My house > Your house

I’ve already covered parts I, II, and III of Baruch Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ and I thought I’d move on to cover part IV, which continues from part III. It’s titled ‘Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions’. There’s a short preface. I thought I’d get through it quickly, but I was wrong as it turned out to be quite thought-provoking.

I complained in the previous Spinoza essay that he isn’t clear on what he means by perfection or imperfection. I wasn’t happy with how something can be imperfect in Spinoza’s world, considering that God makes no mistakes, as everything is always as perfect as it should, as judged according to its own terms. Anyway, he (187) addresses this is issue in this part of the book, noting that for us perfection is what we think to be perfect, regardless of whether it is perfect or not.

He (187) exemplifies with this building a house. If it is unfinished, or, rather, appears to be unfinished, it is deemed to be imperfect, i.e., to exist in a state of imperfection. If it is done or deemed to be done, it is deemed perfect. I’d say his previous discussion of perfection and imperfection in part III now makes more sense as it’s really about how we think something is perfect or imperfect. An incomplete house is imperfect inasmuch as we judge it to be so on the basis of it being complete, yes, but it’s not imperfect inasmuch we judge it on its own terms as an incomplete house. Anyway, the problem is that we don’t always know whether something is done or not, because aren’t familiar with it, as he (187) aptly points out.

He (187-188) expands his discussions of perfection and imperfection, adding that once we shift from building a house, ad-hoc, the way we see fit, to creating designs, what he calls “general ideas”, we end up preferring this over that, calling our designs perfect and the designs of others imperfect, even though whatever we are dealing with is, as God would have it, always perfect in its own right. In other words, we like to think that whatever we’ve done is good, if not perfect, and that what whatever someone else has done is bad, imperfect to at least some degree, unless they’ve copied our designs.

This connects to another essay that I wrote a while ago, how one may approve this or that building, let’s say cathedrals, or building design, let’s say belltowers, but then disapprove other buildings, let’s say mosques, or building designs, let’s say minarets, even though they both function the same way. Of course, one could add all kinds of religious buildings and their designs here, let’s say Hindu temples. One could also make note of various architectural designs implemented in these buildings, so that one would approve, let’s say mosques that feature a dome and disapprove mosques that do not feature a dome. One can also extend the discussion to any type of building. For example, when I studied abroad, I remember that at some geography course that I attended certain holiday homes in Ireland were referred to as ‘The Toblerones’ because they sort of look like Toblerones. People weren’t happy that such were built because the buildings didn’t look right.

I used to be like this, like most people, objecting to basically whatever on the grounds of it affecting the view. For example, my hometown is known for its relaxed attitude to what the downtown area should look like, so that people are in the habit of pointing out to others how they’ve let companies demolish old buildings and build ugly greige boxes next to beautiful neoclassical and art nouveau buildings. I have to admit that I’ve said that out loud, more than once in my life. Would I still say such, having read all that I’ve read while working to complete that doctorate? No. I would not. I could say that I’m sorry for having said such, but I don’t think that’d do any good. I think it’s better not to be sorry and just get on with life, to focus on the present, what you can do now, instead of focusing on the past, as there’s nothing you can do to change the past. I mean it’s clinging to the past that gets us into trouble in the first place.

So, yeah, like I pointed out in a previous essay, there is nothing right or wrong about this or that building, as such. We just happen to fancy this and/or that, but not something else. Is that discriminatory (classist, racist, or the like)? No, not in itself, to each their own, and what not, but yes, it can most certainly be used in that way. It can function that way and to a certain extent it does function that way. I reckon that desire is not, in itself, discriminatory, but the way it gets channeled can most definitely be.

And I know, I know, oh how saucy of me, criticizing architectural features such as belltowers, minarets, and skyscrapers for towering over other buildings, lamenting over the loss of neoclassical and art nouveau buildings, and taking pot shots at buildings that lack bells and whistles but serve a purpose, being built at the time when people weren’t flush with cash that they spend on décor. I mean these things aren’t exactly that important. These days I couldn’t care less what this or that building looks like, because it really doesn’t matter. I can find something to be impressive, sure, and I can appreciate attention to detail, good craftmanship, etc., but that’s that. It is is what it is. That said, these things do matter to people. I think Spinoza manages to explain that so well and so effortlessly. Amazing.

