Into this apparently static philosophy Spinoza inserts two dynamic elements: first and generally, that matter and mind are everywhere united, that all things are animated, that they have in them something akin to what in ourselves we call mind or will; second and specifically, that this vital element includes in everything a conatus sese preservandi—an “effort at selfpreservation.” “Everything insofar as it is in itself endeavors to preserve its own being,” and “the power or endeavor of anything . . . to persist in its own being is nothing else than . . . the essence of that . . . thing.” 114 Like the Scholastic philosophers who said that esse est agere (to be is to act) and that God is actus purus (pure activity); like Schopenhauer, who saw in will the essence of all things; like those modern physicists who reduce matter to energy—Spinoza defines the essence of each being through its powers of action; “the power of God is the same as his essence”; 115 in this aspect God is energy (and energy might be named, in addition to matter and mind, as a third attribute which we perceive as constituting the essence of substance or reality). Spinoza follows Hobbes in ranking entities according to their capacity for action and effectiveness. “The perfection of things is estimated solely from their nature and power” 116—but in Spinozaperfect means per-factum, complete.
Consequently he defines virtue as a power of acting or doing; “by virtue and power (potentia) I understand the same thing”; 117 but we shall see that this “potency” means power over ourselves perhaps even more than power over others. 118 “The more each one seeks what is useful to him—i.e., the more he endeavors and is able to preserve his being—the more he is endowed with virtue. . . . The endeavor to preserve oneself is the only basis of virtue.” 119 In Spinoza virtue is biological, almost Darwinian; it is any quality that makes for survival. In this sense, at least, virtue is its own reward; “it is to be desired for its own sake; nor is there anything more excellent or more useful to us . . . for the sake of which virtue ought to be desired.” 120
As the endeavor for self-preservation (the “struggle for existence”) is the active essence of anything, all motives derive from it, and are ultimately self-seeking. “Since reason postulates nothing against nature, it postulates, therefore, that each man should love himself, and seek what is useful to him—I mean what is truly useful to him—and desire whatever leads man truly to a greater state of perfection [completion], and finally that each one should endeavor to preserve his being as far as in him lies.” 121 These desires need not be conscious; they may be unconscious appetites lodged in our flesh. Taken altogether, they constitute the essence of man. 122 We judge all things in terms of our desires. “We do not strive for, wish, seek, or desire anything because we think it to be good; we judge a thing to be good because we . . . desire it.” 123 “By good (bonum) I understand that which we certainly know to be useful to us.” 124 (Here is Bentham’s utilitarianism in one sentence.)
All our desires aim at pleasure or the avoidance of pain. “Pleasure is man’s transition from a lesser state of perfection [completion, fulfillment].” 125 Pleasure accompanies any experience or feeling that enhances the bodily-mental processes of activity and self-advancement. 126 “Joy consists in this, that one’s power is increased.” 127* Any feeling that depresses our vitality is a weakness rather than a virtue. The healthy man will soon slough off the feelings of sadness, repentance, humility, and pity; 129 however, he will be readier than the weak man to render aid, for generosity is the superabundance of confident strength. Any pleasure is legitimate if it does not hinder a greater or more lasting pleasure. Spinoza, like Epicurus, recommends intellectual pleasures as the best, but he has a good word for a great variety of pleasures.
There cannot be too much merriment. . . . Nothing save gloomy . . . superstition prohibits laughter. . . . To make use of things, and take delight in them as much as possible (not indeed to satiety, for that is not . . . delight), is the part of a wise man; . . . to feed himself with moderate pleasant food and drink, and to take pleasure with perfumes, . . . plants, dress, music, sports, and theaters. 130
The trouble with the conception of pleasure as the realization of desires is that desires may conflict; only in the wise man do they fall into a harmonious hierarchy. A desire is usually the conscious correlate of an appetite which is rooted in the body; and so much of the appetite may remain unconscious that we have only “confused and inadequate ideas” of its causes and results. Such confused desires Spinoza called affectus, which may be translated by emotions. He defines these as “modifications of the body by which the power of action in the body is increased or diminished . . . and at the same time the ideas of these modifications” 131—a definition vaguely recognizing the role of internal (endocrine) secretions in emotion, and remarkably anticipating the theory of C. G. Lange and William James that the bodily expression of an emotion is the direct and instinctive result of the cause, and that the conscious feeling is an accompaniment or result, not a cause, of the bodily expression and response. Spinoza proposed to study the emotions—love, hate, anger, fear, etc.—and the power of reason over them, “in the same manner . . . as if I were dealing with lines, planes, and bodies”; 132 not to praise or denounce them but to understand them; for “the more an emotion becomes known to us, the more it is within our power, and the less the mind is passive to it.” 133 The resulting analysis of the emotions owed something to Descartes, perhaps more to Hobbes, but it so improved upon them that when Johannes Müller, in his epochal Physiologie des Menschen (1840), came to treat of the emotions, he wrote: “With regard to the relations of the passions to one another, apart from their physiological conditions, it is impossible to give any better account than that which Spinoza has laid down with unsurpassed mastery” 134—and he proceeded to quote extensively from the Ethics.
An emotion becomes a passion when, through our confused and inadequate ideas of its origin and significance, its external cause dictates our feeling and response, as in hatred, anger, or fear. “The mind is more or less subject to passions according as it has more or less adequate ideas.” 135 A man with poor powers of perception and thought is especially subject to passion; it is such a life that Spinoza describes in his classic Book IV, “Of Human Bondage.” Such a man, however violent his action may be, is really passive—is swept along by an external stimulus instead of holding his hand and taking thought. “We are driven about by external causes in many ways, and, like waves driven by contrary winds, we waver and are unconscious of the issue and our fate.” 136
Can we free ourselves from this bondage, and become in some measure the masters of our lives?