Baruch Spinoza scandalized the Western European world and his own Jewish community as his naturalist metaphysics drew accusations of heresy and atheism. His two political treatises and his magnum opus, the Ethics, comprise a rich treatment of politics grounded in his naturalism. Just as he insisted that one ought to investigate scripture like any other thing in nature, he examines human psychology, social relations, the state, and civil organization as natural forces that operate according to necessary relationships of cause and effect.
Spinoza was born into a time replete with religious and political strife. Of Portuguese Sephardic descent, Spinoza's ancestors were forced to flee their homeland during the inquisition. They found relative shelter in Holland, where Baruch Spinoza was born and spent the entirety of his brief life. He was an exceptionally bright yeshiva student, but was banished from the Jewish community (the cherem) in 1656, perhaps for his views on God and for questioning of the divine origin of the Pentateuch. He changed his name to its Latin equivalent, Benedict, and dedicated the remainder of his life to philosophy and lens grinding. He enjoyed some reputation as a philosopher during his lifetime and was offered a position as a professor in Heidelberg. He refused on the grounds that it would undermine his freedom to philosophize. His rejection of institutions that would constrain his thought and action reflects the basic principles of his political theory. Whether one can think and live well is not a matter of volition or self-discipline. Rather, one's abilities depend on the quality of the institutions and relationships one enjoys.
Some scholars have argued that Spinoza's metaphysics is indistinguishable from a political philosophy, because he conceives of the entirety of existence in terms of power. To exist is to have power and, therefore, God (nature) names the infinite power to be and to act. The things we perceive in the world, including human beings, are different ways in which this infinite power of nature exists. Spinoza's naturalism entails the following: God is an impersonal, vital force rather than a king or legislator who commands obedience; nothing transcends or violates the natural order of cause and effect; and, existence itself is a complex web of power relationships, where power names the forces that enable and constrain actions. This metaphysical basis underlies Spinoza's doctrine of natural right, in which he insists that everything follows necessarily from nature's right to exist, where right is coextensive with power.
Spinoza's notion of natural right engenders both a theological and a political heresy. Just as God has no existence outside of nature, right neither precedes nor measures particular acts. Spinoza's view undermines the basis for natural law, according to which there is a standard inscribed in the cosmic order that dictates how things ought to be, independent of human convention. Right here does not designate a normative standard by which to judge either human behavior or the legitimacy of regimes. Our actions simply reflect the concrete, natural limits of our power. Thus, fools and madmen act according to the order of nature no less than the wise and virtuous. A sovereign republic whose only guide is the welfare of the people as a whole acts according to the same right as a brutal tyrant.
Spinoza's doctrine of natural right is often paraphrased as the notion that “might makes right.” This is a misunderstanding. Spinoza's treatment of natural right does not function to justify or constrain any form of authority or behavior. For Thomas Hobbes, in contrast, natural right corresponds to acting in accordance with “right reason,” and thus does not extend to anything that someone might do. Right simply names the power to exist and act of any natural being and is thereby purely descriptive rather than normative. It functions (a) to affirm that there is no transcendent standard that reason might discover to guide human action and (b) to assess regimes and actors in terms of the concrete practices and ways of life they make possible. Right does not designate any formal set of entitlements that citizens may or may not be able to exercise.
Although Spinoza does not condemn tyranny on the basis that it violates the natural order of things, or the given dignity of human life, he does argue that tyrannical governments exercise less right insofar as they give their constituents cause for resentment and revolt. Similarly, ignorance and enmity follow naturally from the tendencies of human psychology, but rationality and friendship reflect more enabling relationships and engender greater right. Nevertheless, as he notes in the Political Treatise, doing something by right is not equivalent to doing something in the best way. Spinoza distinguishes himself from other philosophers by examining the character of regimes and social organization only in terms of natural right without reference to an ideal regime. According to Spinoza, even Hobbes, famous for his realism, abandoned the perspective of natural right by imagining that individuals can formally and irrevocably transfer their power to the sovereign. State power is always a matter of the practical dynamic among the many, rather than any formal agreement.
Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise is considered a founding document of modern democratic theory. It promotes democracy as the most natural (i.e., most powerful) form of commonwealth and outlines a kind of social contract as the basis of the state. This treatise served as a direct intervention into theological-political controversies occurring in the United Provinces during Spinoza's day. The text includes his notorious treatment of scripture and miracles as thoroughly natural phenomena, governed by knowable relationships of cause and effect. Much of the book ascertains the origin and decline of the Hebrew state as an example of a democratic agreement between Jews and God, mediated by the earthly sovereignty of Moses. He published the Theological-Political Treatise anonymously in 1670, and was met with horror and threats to his life. The remainder of his work would have to be guarded by his friends and published after his death.
Among the several arguments in this complicated text, Spinoza contends that there is no conflict between religious and civil authority, because “true religion” commands only that one should love God and one's neighbors and obey the law of one's earthly sovereign. Similarly, theology does not conflict with philosophy, because its essential teachings inspire obedience and charity rather than knowledge. Spinoza's arguments aimed, at the same time, to carve out an autonomous space for philosophy to treat speculative questions and to mitigate disputes over whether the church or the state has greater authority over public life. Spinoza achieves his aim, to the dissatisfaction of many, only by proscribing the domain of religion to moral cultivation. For Spinoza, the state has the right, understood as effective power, to determine the role and scope of ecclesiastical power. Moreover, the argument that speculation about the ultimate character of reality remains in a separate domain from either religion or politics undermines the ability of either institution to claim that piety and law reflect the cosmic order rather than particular conventions and needs.
Without an eternal standard of right and wrong, justice becomes an expression of particular institutions of authority and ways of life. In the Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza represents the local, conventional character of justice with the device of a “pact,” or what has come to be called a “social contract.” Spinoza shares with Hobbes the notion that justice reflects an agreement and has no existence prior to a pact. Yet Spinoza's portrait of the civil pact is somewhat different from typical social contract theories. While the contract usually functions to represent how a state's legitimacy and authority can be grounded in the volition of the people, Spinoza's rejection of free will in the Ethics and his treatment of natural right and the passions in his political writings alter how one should understand the basis of any pact.
First, Spinoza's rigorous naturalism makes it inappropriate to think of the commonwealth as an artifice erected over and against the natural tendencies of man, as Hobbes suggests. Rather, collective life and its forms of authority are entirely natural phenomena that issue from our basic psychological tendencies and physical needs. Second, a civil pact expresses the psychological fact that a group of humans apprehend a given arrangement of power as conducive to their self-preservation and well-being. While obedience may not genuinely be in the interest of most individuals, the right (power) of the state is entirely contingent on the perception that one will benefit by conforming to the state's demands. Obedience thereby issues from the majority's desire to preserve and enhance their lives, rather than from the unconditioned will of rational subjects. Third, rather than being a formal transfer of rights, obligation rests on perceived utility alone. Political authority endures only as long as the passionate dynamic persists in which the majority find that their well-being is furthered by yielding to the law.
Spinoza does not base his argument for democracy on its superior ability to formally recognize each individual's claim to liberty and dignity. Rather, democracy is the best way to coordinate the mutual striving toward self-preservation of the state and its constituents. As natural beings, individuals as well as institutions aim to preserve and enhance their existence. A democracy with large deliberative assemblies and ample opportunity for participation (at least for propertied males) is the best means to unify the power of many diverse individuals and, in so doing, to solidify the state. Thus, Spinoza claims in the Theological-Political Treatise that the purpose of the state is nothing other than freedom. Given that Spinoza rejects free will, freedom should be understood as the power by which one exists and enhances one's life. Humans strive not only for longevity, but also to be able to think and to communicate our capabilities to others. Democratic institutions support our efforts to express our views and publicize our activities, even as they inevitably come into dangerous conflict with one another. Spinoza contends that establishing various outlets for the expression of our differences leads to more enabling social relations than trying to suppress them. Efforts to render human passions, tastes, and opinions uniform are, as Spinoza affirms in the Political Treatise, tantamount to trying to force a table to eat grass.
