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From humility to envy: Questioning the usefulness of sad passions as a means towards virtue in Spinoza's Ethics

Abstract

In the Ethics, Spinoza defines certain traditional virtues such as humility and repentance as species of sadness and denies that they are virtues. He nonetheless holds that they can turn out to be useful as a means towards virtue—in fact, the greatest virtue of blessedness—in the life of someone who is not guided by reason. In this paper, I examine Spinoza's relatively overlooked claim regarding the usefulness of sad passions as a means towards blessedness. In taking up Spinoza's treatment of humility as my case study, I show that there is a tension between this claim and his other explicit commitments in the Ethics. More specifically, after considering his views regarding the consequences of humility—including, most notably, its susceptibility to envy—and conditions of achieving blessedness, I show that humility cannot effectively be said to bring about cooperation and push “weak‐minded” people in the right direction so that, in the end, they may be free and enjoy blessedness. I conclude by suggesting that if we must rely on passions as a means towards virtue in the Spinozistic universe, we must rely not on debilitating sad passions such as humility, but on joy‐based social passions such as love.

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