“Ethics 1P16 and Felicity”


John Carriero


Margaret Wilson, in her 1983 paper, “Infinite Understanding, Scientia Intuitiva, and Ethics I.16,” drew attention to an important connection between Proposition 16 of Part One of the Ethics and doctrines developed later in Parts Four and Five, one of which concerns human felicity. An important thesis later in the Ethics is that our felicity is bound up with scientia intuitiva, intuitive cognition, of God. Proposition 16 lays the groundwork for that cognition. For there Spinoza establishes that things from God’s nature in a way that is accessible to intellect, or as we might say, reason.


I would like to develop Wilson’s insight in two ways. First, I would like to place Spinoza’s account of human felicity in its general historical context. Doing so will not only make it seem less odd, but also help us appreciate what is distinctive about his position. Second, I want to flesh out as concretely as possible Spinoza’s picture of how modes flow from God’s essence. Although this is a crucial aspect of Spinoza’s metaphysical system that intersects with several other key doctrines, commentators have had difficulty in seeing how the modes follow from God, especially in seeing how the transition from God’s infinite modes to the finite modes works. This is unfortunate because it leaves a major commitment of the Ethics blank.