Ethics, Part 3: The Origin and Nature of the Emotions

This will be the reading for Saturday, September 21’s meeting.  As usual, we will meet at 4:00 in the meeting room of the Dunkin Donuts outside exit 6 of Gangnam station.

In parts one and two of the Ethics, Spinoza argued for a world governed by cause and effect down to its tiniest details, and made the distinction between free will and determinism obsolete.  Rather, the true conflict is between adequate ideas (which express their causes) and inadequate ideas (which do not express their causes).  In Part 3, Spinoza applies this framework to the emotions.  Emotions are modifications of the body together with the idea of those modifications, and so are subject to the same sort of analysis as bodies and ideas were in the previous chapter.  Part 3 is largely a catalogue of the causes and effects of various emotions; this summary will focus on the logic of emotions.

 What We Talk About When We Talk About Emotions

Let’s begin by describing two alternate accounts of emotions.  Spinoza begins Part 3 by criticizing writers who make a distinction between humans and nature – or, in more modern terms, between nature and culture.  He says these writers take humans to be something outside of nature, that “man is to be situated in nature as a kingdom within a kingdom: for they believe that he disturbs rather than follow’s nature’s order, that he has absolute control over his actions, and that he is determined solely by himself.”  (III, Preface)  According to these writers, human failings are down to a flaw in human nature itself, and they smugly compete to see who can offer the most cutting criticisms of humans.

Opposed to this, Spinoza argues that “Nothing comes to pass in nature, which can be set down to a flaw therein; for nature is always the same, and everywhere one and the same in her efficacy and power of action; that is, nature’s laws and ordinances, whereby all things come to pass and change from one thing to another, are everywhere and always the same…” (III, Preface).  While human behavior is largely down to the strength of the emotions, Spinoza’s goal is to delimit their strength and describe the mind’s power against them.

Another account of emotions sees them as separate from the mind; they are just experiences that we undergo, our pure reactions to the world; in other words, we tend to see emotions as being autonomous – we have ideas, and we have emotions, and the two are separate.  For Spinoza, emotions are ideas; we hate something not because of some special emotional faculty, but because we have a certain idea of it.  Emotions follow the same rules that ideas do, as described in Part 2: they are the result of chains of associations, or in other words: emotions are images of things.

Activity and Passions

An effect is an expression of its cause; if B is caused by A, then B has something of A’s essence in it.  We can divide causes into two kinds: adequate and inadequate.  Adequate causes are fully expressed in their effects, and so the two can be used to truly understand one another.  Inadequate causes are only partially expressed in their effects, and so our understanding of both the cause and the effect will be partial or confused (III, Def 1).  This division between adequate and inadequate causes applies to everything, but Spinoza is primarily concerned with how it relates to humans.

With regard to humans, there are two kinds of effects.  We can either be the adequate cause of an effect, or an inadequate cause.  The specific kind of effects he is concerned with here are emotions, which are modifications of the body and the idea of those modifications which can either increase or diminish our ability to act.  In other words, some emotions help our bodies do more things and help our minds think more things, and some emotions block our ability to act and think.  If we are the adequate cause of an emotion (if we have an adequate idea), then the emotion is an activity.  If we are the inadequate cause of an emotion (if our idea is inadequate), then it is a passion (III, Def 2-3).  Emotions are nothing but a passage to a greater or lesser ability to act.

We should be careful not to confuse being an adequate cause with making a free will choice; everything that exists is still embedded within (or conceived through) God as the one substance.  Adequate ideas, which increase our ability to act, are “in” God insofar as God constitutes that particular mind.  Inadequate ideas, which decrease our ability to act, are adequate in God insofar as he constitutes other minds.  To put it another way, when we have an adequate idea, then it is our mind which is the cause of something; when we have an inadequate idea, other things cause the effects.

We assume we have choice because we are aware of our actions, but unaware of the causes of those actions.  He states,

 “. . . it is it is plain that the dictates of the mind are but another name for the appetites, and therefore vary according to the varying state of the body.  Every one shapes his actions according to his emotion, those are assailed by conflicted emotions know not what they wish; those who are not attacked by any emotion are readily swayed this way or that.  All these considerations clearly show that a mental decision and a bodily appetite, or determined state, are simultaneous, or rather are one and the same thing, which we call decision, when it is regarded under and explained through the attribute of thought, and a conditioned state, when it is regarded under the attribute of extension the decision of the mind which is believed to be free, is not distinguishable from the imagination or memory, and is nothing more than the affirmation, which an idea, but virtue of being an idea, necessarily involves.” (II, 2, Nt)

 Desire, Pleasure and Pain

There are a handful of rules which dictate the interactions of emotions in the mind and body.  First, “Nothing can be destroyed, except by a cause external to itself.”  (III, 4)  A thing’s essence is definable, and everything it can do flows from that definition.  No thing’s definition contains anything which negates the thing; in other words, a thing does not have the innate ability to be destroyed, die or change.  For humans, this means we do not carry our death within us – death is the result of external pressure.  Second, two contrary things can’t exist in the same object.  (III, 5)  If two contrary things could exist in an object, then that tension would be innate to the object – and so something in it could destroy it.

