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Spinoza’s Political Philosophy

Abstract and Keywords

This article argues that Spinoza is a modern republican political philosopher. He combines Machiavelli’s idea of liberty with Hobbes’s version of the social contract. This claim has four basic elements. First, Spinoza rejects Hobbes’s view that the individual must alienate his natural rights to form a state through a contract. Rather, the contract’s validity depends on a continuous and dynamic transfer of power from its citizens, which is defined as participation in public life. Second, the stability of a state depends on how effectively the regime can foster participation in the state. Spinoza uses his theory of the imagination and passions to explain how the state can overcome free-rider problems in the social contract. Hence the republican ideal of government is expressed not so much in any particular constitutional form of the state but in how well each form can foster participation. Although democracy expresses the highest degree of participation—and hence stability—aristocracy and even monarchy can be also optimized. Third, the participation of the individual in the state is not an end in itself but the means to the individual’s own freedom. So, although participation in the state is a necessary condition of individual well-being, it is certainly not sufficient to become virtuous. Fourth, the participation of individuals in the state, the quality and structure of state stability, as a well as the freedom of the state and individual, all depend on the degree of rationality manifest in both the individual and in the institutional structures of the state.

Keywords: Aristocracy, Collective Action Problems, Democracy, Freedom, Free-Rider, Hobbes, Liberty, Machiavelli, Monarchy, Natural Law, Natural Right, Participation, Republicanism, Social Contract, Virtue

Spinoza developed over the course of his relatively brief life an elaborate and important political theory.1 Anyone with even a modest acquaintance with the events in his life would not be surprised to discover how important politics was to him. The Jewish converso community in which he was born was the product of tumultuous events. Its members had lived covertly under the shadow of the Inquisition and then had to leave the Iberian Peninsula in order to live openly as Jews again. The Dutch authorities allowed Jews to enter the country only in 1596 and then subjected them to a rigorous set of restrictions. They made it clear, for instance, that Jews could live only in a certain area, that they could not engage in sexual relations with their Christian servants, and that they were not to proselytize in any fashion. Spinoza himself became part of the inner spiritual turmoil of the community, and he was eventually expelled due to his “wicked ways… abominable heresies … and … monstrous deeds” when he was 24 years old in 1656.2 He then became close to, though he did not join, the Collegiants, one of the many Protestant sects in the free-thinking religious milieu of the Netherlands.3 Not everyone subscribed to principles of limited religious tolerance advocated by the republican States Party, and their opposition, the Orange Party, waged a long struggle to establish a monarchy and a state church. In the course of his subsequent philosophical endeavors, he became acutely aware that the intense political struggles of the young Dutch Republic could affect his own intellectual life. In a letter to Henry Oldenburg, a frequent correspondent and secretary of the British Royal Society, Spinoza wrote “I am now writing a treatise on my views regarding Scripture,” whose purposes were threefold: (1) to combat “the prejudices of the theologians,” (2) to “avert the accusation” held by the common people [vulgus] that he was an atheist, and (3) to vindicate “the freedom to philosophize (p. 409) and say what we think” (Ep. 30). This treatise was eventually published anonymously as the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, but instead of contributing to the solution of tensions between church and state, the work only inflamed public opinion. The book was banned and destroyed by the authorities, and Spinoza had to beg his friends (e.g. in Ep. 44) not to publish a translation of the Latin work into the vernacular.4 From the case of Adrian Koerbagh, whose Spinozistic writings in Dutch had led him to be imprisoned, Spinoza was keenly aware of the limits and scope of public debate. But, at least according to his posthumous biographer, after the DeWitt brothers, who were the leaders of the States party, were imprisoned and killed by an angry mob, Spinoza was ready to confront the murderers in public. When he produced a sign (in Latin!) accusing them of being the “ultimate barbarians,” so the story goes, he was restrained by his prudent landlord from such a foolish confrontation. This is fortunate for us as well, since it allowed Spinoza to complete his magnum opus, the Ethics, and write most of the Tractatus Politicus, in which he developed systematically many of his political views in a commentary on the best forms of each constitutional regime. Although Spinoza may have been awakened to political consciousness through his own personal difficulties in the Jewish community, he eventually developed a profound concern for the great public questions of his nation and epoch.

Spinoza’s political philosophy is hard to categorize both in general terms and also in the history of seventeenth-century philosophy. Part of this is due to the difficulty of tracing his sources and also to the fact that his views developed and perhaps changed over time. Many scholars have noted the profound influence of Hobbes on Spinoza’s political thought.5 In the Theological-Political Treatise and in the Ethics, he uses language that is unquestionably derived from social contract theory. Others have argued that, even if Spinoza had been a social contract theorist, he ultimately abandoned that view for something else.6 In the Political Treatise, there is little or no mention of the social contract. Instead, Spinoza claims that “men are so constituted that they cannot live without being subject to some common law” (TP 1.3), and notes that, “If it is for this reason that the Scholastics want to say that man is a social animal … I have nothing to say against them” (TP 2.15).7 The impression that Spinoza has adopted elements of scholastic natural law theory is strengthened, as we shall see, by his systematic use of the language of virtue in both the Ethics and his political writings, which he defines in part as the power to bring about things in accord with the laws of man’s nature. But if Spinoza has become a kind of natural law theorist, he is certainly an unusual example of it. For one thing, given his forceful critique of natural teleology, it would appear difficult to integrate (p. 410) Aristotelian natural law theory into his system. For another, Spinoza’s use of this language has quite other connotations. The fact that he also defines “virtue,” for instance, as “power” (E4d8), might lead us to the conclusion that he is really an early advocate and theorist of interest politics,8 an impression that is strengthened when we turn to famous passages in the Ethics in which Spinoza asserts that nature in itself is neither good nor evil. If natural law theory is based on the intrinsic normative value of the natural order that, with the aid of reason, we can realize in the determination of our proper ends, then Spinoza’s metaphysics would appear to be entirely incompatible with it.

