Spinoza's Virtuous Passions

By Kisner, Matthew J. | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Spinoza's Virtuous Passions


Kisner, Matthew J., The Review of Metaphysics


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Spinoza's Virtuous Passions
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.