The Ethics of Benedict de Spinoza


THE actions of the mind arise from adequate ideas alone; but the passions depend on those alone which are inadequate. The essence of the mind is composed of adequate and inadequate ideas.

Accidentally, anything may be the cause of joy, sorrow, or desire. We love or hate certain things not for any known cause, but merely from sympathy or antipathy. If we hate a thing, we seek to affirm concerning it everything that we think can affect it with sorrow, while we deny everything that we think can affect it with joy. From this we see how easily a man may think too much of himself, and of the object which he loves, and, on the other hand, may think too little of what he hates.

When a man thinks too much of himself, this imagination is termed pride and is a species of delirium, because he dreams with his eyes open that he can do all those things to which he attains in imagination alone, regarding them thus as realities and rejoicing in them so long as he cannot imagine anything to exclude their existence and limit his power of action.

Joy is a man's passage from less to a greater perfection; sorrow is a man's passage from a greater to a less perfection. I say passage, for joy is not perfection itself. If a man were born with the perfection to which he passes, he would possess it without the affection of joy--a truth the more vividly apparent from the affection of sorrow, which is the contrary of joy.

For, that sorrow consists in the passage to a less perfection, but not in the less perfection itself, no one can deny, since in so far as a man partakes of any perfection he cannot be sad.

Nor can we say that sorrow consists in the passage to a less perfection, for privation is nothing. But the affection of sorrow is actual, and so can be nothing else than the passage to a lesser perfection--that is, the reality by which the power of acting is limited, or diminished. As for the definitions of cheerfulness, pleasurable excitement, melancholy or grief, I omit these, because they are related rather to the body than to the mind, and are merely different species of joy and sorrow.

Love is joy, with the accompanying idea of an external cause. Hatred is sorrow, with the accompanying idea of an external cause. Devotion is love towards an object which we admire and wonder at. Derision, is joy arising from the imagination that something we despise is present in the object we hate. Hope is a joy not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past, about the issue of which we are doubtful. Fear is sorrow not constant, arising in like manner.

Confidence is joy arising from the idea of a past or future object from which the cause for doubting has been removed. Despair is sorrow arising from a like cause. Confidence springs from hope, despair from fear. Pride is thinking too highly of ourselves from self-love. Despondency is thinking too little of ourselves through sorrow.


GOOD is that which is useful to us; evil that which impedes the possession of good. But the terms good and evil are not positive, but are only modes of thought by which we compare one thing with another. Thus, music is good to a melancholy mind, bad to a mourning mind, but neither bad nor good to a deaf man. We suffer because we form a part of nature. The power by which we preserve our being is the power of God, that is part of His essence. But man is subject to passions because he follows the order of nature.

An affection can only be overcome by a stronger affection. That which tends to conserve our existence we dominate good; that which hinders this conservation we style evil. Desire springing from the knowledge of good and evil can be restrained by desires originating in the affections by which we are agitated. Thus the effect of external causes on the mind may be far greater than that of the knowledge of good and evil. The desire springing from a knowledge of good and evil may be easily restrained by the desire of present objects. Opinion exercises a more potent influence than reason. Hence the saying of the poet, 'I approve the better, but follow the worse.'

Desire springing from joy preponderates over that springing from sorrow. Man is useful to man because two individuals of the same nature when in sympathy are stronger than one. Nothing could be so good for men as that all should so agree in everything as to form, as it were, a single body and mind, all seeking the good of all. Hence, men acting in accord with the dictates of reason, desire nothing for themselves but what they desire for all. This renders them just, faithful and honourable.

The knowledge of God is the supreme mental good, and to know God is the supreme mental virtue. For God is the supreme subject of the understanding, and therefore to know or understand God is the supreme virtue of the mind. But to us nothing can be either good or evil unless it has something in common with us. An object whose nature is absolutely foreign to our own cannot be either good or evil to us, for this reason, that we only call a thing good or evil when it is the cause of joy or sorrow; that is, when it increases or diminishes our power to act.

Nothing can be reckoned good except that which is in harmony with our nature, and nothing can be reckoned evil except what is contrary to our nature, but men cannot be said to agree in nature when they are subject to passions. We only act in harmony with the dictates of reason when we agree in nature with others. Men are most useful to each other who are mutually ruled by the laws of reason.

Yet men are seldom disposed to solitude, but answer generally to the familiar description of man as a social animal, for they know that the advantages preponderate over the disadvantages of social life. They find by experience that by mutual aid and co-operation they can the more easily secure what they need.

A man who seeks after virtue will desire others to do so, and this desire will increase in proportion to the increase of his knowledge of God. This is in accordance with reason, which is the operation of the mind according to the essence of the mind, that essence being knowledge, which involves the knowledge of God. The greater the knowledge of God involved in the essence of the mind, the greater will be the desire that others may seek after the same virtue which the man seeks for himself.

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