Each of these interpretations of Spinoza’s poltical theory is related to an important philosophical problem. If Spinoza offers a version of social contract theory, then how does he solve the problem of state formation and maintenance? In particular, how does he solve the problem of the free-rider, that is, the person who finds it rational not to cooperate at all but still enjoy the fruits of the cooperation of others? Spinoza criticizes Hobbes’s solutions to these problems and in some ways makes it even more difficult to resolve these issues. If Spinoza offers a version of natural law theory based on an account of virtue, then does he not just beg the most pressing questions concerning the formation and maintenance of a state in the age of religious pluralism and strife: how can conflict among individuals and sectarian groups be overcome to form a stable and secure state? And finally, if Spinoza offers an early version of a scientific theory of interest politics, then we can ask how he can account for the normative dimension of political philosophy. In other words, if politics is simply a matter of finding the means to satisfy the greatest number of interests and still maintain stability and security, then on what grounds could someone criticize the state as unjust? When Spinoza identifies “right” and “virtue” with power, is he not, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed,9 simply equating might with right?

In what follows, I shall show that we can solve both philosophical and classification problems through a different interpretation of his political thought. I shall argue that Spinoza is a modern republican political philosopher. This claim has four basic elements. First, the state depends on a continuous and dynamic transfer of power from its citizens, which I define as participation in public life. Second, the stability of a state depends on how effectively the regime can foster participation in the state. Hence the republican ideal of government is expressed not so much in any particular constitutional form of the state but in how well each form can foster participation. The state’s relation to its citizens is defined through the minimal and maximal forms of participation. The minimal definition is simply non-interference in the activities of others; the maximal definition is the promotion of a common good. Third, the participation of the individual in the state is not an end in itself but the means to the individual’s own freedom. So, although participation in the state is a necessary condition of individual well-being, it is certainly not sufficient. Fourth, the participation (p. 411) of individuals in the state, the quality and structure of state stability, and the freedom of the state and individual depend on the degree of rationality manifest in both the individual and in the institutional structures of the state. In other words, Spinoza’s theory of knowledge and the passions have an important role to play in his political theory. To the extent that individuals act on the basis of reason and can check their irrational passions, and to the extent that the institutions of the state are developed in accordance with a scientific understanding of human nature, the state will be more stable and the individual more free.

This notion of a republican political theory helps resolve, I shall claim, each of the difficulties mentioned earlier. First, it explains the problem of classification and why Spinoza’s view does not fit neatly into any of the other types of political theories. I shall argue that through his critique of these other positions he develops his own unique theory. Second, it resolves some of the key philosophical difficulties of the other competing interpretations. The idea of participation as a dynamic transfer of power helps explain how the state is formed and how the free-rider problem might be avoided. Spinoza, as we shall see, offers solutions both for the case in which the actors are primarily rational and for the case in which they are primarily irrational, or led by their passions. The idea that stability can be gained through a variety of state-forms, which depend on both specific mechanisms in the state constitution and also on the contingent conditions in which it is formed, explains how the state can be both natural and prone to conflict. The emphasis on individual freedom constrains the power of the state and also serves as the ground of a normative critique of state power. Third, it shows how Spinoza responded to his specific historical context. He offered a theory that was at once philosophically rigorous and also influenced by the traditions and circumstances of his time. He was trying to support the nascent Dutch Republic and at the same time develop a theory that could explain the strengths and weaknesses of other regimes.

Politics and the Critique of Religion

Spinoza uses the social contract in two of his most important texts. In chapter 16 of TTP, Spinoza shows that the state can be founded on the basis of an agreement among men, who in the state of nature, have unlimited natural rights. In Part IV of the Ethics, Spinoza also makes use of the same concepts and arguments, albeit, as we shall see, in a slightly different form. So it was a constant feature of his political thought.10 There are several reasons why he adopted this theory. Obviously, though he only mentions him twice in his entire body of work, Hobbes influenced Spinoza. Spinoza had the (p. 412) Latin edition of De Cive in his library and most likely had read the Latin translation of the Leviathan as well.11 But this only accounts for Spinoza’s sources. The more important question is why did Spinoza turn to Hobbes and his theories. The deepest reasons may be, as we shall touch on in more depth later, metaphysical and methodological. Neither philosopher could accept the reigning tradition of scholastic natural law theory. They questioned the notion of a divinely ordained political order based on natural laws that could be discovered and elaborated by reason. In contrast, they argued that there were no natural goals in nature, that natural law did not necessarily fit or promote human ends, and that the passions, assisted by a calculating reason, ruled our social lives. For both Hobbes and Spinoza, the state is an artifice that is built on the basis of an agreement between individuals who naturally strive to preserve themselves. The state is not a given of nature but something that is put together by human beings in nature. However, if we leave metaphysics aside, there are important political reasons behind the rise of social contract theories in the seventeenth century. As many historians have told us, the religious conflicts between Protestants and between Protestants and Catholics—as seen most prominently in the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) or the internal struggles in many countries, including England and the Netherlands—called into question traditional forms of political life and their legitimation. Hobbes wrote the Leviathan in response to a particular crisis that was part of the English Civil War, and Spinoza, as we already noted, wrote TTP as an intervention in Dutch religious politics.12 The notion of a social contract challenged and transformed natural law theory in response to a profound political crisis and sought to legitmate the new regimes that were developing.

Although it was published anonymously, TTP was the only public statement of Spinoza’s political views during his lifetime. Like Hobbes’s Leviathan, Spinoza’s work was greeted with a great deal of hostility, much of which focused on his critique of religion and on the implications of the metaphysical claims. Henry Oldenburg, for instance, was worried that Spinoza’s view that everything was necessary was tantamount to a fatalism that would undermine the possibility of any moral judgments concerning praise and blame or virtue and vice.13 Yet the political theory Spinoza put forth was just as controversial, since it attempted to ground the authority of the state without recourse to either divine or traditional authority. Indeed, as we shall discuss, the theological part of the treatise is in fact essential to the political argument. The purpose of TTP, as stated in the subtitle, is to show “that the Freedom of Philosophizing not only can be granted without harm to Piety and the Peace of the State, but also cannot be abolished unless Piety and the Peace of the State are also destroyed” (G 3:4).