Now, of course, there may be plenty of good reasons to oppose this or that development, including the so called ugly greige boxes. For example, constructing a mall near an existing intersection might seem like a good idea, considering that the infrastructure is already there, and people do actually pass by that area. Then again, the problem with that is that it may result in traffic jams. I remember taking part in one of those geography fieldtrips where our lecturer pointed this out when our bus had to wait in traffic because the exit ramp was so short that cars had to queue on the main road. Those cars were headed to a nearby shopping mall that was situated very close to the intersection. So, yeah, the problem wasn’t that the mall wasn’t aesthetically pleasing or something, but that it had been permitted to be built too close to an intersection that already had issues coping with traffic. That can also happen or the issue can be further exacerbated if there’s not enough parking space.

You might also want to object to developments on the grounds that some get or appear to get preferential treatment. The departments responsible for planning and zoning tend to be quite strict on building permits, on what can and cannot be done, unless you can exert enough political pressure on them. This requires a lot of image building and good connections. Your average person doesn’t have a shiny corporate image, nor the right connections to get things done. As they say, money talks.

Then there are things like gentrification, where a neighborhood is gradually transformed into something more luxurious. It may seem like a good deal, buildings being renovated, parks being created, and more services being offered, but all that tends to lead to a hike in land value. Those who used to live in the area may no longer afford to live in that area.

I think I forgot to mention those reasons (I’m sure there are other good reasons as well) in the previous essay, but, yeah, it’s not like you can’t have good reasons to object to something, nor that you shouldn’t object to something. In fact, I think you should object to things that you find objectionable. That said, I don’t think you should be the person to decide that. You can, of course, appeal to others, try to convince them, but that’s about it. I think it’s up to everyone involved to decide these things. If people go against your wishes, as a majority, then, well, that’s that and you have to respect that. It can be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is what it is.

Anyway, back to Spinoza who is basically saying that people tend to think that their shit doesn’t stink. He (188) notes that we are in the habit of going as far with this as stating that things not attributable to humans can be imperfect, so that the world itself is capable of blundering. This actually reminds me of how people want to retain nature as pristine or return something to its natural state. The problem with that is that it assumes that there is a true, natural, or original state. That’s, of course, incorrect as it is impossible for nature, aka God, to blunder. As nature, aka God, is always perfect, it cannot have an end and therefore it cannot act for the sake of an end, as he (188) goes on to remind his readers. So, to further comment on that previous essay, when we object to a mine in our own back yard, we aren’t concerned about nature. The argument that we care about nature is fallacious as nature is simply incapable of being imperfect. We are actually concerned about what’s good for us. We aren’t concerned about what’s good or bad for others, only ourselves.

This does not, however, mean that anything goes. I don’t think that’s what Spinoza wants to get across here. It’s rather that there is no easy way out, no right answer. There is no impartial third party, no appeal to God’s will, or the like, that we can conjure to settle things. It’s up to us make those calls and deal with the consequences. That’s hardly comforting, but that’s exactly the point. He wants to make us responsible. That’s the gist of his ethics.

In summary, he (189) wants us to keep in mind that good and bad, perfect and imperfect, are tied to our judgments, what we hold to be good or bad, perfect or imperfect, not to the things in themselves. We do this by judging one thing in comparison with another, not with the thing in itself, as he (189) points out. It is also possible to be indifferent about something. He (189) provides a particularly example here, noting that we may judge music to be good or bad, or, as he emphasizes it, good or bad for a person who is in this or that mood, but a deaf person will feel indifferent about it because it’s not a concern to a deaf person.

He (189-190) then jumps to define good and bad the way I did in the previous essay. Good simply means something that enables us, something increases our capacity to act and be acted upon. Bad simply means the opposite of that, something decreases our capacity to act and be acted upon. Perfection and imperfections are therefore just assessments of one’s capacity to act and be acted upon.


  • Spinoza, B. ([1677] 1884). The Ethics. In R. H. M. Elwes (Ed.), The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza: Vol. II (R. H. M. Elwes, Trans.) (pp. 43–271). London, United Kingdom: George Bell and Sons.