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Spinoza's Ethics

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Alex Scott gaat in op Spinoza's Ethics.

Spinoza’s Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata (Ethics demonstrated in geometrical order) is based on a deductive method derived from Euclidean geometry. Spinoza maintains that the validity of ethical ideas can be demonstrated by mathematical argument or proof. Spinoza asserts that ethics can be based on a geometric model in which axioms and propositions follow each other with logical necessity. This reflects the view that ethical truth has the same logical necessity as mathematical truth. Spinoza sees ethics as a rational system corresponding to the rational nature of the universe.

The Ethics is divided into five parts: Part I. "Of God;" Part II. "Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind;" Part III. "Of the Origin and Nature of the Emotions;" Part IV. "Of Human Bondage, or Of the Strength of the Emotions;" Part V. "Of the Power of the Intellect, or Of Human Liberty."

Each of the five parts of the Ethics consists of several definitions and axioms, followed by a series of propositions and corollaries.

The propositions of Part III are followed by forty-eight definitions of the emotions, including desire, pleasure, pain, love, hatred, hope, fear, despair, joy, disappointment, humility, pride, anger, shame, cruelty, benevolence, etc.

Spinoza begins by describing what can be known about God. According to Spinoza, God is infinite being. God is infinite substance, consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses God’s eternal and infinite essence (I, Prop. XI).

Spinoza argues that God necessarily exists, because God’s essence is existence. God’s essence is perfect, which means that God must exist. God’s essence and existence are the same (I, Prop. XX). Each attribute which expresses God’s essence also expresses God’s existence.

According to Spinoza, infinite substance is indivisible (I, Prop. XIII). If infinite substance were divisible, it could either be divided into two finite parts, which is impossible, or it could be divided into two equally infinite parts, which is also impossible. Thus, there is only one infinite substance. Since God is infinite substance, no attribute which expresses the essence of substance can be denied of God (I, Prop. XIV). Every being has its being in God. Nothing can come into being or exist without God.

For Spinoza, the will is a mode of thought, like the intellect. The will is the same as the intellect. In God, intellect is actual, and not potential, because in God, intellect is fully actualized. This means that things must necessarily occur in the manner in which they occur, because the intellect or will of God is fully actualized.

For Spinoza, God is the necessary cause of all things. All things by nature proceed from necessity. All things are predetermined by God, and for anything that exists, some effect must follow.

Spinoza says that thought is one of the attributes of God (II, Prop. I). God can think an infinite number of things, in an infinite number of ways. God’s infinite intellect comprehends all of God’s attributes.

According to Spinoza, God is the essence of substance. Thought and extension are attributes of God. Thus, God is the essence of thinking substance (mind), and of extended substance (body). Substance as a mode of being means necessary existence. Spinoza says that God is infinite substance, and that outside of God, no other substance is possible. Thus, Spinoza’s philosophy is pantheistic, in that it says that God is present in all things.

Spinoza argues that the human mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God (II, Prop. XI, Corollary). All ideas are present in the intellect of God. Ideas are true and adequate insofar as they refer to God. Ideas that logically follow from adequate ideas are also adequate. Ideas are false and inadequate insofar as they do not express the essence of God. An idea is adequate and perfect insofar as it represents knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God. Spinoza says that, since the idea of anything actually existing must come from God, the human mind is capable of knowing God (II, Prop. XLV).

For Spinoza, the will cannot be separated from the intellect. Volition is a mode of thinking. There is no such thing as free will, because the human mind is determined in its willing by a cause other than itself. God’s will, which has no cause other than itself, reveals itself by necessity rather than by freedom. Thus, Spinoza explains that the will can only be a necessary cause of action, and not a free cause of action (I, Prop. XXXII).

From any idea, an effect must necessarily follow. Insofar as an idea adequately refers to God, its effect is caused immediately by God. Insofar as an idea inadequately refers to God, its effect has intermediary causes, and is caused less immediately by God.

Spinoza asserts that the mind has adequate and inadequate ideas. The mind is active insofar as it has adequate ideas, and is passive insofar as it has inadequate ideas. The mind may have more or less adequate ideas, according to whether it is more or less subject to reason. The mind may have more or less inadequate ideas, according to whether it is more or less subject to emotion.

Spinoza says that there are three primary emotions: desire, pleasure, and pain. All emotions arise from desire, pleasure, or pain. Desire may arise from pleasure, or from pain. Pleasure involves a transition from a lesser to a greater state of perfection. Pain involves a transition from a greater to a lesser state of perfection.

According to Spinoza, reality is perfection (II, Def. VI). The more perfect a thing is, the more real it is. Inasmuch as God is absolutely perfect, God is ultimate reality. God is infinitely perfect, and infinitely real.

The more perfect a thing is, the more active and less passive it is. The more active a thing is, the more it becomes perfect (IV, Prop. XL).

Perfection and imperfection are thus modes of thinking. The mind is most perfect when it knows God. Spinoza argues that knowledge of good and evil arises from the awareness of what causes pleasure and pain. The greatest good of the mind, and its greatest virtue, is to know God (IV, Prop. XXVIII).

To act with virtue is to act according to reason (IV, Prop. XXXVI). When we act according to reason, we desire good, not only for ourselves, but for others. The desire to do good things is important for the development of piety and honesty.

Freedom is the ability to act according to reason. Freedom is not the the ability to make free, undetermined choices. Freedom is the ability to follow reason, and to control the emotions. Servitude is the inability to follow reason, or to control the emotions.

Emotions may or may not conflict with reason. Emotions which agree with reason cause pleasure, whereas emotions which do not agree with reason cause pain. Inability to control the emotions can cause pain.

Pain is the knowledge of evil. Pain arises from inadequate ideas, i.e. ideas which do not adequately express the essence of God. Knowledge of evil is thus inadequate knowledge (IV, Prop. XIV).
Pleasure arises from knowledge of what is good. Pleasure comes from adequate ideas, i.e. ideas which adequately express the essence of God. Knowledge of good is thus adequate knowledge.

To live according to reason is to live freely, rather than in servitude to the emotions. If we act according to reason, we are not guided by fear and hatred, but are guided by love and good-will. Spinoza maintains that reason can control the emotions. Reason is virtue, and virtue is love toward God. The more we love God, the more we are able to control our emotions (V, Prop. XLII, Proof). The better we can control our emotions, the better we can understand God.

For Spinoza, the more active the mind is, the more adequately it knows God. The more passive the mind is, the less adequately it knows God. The more active the mind is, the more it is able to respond with emotions which are good. The more passive the mind is, the more it accepts emotions which are evil.

The question arises as to whether Spinoza’s philosophy is able to reconcile the existence of good and evil, of truth and falsehood. If God is infinite substance, how can any form of error and falsehood occur? If God is perfect, how can God allow the existence of evil and suffering?

Spinoza’s viewpoint is that evil is a lack of good, and that falsehood is a lack of truth. Error and falsehood arise from inadequate knowledge of God.

Knowledge of evil arises from inadequate ideas, i.e. ideas that do not adequately refer to God. Knowledge of good arises from adequate ideas, i.e. ideas that adequately refer to God. Spinoza says that all ideas are found in God, but that ideas are true only insofar as they adequately refer to God. Truth is adequate knowledge, falsehood is inadequate knowledge.


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