Spinoza’s Critique of Humility in the Ethics

Southern Journal of Philosophy 56 (3):342-364 (2018)
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Abstract

Abstract: In the "Ethics" Spinoza denies that humility is a virtue on the grounds that it arises from a reflection on our lack of power, rather than a rational understanding of our power (Part IV, Proposition 53, Demonstration). He suggests that humility, to the extent that it involves a consideration of our weakness, indicates a lack of self-understanding. However, in a brief remark in the same demonstration he also allows that conceiving our lack of power can be conducive to self-understanding and an increase in power, on the condition that we “conceive [it] because [we] understand (intelligit) something more powerful than [ourselves].” Unfortunately, Spinoza does not flesh out this remark, nor does he specify the name of the affect that arises from thus conceiving our weakness. Commentators have not been of much help in this regard either. What does it mean, in the Spinozistic framework, to conceive our weakness because we understand something more powerful than ourselves? And what exactly is the difference between this instance of conceiving our lack of power and the one that is involved in humility? This paper will examine the nature of this difference by analyzing its metaphysical and epistemological underpinnings, as well as its ethical implications within Spinoza’s Ethics. In doing so, it will highlight the ethical importance and epistemological conditions of recognizing our weakness in the Spinozistic universe. Abraham Wolf takes Spinoza’s denial of humility’s virtue in the Ethics to imply that “the rational man should think of what he can do, not of what he cannot do.” While I agree with Wolf’s remark, my reading in this paper will show that as the rational person thinks of her power and what she can do, she never loses sight of her ineliminable weakness as a finite mode.

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