(p. 413) In order to establish this point, Spinoza must take three steps. First, he must limit the political claims of religion, which he does through the systematic critique of its foundation in revelation and the record of that revelation in Scripture. He concludes that the Bible is often unreliable and that prophecy is based on the imagination rather than reason and is addressed to a particular group and situation rather than to mankind in general. Hence, he claims that prophecy, unlike philosophy, has no right to make truth claims and should be employed only to promote social goods such as political obedience, justice, and charity. The second step, which we shall examine in more detail, is to explain the foundations of the state. He does this, as we are just about to explain, through the mechanism of a social contract theory. Religion in its legitimate sense is often, though perhaps not always, necessary to the foundation justification of the state. The third step is to determine the proper relation of the state to the church. Spinoza leaves little doubt that the state should be preeminent. Religion in its legitimate sense is often, though perhaps not always, necessary to the foundation of the state. But it must always subordinate itself to the ends of the state and has no right to challenge the state’s fundamental authority over earthly affairs. Still, in order to maintain its power, the state must take into account the passions and imaginative identities of its citizens, which of course include more than anything else (at least in the seventeenth century) religion. If religion acts within its proper domain, then it can aid the state. And unless it trespasses across its boundaries, the state should tolerate religious expression. We need to keep in mind the relation of the explicit political theory of TTP to its larger goals.

The Social Contract

In chapter 16 of TTP, Spinoza offers the clearest statement of his social contract theory, whose goal it is to explain how individuals in the state of nature contract to establish a sovereign and civil society. “By the right and established practice of nature I mean nothing but the rules of the nature of each individual, according to which we conceive each thing to be naturally determined to existing and acting in a certain way.” Lest we miss the implication of this definition, he continues: “For example, fish are determined by nature to swimming, and the large ones to eating the smaller; so it is by the supreme right of nature that fish are the masters of the water, and that the large ones eat the smaller” (TTP 16.2/G 3:189). The origin of this particular right is not some divine gift or decree, but rather the whole of nature itself. Because nature does what it does with supreme right, and because each particular thing in nature is part of nature as a whole, each particular thing has supreme right to do what it does. One might object here that nature is itself constrained by its creator, God. But this argument for natural right makes sense only against the background of Spinoza’s radical metaphysics. He denies the existence of a transcendent God who stands outside of nature and who has created it for a purpose and then directs it towards that end. Instead, God just is the eternal natural (p. 414) order, in the sense that he is identical with the laws that order it (TTP 3.7–10/G 3:45). So the right of nature is its infinite power, which is expressed in the innumerable activities of its constituent finite parts. Because a finite individual’s right derives from nature as a whole, Spinoza does not give any distinct privilege to human rights over and against other things (TTP 16.5/G 3:189). All natural things have rights and what distinguishes them from one another is their relative power, which is circumscribed by their particular nature. Nor does Spinoza consider reason to have a special special role in defining a natural right. Because the right derives from nature itself and each thing has the “supreme right … to exist and act as it is naturally determined to do,” both the “wise man has the supreme right to do everything which reason dictates” and the “ignorant and the weak-minded have the supreme right to do everything appetite urges” (TTP 16.6/G 3:190). A person has a natural right to act and preserve himself however he sees fit.

If we generalize natural right we quickly discover that the natural condition of man is no Garden of Eden but a barren landscape full of peril. Like Hobbes, who famously claimed that life in a state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, xiii.9), Spinoza also believes that natural right leads to conflict.14 In the absence of any coercive sovereign right, an individual not only acts as it is determined to do, but has the right to do so. As Spinoza puts it:

So whatever anyone who is considered to be only under the authority of nature judges to be useful for himself, whether under the guidance of sound reason or by the prompting of the affects, he is permitted, by supreme natural right, to want and to take, in whatever way, whether by force, by deception, by entreaties, or by whatever other way is, in the end, easier.

[TTP 16.8/G 3:190]

It is a short step to conclude that a person “is permitted to regard as an enemy anyone who wants to prevent him from doing what he intends to do” (TTP 16.8/G 3:190). Unlike Hobbes, Spinoza does not describe in any detail how conflicting individual desires, the right to do whatever one sees fit, and the right to declare anyone in one’s way as an enemy or object of manipulation lead to a state of war.15 But it is easy enough to see how these conditions would lead to a “wretched and almost brutal life” (TTP 4.20/G 3:79) characterized by fear, anxiety, and insecurity (TTP 16.12–13/G 3:191). Without any coercive sovereign authority, the natural right to preserve oneself would lead to a conflict that endangers the very existence of the individuals who have that right.

Natural right produces conflict among men, but it also contains the grounds for overcoming that conflict through the establishment of a sovereign power. Natural right does not have any special moral status that would constrain actions in the state of nature. (p. 415) As we have seen, it justifies whatever men naturally desire and leads most often to conflict. But natural right does involve the intrinsic desire for self-preservation. The natural disadvantages of the state of nature conflict with this desire and produce two motivations for leaving the state of nature behind. It produces psychological states, such as fear and anger, that are generally negative and tend to detract from our power to perservere because they produce conflict. And it produces pragmatic judgments based on simple instrumental reasoning that individuals would be better off even if their natural rights were curtailed. So both reason and passion motivate us to leave a pure state of nature behind:

[N]‌o one can doubt how much more advantageous it is to man to live according to the laws and certain dictates of our reason, which, as we have said, aim only at the true advantage of man. Moreover, there is no one who does not desire to live securely, and as far as possible, without fear.

[TTP 16.12/G 3:191]

Still, even if men have the motivation to leave the state of nature, the problem remains of how exactly to achieve this goal. “[S]‌o long as everyone is permitted to do whatever he likes” (TTP 16.12/G 3:191), how could men give up their natural right without endangering themselves and thus violating the very reason for limiting the natural right in the first place? It is the social contract that makes it possible.

Spinoza thinks that the only way to overcome the uncertainty in the state of nature is to come together in a collective agreement that at once limits the right of each individual but benefits all through the establishment of a coercive authority that can ensure security for individuals. As he writes,

To live securely and very well men were necessarily obliged to act together, in concert, and that therefore they brought it about that the right which each one had to all things, according to nature, they would have collectively, and that it would not be determined any more according to the force and appetite of each one, but according to the power and will of everyone together.

