Getting Started

For first readers of Spinozae Ethica

We are unhappy, weak and bad wherever and whenever we do no think adequately. Learning to think properly is the only way to self-perfection.

Thinking is what the mind does when it links one thought to another. Thoughts in people's minds get associated by accidental experience in life: a soldier and a farmer both perceiving a horse print on the ground, will have different thoughts next (2p18s). But there are ways to improve this and instead reconnect the thought of the horse to the thought of its essence - which for the soldier, the farmer and all other men is the same. This adequate ordering and connection of thoughts is the general way to perfection of the mind, the central subject of Ethica.

Before your mind can start improving control over its thinking (which, in the end enhances your ability, perfection, and virtue all in one go) it first needs to download the basic structure of the universe. This is addressed by the definitions, axioms and propositions of Part 1: The Universe, called Nature, Substance, and God (all different names for the same thing), has an infinite number of attributes of which we perceive only two: the attribute of extended things (bodies), and the attribute of thought. What is an attribute? All things you can think of are "drawn" in your mind on an infinite space. To understand, for instance, a geometrical figure I need to conceive an infinite space, say a geometrical plane, in which it is drawn. When someone draws you a geometrical figure, you are asked to see the used sheet of paper, painting frame, blackboard, screen or sand surface as a model of that infinite space. Similarly attributes are  the geometrical spaces in which "everything" is drawn. Descartes introduced what was later baptized the cartesian product to formalize this for Euclidian geometrics (such as the horizontal and vertical line you draw by way of coordinate system before drawing a mathematical function).

The two vital parts of the human being are the body and the mind. The body receives impacts from other bodies in nature. The mind perceives these impacts and forms ideas. The mind also perceives the ideas it thus formed itself, forming again new ideas about them. All those ideas may be inadequate. To improve our thinking, which should be everybody's only goal in life, we need to understand exactly how mind and body are connected and united.

Nature, or the Universe is what you get when you add to what we are ourselves: all bodies outside us and all ideas we never had. The matter nature is formed of is called substance, or God. The way our body and mind are wired up causes us to perceive God through two "channels" (attributes): the corporeal (bodily) attribute of "extension" and the thought-attribute of ideas. There is an infinite number of those channels but we have only receivers for two:
1. A human body. This body gets "hit" by external bodies, causing imprints, also called "imagines". "Imagines" are corporeal "scars" of corporeal impact, "affectiones" of the body.
2. A mind, which contains ideas. Ideas are, like corporeal, extended things, affectiones, modi. They are mind-states, thought-things, which came into being by events of thinking.

The human mind is nothing but a complex structure of ideas, which means: the mind is nothing but a complex idea. By being united to a body, the mind is liable to (cartesian) impacts ("hits" literally) from external corporeal things. Hence the mind is an interface between the two infinite cartesian products. But it may form inadequate ideas. Ethica is about why and how this should be redressed as well as possible, the only purpose of human life.

The two attributes themselves cannot be said to make impacts. They are just infinite spaces in which things (modi) move around affecting each other. The human mind is an idea containing subset-ideas. Ideas are things, ordered sets of things, in the space of thought-modi. Among them are ideas produced by the perception of impacts (affections) on the body by extended things in the space the body finds itself in. Or again: the two spaces are the two ways by which we are in contact with God. God projects himself as it were for us to see on two different screens. They may look different at first sight, but you will have to learn to understand (intelligere) that you are seeing exactly the same on these two screens: the order and connection of things is the same. To understand that is a hard job indeed, Spinoza writes. Few will make it. One of our biggest habitual mistakes to liberate ourselves from is: to think that some thing on one screen could "cause" an event on the other. For instance: it is a fundamental mistake to think that my thinking of an apple (screen 2, attribute of thoughts) is caused by the appearance of an apple on screen 1 (attribute of bodies).

Part 1 of Ethica (about the structure of nature generally) is held in 7 axioms, for the understanding of which you need 8 definitions. In the rest of Part 1 Spinoza unzips the content of these definitions and axioms into 36 propositions.

This should get you going. Go to: Spinoza Ethica    (Back to: Index)