If we put these two propositions together, we get the statement that everything tries to persist in its own being.  (III, 6)  Everything tries to remain what it is.  Remember in Part 1, it was claimed that God’s existence and God’s power were identical – here, we see that this is true of everything.  Further, a thing’s attempt to continue existing is its essence.  (III, 7)

With regard to humans, the mind and body attempt to continue to exist.  In terms of the mind, this persistence is the will.  In terms of both body and mind, it is appetite, and desire is the consciousness of appetite.  Appetite is the basic cause of our actions; he says “. . . in no case do we strive for, wish for, or desire anything, because we deem it to be good, but on the other hand we deem a thing to be good, because we strive for it, wish for it, long for it, or desire it (III, 9, Nt).”  Appetite, or desire, is the specifically human name for the attempt to exist.  Desire is the essence of the human.

Remember that he identifies reality, perfection and power; a thing which can sustain or express more properties is more real, which makes it more perfect, and power is required to sustain properties.   Whatever makes our body more active makes our mind more active.  (III, 11)  Sometimes the mind becomes more perfect, sometimes it becomes less perfect.  These transitions explain emotions.  Pleasure is the mind’s passive transition to perfection; pain is the mind’s passive transition to imperfection (III, 11, Nt).

Pleasure and pain are the basic components of his ethical outlook: “By good I here mean every kind of pleasure, and all that conduces thereto, especially that which satisfies our longings, whatsoever they may be.  By evil, I mean every kind of pain, especially that which frustrates our longings.”  He’s already shown that we think things are good because we desire them (III, 9, note) – so, a miser thinks the presence of money is the best thing, while absence of money is the worst.  “So every man, according to his emotions, judges a thing to be good or bad, useful or useless.”

It is important to note that pleasure and pain are passive – they arise from inadequate ideas (III, 56, Pf). Put differently, they are always tied to imagination, the first kind of knowledge.  It is the imagination’s chains of association which governs which objects and events we will find pleasurable or painful.  Since emotions arise from images of things, the affecting object’s essence is expressed in the emotion – this means that there are as many different emotions as there objects by which we are affected (III, 56).  However, they are all combinations of desire, pleasure and pain, which are the three basic emotions.

There are a few more basic rules which the emotions follow.  As part of the drive to exist, the mind tries to think of things which make the body more active (III, 12).  If the mind conceives of things which diminish the body’s power, it will try to remember things which exclude the existence of that thing (III, 13).  We can also be confused by which objects cause which emotion; if we have the image of two objects at the same time, and one of them causes us pain, then the memory of the other will also cause us pain, even if we were originally neutral towards it (III, 15).  In another case, if we find pleasure in a thing that reminds us of another thing that caused us pain, then we will experience both pleasure and pain with regards to the pleasurable object – he calls this vacillation or doubt (III, 17).

Love and Hate. . .

Love is pleasure along with the idea of an external cause.  Hate is pain along with the idea of an external cause.  If we love something, we want it to be present; if we hate something, we want it to be absent – or to be destroyed (III, 13, Nt).  Remember that pleasure is the passage to a greater perfection; that is, it aids our attempt to exist, or amplifies our desire.  If a thing we take pleasure in is absent or destroyed, then it is that much harder for us to imagine it, and so stymies our desire.  If something we hate is preserved, then it is that much harder for us to ignore it, or regard it as absent – and so again, our desire is stymied (III, 19-20).

In a social context, emotions can be reciprocal or one-sided.  Hatred is increased when reciprocated, but can be destroyed by love (III, 43).  If an object of hate hates us back, the hate will remain.  But if the object of hate loves us, we will to that extent regard ourselves with pleasure and will attempt to please the cause of this emotion.  If the love is stronger than the hatred, then the conflict will end (III, 43, Pf).  Further, “Hatred which is completely vanquished by love passes into love: and love is thereupon greater than if hatred had not preceded it (III, 45).”  This is because love is pleasure, and it helps remove pain – so if the hated thing gives us reason to love it, it will have removed even more pain than usual, so we will love it more (III, 45, Pf).  It works the exact same way for hate, however; the loss of pleasure and the increase in pain makes the hate all the stronger (III, 38).

