Spinoza on freedom

E4P66S: We shall easily see what the difference is between a man who is led only by an affect, or by opinion, and one who is led by reason. For the former, whether he will or no, does those things he is most ignorant of, whereas the latter complies with no one’s wishes but his own, and does only those things he knows to be the most important in life, and therefore desires very greatly. Hence, I call the former a slave, but the latter, a free man.

E4P68Dem.: I call him free who is led by reason alone. Therefore, he who is born free, and remains free, has only adequate ideas

From the two propositions above we can see that Spinoza ties freedom closely to a human being’s ability to guide their actions by reason rather than by the passions or affects, in the sense of emotional states that happen to a person in their interactions with the world. The person led by their affects, or by the opinions of others, is a kind of slave – they live in “bondage”.

E4Preface: Man’s lack of power to moderate and restrain the affects I call bondage

Spinoza contends that the free human being is one that leads their life according to the dictates of reason, and that only such a life counts as living virtuously. Living a virtuous life means living a life that is “in one’s power” in a special sense. Living a life according to the dictates of reason means living a life governed by what Spinoza calls “adequate” ideas. In what follows I discuss each of these points, and address the sense in which finite beings can be free, and the relation Spinoza sees between freedom and necessity.

Adequate Ideas

Spinoza distinguishes between two kinds of ideas – “confused” or “inadequate” and “adequate” ideas. Inadequate ideas are had only by singular things (i.e. individual finite minds) and at best provide “knowledge of the first kind” or knowledge gleaned from opinions, authority, habit, association, etc. (see E2P40S2). Adequate ideas are necessarily true of their objects (E2D3), and they provide knowledge of the “second” or “third” kinds (E2P40). That is, they provide knowledge through reasoned demonstration (or “argument” as we might more colloquially say) or by a kind of non-inferential grasp in “intuition” (such as the grasp Descartes argued we have of our own existence in thinking). Moreover, when one has an adequate idea and thereby knowledge, one knows that one knows, or is certain (E2P40). Adequate ideas, for Spinoza, play a similar role as “clear and distinct” ideas do for Descartes.

One of the key features of Spinoza’s inadequate/adequate distinction is that he considers all of the passions as arising from inadequate ideas.

E3P1: Our mind does certain things [acts] and undergoes other things, namely, insofar as it has adequate ideas, it necessarily does certain things, and insofar as it has inadequate ideas, it necessarily undergoes other things.

E3P3: The actions of the mind arise from adequate ideas alone; the passions depend on inadequate ideas alone.

E5P4S: all the appetites, or desires, are passions only insofar as they arise from inadequate ideas, and are counted as virtues when they are aroused or generated by adequate ideas. For all the desires by which we are determined to do something can arise as much from adequate ideas as from inadequate ones (by E4P59). And-to return to the point from which I have digressed-we can devise no other remedy for the affects which depends on our power and is more excellent than this, which consists in a true knowledge of them. For the mind has no other power than that of thinking and forming adequate ideas, as we have shown (by E3P3) above.

So the mind is active insofar as it has adequate or true ideas, and inactive to the extent that it has inadequate ideas. To see why the link between adequate ideas and activity is important we need to look briefly at Spinoza’s conception of virtue.

Power & Virtue

Spinoza closely connects acting by or under one’s own power with a thing’s essence.

E3P6: Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.

E3P7: The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.

So all things, insofar as they are (i.e. essentially), strive to maintain their existence or being. A human being, insofar as that being’s striving is determined through adequate ideas, or reason more broadly, is active rather passive. This means that the human led by reason acts according to his or her own nature, rather than according to what is dictated from without (and with respect to which he or she is passive). But since acting according to one’s nature means acting by one’s own power rather than something else’s, Spinoza considers acting according to adequate ideas to be acting from one’s own nature/essence rather than from something else. Rational action is thus equivalent, in the human being, acting under one’s own power, or according to one’s own essence. And this is, according to Spinoza, equivalent to virtue.

E4D8: By virtue and power I understand the same thing, that is (by E3P7), virtue, insofar as it is related to man, is the very essence, or nature, of man, insofar as he has the power of bringing about certain things, which can be understood through the laws of his nature alone.

Vice is thus identical with a lack of power – a kind of passivity before those causes external to one’s own nature. This passivity is equivalent to a lack of freedom or “bondage”.

E4Preface: Man’s lack of power to moderate and restrain the affects I call bondage [servitutem]. For the man who is subject to affects is under the control, not of himself, but of fortune, in whose power he so greatly is that often, though he sees the better for himself, he is still forced to follow the worse.

So the virtuous person, in acting according to the dictates of their adequate ideas, acts to that extent under their own power, and thereby acts according to what is natural or essential to themselves. As Spinoza puts it, “virtue is nothing by acting from the laws of one’s own nature” (E4P18S). The vicious person acts according to what external causes dictate, is thereby passive, and thus does not conceives of things adequately. Such a person is in “bondage” to things distinct from its nature, and thereby acts according to things that are not conducive to its own well-being.

In the end, Spinoza thinks we should strive as much as is possible to act like the virtuous person. Such an ideal presents a set of norms governing how we should act.

E4Preface: Because we desire to form an idea of man, as a model of human nature which we may look to, it will be useful to us to retain these same words [i.e. “good” and “evil”] with the meaning I have indicated. In what follows, therefore, I shall understand by good what we know certainly is a means by which we may approach nearer and nearer to the model of human nature that we set before ourselves. By evil, what we certainly know prevents us from becoming like that model. Next, we shall say that men are more perfect or imperfect, insofar as they approach more or less near to this model.

We do good the more closely we approximate doing what the perfectly virtuous person would do, and thus the more closely our actions follow from adequate causes based in our own nature rather than in things distinct or external from it. Insofar as we fail to do such things we do evil (whether to ourselves or others).

Freedom & Necessity

Spinoza understands actions done from causes external to oneself to be a kind of bondage, or unfreedom. Such actions thereby manifest a lack of power. Spinoza does not, however, consider free action to be action does in the absence of any necessitation. Rather, he views free action as done from the necessity of one’s own nature, rather than something external to it.

E1D7: That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its nature alone, and is determined to act by itself alone. But a thing is called necessary, or rather compelled, which is determined by another to exist and to produce an effect in a certain and determinate manner.

The being that exists from the necessity of its nature alone is God. Hence only God is “free” in the sense with which Spinoza is concerned. Human beings are always, at least to some extent, necessitated by things external to their own nature What then to say about the freedom of human beings?

The freedom of a human being is commensurate with the power she can exercise, or the sense in which she can control her actions rather than being controlled by things external to her.

E4Appendix: The desires which follow from our nature in such a way that they can be understood through it alone are those that related to the mind insofar as it is conceived to consist of adequate ideas. The remaining desires are not related to the mind except insofar as it conceives things inadequately, and their force and growth must be defined not by human power, but by the power of things that are outside us.

But the nature of any finite thing is to be determined by cases external to it. We see this from Spinoza’s discussion of finite modes in E1:

E1P28: Every singular thing, or any thing which is finite and has a determinate existence, can neither exist nor be determined to produce an effect unless it is determined to exist and produce an effect by another cause, which is also finite and has a determinate existence; and again, this cause also can neither exist nor be determined to produce an effect unless it is determined to exist and produce an effect by another, which is also finite and has a determinate existence, and so on, to infinity.

Thus the ideal of the free human being is just that, an ideal. We can strive to be more like the virtue and free human being, but we can never perfectly realize this ideal since it would mean being totally self-determining and that characteristic is true only of God and not of its modes.

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