by Spinoza Icon

The remaining portion of my Ethics is concerned with the way leading to freedom. For this, I shall treat the power of the reason, showing=

  • how far it can control the emotions, and
  • what is the nature of Mental Freedom or Blessedness.

We can then see how much more powerful the wise man is than the ignorant. I do not intend=

  • to point out the method and means for perfecting the understanding This question is in the area of Logic. to show the skill whereby the body may be so tended, as to be capable of the due performance of its functions. This question is in the area of Medicine. I shall only treat of reason or the power of the mind. I shall mainly show the extent and nature of its dominion over the emotions, for their control and moderation. I have already shown that we do not have absolute dominion over the emotions.

Yet the Stoics have thought=

  • that the emotions depended absolutely on our will, and
  • that we could absolutely govern them.

They were compelled, by the protest of experience, not from their own principles, to confess, that no slight practice and zeal is needed to control and moderate them. This someone tried to illustrate by the example (if I remember rightly) of a house dog and a hunting dog. The house dog could become trained to hunt. The hunting dog could be trained to stop running after hares.

Descartes does not little incline to this opinion. He maintained that the soul or mind is specially united to a particular part of the brain called ’the pineal gland’. That gland enables the mind to feel all the movements going in the body, and also external objects, and which the mind by a simple act of volition can put in motion in various ways.

He asserted:

  • that this gland is so suspended in the midst of the brain, that it could be moved by the slightest motion of the animal spirits.
  • that this gland is suspended in the midst of the brain in as many different ways, as the animal spirits can impinge thereon.
  • that as many different marks are impressed on that gland, as there are different external objects which impel the animal spirits towards it.

It follows that if the soul’s will suspends the gland in a position already suspended before by the animal spirits driven in one way or another, the gland in its turn reacts on the said spirits, driving and determining them to the condition wherein they were, when repulsed before by a similar position of the gland. that every act of mental volition is united in nature to a certain given motion of the gland. For instance, whenever anyone looks at a remote object, the act of volition causes the eye’s pupil to dilate. Whereas if the person had only thought of the pupil’s dilatation, the mere wish to dilate it would not have brought about the result.

Just as the gland’s motion which impels the animal spirits towards the optic nerve to dilate the pupil, is not associated in nature with the wish to dilate the pupil. Instead, it is associated with the wish to look at remote objects. Lastly, he maintained that, although every motion of the aforesaid gland seems to have been united by nature to one particular thought out of the whole number of our thoughts from the very beginning of our life.

Yet it can nevertheless become through habituation associated with other thoughts. He tries to prove this in the Passions de l’âme, 1.50. He thence concludes, that there is no soul so weak, that it cannot, under proper direction, acquire absolute power over its passions. He defines passions as “the soul’s perceptions, feelings, or disturbances, which are referred to the soul as species, and which (mark the expression) are produced, preserved, and strengthened through some movement of the spirits.” (Passions de l’âme, 1.27). But, seeing that we can join any motion of the gland, or consequently of the spirits, to any volition, the determination of the will depends entirely on our own powers. If, therefore, we determine our will with sure and firm decisions in the direction to which we wish our actions to tend, and associate the motions of the passions which we wish to acquire with the said decisions, we shall acquire an absolute dominion over our passions. Such is the doctrine of Descartes.

Had his doctrine been less ingenious, I could hardly believe it to have come from so great a man. Indeed, I am lost in wonder, that a philosopher, who had stoutly asserted, that he would draw no conclusions which do not follow from self—evident premises, and would affirm nothing which he did not clearly and distinctly perceive, and who had so often taken to task the scholastics for wishing to explain obscurities through occult qualities, could maintain a hypothesis, beside which occult qualities are commonplace.

What does he understand by the union of the mind and the body? What clear and distinct conception has he got of thought in most intimate union with a certain particle of extended matter?

I want him to explain this union through its proximate cause. But he had so distinct a conception of mind being distinct from body. He could not assign any particular cause of the union between the two, or of the mind itself. But he was obliged to have recourse to God, the cause of the whole universe. I would also want to know what degree of motion the mind can impart to this pineal gland? With what force can the mind hold it suspended? I do not know whether= this gland can be agitated more slowly or more quickly by the mind than by the animal spirits, and whether the motions of the passions, which we have closely united with firm decisions, cannot be again disjoined therefrom by physical causes. In this case, it would follow that although the mind firmly intended to face a given danger, and had united to this decision the motions of boldness, yet at the sight of the danger the gland might become suspended in a way, which would preclude the mind thinking of anything except running away. In truth, there is no common standard of volition and motion. So is there no comparison possible between the powers of the mind and the power or strength of the body. Consequently, the strength of one cannot in any wise be determined by the strength of the other. There is no gland discoverable in the brain, so placed= that it can easily be set in motion in so many ways, and that all the nerves are not prolonged so far as the cavities of the brain. Lastly, I omit all the assertions which he makes concerning the will and its freedom, inasmuch as I have abundantly proved that his premisses are false. The power of the mind is defined by the understanding only. By the knowledge of the mind, we shall= determine solely the remedies against the emotions. Everyone has had experience of the emotions, but do not accurately observe or distinctly see. deduce all those conclusions, which have regard to the mind’s blessedness.


  1. If two contrary actions are started in the same subject, a change must necessarily take place, either in both, or in one of the two, and continue until they cease to be contrary.

  2. The power of an effect is defined by the power of its cause, as its essence is explained or defined by the essence of its cause. (This axiom is evident from 3.7.)


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