoy it as much as possible (not to the point of satiety, for that would not be enjoyment) is the part of a wise man.


Prop. XLVI. He, who lives under the guidance of reason, endeavours, as far as possible, to render back love, or kindness, for other men’s hatred, anger, contempt, &c., towards him.

Proof — All emotions of hatred are bad (IV. xlv. Coroll. i.); therefore he who lives under the guidance of reason will endeavour, as far as possible, to avoid being assailed by such emotions (IV. xix.); consequently, he will also endeavour to prevent others being so assailed (IV. xxxvii.). But hatred is increased by being reciprocated, and can be quenched by love (III. xliii.), so that hatred may pass into love (III. xliv.); therefore he who lives under the guidance of reason will endeavour to repay hatred with love, that is, with kindness.  Q.E.D.

Note — He who chooses to avenge wrongs with hatred is assuredly wretched. But he, who strives to conquer hatred with love, fights his battle in joy and confidence; he withstands many as easily as one, and has very little need of fortune’s aid. Those whom he vanquishes yield joyfully, not through failure, but through increase in their powers; all these consequences follow so plainly from the mere definitions of love and understanding, that I have no need to prove them in detail.

Prop. XLVII. Emotions of hope and fear cannot be in, themselves good.

Proof — Emotions of hope and fear cannot exist without pain. For fear is pain (Def. of the Emotions, xiii.), and hope (Def. of the Emotions, Explanation xii. and xiii.) cannot exist without fear; therefore (IV. xli.) these emotions cannot be good in themselves, but only in so far as they can restrain excessive pleasure (IV. xliii.).  Q.E.D.


Prop. L. Pity, in a man who lives under the guidance of reason, is in itself bad and useless.

Proof — Pity (Def. of the Emotions, xviii.) is a pain, and therefore (IV. xli.) is in itself bad. The good effect which follows, namely, our endeavour to free the object of our pity from misery, is an action which we desire to do solely at the dictation of reason (IV. xxxvii.); only at the dictation of reason are we able to perform any action, which we know for certain to be good (IV. xxvii.); thus, in a man who lives under the guidance of reason, pity in itself is useless and bad.  Q.E.D.

Note — He who rightly realizes, that all things follow from the necessity of the divine nature, and come to pass in accordance with the eternal laws and rules of nature, will not find anything worthy of hatred, derision, or contempt, nor will he bestow pity on anything, but to the utmost extent of human virtue he will endeavour to do well, as the saying is, and to rejoice. We may add, that he, who is easily touched with compassion, and is moved by another’s sorrow or tears, often does something which he afterwards regrets; partly because we can never be sure that an action caused by emotion is good, partly because we are easily deceived by false tears. I am in this place expressly speaking of a man living under the guidance of reason. He who is moved to help others neither by reason nor by compassion, is rightly styled inhuman, for (III. xxvii.) he seems unlike a man.


Prop. LIII. Humility is not a virtue, or does not arise from reason.

Proof — Humility is pain arising from a man’s contemplation of his own infirmities (Def. of the Emotions, xxvi.). But, in so far as a man knows himself by true reason, he is assumed to understand his essence, that is, his power (III. vii.). Wherefore, if a man in self-contemplation perceives any infirmity in himself, it is not by virtue of his understanding himself, but (III. lv.) by virtue of his power of activity being checked. But, if we assume that a man perceives his own infirmity by virtue of understanding something stronger than himself, by the knowledge of which he determines his own power of activity, this is the same as saying that we conceive that a man understands himself distinctly (IV. xxvi.), because his power of activity is aided. Wherefore humility, or the pain which arises from a man’s contemplation of his own infirmity, does not arise from the contemplation or reason, and is not a virtue but a passion.  Q.E.D.

Prop. LIV. Repentance is not a virtue, or does not arise from reason; but he who repents of an action is doubly wretched or infirm.

