Durant 1926: Intelligence and Morals (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 4.3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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IV.3 Intelligence and Morals

Ultimately there are but three systems of ethics, three conceptions of the ideal character and the moral life. One is that of Buddha and Jesus, which stresses the feminine virtues, considers all men to be equally precious, resists evil only by returning good, identifies virtue with love, and inclines in politics to unlimited democracy. Another is the ethic of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, which stresses the masculine virtues, accepts the inequality of men, relishes the risks of combat and conquest and rule, identifies virtue with power, and exalts an hereditary aristocracy. A third, the ethic of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, denies the universal applicability of either the feminine or the masculine virtues; considers that only the informed and mature mind can judge, according to diverse circumstance, when love should rule, and when power; identifies virtue, therefore, with intelligence; and advocates a varying mixture of aristocracy and democracy in government. It is the distinction of Spinoza that his ethic unconsciously reconciles these apparently hostile philosophies, weaves them into a harmonious unity, and gives us in consequence a system of morals which is the supreme achievement of modern thought. He begins by making happiness the goal of conduct; and he defines happiness very simply as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. But pleasure and pain are relative, not absolute; and they are not states but transitions. “Pleasure is man’s transition from a lesser state of perfection” (i. e., completeness, or fulfillment) “to a greater.” “Joy consists in this, that one’s power is increased.”* “Pain is man’s transition from a greater state of perfection to a lesser. I say transition; for pleasure is not perfection itself: if a man were born with the perfection to which he passes he would be without … the emotion of pleasure. And the contrary of this makes it still more apparent.” All passions are passages, all emotions are motions, towards or from completeness and power. 

*Nietzsche: “What is happinessP The feeling that power increases. that resistance is overcome.” 

Spinoza begins by making happiness the goal of conduct; and he defines happiness very simply as the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. All passions are passages, all emotions are motions, towards or from completeness and power. 

“By emotion (affectus) I understand the modifications of the body by which the power of action in the body is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the ideas of these modifications.” (This theory of emotion is usually credited to James and Lange; it is here formulated more precisely than by either of these psychologists, and accords remarkably with the findings of Professor Cannon.) A passion or an emotion is bad or good not in itself, but only as it decreases or enhances our power. “By virtue and power I mean the same thing”; a virtue is a power of acting, a form of ability; “the more a man can preserve his being and seek what is useful to him, the greater is his virtue.” Spinoza does not ask a man to sacrifice himself to another’s good; he is more lenient than nature. He thinks that egoism is a necessary corollary of the supreme instinct of self-preservation; “no one ever neglects anything which he judges to be good, except with the hope of gaining a greater good.” This seems to Spinoza perfectly reasonable. “Since reason demands nothing against nature, it concedes that each man must love himself, and seek what is useful to him, and desire whatever leads him truly to a greater state of perfection; and that each man should endeavor to preserve his being so far as in him lies.” So he builds his ethic not on altruism. and the natural goodness of man, like utopian reformers; nor on selfishness and the natural wickedness of man, like cynical conservatives, but on what he considers to be an inevitable and justifiable egoism. A system of morals that teaches a man to be weak is worthless; “the foundation of virtue is no other than the effort to maintain one’s being; and man’s happiness consists in the power of so doing.”

A passion or an emotion is bad or good not in itself, but only as it decreases or enhances our power. A virtue is a power of acting, a form of ability. Egoism is a necessary corollary of the supreme instinct of self-preservation.

Like Nietzsche, Spinoza has not much use for humility; it is either the hypocrisy of a schemer or the timidity of a slave; it implies the absence of power—whereas to Spinoza all virtues are forms of ability and power. So is remorse a defect rather than a virtue: “he who repents is twice unhappy and doubly weak.” But he does not spend so much time as Nietzsche in inveighing against humility; for “humility is very rare”; and as Cicero said, even the philosophers who write books in its praise take care to put their names on the title-page. “One who despises himself is the nearest to a proud man,” says Spinoza (putting in a sentence a pet theory of the psychoanalysts, that every conscious virtue is an effort to conceal or correct a secret vice). And whereas Spinoza dislikes humility he admires modesty, and objects to a pride that is not ”tenoned and mortised” in deeds. Conceit makes men a nuisance to one another: “the conceited man relates only his own great deeds, and only the evil ones of others”; he delights in the presence of his inferiors, who will gape at his perfections and exploits; and becomes at last the victim of those who praise him most; for “none are more taken in by flattery than the proud.”

Humility is fine as modesty but one should not despise himself; nor should one be conceited.