We all know how we see some people as having less responsibility for their actions, and therefore receive less blame.  We also have a hard time applying the words love or hate to our reactions to natural disasters.  For Spinoza, this is because love or hate towards a thing we see as free is greater than towards a necessary thing.  A thing we think of as free must be perceived through itself, without anything else – so it is the sole, unmitigated cause of that emotion.  But if the thing is unfree (conceived through other things) than it is not the sole cause.  We think of humans as free, so our emotions towards each other are very strong (III, 49, all).  Our emotions towards ourselves are particularly strong, because each of us see ourselves as free; consider repentance (aka guilt) and being self-congratulatory, which are forms of pain and pleasure with the idea of one’s self as cause – they are among the most intense emotions, because we think we caused them (III, 51, Nt).

 . . . And Everything Else

Hope, fear, confidence, despair, joy and disappointment are passions which are very specifically tied to time and doubt/vacillation.  Our memories and expectations affect us just as much as our perception of the present, because if we are affected by something via memory or expectation, then we regard it as present.  So hope is a basically pleasurable expectation with doubt attached, while fear is a painful expectation with doubt attached.  Confidence and despair are, respectively, pleasurable and painful expectations with no doubt attached.  Finally, joy and disappointment arise from hope, confidence, fear, and despair being proven wrong (III, 18 all).

If a thing has properties in common with us, it can affect us to a greater degree than other things.  Since other humans have a great deal in common with us, humans have a greater ability to affect us than other things.  There are a wide range of passions which basically arise only in relation to other humans.  Take pity; it is pain arising from another person’s pain.  Interesting, Spinoza cannot offer a term for the opposite feeling: “What term we can use for pleasure arising from another’s gain, I know not (III, 22, Nt).”

If something we hate is hurt, it is to that extent destroyed or absent, and so easier to ignore; therefore we feel pleasure.  If what we hate feels pleasure, we feel pain (III, 23)  These passions are not unalloyed, however.  If something similar to us feels pain, then we feel pain too, so we can confuse love and hate (III, 23, Nt).  If something pleasurably affects what we hate, we will also hate it.  So envy is hatred, rejoicing in another’s hurt and grieving at their advantage (III, 28).

We try to do what gives others pleasure, and shrink from what gives them pain.  Proof: “From the fact of imagining, that men love or hate anything, we shall love or hate the same thing.  That is, from these mere facts we shall feel pleasure or pain at the thing’s presence.  And so we shall endeavor to do whatever we conceive men to love. . .” (III, 29)  Doing or not doing something in order to please others is ambition, especially when it is a vulgar matter.  When not vulgar, it is kindliness.  Praise is the pleasure of someone trying to please us, and blame is the opposite pain (III, 29, Nt).

If we do something that others find pleasurable, then we will also feel pleasure – and we will perceive ourselves as the cause.  It is the same with causing pain to others (III, 30).  When we know ourselves to be the cause of another’s pleasure, our own feeling of pleasure is that much greater, and the same goes for pain.  If we are praised by others for causing their pleasure, we feel honor; but if we feel pleasure for doing a good thing without being praised by others, it is self-complacency, though perhaps “self-congratulatory” is a better term here (III, 30, Nt).  The pain of thinking we have done wrong, without the idea of being blamed by others, is repentance.

If others love what we love, we will love it more.  If others hate it, we will vacillate.  That is why we want others to love what we love, and hate what we hate (III, 31).  Spinoza says, “This endeavor to bring it about, that our own likes and dislikes should meet with universal approval, is really ambition; wherefore we see that everyone by nature desires, that the rest of mankind should live according to his own individual disposition: when such a desire is equally present in all, every one stands in every one else’ way, and in wishing to be loved or praised by all, all become mutually hateful (III, 31, Nt).”

If someone enjoys something that only one person can have, then we will try to keep them from having it.  Remember that we have something in common with all other humans, so we have at least some tiny, slight investment in things going well for them; so if someone loves something, it gives them pleasure, so that thing also gives us pleasure.  If if their pleasure prevents ours – i.e. if it is something only one person can have – then we try to stop them from having it (III, 32).  If what we love has a closer bond with another person, we will hate the loved object and envy the rival.  To the extent a loved object loves us, we will have self-approval.  But that desire is checked by the image of the loved object in conjunction with the rival – so we will be affected with pain, conjoined with the idea of both the loved object and the rival (III, 35).  The hate of the loved object together with envy is jealousy, which is a vacillation, a combined love and hatred (III, 35, Nt).”  Is jealousy between couples a combined love and hate?


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