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 [excerpt- 800 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 some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: whether, in fact, 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: with these three the mind is so absorbed that it has little power to reflect on any different good.

By sensual pleasure the mind is enthralled to the extent of quiescence, as if the supreme good were actually attained, so that it is quite incapable of thinking of any other object; when such pleasure has been gratified it is followed by extreme melancholy, whereby the mind, though not enthralled, is disturbed and dulled.

The pursuit of honors and riches is likewise very absorbing, especially if such objects be sought simply for their own sake, inasmuch as they are then supposed to constitute the highest good. In the case of fame the mind is still more absorbed, for fame is conceived as always good for its own sake, and as the ultimate end to which all actions are directed.

Further, the attainment of riches and fame is not followed as in the case of sensual pleasures by repentance, but, the more we acquire, the greater is our delight, and, consequently, the more are we incited to increase both the one and the other; on the other hand, if our hopes happen to be frustrated we are plunged into the deepest sadness. Fame has the further drawback that it compels its votaries to order their lives according to the opinions of their fellowmen, shunning what they usually shun, and seeking what they usually seek…

Further reflection convinced me that if I could really get to the root of the matter I should be leaving certain evils for a certain good. I thus perceived that I was in a state of great peril, and I compelled myself to seek with all my strength for a remedy, however uncertain it might be...

All the 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 suffered persecution even to death for the sake of their riches, and of men who in pursuit of wealth have exposed themselves to so many dangers, that they have paid away their life as a penalty for their folly. Examples are no less numerous of men, who have endured the utmost wretchedness for the sake of gaining or preserving their reputation. Lastly, there are innumerable cases of men, who have hastened their death through overindulgence in sensual pleasure.

All these evils seem to have arisen from the fact, that happiness or unhappiness is made wholly dependent on the quality of the object which we love. When a thing is not loved, no quarrels will arise concerning it --- no sadness be felt if it perishes --- no envy if it is possessed by another --- no fear, no hatred, in short no disturbances of the mind. All these arise from the love of what is perishable, such as the objects already mentioned. But love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy…

[Now] man conceives a human character much more stable than his own, and sees that there is no reason why he should not himself acquire such a character. Thus he is led to seek for means which will bring him to this pitch of perfection, and calls everything which will serve as such means a true good. The chief good is that he should arrive, together with other individuals if possible, at the possession of the aforesaid character.

What that character 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…