Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Spinoza's Virtuous Passions

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Spinoza's Virtuous Passions

Article excerpt

A CENTRAL MESSAGE OF SPINOZA'S ETHICS is that we achieve freedom by mastering the emotions. (1) Harkening back to the ancient Stoics, Spinoza describes human bondage as "man's lack of power to control and check the emotions. For a man at the mercy of his emotions is not his own master but is subject to fortune" (4pref). (2) In order to help us become our own masters, Spinoza offers "remedies for the emotions," techniques for checking and controlling them. Of course, Spinoza did not believe, any more than the Stoics, that all emotions are harmful. (3) Spinoza judges what is bad in the emotions with respect to our virtue, which he equates with our power (4def8). The importance of our power, in turn, stems from our nature: we are ultimately modes of the one substance, whose essence as power is expressed as our individual striving to persist in our being and to increase our power to act. Emotions are bad, then, to the extent that they frustrate our striving, decreasing our activity and power. Eliminating these contributes to our freedom because it prevents us from being directed by external forces.

On this basis, one would imagine that achieving virtue would require us to eliminate the passions, pursuing the Stoic ideal of apatheia. Since the passions arise from being passive to external forces, the passions would seem to represent the sort of bondage which concerns Spinoza. Partly on this basis, it is often assumed that Spinoza understood a life of virtue as one of pure activity, with as few passions as possible. (4) This paper aims to show that Spinoza reserves an important role for the passions in a life of virtue. (5) Seen in a certain light, this claim might appear trivial: the passions, like sensations, are knowledge of the first kind, which provides us with the particular knowledge about external things necessary for comporting ourselves in the world. Since Virtue amounts to increasing one's power, it follows that the passions, like sensation, must be Virtuous in the general sense that they are necessary for us to navigate the world successfully.

While I agree with these claims, my thesis argues that the passions are virtuous in a more specific, moral sense. The passions, unlike other knowledge of the first kind, corresponds to our degree of perfection. As such, the passions play an important role in moral reasoning by indicating what activities are good and bad for us. Indeed, it follows that the passions are indispensable to moral reasoning: a truly virtuous person would require the passions in order to engage consistently in the sorts of activities that increase her power, namely, following reason. Consequently, the passions are virtuous, not just in the general sense that they increase our power, but in the deeper sense that they are integral to a virtuous character. This particular sense of virtue is captured by Spinoza's notion of true virtue as living in accordance with reason.

This important role of the passions in a life of virtue has been neglected, in part, because it is difficult to make sense of Spinoza's claim that the passions track our perfection. Spinoza holds that passions are either pleasures, which indicate an increase in our perfection and power, or pains, which indicate a decrease in our power. (6) It is not clear, however, how a passion can be pleasurable, in other words, contribute to one's power consistently with Spinoza's philosophy: when we are passive, we are directed by external forces, which would not seem to constitute an increase in our power of activity. The problem has led some commentators to conclude that Spinoza was mistaken to allow for passive pleasure and that perhaps he didn't really think such a thing is possible. (7) In order to account for the importance of the passions, then, we must explain how they can increase our power. In brief, this paper will argue that, for Spinoza, even when we are passive, we are somewhat active to varying degrees. The passions represent activity because they exercise our understanding by providing us with intelligence about bodies, in particular, the degree of our own bodies' perfection. …

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