[TTP 16.13/G 3:191]

The idea of the social contract is that it simultaneously limits the excesses of natural right and also satisfies the basic desire for self-preservation. Of course, we may still ask what is the mechanism that makes this kind of collective agreement possible.

Spinoza derives an important corollary from his interpretation of natural right that explains the mechanism of the transition from a state of nature to a civil society. It is, he writes, a “Universal law of human nature,” that

no one fails to pursue anything which he judges to be good, unless he hopes for a greater good or fears a greater harm; nor does he submit to any evil, except to avoid a greater one, or because he hopes for a greater good. I.e., between two goods, each person chooses the one he judges to be greater, and between two evils, the one which seems to him lesser.

[TTP 16.15/G 3:191–92]

(p. 416) Lest we think that he is begging the question, and assuming that men naturally pursue what reason might determine as an objective good, Spinoza reminds the reader that, “I say explicitly: the one which seems to the person choosing to be greater or lesser, not that things necessarily are as he judges them to be” (TTP 16.15/G 3:192). In other words, it is not what is objectively the best but what is subjectively perceived as the best that is always pursued. It is, Spinoza thinks, in the individual’s interest or utility to give up some measure of his natural right through a contract with other individuals in the same situation to form a civil authority that will establish laws and enforce them to prevent the excesses of a state of nature.

It is easy to see how this works when men are led primarily by reason. In contrast to Hobbes, who had a rather weak definition of reason as a faculty of the mind for the “reckoning (that is, adding and substracting) of the consequences of general names” (Leviathan, v.2), Spinoza thinks that reason is based on true ideas of natural properties, which he calls “common notions” (TdIE §37; E2p40s2). In Part IV of the Ethics, Spinoza argues that “only insofar as men live according to the guidance of reason, must they always agree in nature” (E4p35). This underlying agreement makes sense of the paradoxical corollary to this proposition, “that when each man most seeks his own advantage for himself, then men are most useful to one another” (E4p35c2). It is not simply seeking one’s advantage but seeking it according to reason. And since reason is an idea of what is common in our nature, the pursuit of rational self-interest will lead to agreement. If rational individuals agree in nature, then not only will they be useful to one another, they will be useful in a way that is mutually beneficial. In other words, rational individuals cooperate because they have a true idea of their essence as human beings and understand that it is through cooperation that their own essential nature is best realized.16 This claim is echoed in TTP (see 16.12/G 3:191) and is central to the idea that democracy is the “most natural” state (16.36/G 3:195). For when men act on the basis of reason, they can transfer their power to the state without ceding their autonomy. The state will simply be (p. 417) the coordinating mechanism of rational individuals to achieve their own self-interest in concert.

At this point, a difficult problem seems to arise. If everyone lived under the guidance of reason, then there would be no need for a coercive state at all. But Spinoza repeatedly notes that most men are governed not by reason but by their affects (or passions) and hence are led to conflict.17 In the Political Treatise, Spinoza famously criticized the utopian nature of most political theory. He intends his own work to be consistent with the experience of politicians rather than the armchair view of philosophers (TP 1.1–2). Thus, in order for theory to be consistent with practice, it is necessary to examine the more ubiquitous case of those who are led primarily by their passions. What Spinoza has to show is how it is possible that the actions of those who are led primarily by their passions and who are not consciously acting on the basis of rational ideas that teach us what we have in common with each other, nonetheless can end up resembling the actions of those who are led by reason.

It is fortunate, then, that the same principle of utility works just as well in the case of individuals who are led primarily by their appetites or emotions, which Spinoza thinks are not rational. Reason obviously also plays a role in this process, but it is not the stronger form of reason involving true ideas of common natures, but more something like Hobbes’s simple calculation of consequences. Even most irrational people (in Spinoza’s sense)—i.e. those who do not know their true nature—calculate consequences in service of self-preservation. In TTP, it is the fear of being compelled to ends not in any sense our own that leads to cooperation in the form of setting-up coercive authorities. Whether it is the individual’s rational calculation that he will not survive without some constraint on the actions of others or the pure fear that without such constraint he will be attacked, he is likely to come to the conclusion that such constraint would be desirable. Indeed, since everyone in the state of nature is practially speaking in more or less the same situation (and juridically speaking, in respect to the lack of civil authority in the state of nature, in exactly the same situation), there will be enough individuals in practice (and all individuals in theory) who will be motivated to cooperate and form a civil authority. And once a group of men act “as if with one mind” (TP 2.21), then there will exist the power to wield coercive authority over individuals who may not be so motivated, because, for instance, they have calculated that their interests will be best served in the continued state of nature. The state’s right is constituted, then, through its force to compel its members through the control of their affects—and hence their bodies. As Spinoza writes, “that person [the sovereign] has the supreme right over everyone who has the supreme power with which he can compel everyone by force, and hold them back by fear of the supreme punishment [i.e. death], which everyone, without exception, fears” (TTP 16.24/G 3:193). The exact same mechanism is at play in the Ethics. After noting that reason leads to agreement and the passions to disagreement, Spinoza wonders how it is possible that men who are led by their affects “should be able to make one (p. 418) another confident and have trust in one another” (E4p37s2). The answer is to invoke self-interest and the idea that one passion can be restrained by another, stronger one. Fear of punishment is what leads to the “maintenance” [firmari] of the state.18 Through such mechanisms, passionate individuals are led to the same outcome as those who rationally cooperate.19

Spinoza and Hobbes on Natural Right

On the face of it, Spinoza’s concept of a social contract is not very different from that of Hobbes. But the emphasis on utility indicates, at least from Spinoza’s perspective, a very important theoretical break with his contemporary. In Ep. 50 to Jarig Jelles, Spinoza writes:

With regard to political theory, the difference between Hobbes and myself … consists in this, that I always preserve the natural right in its entirety, and I hold that the sovereign power in a State has right over a subject only in proportion to the excess of its power over that of a subject. That is always the case in a state of nature.

