Spinoza: Defender of the Passions?

Matthew J. Kisner is Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina and the author of Spinoza on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy and the Good Life (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Here Matthew writes for the History of Emotions blog on what Spinoza really thought about the passions, including whether or not he was a Stoic.

Baruch (later Benedict de) Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish and Dutch philosopher, usually identified as one of the great early modern rationalists, alongside Descartes and Leibniz.  While Spinoza was notorious in his own time for his heterodox views on God and religion, he is today regarded as a central contributor to the enlightenment, a defender of realist political theory and a pioneer of modern biblical criticism.  Spinoza is also recognized as a great theorist of the passions, which play an important role in both his ethics and politics.

In his ethics, Spinoza is renowned for taking up a Stoic criticism of the passions.  He certainly has good reason to worry about them.  A central goal of Spinoza’s ethics is attaining virtue, specifically, the highest virtue, which he equates with our highest good (4p28).[i]  Since he conceives of our virtue as equivalent to our power (4def8), being virtuous means acting from our power, more specifically, our essential power, what he calls our conatus, the striving to persevere in existence.  In other words, virtue, for Spinoza, amounts to self-determination or, more simply, activity. It follows that our virtue is threatened by passivity, being determined and guided by external forces.  Consequently, our virtue is also threatened by the passions, passive affects that arise when we are acted on and determined by external forces.  In particular, since Spinoza understands reason as active, passive affects threaten to direct us contrary to reason’s counsel, for instance, to act for goods that are attainable by all.

Consequently, Spinoza claims that the passions lead us into competition with another and generate conflict: “men, insofar as they are torn by affects which are passions, can be contrary to one another” (4p34d).  Thus, when Spinoza considers the “bondage of the affects” in Part IV of the Ethics, there is little doubt that he is referring to the bondage of the passions.

While Spinoza clearly conceives the passions as potential threats to our virtue and the source of many problems, it not obvious that he regards the passions as necessarily bad, in other words, inconsistent with a life of virtue.  Sometimes Spinoza suggests this is the case: “lack of power consists only in this, that a man allows himself to be guided by things outside him, and to be determined by them to do what the common constitution of external things demands, not what his own nature, considered in itself, demands” (4p37s1).

If Spinoza understands our lack of power as consisting in determination by external things, then it seems that being affected by external things necessarily diminishes our power and, consequently, our virtue.  Partly for this reason, Spinoza is sometimes read as upholding the Stoic view—or, at least, a view commonly attributed to the Stoics—that the passions are inconsistent with virtue.  For instance, Susan James writes, in her article “Spinoza the Stoic,” “the claim that all passion is inimical to virtue, so that in so far as we become virtuous we become free of passion, was regularly decried by seventeenth-century philosophers and moralists as a Stoic aberration.  In cleaving to this view, Spinoza aligns himself with a controversial tenet of Stoicism, and would have been seen to do so.”[ii]

However, this does not seem to be Spinoza’s decided view.  He claims that passive desires, which are a kind of passion, can be good: “our active emotions, that is, those desires that are defined by man’s power, that is, by reason, are always good; the other desires can be either good or bad” (4app3).  If passions of desire can be good, it follows that they can increase our power and, consequently, our virtue. Spinoza also indicates that passions can increase our virtue when he allows for the existence of passive joy (laetitia).  Since he defines joy as “the transition to greater perfection” (3DOE2), the existence of passive joy implies that passive changes can constitute transitions to greater perfection.  Our perfection, in turn, is determined by our degree of power: “when I say that somebody passes from a state of less perfection to a state of greater perfection, I mean… that we conceive his power of activity, insofar as this is understood through his nature, to be increased or diminished” (4pref).  Thus, the passion of joy is a transition to greater power and virtue.  It follows that passions can be consistent with virtue and, furthermore, contribute to our virtue.  In this respect, Spinoza allows for the possibility of virtuous passions, a notion that the Stoics would regard as something of an oxymoron.

