Improvement of the Understanding

Author: Benedictus de Spinoza

On the Improvement of the Understanding

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else: whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness. I say "I finally resolved," for at first sight it seemed unwise willingly to lose hold on what was sure for the sake of something then uncertain. I could see the benefits which are acquired through fame and riches, and that I should be obliged to abandon the quest of such objects, if I seriously devoted myself to the search for something different and new. I perceived that if true happiness chanced to be placed in the former I should necessarily miss it; while if, on the other hand, it were not so placed, and I gave them my whole attention, I should equally fail.

I therefore debated whether it would not be possible to arrive at the new principle, or at any rate at a certainty concerning its existence, without changing the conduct and usual plan of my life; with this end in view I made many efforts, but in vain. For the ordinary surroundings of life which are esteemed by men (as their actions testify) to be the highest good, may be classed under the three heads—Riches, Fame, and the Pleasures of Sense: with these three the mind is so absorbed that it has little power to reflect on any different good. By sensual pleasure the mind is enthralled to the extent of quiescence, as if the supreme good were actually attained, so that it is quite incapable of thinking of any other object; when such pleasure has been gratified it is followed by extreme melancholy, whereby the mind, though not enthralled, is disturbed and dulled.

The pursuit of honors and riches is likewise very absorbing, especially if such objects be sought simply for their own sake,<SP:3p><WW:Web,"file://C:\My%20Download%20Files\">1</SS><EL> inasmuch as they are then supposed to constitute the highest good. In the case of fame the mind is still more absorbed, for fame is conceived as always good for its own sake, and as the ultimate end to which all actions are directed. Further, the attainment of riches and fame is not followed as in the case of sensual pleasures by repentance, but, the more we acquire, the greater is our delight, and, consequently, the more are we incited to increase both the one and the other; on the other hand, if our hopes happen to be frustrated we are plunged into the deepest sadness. Fame has the further drawback that it compels its votaries to order their lives according to the opinions of their fellow-men, shunning what they usually shun, and seeking what they usually seek.


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Chicago: Benedictus de Spinoza, "On the Improvement of the Understanding," Improvement of the Understanding, ed. Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945 and trans. Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853- in Improvement of the Understanding (London: George Bell and Sons, 1883), Original Sources, accessed July 15, 2020,

MLA: Spinoza, Benedictus de. "On the Improvement of the Understanding." Improvement of the Understanding, edited by Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945, and translated by Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853-, in Improvement of the Understanding, Vol. 3, London, George Bell and Sons, 1883, Original Sources. 15 Jul. 2020.

Harvard: Spinoza, BD, 'On the Improvement of the Understanding' in Improvement of the Understanding, ed. and trans. . cited in 1883, Improvement of the Understanding, George Bell and Sons, London. Original Sources, retrieved 15 July 2020, from