In Hobbes’s account, the state is formed when individuals in the state of nature give up their natural right to the sovereign authority. The individual transfer of natural right is irrevocable. It is what Jean Hampton calls an “alienation” theory of social contract.20 Hobbes insists on this feature as a necessary precondition of the absolute and indivisible form of sovereign authority. In contrast, Spinoza is explicit that individuals never alienate their natural right in forming a contract. Instead, the individual transfers his power to the sovereign through active or passive activity. It is what Hampton would call an “agency” theory of contract, in which the continuted transfer of power is conditional on the representative fulfilling the conditions of the transfer. Since the only ground for transfer of right is, as we have seen, the agent’s subjective utility, if the agent does not not think that the expected utility of a transfer is worthwhile (i.e. cooperating is less useful (p. 419) than not cooperating), then the agent maintains the right to withdraw the transfer. The result is that there is not a hard and fast distinction between the natural and civil state. The sovereign is constituted only through the continuous and dynamic transfer of right.

As we have seen, Spinoza has a radically naturalized idea of a natural right. On the face of it, Hobbes appears to have the same view. He defines “natural right” as “liberty to do or to forbear” (Leviathan, xiv.3). But, for Hobbes, natural right is something other than an individual’s mere power. When an individual transfers the right to a sovereign, the natural liberty of a right is bound not only by the coercive power of the sovereign but also by the imposition of a natural law. Once he has “laid aside” or “transferred” his natural right in accordance with the demands of natural law, the right is no longer in effect (xiv.7). Even if the person were to have the power to disobey, the juridical precept binds him to obey, even if his interest were to dictate otherwise. A right is the kind of natural power that can be qualified or even abrogated by an artificial obligation. Spinoza, on the other hand, identifies right and power: “each individual has a supreme right to do everything in its power, or … the right of each thing extends as far as it determinate power does” (TTP 16.4/G 3:189). Since one’s power is defined in terms of acting according to one’s nature, it would be impossible for an individual to give up his own right because that would mean to give up one’s nature or all his power to perservere.21 For Hobbes, the contract is defined in part through the voluntary imposition of a natural law on the individual’s unconstrained right. The natural law normatively supplements the natural right and produces a juridically defined civil state that irrevocably binds the individual.22 For Spinoza, natural rights are already the expression of natural law, and it is just a matter of finding the appropriate higher-level laws that determine an outcome that is collectively beneficial. There is nothing normatively special or binding about these laws; they have the same status as the laws of the striving of individual agents. So when an individual finds it useful to cooperate, there is no doubt some law that determines those conditions favorable to cooperation. But when circumstances change, it would be fully consistent with nature to follow some other course of action—say, not cooperating—because those prior laws would no longer obtain in the present circumstances. There is no supplement that normatively binds the agent to some course of action.

Spinoza illustrates his difference with Hobbes on this point in his treatment of the example of the highway robber. Hobbes argues that “Covenants entered into by fear,” both “in the condition of mere nature” and “even in commonwealths,” are “obligatory” (Leviathan, xiv.27; see also De Cive II.16). So if I were to promise a robber to deliver him (p. 420) a ransom at a later time, I would be obligated to pay him, even if the robber no longer were to have any coercive power over me. The specific reason seems to be rather technical: “Men are freed of their convenants two ways; by performing or by being forgiven,” says Hobbes (Leviathan, xiv.26), and once a promise to repay the highwayman has been made, it can be discharged in only one of these ways. But the deeper reason seems to be that Hobbes thinks covenants in general are obligatory and that one exception would prove deadly to the whole system. In terms that we just introduced, the promise is obligatory because it is the voluntary imposition of an instance of a natural law upon us. Spinoza, on the other hand, thinks that “no one will stand by his promises unless he fears a greater evil or hopes for a greater good” (TTP 16.15/G 3:191–92). He continues,

To understand this better, suppose a Robber forces me to promise him that I will give him my goods when he wishes. Since, as I have already shown, my natural right is determined only by my power, it is certain that if I can free myself from this Robber by deceptively promising him whatever he wishes, I am permitted to do this by natural right, to contract deceptively for whatever he wishes.

[TTP 16.17/G 3:192]

If circumstances change, one is justified on the principle of self-interest in not keeping one’s promise. Neither Hobbes nor Spinoza think that fear constitutes a kind of duress that would impinge our liberty. Both thinkers are committed to the view that fear may motivate a free action. But for Hobbes a promise has a normative significance that Spinoza denies. Spinoza thinks that “no contract can have any force except by reason of its utility” (TTP 16.20/G 3:192). He says that sovereigns should abide by their promises just as citizens should, but only because the performance of promises would be beneficial to the state. If the fulfillment of a promise would be detrimental to the state, then the sovereign would be justified in abrogating the promise (TTP 16.46/G 3:197). The overriding concern is the reason for the contract itself—namely, the security and well-being of the subjects.

A Collective Action Problem and Two Responses

It has often been argued that Hobbes’s theory suffers from a profound collective action problem. Why would anyone in the state of nature, whose sole good is to preserve himself, give up his natural rights to a sovereign authority with the power to harm and kill him? If that is true of Hobbes, it is a fortiori the case with Spinoza. Hobbes seems to rely on a view of promising based on a rather traditional view of natural law to establish an obligation that would solve this problem.23 Spinoza, though, explicitly took issue with (p. 421) this idea of natural right and the attendant conception of obligation. What could possibly explain how an individual would transfer his power to the sovereign on a regular enough basis to maintain, let alone to form, a state when he could change his mind and withdraw his power whenever it suited him? Earlier, we saw that Spinoza uses the Latin word “firmari” in the Ethics to explain how fear of punishment can “maintain” the state. But since we are supposed to explain how the state comes into being in the first place, how it is formed, then this account seems to beg the question. Once a police apparatus has been established to enforce the contract, it makes sense to assert that fear generally will lead to support of the state. But what explains the trust individuals would have to have in one another in order to form such a collective coercive apparatus in first place, especially when any one of them would be justified in deceptively making an agreement and then breaking it in order to satisfy his own sense of self-interest? It seems as if Spinoza would respond that only “irrational people” are likely to do this and “rational” individuals would not. But as we have seen, Spinoza has a rather strong conception of rationality. Even if his argument about the rational basis of community were correct, it still would not help explain how all the others who do not see the inherent benefit of community would be led to cooperate. Since he is quite aware that most people are not rational in this sense, he should be able to show how less-than-rational individuals would be led to cooperate.24 Spinoza is quite adamant that rebellion against the sovereign is never justified.25 Yet the question is why not? The idea that individuals fear punishment by the ruler only begs the question because the ruler could produce the requisite fear only by systematic enforcement,26 which itself requires cooperation. If this kind of individual is narrowly self-interested—that is, led by his passions and uses reason merely to calculate what can best fulfil these passions—then why would he not prefer to have someone else bear the risks of enforcement, so that he can gain the benefits of cooperation without the attendant risks, such as pain and death? If most individuals think in this manner, then it is hard to see how any cooperation could occur.

