Everything happens for a reason (*see terms and conditions): Part 5 – Know better, do better

The man sitting across the table from me told me things most people would never tell anyone, much less someone they only met minutes before. Like how he became a killer when a robbery went wrong, even though he hadn’t intended it to be that way. And how he’d come to grasp the enormity of what he’d done and feel great remorse for it.

I took in everything he had to say, interrupting just to ask a few questions. He told me that by being sentenced to prison for 20 years, he had missed his daughter’s entire time growing up to adulthood and hadn’t been able to be there for his mother’s funeral. “What was the hardest part?” I asked, expecting to hear about missing out on one of those milestones.

“The hardest part?” He looked down at his hands. “The hardest part is that I wish I could undo all the hurt I did to his family — and mine — and I never can.”

Necessary evils

Spinoza’s philosophy, with its insistence that everything has already been determined and none of us has free will, gives rise to a lot of Really Big Questions. Questions like:

Prisoners Getting Exercise, Vincent van Gogh
  • If we can’t choose what we do, then does it make sense to call anything we do moral or immoral, right or wrong, good or evil?
  • Taking that a step further, if we can’t choose what we do, how can we punish people for committing crimes? On the other hand, how can we not?
  • How can we live in a system of thought that expects us to say that committing acts of genocide is not wrong, immoral or evil?
  • If freedom is an illusion, why even try to be good?
  • For that matter, why even “fight the good fight” – whether that means campaigning for your favorite candidate, working for social change or even trying to stay on a diet – if the outcome has already been set?

Ever the logician, Spinoza has answers. That doesn’t mean they’re satisfying ones.

No, he says, there is no such thing as absolute good or evil. A thing is good only so much as it is useful to us, and evil only so much as it stands in our way of mastering something useful. However practical a definition it might aspire to be, there’s something in it that rings hollow. Two and a half centuries after writing this, the descendents of Spinoza’s neighbors faced the boxcars and ovens. I can’t write that off “not useful.”

Nor can I explain it away by saying that such an awful thing as genocide was unthinkable to Spinoza in his day. Not when his grandparents fled the auto da fe, and not when others in his time ⁠— some in his very community ⁠— were busy setting up infrastructure to establish the enslavement of one race by another. He would have been aware of the abject cruelty people all too easily inflict on one another.

Freedom’s just another word

Yet I am also aware that sometimes, even people who have survived great wrongs have been able to forgive those who hurt them. I’m thinking now of the brother of the man shot to death in his own apartment when a police woman broke in, confusing it for her own home and him for an intruder. He asked to hug the former police officer after she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for murder, a move that angered many across the country. I understand the anger that exists, but I also understand the want for healing.

Paul in Prison, Rembrandt van Rijn

I have also seen people who have survived brutal crimes manage to reassemble their lives and go on. Too often I’ve heard people say, “If you’re sexually abused as a child, it ruins you forever.” It’s a dangerous proclamation to make. The trauma of abuse shouldn’t be downplayed at all, but neither should human resilience. When I worked with survivors of sexual assault, I saw people overcome trauma and thrive in ways that took my breath away.

And these sorts of things are what Spinoza had in mind when he wrote about people’s ability to attain a kind of freedom in spite of having no free will.

Like the stoics he admired, Spinoza encourages people to accept that they have a limited (or no) ability to change the circumstances and world around them. What they can control is their own mind: their intellect and, to a degree, their emotions.

There are a couple concepts to grasp here.

First, recall that Spinoza imagines the universe to operate as an immense chain of causes and effects that control all action. The entire universe is like a giant game of billiards, and every molecule, every action, heck every thought is just another billiard ping-ponging against everything else out there in the immense entirety of all that is. But if your mind was vast enough to comprehend it all, you could see how all was connected, and understand why everything had to happen just so.

And once you understood that, there just wouldn’t be a point anymore in being angry at the former police officer for shooting your brother. Or at uncle for molesting you or that one first date for raping you. Or your first husband for being a drain on you for a decade. Or hating yourself for not overcoming all of these things years before. If all of it was determined by an unfeeling universe, you simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It’s not worth wasting strong emotions on.

That comes with an asterisk, however. Spinoza was also fascinated with emotion and made something of a catalog of them. He stripped them down to three basic feelings: joy, pain and desire, and posited that the rest of them were mixtures of those three with other elements such as external causes or notions of good and evil added on top. So we get definitions such as these:

Pity is pain accompanied by the idea of evil, which has befallen someone else whom we conceive to be like ourselves 


Hope is an inconstant pleasure, arising from the idea of something past or future, whereof we to a certain extent doubt the issue.

There are dozens of these, and they are fascinating and often astute.

Anyway, one of the great observations Spinoza makes about emotion is this: “Reason cannot defeat emotion; an emotion can only be displaced or overcome by a stronger emotion.” (Side note: I once quoted this at a political messaging strategy meeting without realizing I was actually channeling Spinoza. I thought I’d just had a brilliant flash of insight, but … nope.) So there is a limited ability to actually control one’s strong feelings. But with practice, Spinoza believes we can at the very least be mindful of them and not let them rule us.

There’s another bit I could get into here about mind/body monism and parallelism, but I won’t bore you. I’ll shorten it to this: Once you’re aware of your strong feelings and stop letting them get the best of you, you start to behave differently, too.

When you know better, you do better

Of course this hardly a new idea. I know I’ve heard it many times before, perhaps best expressed by the phrase often misattributed to the poet Maya Angelou: “When you know better, you do better.” But in reality, the full, actual quote of hers hits the mark even better:

I did then when I know how to do.

Now that I know better, I do better.

This above quote shines with wisdom. We are all beholden to what we know when we know it. It’s the sad damn truth, isn’t it? I wouldn’t want to simply go back in time, but I’d go back with the knowledge I have now.

That’s what that man in prison was telling me as I sat across from him and he said, “The hardest part is that I wish I could undo all the hurt I did to his family — and mine — and I can’t.”

I work in the field of criminal justice reform, and I think about that man often. If Spinoza’s philosophy is right, and people can’t choose whether to commit crime or not, our entire punitive system is corrupt. Obviously, we have a need to protect people from those who can’t or won’t stop harming others. But what madness is it to lock up someone for ten … twenty … thirty years for a crime that didn’t hurt anyone, or caused harm that didn’t last nearly as long? Especially if he couldn’t choose to do it?

Certainly everyone would be better off if our efforts were redirected toward helping people to learn better instead? After all, Spinoza promises that way lies freedom. For them, as well as us.

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