The Power of the Understanding, or of Human Freedom
Propositions 67-73, Freedom
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.
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.)
Proposition 1. As thoughts and the ideas of things are arranged and associated in the mind, so are the modifications of body or the images of things precisely in the same way arranged and associated in the body. Proof: The order and connection of ideas is the same (2.7.) as the order and connection of things.
And vice versa, the order and connection of things is the same (2.6. Coroll. and 2.7.) as the order and connection of ideas.
Wherefore, even as the order and connection of ideas in the mind takes place according to the order and association of modifications of the body (2.18.), so vice versa (3.2.) the order and connection of modifications of the body takes place in accordance with the way in which thoughts and the ideas of things are arranged and associated in the mind. Q.E.D.
Proposition 2. If we remove a disturbance of the spirit, or emotion, from the thought of an external cause, and unite it to other thoughts, then will the love or hatred towards that external cause, and also the vacillations of spirit which arise from these emotions, be destroyed. Proof: That, which constitutes the reality of love or hatred, is pleasure or pain, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (Def. of the Emotions, 6.7.).
Wherefore, when this cause is removed, the reality of love or hatred is removed with it.
Therefore, these emotions and those which arise therefrom are destroyed. Q.E.D.
Proposition 3. An emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof. Proof: An emotion, which is a passion, is a confused idea (by the general Def. of the Emotions).
If, therefore, we form a clear and distinct idea of a given emotion, that idea will only be distinguished from the emotion, in so far as it is referred to the mind only, by reason (2.21, and note).
Therefore (3.3.), the emotion will cease to be a passion. Q.E.D.
Corollary: An emotion therefore becomes more under our control, and the mind is less passive in respect to it, in proportion as it is more known to us. Proposition 4. There is no modification of the body, whereof we cannot form some clear and distinct conception. Proof: Properties which are common to all things can only be conceived adequately (2.38).
Therefore (2.12. and Lemma 2 after 2.13.) there is no modification of the body, whereof we cannot form some clear and distinct conception. Q.E.D.
Corollary: Hence it follows that there is no emotion, whereof we cannot form some clear and distinct conception.
For an emotion is the idea of a modification of the body (by the general Def. of the Emotions), and must therefore (by the preceding Prop.) involve some clear and distinct conception.
Note: Everything is followed by an effect (1.36),.
We clearly and distinctly understand whatever follows from an idea, which in us is adequate (2.40.).
It follows that everyone has the power of clearly and distinctly understanding himself and his emotions, if not absolutely, at any rate in part.
Consequently, he should become less subject to them by bringing it about.
Therefore to attain this result, we must chiefly direct our efforts to acquiring , as far as possible, a clear and distinct knowledge of every emotion,so that the mind may thus, through emotion, be determined to think of those things which it clearly and distinctly perceives, and wherein it fully acquiesces.
Thus, the emotion itself may be separated from the thought of an external cause, and may be associated with true thoughts.
From where it will come to pass that:
love, hatred, etc. will be destroyed (5.2.), and
and the desires, which arise from such emotions, will not be excessive (4.41.).
It must be especially remarked, that a person's active and passive desire is one and the same.
For instance, everyone wants his fellow man to live after his own fashion (3.31. note).
In a man not guided by reason, this appetite is called 'ambition'.
It does not greatly differ from pride.
Whereas in a wise man, it is an activity or virtue called piety (4.37. note. 1. and second proof).
Similarly, all appetites or desires are only passions, as they spring from inadequate ideas.
The same results are accredited to virtue, when they are aroused or generated by adequate ideas.
For all desires, whereby we are determined to any given action, may arise as much from adequate as from inadequate ideas (4.59.).
Than this remedy for the emotions (to return to the point from which I started), which consists in a true knowledge thereof, nothing more excellent, being within our power, can be devised.
For the mind has no other power save that of thinking and of forming adequate ideas, as we have shown above (3.3.).
Proposition 5. An emotion towards a thing, which we conceive simply, and not as necessary, or as contingent, or as possible, is, other conditions being equal, greater than any other emotion. Proof: An emotion towards a thing, which we conceive to be free, is greater than one towards what we conceive to be necessary (3.49.), and, consequently, still greater than one towards what we conceive as possible, or contingent (4.11.).
But to conceive a thing as free can be nothing else than to conceive it simply, while we are in ignorance of the causes whereby it has been determined to action (2.35. note)
Therefore, an emotion towards a thing which we conceive simply is, other conditions being equal, greater than one, which we feel towards what is necessary, possible, or contingent, and, consequently, it is the greatest of all. Q.E.D.