The appparent rationality of free-riding plagues any account of the social contract that relies on self-interest to explain state-formation. Hobbes famously addressed the problem in terms of the “foole” who “hath said in his heart that there is no such thing as justice” and breaks promises whenever it seems to be in his own interest (Leviathan, xv.4), just as Spinoza’s agent does in the case of the robber. The answer seems to be that, though it might work once, repeated instances of deception would lead to a negative reputation and that, in the long-term, the agent would earn his just deserts and deserve his eponym.27 Whether this answer actually works is debatable. Spinoza at least does not give this particular answer to the problem. This does not mean that he did not see (p. 422) the problem or was not concerned with it. To the contrary, we can see at least two sustained lines of thought that address the problem of collective action, one that tries to stay within the bounds of social contract theory and another that ultimately challenges it.

The first response uses one of the major sources of political conflict—religion—and turns it into a necessary and positive feature of civic life. As we saw earlier, Spinoza turns to political theory proper more than two thirds through TTP after an extensive discussion of religion and Scripture in particular. In the opening sentences of TTP, Spinoza writes, “If men could manage all their affairs by a definite plan, or if fortune were always favorable to them, they would never be possessed by superstition” (TTP Preface 1/G 3:5). In order to address this lamentable condition, humans have offered oracles, prophecies, and explanations, all of which seek to overcome the fear and anxiety endemic to our natural condition. We seek to control our circumstances through the creation of institutions that manage our beliefs in a systematic way. Yet these beliefs are born out of our ignorance and are half-truths at best. They also feed the very passions that they attempt to quell. These superstitious beliefs are thus unstable and lead to either contradiction (through external events or internal inconsistency) or to conflict with other competing pseudo-explanatory systems. It is this instability and conflict that the institution of a sovereign authority is supposed to attentuate and control. But, as we have just seen, there is a problem in legitimating and explaining the institution of that authority from within social contract theory alone. The solution is not to discard religion altogether but rather to harness its imaginative and affective power in service of political unity rather than discord.28

Spinoza develops this strategy through an elaborate discussion of the role of Moses in forming the ancient Israelite nation. He assumes that his audience knows this example and, given the Protestant political culture of the time, which was heavily influenced by the Old Testament, would take it as authoritative, that is, as an example to be followed.29 Spinoza describes the situation of the Israelites in Sinai after their exile from Egypt in terms of a state of nature. Like other great founders, Moses is a cunning leader who must convince a disparate group of individuals that the common good serves their own self-interests. The role of Moses does not fit neatly into the confines of standard social contract theory. He is not instituted through a representative process, and he does not conquer the people through any force of arms. Rather, Moses finds a way to institute the state through reference to a set of pre-existing beliefs that he develops and manipulates in such a way that he can achieve his goal, which is to get the individuals to act together to establish a state.

The basic idea is that the leader must appeal to a set of interests that transcend the individual’s earthly situation and so change his self-interested calculations in such a way that they will lead him to cooperate with others in the institution of an earthly sovereign authority. Not surprisingly, Hobbes also grappled with this problem in the (p. 423) Leviathan where he notes that Moses did not inherit the authority of the covenant, which “depended yet merely upon the opinion of his sanctity” (xl.6), and so he must resort to the same mechanism of fear as a normal sovereign. But in this case it is not fear of the sovereign directly but fear of God. Hobbes cites Exodus in order to show that fear of God’s punishment led the Israelites at Sinai to fear Moses, who claimed to be God’s representative.30 Spinoza also relies to some degree on the same mechanism. As we have seen, in the Ethics he thinks that only fear of a greater harm can restrain the passions (see E4p37s2) and the idea of God as a ruler with transcendent power would seem to trump any earthly reason to disobey. Nonetheless, Spinoza is loath to rely upon fear alone—even in the exalted form of fear of God—as the mechanism of social cohesion. In a passage in the last chapter of TTP, he appears to attack Hobbes’s idea when he writes that the “ultimate end” of the state is “not to act as a despot, to restrain men by fear, and to make them subject to someone else’s control” (TTP 20.10/G 3:240). The goal is to let men rule themselves rationally according to their highest natural right. But short of that there are other, less coercive mechanisms to ensure cooperation. In Spinoza’s account, Moses appeals to a sense of providence, in which the Israelites’ actions are part of a divine plan that will ensure them a special place in this world rather than the next. In chapter 3 of TTP, Spinoza argues that the Israelites were chosen not for any special wisdom they had about nature but due to the success of their temporal political organization. Indeed, the idea of election itself is what made their political organization unique, for it provided a transcendent ground that produced emotions other than fear to bind them together. The people are enjoined to act in such a way—i.e. nothing else than following the law set down by Moses—that would earn them the special role that God has given them in history. The idea of the “election” of the Israelites appears to them as a gift of fortune (for their base actions often do not prove worthy of the gift), but insofar as it is a political idea used by one of their leaders it exhibits the ingenuity of a leader, whose virtue is proved by his power to achieve certain effects. In other words, Moses manages to convince the obstinate individuals in the state of nature that they are fulfilling God’s purposes through accepting the laws that he has framed.

There is another, apparently very different response to the collective action problem. In chapter five of TTP, Spinoza gives an evolutionary account of the origins of society:

A social order is very useful, and even most necessary, not only for living securely from enemies, but also for making many things efficiently. For if men were not willing to give mutual assistance to one another, they would lack both skill and time to support and preserve themselves as far as possible.