So far our gentle philosopher offers us a rather Spartan ethic; but he strikes in other passages a softer tone. He marvels at the amount of envy, recrimination, mutual belittlement, and even hatred, which agitates and separates men; and sees no remedy for our social ills except in the elimination of these and similar emotions. He believes it is a simple matter to show that hatred, perhaps because it trembles on the verge of love, can be more easily overcome by love than by reciprocated hate. For hatred is fed on the feeling that it is returned; whereas “he who believes himself to be loved by one whom he hates is a prey to the conflicting emotions of hatred and love, since (as Spinoza perhaps too optimistically believes) love tends to beget love; so that his hatred disintegrates and loses, force. To hate is to acknowledge our inferiority and our fear; we do not hate a foe whom we are confident we can overcome. “He who wishes to revenge injuries by reciprocal hatred will live in misery. But he who endeavors to drive away hatred by means of love, fights with pleasure and confidence; he resists equally one or many men, and scarcely needs at all the help of fortune. Those whom he conquers yield joyfully.” “Minds are conquered not by arms but by greatness of soul.” In such passages Spinoza sees something of the light which shone on the hills of Galilee. 

Emotions, such as, envy, recrimination, mutual belittlement, and even hatred, should best be eliminated. Hatred can be more easily overcome by love than by reciprocated hate. “Minds are conquered not by arms but by greatness of soul.”

But the essence of his ethic is rather Greek than Christian. “The endeavor to understand is the first and only basis of virtue”—nothing could be more simply and thoroughly Socratic. For “we are tossed 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.” We think we are most ourselves when we are most passionate, whereas it is then we are most passive, caught in some ancestral torrent of impulse or feeling, and swept on to a precipitate reaction which meets only part of the situation because without thought only part of a situation can be perceived. A passion is an “inadequate idea”; thought is response delayed till every vital angle of a problem has aroused a correlative reaction, inherited or acquired; only so is the idea adequate, the response all that it can be.* The instincts are magnificent as a driving force, but dangerous as guides; for by what we may call the individualism of the instincts, each of them seeks its own fulfillment, regardless of the good of the whole personality. What havoc has come to men, for example, from uncontrolled greed, pugnacity, or lust, till such men have become but the appendages of the instinct that has mastered them. “The emotions by which we are daily assailed have reference rather to some part of the body which is affected beyond the others, and so the emotions as a rule are in excess, and detain the mind in the contemplation of one object so that it cannot think of others.” But “desire that arises from pleasure or pain which has reference to one or certain parts of the body has no advantage to man as a whole.” To be ourselves we must complete ourselves. 

*To phrase it In later terms: reflex action is a local response to a local stimulus; instinctive action is a partial response to part of a situation; reason is total response to the whole situation. 

“The endeavor to understand is the first and only basis of virtue.” A passion is an “inadequate idea.” Each instinct seeks its own fulfillment, regardless of the good of the whole personality. To be ourselves we must complete ourselves. 

All this is, of course, the old philosophic distinction between reason and passion; but Spinoza adds vitally to Socrates and the Stoics. He knows that as passion without reason is blind, reason without passion is dead. “An emotion can neither: be hindered nor removed except by a contrary and stronger emotion.” Instead of uselessly opposing reason to passion—a contest in which the more deeply-rooted and ancestral element usually wins—he opposes reasonless passions to passions coördinated by reason, put into place by the total perspective of the situation. Thought should not lack the heat of desire, nor desire the light of thought. “A passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it, and the mind is subject to passions in proportion to the number of adequate ideas which it has.” “All appetites are passions only so far as they arise from inadequate ideas; they are virtues … when generated by adequate ideas”;* all intelligent behavior—i. e., all reaction which meets the total situation—is virtuous action; and in the end there is no virtue but intelligence. 

*Notice the resemblance between the last two quotations and the psychoanalytic doctrine that desires are “complexes” only so long as we are not aware of the precise causes of these desires, and that the first element in treatment is therefore an attempt to bring the desire and its causes to consciousness—to form “adequate ideas” of it and them. 

Thought should not lack the heat of desire, nor desire the light of thought. “A passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it…”

Spinoza’s ethics flows from his metaphysics: just as reason there lay in the perception of law in the chaotic flux of things, so here it lies in the establishment of law in the chaotic flux of desires; there it lay in seeing, here it lies in acting, sub specie eternitatis—under the form of eternity; in making perception and action fit the eternal perspective of the whole. Thought helps us to this larger view because it is aided by imagination, which presents to consciousness those distant effects of present actions which could have no play upon reaction if reaction were thoughtlessly immediate. The great obstacle to intelligent behavior is the superior vividness of present sensations as compared with those projected memories which we call imagination. “In so far as the mind conceives a thing according to the dictates of reason, it will.be equally affected whether the idea be of anything present, past, or future.” By imagination and reason we turn experience into foresight; we become the creators of our future, and cease to be the slaves of our past. 

