Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese-Jewish descent, from a family that settled in Amsterdam to avoid religious persecution in Portugal. When Spinoza was six, his mother died; by the time he was in his early 20s, a sister and his father had also died. In his education, Spinoza studied Biblical and Talmudic texts and eventually mastered Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and German. Because of his questioning of traditional Jewish beliefs, in 1656, he was charged with atheism and was ostracized from his congregation, upon which he Christianized his name to Benedict. Four years later, Spinoza began work on the first book of his masterpiece, the Ethics, which was completed in 1675. During this time, Spinoza supported himself as a lens grinder, and it was glass dust, along with consumption, that killed him in 1677.
Along with Descartes and Leibniz, Spinoza was one of the most influential rationalists of the 17th century. In Ethics, he used a deductive method, much like Euclid’s, which inferred subsequent propositions from what he thought was a self-evident foundation of knowledge. The notations Definition, Demonstration, Scholia, Proposition, Corollary, and Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum, or “that which was to be shown”) in the selection printed here are references to elements of this deductive system; the internal references in the text are to other sections of the work. Spinoza’s system begins with God as the foundation of all reality and develops into a monist metaphysics in which God, substance, and nature are all interchangeable entities. To understand the nature of reality, man must go beyond sensual and scientific knowledge to an intuition of reality. Spinoza’s moral philosophy stressed that by coming to have true knowledge and love of God, man could know and experience freedom from the constraints of his own passions.
Spinoza believed that death was a severance of body and mind that does not necessarily involve physical death. Because his criteria of personal identity include memory, amnesia may count as death as much as becoming a corpse. For Spinoza, immortality is impersonal and the cause of death is external; therefore, suicide is an illogical act. Reason demands that every person should love himself, should desire what leads him to greater perfection, and should endeavor to preserve his own life; this seeking after self-preservation is the principal basis of virtue. As Spinoza says in his famous dictum, “A free man thinks of nothing less than death, and his wisdom is not a meditation upon death but upon life.”
Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, Part IV: Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions, Prop. XVIII-XXII. Trans. R. H. M. Elwes, 1883. Available online from Project Gutenberg, text release #3800.
PROP. XVIII. Desire arising from pleasure is, other conditions being equal, stronger than desire arising from pain.
Proof. Desire is the essence of a man (Def. of the Emotions, i.), that is, the endeavour whereby a man endeavours to persist in his own being. Wherefore desire arising from pleasure is, by the fact of pleasure being felt, increased or helped; on the contrary, desire arising from pain is, by the fact of pain being felt, diminished or hindered; hence the force of desire arising from pleasure must be defined by human power together with the power of an external cause, whereas desire arising from pain must be defined by human power only. Thus the former is the stronger of the two. Q.E.D.
Note. In these few remarks I have explained the causes of human infirmity and inconstancy, and shown why men do not abide by the precepts of reason. It now remains for me to show what course is marked out for us by reason, which of the emotions are in harmony with the rules of human reason, and which of them are contrary thereto. But, before I begin to prove my Propositions in detailed geometrical fashion, it is advisable to sketch them briefly in advance, so that everyone may more readily grasp my meaning.
As reason makes no demands contrary to nature, it demands, that every man should love himself, should seek that which is useful to him–I mean, that which is really useful to him, should desire everything which really brings man to greater perfection, and should, each for himself, endeavour as far as he can to preserve his own being. This is as necessarily true, as that a whole is greater than its part. (Cf. III. iv.)
Again, as virtue is nothing else but action in accordance with the laws of one’s own nature (IV. Def. viii.), and as no one endeavours to preserve his own being, except in accordance with the laws of his own nature, it follows, first, that the foundation of virtue is the endeavour to preserve one’s own being, and that happiness consists in man’s power of preserving his own being; secondly, that virtue is to be desired for its own sake, and that there is nothing more excellent or more useful to us, for the sake of which we should desire it; thirdly and lastly, that suicides are weak-minded, and are overcome by external causes repugnant to their nature. Further, it follows from Postulate iv., Part II., that we can never arrive at doing without all external things for the preservation of our being or living, so as to have no relations with things which are outside ourselves. Again, if we consider our mind, we see that our intellect would be more imperfect, if mind were alone, and could understand nothing besides itself. There are, then, many things outside ourselves, which are useful to us, and are, therefore, to be desired. Of such none can be discerned more excellent, than those which are in entire agreement with our nature. For if, for example, two individuals of entirely the same nature are united, they form a combination twice as powerful as either of them singly.