Spinoza has good reasons to uphold this more nuanced view of the passions.  First, he regards the passions as inescapable parts of our lives.  In rejecting a standard conception of human beings as substances or collections of substances, Spinoza asserts that our existence and essential nature depend upon external things.  Consequently, he regards humans as necessarily determined by external things and, thus, passive to some degree.  In fact, he criticizes both the Stoics and Descartes for failing to recognize that we are inevitably determined by external things and, consequently, subject to passions, such that we are incapable of eliminating them or fully mastering our emotions (5pref).  It is unsurprising, then, that Spinoza leaves room for the passions in the life of the virtuous: since the passions are inescapable, arguing otherwise entails that a virtuous life is impossible.

Second, Spinoza recognizes that passivity can be beneficial.[iii]  Most obviously, we are passive when external things act on us to produce sensations.  While Spinoza criticizes knowledge from sensation as “fragmentary [mutilate]” and “confused” (2p40s2), he nevertheless accepts that it provides us with some understanding of external things, which can promote our power: “the advantage that we get from things external to us” include “experience and knowledge” (4app27; see also 4p38).  Furthermore, Spinoza accepts that we require external things for our survival, such as nourishment and shelter, which entails that it is beneficial to be passively affected by them: “those things above all are advantageous which can so feed and nourish the body that all its parts can efficiently perform their function” (4app27; see also 2p14post4).  We also benefit from other people, not only because we require their labor and assistance for our survival, but also because they constitute the state, which contributes to our power (4app14, 4p73).  Finally, we benefit from rational people because they contribute to our rationality, which increases our power and virtue: “there is no individual thing in the universe more advantageous to man than a man who lives by the guidance of reason” (4p35c1; see also 4app9, 4app12).  The fact that passivity can be beneficial provides Spinoza with good reason to hold that passions can be beneficial, for they are the affective expression of passive change.

Third, Spinoza’s philosophy assigns an important role to the passions in the life of virtue as barometers of our power.  As we have seen, Spinoza conceives the affects of joy and sadness as corresponding to increases and decreases in our power.  According to this view, the affects of joy and sadness indicate or track whether our power is increasing or decreasing.  It follows that the passions of joy and sadness, being brought about by external things, inform us whether external things are increasing or decreasing our power, thereby informing us of their value.  Indeed, the passions provide the only information about the value of particular external things.  Spinoza holds that reason traffics in ideas of general things, more specifically, adequate ideas and common notions, which do not comprehend particular finite things.  Consequently, the passions provide our only source of information about how we are affected by particular external things.  This information is particularly important to moral matters, since it indicates how external things affect our power and, consequently, our virtue and perfection.  A virtuous person, then, requires the passions in order to determine, for instance, whether her peers and teachers are good influences, contributing to her virtue.[iv]

This discussion shows one important way that Spinoza breaks with the Stoics: by conceiving of passivity and passions as important aspects of a virtuous life.  Consequently, it also shows that Spinoza is not, as some scholars have suggested, intolerant of human passivity, vulnerability, and weakness.[v]


[i] Translations of Spinoza’s Ethics are generally taken from Spinoza: Complete Works, tr. Samuel Shirley, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002). Passages are cited by part and proposition.

[ii] In The Rise of Modern Philosophy, ed. Tom Sorell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 289-316.

[iii] For a more detailed interpretation of Spinoza as tolerant of human passivity, see my Spinoza on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy and the Good Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[iv] I provide a fuller defense of this third claim in “Spinoza’s Virtuous Passions,” Review of Metaphysics 61 (4): 2008, 759-83.

[v] See Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 502

5 thoughts on “Spinoza: Defender of the Passions?

  1. First, wanted to thank History of Emotions because through their blogs, I answered a Call for Papers, spoke at a conference, and the paper is now becoming my first published academic article. And this is incredible since I never expected to be able to do that since I had left university as an undergrad to work after having been advised of having problems with affect. Now they might say bipolar, but such things are never clearly stated …. (And Spinoza is part of the paper’s bibliography.) So, cheers to you, History of Emotions.

  2. A great work on the importance of the first kind of knowledge for Spinoza’s entire system is C. De Deugd’s “The Significance of the First Kind of Knowledge” (Van Gorcum: 1966), as well as the essay “Spinoza and the Imagination” by Piet Steenbakkers (2004).

  3. Pingback: The History of Emotions blog | Les émotions au Moyen Âge

  4. Pingback: Now We Are Two | The History of Emotions Blog

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