Whereas the Theological-Political Treatise entered into the debates of its time and place, Spinoza's Political Treatise comprises a general theoretical outline of the foundations of political power. Missing from the Political Treatise is a theory of the contract, any significant discussion of religion or theocracy, and a rhetorical emphasis on freedom. While the Political Treatise remains consistent with Spinoza's naturalism in the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise, it presents itself as a general account of how each form of state—be it monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy—might be organized so as to be as absolute as possible. The notion of absoluteness seems to replace freedom as the organizing principle and raison d'être of the commonwealth. While this may appear to be a retreat from his democratic commitments and even a turn toward authoritarianism, one should understand that, being a natural thing, a commonwealth aims to be absolute in the same sense that nature, or God, is absolute. To be absolute is to be self-determined, in control of one's right or power, rather than given shape by external forces. In the terms of Niccolò Machiavelli, to whom Spinoza pays homage in the Political Treatise, to be absolute is to rely exclusively on one's own forces.
One can therefore read the Political Treatise as a translation of the republican language of freedom into a more naturalistic, philosophical idiom of power and its limits. Moreover, Spinoza's continued commitment to democracy is visible (even though he died after composing only three paragraphs of the chapter on democracy) in his affirmation of democracy as the “completely absolute” state. Democracy continues to name the most self-determined, most powerful, and thus the freest form of government.
Spinoza begins the Political Treatise with an outline of his naturalist principles and refers his reader to the Ethics for further elaboration. He declares his aim to produce a political theory that will be useful in practice, avoiding the philosophical tendency to idealize either the role of the state or the character of men. He describes human beings, whether they be merchants, statesmen, or members of the crowd, as governed primarily by their passions and motivated by their idiosyncratic perception of their interest. Because most of us are led by passions rather than reason, social life invariably involves a great deal of conflict. Spinoza thus proposes institutions that take for granted the passionate and nonharmonious motivations of human beings, but which aim to channel such passions toward the general welfare and maintenance of peace. Given an optimum organization of institutions, statesmen can be induced to act in support of the common good, regardless of whether they subjectively recognize it.
Spinoza defines peace not as an absence of conflict or compelled obedience to the law, but as a union, or harmony, of minds. Whether the state is monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic, its foundation is best secured, and its right approaches absoluteness, to the extent that its institutions conduce toward a mental unity among the state's constituents. Many of his recommendations highlight the importance of large deliberative assemblies that include representatives from as many different interest groups as possible. He likewise advocates transparency on the part of the state, suggesting that, whereas secrecy vulgarizes the masses, a political education has a rationalizing effect on the population as a whole. He makes recommendations for decentralizing power, rendering political posts available to as many as possible given the state form, and for encouraging mercantile relationships among the people. Giving our passions public, institutional outlets provides a kind of theater of interaction in which we might find ways to collaborate, link our strivings for self-preservation and well-being, and thereby generate complementary interests. Regardless of the state form, Spinoza suggests that democratizing tendencies fortify any organization of power. Peace names the psychophysical harmony at which state organization aims, which is also, for Spinoza, the foundation of reason.
Spinoza's political theory can be discovered throughout his philosophy. It focuses on the concrete means of producing peace and reason (still other names for freedom) among a passionate body of men. Spinoza's political theory has particular resonance today for several reasons. Most obviously, it directly addresses persistent conflicts between competing values and theological world-views. Perhaps less obviously, Spinoza's solutions do not lie in greater formal recognition of abstract rights and duties. Rather, his philosophy provides the tools for a political analysis of the particular relations of power that operate between institutions and individuals. He highlights the force of the passions that circulate throughout the social body and animate or undermine the practical exercise of right, or power. Spinoza's political theory examines not what laws and institutions declare, but rather what they do.
Hobbes, Thomas, Machiavelli, Niccolò, Natural Rights, Naturalism, Passions, Power
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Dutch-Jewish philosopher and theologian. His deep interest in the new natural sciences (including astronomy and optics) and Cartesian rationalist...