Therefore, to man there is nothing more useful than man–nothing, I repeat, more excellent for preserving their being can be wished for by men, than that all should so in all points agree, that the minds and bodies of all should form, as it were, one single mind and one single body, and that all should, with one consent, as far as they are able, endeavour to preserve their being, and all with one consent seek what is useful to them all. Hence, men who are governed by reason–that is, who seek what is useful to them in accordance with reason, desire for themselves nothing, which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind, and, consequently, are just, faithful, and honourable in their conduct.
Such are the dictates of reason, which I purposed thus briefly to indicate, before beginning to prove them in greater detail. I have taken this course, in order, if possible, to gain the attention of those who believe, that the principle that every man is bound to seek what is useful for himself is the foundation of impiety, rather than of piety and virtue.
Therefore, after briefly showing that the contrary is the case, I go on to prove it by the same method, as that whereby I have hitherto proceeded.
PROP. XIX. Every man, by the laws of his nature, necessarily desires or shrinks from that which he deems to be good or bad.
Proof. The knowledge of good and evil is (IV. viii.) the emotion of pleasure or pain, in so far as we are conscious thereof; therefore, every man necessarily desires what he thinks good, and shrinks from what he thinks bad. Now this appetite is nothing else but man’s nature or essence (Cf. the Definition of Appetite, III. ix. note, and Def. of the Emotions, i.). Therefore, every man, solely by the laws of his nature, desires the one, and shrinks from the other, &c. Q.E.D.
PROP. XX. The more every man endeavours, and is able to seek what is useful to him–in other words, to preserve his own being–the more is he endowed with virtue; on the contrary, in proportion as a man neglects to seek what is useful to him, that is, to preserve his own being, he is wanting in power.
Proof. Virtue is human power, which is defined solely by man’s essence (IV. Def. viii.), that is, which is defined solely by the endeavour made by man to persist in his own being. Wherefore, the more a man endeavours, and is able to preserve his own being, the more is he endowed with virtue, and, consequently (III. iv. and vi.), in so far as a man neglects to preserve his own being, he is wanting in power. Q.E.D.
Note. No one, therefore, neglects seeking his own good, or preserving his own being, unless he be overcome by causes external and foreign to his nature. No one, I say, from the necessity of his own nature, or otherwise than under compulsion from external causes, shrinks from food, or kills himself: which latter may be done in a variety of ways. A man, for instance, kills himself under the compulsion of another man, who twists round his right hand, wherewith he happened to have taken up a sword, and forces him to turn the blade against his own heart; or, again, he may be compelled, like Seneca, by a tyrant’s command, to open his own veins–that is, to escape a greater evil by incurring, a lesser; or, lastly, latent external causes may so disorder his imagination, and so affect his body, that it may assume a nature contrary to its former one, and whereof the idea cannot exist in the mind (III. x.). But that a man, from the necessity of his own nature, should endeavour to become non-existent, is as impossible as that something should be made out of nothing, as everyone will see for himself, after a little reflection.
PROP. XXI. No one can desire to be blessed, to act rightly, and to live rightly, without at the same time wishing to be, act, and to live–in other words, to actually exist.
Proof. The proof of this proposition, or rather the proposition itself, is self-evident, and is also plain from the definition of desire. For the desire of living, acting, &c., blessedly or rightly, is (Def. of the Emotions, i.) the essence of man–that is (III. vii.), the endeavour made by everyone to preserve his own being. Therefore, no one can desire, &c. Q.E.D.
PROP. XXII. No virtue can be conceived as prior to this endeavour to preserve one’s own being.
Proof. The effort for self-preservation is the essence of a thing (III. vii.); therefore, if any virtue could be conceived as prior thereto, the essence of a thing would have to be conceived as prior to itself, which is obviously absurd. Therefore no virtue, &c. Q.E.D.
Corollary. The effort for self-preservation is the first and only foundation of virtue. For prior to this principle nothing can be conceived, and without it no virtue can be conceived.