Proposition 6: The mind has greater power over the emotions and is less subject thereto, in so far as it understands all things as necessary. Proof: The mind understands all things to be necessary (1.29.) and to be determined to existence and operation by an infinite chain of causes.
Therefore (by the foregoing Proposition), it thus far brings it about, that it is less subject to the emotions arising therefrom, and (3.48.) feels less emotion towards the things themselves. Q.E.D.
Note: The more this knowledge, that things are necessary, is applied to particular things, which we conceive more distinctly and vividly, the greater is the power of the mind over the emotions, as experience also testifies.
For we see, that the pain arising from the loss of any good is mitigated, as soon as the man who has lost it perceives, that it could not by any means have been preserved.
So also we see that no one pities an infant, because it cannot speak, walk, or reason, or lastly, because it passes so many years, as it were, in unconsciousness.
Whereas, if most people were born full—grown and only one here and there as an infant, everyone would pity the infants; because infancy would not then be looked on as a state natural and necessary, but as a fault or delinquency in Nature;
and we may note several other instances of the same sort.
Proposition 7: Emotions which are aroused or spring from reason, if we take account of time, are stronger than those, which are attributable to particular objects that we regard as absent. Proof: We do not regard a thing as absent, by reason of the emotion wherewith we conceive it, but by reason of the body, being affected by another emotion excluding the existence of the said thing (2.17).
Wherefore, the emotion, which is referred to the thing which we regard as absent, is not of a nature to overcome the rest of a man's activities and power (4.6.), but is, on the contrary, of a nature to be in some sort controlled by the emotions, which exclude the existence of its external cause (4.9.).
But an emotion which springs from reason is necessarily referred to the common properties of things (see the def. of reason in 2.40. note. 2.), which we always regard as present (for there can be nothing to exclude their present existence), and which we always conceive in the same manner (2.38.).
Wherefore an emotion of this kind always remains the same; and consequently (5. Ax. 1) emotions, which are contrary thereto and are not kept going by their external causes, will be obliged to adapt themselves to it more and more, until they are no longer contrary to it; to this extent the emotion which springs from reason is more powerful. Q.E.D.
Proposition 8: An emotion is stronger in proportion to the number of simultaneous concurrent causes whereby it is aroused. Proof: Many simultaneous causes are more powerful than a few (3.7.): therefore (4.5.), in proportion to the increased number of simultaneous causes whereby it is aroused, an emotion becomes stronger. Q.E.D. Note: This proposition is also evident from 5. Ax. 2. Proposition 9: An emotion, which is attributable to many and diverse causes which the mind regards as simultaneous with the emotion itself, is less hurtful, and we are less subject thereto and less affected towards each of its causes, than if it were a different and equally powerful emotion attributable to fewer causes or to a single cause. Proof: An emotion is only bad or hurtful, in so far as it hinders the mind from being able to think (4.26. and 4.27).
Therefore, an emotion, whereby the mind is determined to the contemplation of several things at once, is less hurtful than another equally powerful emotion, which so engrosses the mind in the single contemplation of a few objects or of one, that it is unable to think of anything else.
This was our first point. Again, as the mind's essence, in other words, its power (3.7.), consists solely in thought (2.11), the mind is less passive in respect to an emotion, which causes it to think of several things at once, than in regard to an equally strong emotion, which keeps it engrossed in the contemplation of a few or of a single object: this was our second point.
Lastly, this emotion (3.48.), in so far as it is attributable to several causes, is less powerful in regard to each of them. Q.E.D.
Proposition 10: So long as we are not assailed by emotions contrary to our nature, we have the power of arranging and associating the modifications of our body according to the intellectual order. Proof: The emotions, which are contrary to our nature, that is (4.30.), which are bad, are bad in so far as they impede the mind from understanding (4.27.).
So long, therefore, as we are not assailed by emotions contrary to our nature, the mind's power, whereby it endeavours to understand things (4.26.), is not impeded, and therefore it is able to form clear and distinct ideas and to deduce them one from another (2.40. note. 2. and 2.47. note).
Consequently, we have in such cases the power of arranging and associating the modifications of the body according to the intellectual order. Q.E.D.
Note: By this power of rightly arranging and associating the bodily modifications we can guard ourselves from being easily affected by evil emotions.
