Editor's comment

This selection is from
Spinoza's incomplete work "On the Improvement of the Understanding" that is sometimes printed as an introduction to his great work Ethics. It begins with the words excerpted here and contains his reason for writing to us.

Philosophers have called this beginning one of most precious gems in all of philosophy.For Spinoza the most important thing in the world is "the knowledge of the union existing being the mind and the whole of nature." The phrase presents his key idea. For
a clear explanation of its significance and more see Woodbridge's lecture
on the 300 anniversary of Spinoza's birth.


Spinoza, Benedict De "On the Improvement of the Understanding" in Ethics, Hafner Publishing Co., New York 1949 [abstract– 235 words]— Einstein's favorite philosopher

The whole document is available at the website:
http://www.santafe.edu/~shalizi/Spinoza/TIE/ [14,000 words]

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile, I finally resolved to inquire whether… there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness…

The ordinary surroundings of life which are esteemed by men to be the highest good, may be classed under the three heads—Riches, Fame, and the Pleasures of Sense.

These objects pursued by the multitude not only bring no remedy that tends to preserve our being, but even act as hindrances, [often] causing the death of those who possess them, and always of those who are possessed by them. There are many examples of men who have died in pursuit of wealth. The pursuit of fame or sensual pleasure likewise have hastened many deaths.

Because Riches, Fame, and the Pleasures of Sense are perishable they disturb the mind. But love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy…

That eternal and infinite thing is the knowledge of the union existing being the mind and the whole of nature. This, then, is the end for which I strive, to attain to such a character myself, and to endeavor that many should attain to it with me. In other words, it is part of my happiness to lend a helping hand, that many others may understand even as I do.