Proof — The first part of this proposition is proved like the foregoing one. The second part is proved from the mere definition of the emotion in question (Def. of the Emotions, xxvii.). For the man allows himself to be overcome, first, by evil desires; secondly, by pain.

Note — As men seldom live under the guidance of reason, these two emotions, namely, Humility and Repentance, as also Hope and Fear, bring more good than harm; hence, as we must sin, we had better sin in that direction. For, if all men who are a prey to emotion were all equally proud, they would shrink from nothing, and would fear nothing; how then could they be joined and linked together in bonds of union? The crowd plays the tyrant, when it is not in fear; hence we need not wonder that the prophets, who consulted the good, not of a few, but of all, so strenuously commended Humility, Repentance, and Reverence. Indeed those who are a prey to these emotions may be led much more easily than others to live under the guidance of reason, that is, to become free and to enjoy the life of the blessed.

Prop. LV. Extreme pride or dejection indicates extreme ignorance of self.

Proof — This is evident from Def. of the Emotions, xxviii. and xxix.

Prop. LVI. Extreme pride or dejection indicates extreme infirmity of spirit.

Proof — The first foundation of virtue is self-preservation (IV. xxii. Coroll.) under the guidance of reason (IV. xxiv.). He, therefore, who is ignorant of himself, is ignorant of the foundation of all virtues, and consequently of all virtues. Again, to act virtuously is merely, to act under the guidance of reason (IV. xxiv.): now he, that acts under the guidance of reason, must necessarily know that he so acts (II. xliii.). Therefore he who is in extreme ignorance of himself, and consequently of all virtues, acts least in obedience to virtue in other words (IV. Def. viii.), is most infirm of spirit. Thus extreme pride or dejection indicates extreme infirmity of spirit.  Q.E.D.


Prop. LIX. To all the actions, whereto we are determined by emotion wherein the mind is passive, we can be determined without emotion by reason.

Proof — To act rationally is nothing else (III. iii. and Def. ii.) but to perform those actions, which follow from the necessity of our nature considered in itself alone. But pain is bad, in so far as it diminishes or checks the power of action (IV. xli.); wherefore we cannot by pain be determined to any action, which we should be unable to perform under the guidance of reason. Again, pleasure is bad only in so far as it hinders a man’s capability for action (IV. xli. xliii.); therefore to this extent we could not be determined by it to any action, which we could not perform under the guidance of reason. Lastly, pleasure, in so far as it is good, is in harmony with reason (for it consists in the fact that a man’s capability for action is increased or aided); nor is the mind passive therein, except in so far as a man’s power of action is not increased to the extent of affording him an adequate conception of himself and his actions (III. iii. and note).


Another Proof — A given action is called bad, in so far as it arises from one being affected by hatred or any evil emotion. But no action, considered in itself alone, is either good or bad (as we pointed out in the preface to Pt. IV.), one and the same action being sometimes good, sometimes bad; wherefore to the action which is sometimes bad, or arises from some evil emotion, we may be led by reason (IV. xix.).  Q.E.D.


Prop. LX. Desire arising from a pleasure or pain, that is not attributable to the whole body, but only to one or certain parts thereof, is without utility in respect to a man as a whole.

Proof — Let it be assumed, for instance, that A, a part of a body, is so strengthened by some external cause, that it prevails over the remaining parts (IV. vi.). This part will not endeavour to do away with its own powers, in order that the other parts of the body may perform its office; for this it would be necessary for it to have a force or power of doing away with its own powers, which (III. vi.) is absurd. The said part, and, consequently, the mind also, will endeavour to preserve its condition. Wherefore desire arising from a pleasure of the kind aforesaid has no utility in reference to a man as a whole. If it be assumed, on the other hand, that the part, A, be checked so that the remaining parts prevail, it may be proved in the same manner that desire arising from pain has no utility in respect to a man as a whole.  Q.E.D.


[Table of contents]

F/W 2008 issue 10

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