[TTP 5.18/G 3:73]

(p. 424) He goes on to say that division of labor is natural and contributes to the cohesion of this rudimentary social order. The social contract, which establishes a coercive government, is still necessary in order to quell conflict, but it is not, as we might have been led to believe based on a reading of chapter 16 alone, an imposition on a cruel individualistic world. Instead, the state of nature is already social and sets the stage for the institution of a political order. At the beginning of the Political Treatise, Spinoza takes this idea to its logical conclusion. After noting that “men can hardly sustain their lives and cultivate their minds without mutual aid,”31 he writes,

If it is for this reason [that the right of nature which is proper to the human race can hardly be conceived unless men have common laws] that the Scholastics want to say that man is a social animal—because men can hardly be their own master in the state of nature—I have nothing to say against them.

[TP 2.15]

Although he accepts the scholastic conclusion, he does not derive it from the same set of premises. It is not because humans have a natural goal of sociability. It is because their finite nature—and the lack of power that follows from it—produces a set of natural incentives to cooperate.

Spinoza develops an elaborate theory of the affects in Parts III and IV of the Ethics in part to explain the precise mechanisms by which people are led to join one another in society.

The alternate demonstration and the first scholium to E4p37 show how some of the key processes work. A man desires something and calls it good. What we desire for ourselves we also desire for other men. Conversely, when the man sees someone else desire something, the mechanism of the “imitation of the affects,” by which men naturally feel a facsimile of what others do, leads him to desire it as well. In this way we are almost immediately connected in a complex set of reciprocal desires that link us to others. When the desires are understood rationally, and because the very object of reason is the common nature of things, then the desires will lead us to mutually satisfying cooperation. When the desires are irrational, they may still lead us to limited forms of cooperation—as when, for instance, two otherwise dissmilar people are led together through lust—but, since they are based on inadequate ideas of our common nature, they will eventually lead to disagreement and conflict.32

The assumption of a complex social life is always in the background of the explicit political theory. Moreover, in TTP, the precise problem that the social contract is supposed to solve—the religious disputes and the related political schism—comes into being only once there is already a highly organized form of society. If men are already social, and if politics is merely the activivation of a higher-level coercive (p. 425) form of social life through explicit decision mechanisms, then Spinoza might be said to have resolved—or at least avoided—most of the most trenchant collective action problems.

Spinoza the Republican

Some scholars have argued that the lack of any significant discussion of the social contract in the Political Treatise represented a change or evolution of his thought.33 Because of deep problems in the Hobbesian framework of chapter 16 of TTP, such as the collective action problem, Spinoza had to move to a new way of conceptualizing politics in his later work. However, as we have just seen, even if there are problems with social contract thought, he does not abandon it completely. Instead of seeing the discourses of social contract and natural law theories as opposed, it is more useful to see Spinoza as trying to combine them in a novel way. The idea of the social contract is a political artifice that mitigates the tendencies to conflict among individuals and emphasizes their natural dispositions to cooperate. The framework in which this synthesis takes place is Spinoza’s interpretation of traditional republicanism.

Spinoza, like some other Dutch intellectuals of his time, sought to transform the traditional, humanistic discourse of “civic republicanism” through a scientific conception of “natural law.”34 In TTP, Spinoza borrowed the topos of a commentary on the ancient Israelite republic that had become common among Protestant intellectuals and infused it with the scientific principles of his own philosophical system.35 This effort was part of a much broader engagment with the republican tradition throughout Europe.36 As a consequence, there are many features that characterize early modern republicanism. (As the vast literature on the subject makes clear, Republicanism is a name for a family of political concepts. Various thinkers whom we characterize as belonging to this tradition advocated many, if not all of them.) First and foremost, it rejected monarchy as the best form of government. However, not all rejected monarchy completely.37 Some, like James Harrington, perhaps the best known English Republican of the seventeenth century, advocated a mixed form of government. Republicans encouraged intensive political engagment of the citizen both through offices and in the military. And, in contrast to its earlier forebears, many seventeenth-century republicans sought the redistribution of (p. 426) wealth through agrarian reform.38 A complete account of how Spinoza’s view fits within this tradition is beyond the scope of this work. What will be emphasized here are two key features of Spinoza’s republican view: the nature of his rejection of monarchy and the central importance he places upon citizen participation in the state.

Spinoza has often been touted as one of the first modern political thinkers who argued that democracy was the best form of government. In TTP, he defines democracy “as a general assembly of men which has, as a body, the supreme right to do everything it can” (TTP 16.26/G 3:193). In a democracy no one preserves his right over another and so all are equal through the transfer of their right to the state. Because all men are involved in decisions, and since Spinoza assumes that cooperation involves a higher degree of rationality, “there is less reason to fear absurdities” (TTP 16.30/G 3:194). It should be noted, however, that in the unfinished section of TP on democracy, Spinoza explicitly excludes women and slaves from government because they are “under the authority of their husbands and masters” just as children would be subject to their parents and tutors (TP 10.3). Unlike male children, who will grow up to become rational agents, and slaves, who are inferior due to contingent circumstances, Spinoza claims that women are naturally inferior to men and incapable of self-rule. He bases this on (1) the empirical observation that nowhere do we find an example of women who rule, and (2) the assertion that since men tend to value women in accordance with their beauty they would be too jealous to follow their advice.39 Although this obviously disqualifies Spinoza as a modern democrat committed to the equality of all human beings, it does not affect the distinction between democracy and other forms of government (all of which presumably also exclude women) in his theory.40 If anything, the ground of this exclusion only emphasizes that it is not only the extent of participation but also the rational basis of that participation that is crucial in a democratic state. Democracy is the “most natural” form of the state [imperium] because it “approached most nearly the freedom nature concedes to everyone” (TTP 16.35/G 3:195). It can do this because it assumes that its male citizens are rational and so can cooperate sucessfully without the need of much, if any coercion. The state is stable at the same time as it respects the autonomous natural right of its citizens.

