It is quite commonplace for moralists to warn people against supposing that sensual pleasure, fame, and money are genuine or unequivocal goods. It is worth looking in some detail, however, at the particular critique of these attractions that Spinoza offers. Of sensual pleasure he says this: "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." Spinoza is clearly not talking about the sort of pleasure one gets from a brisk walk in the country. That is not the sort of activity which enthralls us to the point of quiescence or whose appeal drives out all the thoughts of other things. Nor is it common, or even understandable, that an activity of that sort should be followed by melancholy, much less by "extreme melancholy." A bit further on Spinoza asserts that sensual pleasure is followed not merely by melancholy but by repentance. This only confirms the strong impression that, whether or not he is clear about this himself, Spinoza is describing sexual pleasure, which he evidently finds extremely enticing but which he also finds to be mixed characteristically with unpleasant experiences of depression and guilt.
Spinoza's initial point about money and fame is a somewhat different one. It is that there is no limit to how much of those things people who care about them desire; indeed, the more people have of them the more they tend to want. The pursuit of sensual pleasure is limited by our susceptibility to fatigue or to the exhaustion of our capacity for engaging in, or for enjoying, whatever activity is in question. But no limitation of this kind is inherent in the pursuit of money or the pursuit of fame, which are by nature endless and uncompleteable and which will continue as long as they are not limited by something outside themselvessome goal which defines how much money or how much fame is enough. Spinoza finds that these goods cannot of themselves bring satisfaction, because there is no particular amount of them which is inherently satisfying. Moreover, pursuing either of them is inevitably competitive and leads inescapably to undesirable experiences, such as those of envy, hatred, fear, and disappointment. People who are committed to the pursuit of conventional goods, Spinoza warns, expose themselves to extremes of contradictory emotion. They swing from intense pleasure to feelings of melancholy and guilt; and their satisfactions are often mixed with frustration when they discover that attaining what they desire serves only to arouse a further desire for more than they already have.
As Spinoza elaborates these points, the quality and tone of his account undergo a conspicuous change. The conventional goods, he says, are not only unreliable and unsatisfying. They are actually evil and extremely dangerous to us; and anyone who devotes himself to them is "in a state of great peril." As he goes on, Spinoza seems to be more and more carried away. The peril to which he refers turns out to be not just a danger of moral corruption of of misery or of some sort of deterioration of the soul. He insists that it is literally a peril of death. And then it becomes not only a peril but even a certainty of death! Conventional goods often cause the deaths of those who possess them, Spinoza declares, and they always cause the deaths of those who are possessed by them. The context makes it unmistakably clear, by the way, that these references to death are not metaphorical. Spinoza's statements really are just as wild as they seem.
Spinoza never completed the Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding. He clearly had some notion of completing it, however, since he made a number of notes in the margin of his manuscript concerning changes to be made in a subsequent version which he never actually wrote. One of those notes occurs at the point where he makes the remarkableindeed, incredibleclaim that giving in to or allowing oneself to be possessed by desires for sensual pleasure, money, or fame brings certain death. His note to himself reads: "These considerations should be set forth more precisely." Indeed! Evidently he became aware of the exaggeration into which he had permitted himself to be swept, caught himself up short in his marginal admonition to himself, and intended one day to give a more measured and less fantasy-ridden account of his subject.
... In discussing desires for money and fame, Spinoza attributes much of the unsatisfactory quality of these objects as ends in themselves to the fact that they are necessarily scarce. Since there cannot be enough of them to satisfy all possible desires, the satisfaction of one person's desires diminishes the chances of satisfaction for others. Those who desire money or fame are therefore inevitably in competition with others who are also ambitious to acquire them. It is the inevitability of competition which leads Spinoza to regard the value of attaining these goods as inextricably compromised by the evils of hatred, envy, fear of loss, and other disturbances of the mind.
... What is the cure for all this? How are we to avoid these disturbances of the mind, which obstruct and interrupt the sustained serenity and joy which Spinoza seeks? The secret, he declares, is to care deeply only for what is eternal and infinitein other words, for what is neither transitory or scarce. The enjoyment of something of that kind will be, he assures us, unmingled with any sadness; no contrary pain will be inherent in the pleasure it brings. Now, it is pretty clear that being eternal and infinite is not really enough. After all, the number six is eternal; and even if we add all the other positive integers, so that we get an object that is not only eternal but infinite as well, this hardly solves the problem of how to achieve perfect happiness.
Of course Spinoza has something more particular in mind, which comes out when he begins to describe the ideal condition of human life. Here is the paragraph in which his central claim emerges:
All things which come to pass, come to pass according to the eternal order and fixed laws of Nature. However, human weakness cannot attain to this order in its own thought, but meanwhile man conceives a human character much more stable than his own, and sees that there is no reason why he should not himself acquire such a character ... What that character is we shall show in due time, namely that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.
It is clear enough what eternal and infinite object it is that Spinoza identifies in this passage as capable of playing a fundamental role in the achievement of human happiness. It is "the eternal order and fixed laws of Nature." But the observation Spinoza makes next is sometimes misunderstood. After referring to the eternal order and fixed laws of Nature, he observes that we are too weak to attain this order in our own thoughts. Now this has been construed by some readers as a lament over our inability to arrive at a totally comprehensive knowledge of Nature ... we are simply not intelligent enough to grasp the eternal order in all its details.
Spinoza himself makes it rather clear, however, that his attention is not focused primarily on our intellectual limitations. After alluding to human weakness and to the incapacity it entails, he declares that "man conceives a human character much more stable than his own," and that this conception of a more stable character provides the ideal goal toward which human endeavor must strive. The ideal is not formulated in terms of intelligence or of knowledge or of understanding, but as a matter of stability. In other words, what we conceive as the ideal character for ourselves is not one distinguished primarily by greater knowledge than we possess, but one which emulates the characteristics which Spinoza has just been ascribing to Naturenamely, order and fixity or, to use the his word, stability. Our aim is to be rid of the disturbances which unbalance our condition, interrupt the evenness of our thoughts and feelings, and make us suffer passively the effects upon us of forces with which we do not identify and which we experience as alien to ourselves.
How does Spinoza imagine this stability can be achieved? There, of course, is where knowledge comes in. We achieve stability by understanding "the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature"that is, by recognizing ourselves as products of forces which are generated systematically and in a lawful manner according to the fixed nature of the world, and by understanding that what goes on within us is by no means random or unintelligible but that it is (like everything else that happens) a necessary consequence of the fundamental substance and structure of the universe. The more we come to see the events of our own livesand especially the events of our mindsas manifestations of an eternal and fixed order of natural law and natural necessity, the more intelligible they become to us and the less we are beset by emotions which breach and undermine the order of our nature and the stability of our existence. This reduces our sense that the power of the universe is alien to us and that we are merely passive with respect to it.
Harry Frankfurt, Necessity, Volition, and Love (1999:48-52)