For (5.7.) a greater force is needed for controlling the emotions, when they are arranged and associated according to the intellectual order, than when they, are uncertain and unsettled.
Therefore, the best we can do, so long as we do not possess a perfect knowledge of our emotions, is to frame a system of right conduct, or fixed practical precepts.
These will commit it to memory, and to apply it forthwith to our particular circumstances in life, so that our imagination may:
become fully imbued with them, and
be always ready to our hand.
For instance, we have laid down among the rules of life (4.46. and note), that hatred should be overcome with love or high-mindedness, and not required with hatred in return.
This precept of reason may be always ready to our hand in time of need.
We should often think over and reflect on:
the wrongs generally committed by men, and
how they may be best warded off by high-mindedness.
We shall thus associate the idea of wrong with the idea of this precept, which accordingly will always be ready for use when a wrong is done to us (2.18.).
The wrong, or the hatred, which commonly arises will occupy a very small part of our imagination and will be easily overcome if:
we keep ready the notion of:
our true advantage, and
the good which follows from mutual friendships and common fellowships
that complete acquiescence is the result of the right way of life (4.52.)
that men, no less than everything else, act by the necessity of their nature.
If the anger which springs from a grievous wrong is not overcome easily, it will nevertheless be overcome, though not without a spiritual conflict, far sooner than if we had not thus reflected on the subject beforehand.
In the same way, we should from 5.6-5.8 reflect on courage as a means of overcoming fear.
Life's ordinary dangers should frequently be brought to mind and imagined, together with the means whereby we can avoid and overcome them through:
readiness of resource and
strength of mind.
But we must note, that in arranging our thoughts and conceptions we should always bear in mind that which is good in every individual thing (4.43. Coroll. and 3.59.), in order that we may always be determined to action by an emotion of pleasure.
For instance, if a man sees that he is too keen in the pursuit of honour, let him think over:
its right use,
its end, and
the means he may attain it.
Let him not think of:
its emptiness, and
mankind's fickleness, and the like.
whereof no man thinks except through a morbidness of disposition.
With thoughts like these, the most ambitious most torment themselves, when they despair of gaining the distinctions they hanker after.
They thus give vent to their anger and would fain to appear wise.
Wherefore those, who cry out the loudest against the misuse of honour and the vanity of the world, are those who most greedily covet it.
This is not peculiar to the ambitious, but is common to all who are ill-used by fortune, and who are infirm in spirit.
For a miserly poor man also will talk incessantly of the misuse of wealth and of the vices of the rich.
He merely torments himself in this.
He shows the world that he is intolerant of his own poverty and also of other people's riches.
Those who have been ill-received by a woman they love think of nothing but the inconstancy, treachery, and other stock faults of women.
They consign all to oblivion, directly they are again taken into favour by their sweetheart.
Thus he who governs his emotions and desires solely by the love of freedom strives to:
know the virtues and their causes, and
fill his spirit with the joy which arises from their true knowledge.
He will in no wise desire to dwell on men's faults, or to carp at his fellows, or to revel in a false show of freedom.
Whosoever will diligently observe and practise these precepts (which are not difficult) will verily, in a short time, be mostly able to direct his actions according to the commandments of reason.
 Continuo. Rendered "constantly" by Mr. Pollock on the ground that the classical meaning of the word does not suit the context.
Proposition 11: In proportion as a mental image is referred to more objects, so is it more frequent, or more often vivid, and occupies the mind more. Proof: In proportion as a mental image or an emotion is referred to more objects, so are there more causes whereby it can be aroused and fostered, all of which (by hypothesis) the mind contemplates simultaneously in association with the given emotion.
Therefore the emotion is more frequent, or is more often in full vigour, and (5.8.) occupies the mind more. Q.E.D.
Proposition 12: The mental images of things are more easily associated with the images referred to things which we clearly and distinctly understand, than with others. Proof: Things, which we clearly and distinctly understand, are either the common properties of things or deductions therefrom (see definition of Reason, 2.40. note 2), and are consequently (by the last Prop.) more often aroused in us.
Wherefore it may more readily happen, that we should contemplate other things in conjunction with these than in conjunction with something else, and consequently (2.18) that the images of the said things should be more often associated with the images of these than with the images of something else. Q.E.D.
Proposition 13: A mental image is more often vivid, in proportion as it is associated with a greater number of other images. Proof: In proportion as an image is associated with a greater number of other images, so (2.18) are there more causes whereby it can be aroused. Q.E.D.