The great obstacle to intelligent behavior is the superior vividness of present sensations as compared with those projected memories which we call imagination.

So we achieve the only freedom possible to man. The passivity of passion is “human bondage,” the action ·of reason is human liberty.. Freedom is not from causal law or process, but from partial passion or impulse; and freedom not from passion, but from uncoordinated and uncompleted passion. We are free only where we know.* To be a superman is to be free not from the restraints of social justice and amenity, but from the individualism of the instincts. With this completeness and integrity comes the equanimity of the wise man; not the aristocratic self-complacency of Aristotle’s hero, much less the supercilious superiority of Nietzsche’s ideal, but a more comradely poise and peace of mind. “Men who are good by reason—i. e., men who, under the guidance of reason, seek what is useful to them—desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind.”** To be great is not to be placed above humanity, ruling others; but to stand above the partialities and futilities of uninformed desire, and to rule one’s self. 

*Professor Dewey: “A physician or engineer is free in his thought and his action in the degree in which he knows what he deals with. Possibly we find here the key to any freedom.” 

**Whitman: “By God, I will not have anything that all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” 

We are free only where we know. To be a superman is to be free not from the restraints of social justice and amenity, but from the individualism of the instincts.

This is a nobler freedom than that which men call free will; for the will is not free, and perhaps there is no “will.” And let no one suppose that because he is no longer “free,” he is no longer morally responsible for his behavior and the structure of his life. Precisely because men’s actions are determined by their memories, society must for its protection form its citizens through their hopes and fears into some measure of social order and cooperation. All education presupposes determinism, and pours into the open mind of youth a store of prohibitions which are expected to participate in determining conduct. “The evil which ensues from evil deeds is not therefore less to be feared because it comes of necessity; whether our actions are free or not, our motives still are hope and fear. Therefore the assertion is false that I would leave no room for precepts and commands.” On the contrary, determinism makes for a better moral life: it teaches us not to despise or ridicule anyone, or be angry with anyone; men are “not guilty”; and though we punish miscreants, it will be without hate; we forgive them because they know not what they do. 

Precisely because men’s actions are determined by their memories, society must for its protection form its citizens through their hopes and fears into some measure of social order and cooperation.

Above all, determinism fortifies us to expect and to bear both faces of fortune with an equal mind; we remember that all things follow by the eternal decrees of God. Perhaps even it will teach us the “intellectual love of God,” whereby we shall accept the laws of nature gladly, and find our fulfillment within her limitations. He who sees all things as determined cannot complain, though he may resist; for he “perceives things under a certain species of eternity,” and he understands that his mischances are not chances in the total scheme; that they find some justification in the eternal sequence and structure of the world. So minded, he rises from the fitful pleasures of passion to the high serenity of contemplation which sees all things as parts of an eternal order and development; he learns to smile in the face of the inevitable, and “whether he comes into his own now, or in a thousand years, he sits content.” He learns the old lesson that God is no capricious personality absorbed in the private affairs of his devotees, but the invariable sustaining order of the universe. Plato words the same conception beautifully in the Republic: “He whose mind is fixed upon true being has no time to look down upon the little affairs of men, or to be filled with jealousy and enmity in the struggle against them; his eye is ever directed towards fixed and immutable principles, which he sees neither injuring nor injured by one another, but all in order moving according to reason; these he imitates, and to these he would, as far as he can, conform himself.” “That which is necessary,” says Nietzsche, “does not offend me. Amor fati,”—love of fate—“is the core of my nature.”* Or Keats: 

To bear all naked truths, 
And to envisage circumstance, all calm: 
That is the top of sovereignty.

*It was rather Nietzsche’s hope than his attainment. 

Above all, determinism fortifies us to expect and to bear both faces of fortune with an equal mind; we remember that all things follow by the eternal decrees of God.

Such a philosophy teaches us to say Yea to life, and even to death—“a free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.” It calms our fretted egos with its large perspective; it reconciles us to the limitations within which our purposes must be circumscribed. It may lead to resignation and an Orientally supine passivity; but it is also the indispensable basis of all wisdom and all strength. 

The philosophy of determinism may lead to resignation and an Orientally supine passivity; but it is also the indispensable basis of all wisdom and all strength. 

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