Whereas Hobbes argued that monarchy was the best form of the state because it best preserved the absolute nature of power at the core of sovereignty, Spinoza, as a good republican, claims the precise opposite—that democracy is the best means to preserve absolute power because everyone is always involved in its decisions. Hobbes did not claim that monarchy was the exclusive form of government, only that it was the best.41 Likewise, the fact that democracy is the most natural form of the state does not make it the only kind of state in Spinoza’s theory. In fact, as we have already seen, because men (p. 427) are mostly irrational, Spinoza believes that a democracy is highly unlikely. In TP, he seems to prefer aristocracy as the best form of government possible under the ordinary circumstances of human life. A true democracy is rare because it is fragile. It depends on a minimum of coercion and a high degree of rationality. A properly designed aristocracy is everlasting in the sense that it cannot be destroyed except by some external act of fate (TP 10.9–10). In any case, it corresponds to the form of the actual Dutch government, which Spinoza is intent on preserving and improving. He discusses democracy at greater length in TTP than any other form of regime because it illustrates “the utility of freedom” in a state (TTP 16.37/G 3:195). In other words, democracy exemplifies to the highest degree the instrinsic rationality of cooperation. As a realist—someone who is committed to developing political prescriptions based on how men are rather than how they ought to be—Spinoza is more interested in defining and fostering the principles of a human life that lead to a stable state. Once he has isolated the key principle of democracy, he then looks to find it in other, more frequently found regimes.

Spinoza analyzes the three classical types of regime in terms of his fundamental principle of participation. He claims that the stability of each type of regime will be greater to the extent that its sovereign authority widens the scope of participation in the process of decision making. (He does not specify that rational participation is a prerequisite, but he thinks that the more widespread the participation the more likely that a rational outcome will result.) He reiterates this general principle several times in the Political Treatise and then offers concrete suggestions as to how each regime type can become more stable. In every case, following Machiavelli, Spinoza disparages mercenary armies and recommends general military conscription (TP 7.17 for monarchy and TP 8.9 for aristocracy). In the case of monarchy, he notes that the power of one man is quite unequal to preserving the whole state (TP 6.5, repeated in TP 8.3), offers a recommendation to expand the number of its counselors (TP, 7.5),42 and invokes the principle of participation: “We conclude therefore that the multitude can preserve a full enough freedom under a King, provided it arranges it so that the King’s power is determined only by the power of the multitude itself, and is preserved by the support of the multitude itself” (TP 7.31). Spinoza is always the pragmatist. Monarchy may be the least desirable regime, but it can still be reformed through the application of republican principles. The same is true for an aristocracy. The number of members of the ruling council needs to be proportional to the size of the state. “[W]‌e must seek a way of insuring that the rule does not gradually become concentrated in the hands of fewer men, but on the contrary, that the number of (p. 428) rulers increases in proportion to increases in the state” (TP 8.11). The greater number prevents absurd laws and corruption (see also TP 8.38). But numbers alone are not enough to ensure a stable regime. Every regime requires “excellence of mind” in its rulers (TP 8.2).

Spinoza is a republican not only because he thinks that monarchy is the least ideal form of the state (though it can be reformed via republican principles), but also because he maintains that the greater extent of participation a state has (and the more rational its citizens) the more power or virtue it has. Spinoza takes Hobbes’s concern with the stability of a state and fuses it with the republican idea of the virtue of political engagement. A state is stable to the extent that it can foster broad and deep participation among its citizens. As we have seen, in order to constitute a sovereign authority, they must dynamically transfer their right to the state, which is nothing other than transferring their power. That can be understood negatively as not interfering with the actions of the sovereign, but it also has a positive dimension, in that it means acting in coordination with others. Because he equates power with right, Spinoza describes the degree of stability in a state—i.e. its power to maintain its existence—in terms of the juridical “absoluteness” of its authority. The degree of absoluteness depends on the degree of participation in citizens in decision making (or the degree of the transfer of power). Thus Spinoza can say that the aristocracy is more absolute than a monarchy and so is better suited to preserve freedom (TP 8 subtitle of chapter heading, and TP 8.3).

Spinoza does not limit his discussion of participation to formal qualities of political structures. He also claims that, if a state is to be successful, then its institutions ought to address the imaginative and emotional factors that motivate participation. The state will be formed only if there is something in common among those who act together. It may be something as fleeting as common anger or something as longlasting as the commitment to a certain ideology or scientific view of nature. Likewise, when the state has been formed, it must design laws with an eye to these common interests and features. If the state produces laws that join some in anger against others, it will enhance its power for a while. While a monarchy can address immediately the emotional vacillation of men during a unstable situation, it must still take care, for obvious reasons, not to arouse the indignation of the “armed multitude” (TP 7.2). In this context, Spinoza again picks up a theme that was central to TTP and makes explicit the role religion can play in the state to foster unity and stability. In an aristocracy, the ruling council ought to have views consistent with the tenets of Spinoza’s “universal dogmas of faith,” i.e. those beliefs about God that foster justice and charity in the state. This is the best way to prevent the recurrent problem of religious conflict in the early modern state: “For it is especially necessary to take care that the Patricians themselves are not divided into sects, some favoring one group, while others favor others, and that they do not, in the grip of superstition, seek to take away from their subjects the freedom to say what they think” (TP 8.46). These comments suggest that, in the interest of fostering solidarity, Spinoza’s conception of religious toleration is more limited than it is often portrayed by subsequent liberal thinkers looking for a progenitor of modern ideas of the separation of church and (p. 429) state.43 While he recognizes that many forms of emotion can bind people together, he claims that his prescriptions are superior because, as he says in the analysis of the foundations of a well-organized monarchy, “I deduce these things from the common nature of man” (TP 7.2). If the laws and institutions of a state are designed on the basis of reason and reflect a scientific undertanding of what we have in common as human beings and what we are capable (and incapable) of doing, then it will foster participation and therefore its continued existence and legitimacy.

Virtue and Freedom

One of the charges leveled against early modern Republicanism was that, while its central virtue of political participation might strengthen the freedom of the state, it compromised the freedom of its individual citizens. Hobbes asserted that the citizen of a republic had no more freedom than that of an oriental despotism:44

There is written on the turrets of the city of Lucca in great characters at this day the word LIBERTAS; yet no man can thence infer that a particular man has more liberty, or immunity from the service of the commonwealth, there than in Constantinople.

[Leviathan, xxi.8]

Spinoza certainly seems to embrace the republican idea of freedom. He praises the “very shrewd Machiavelli” for his advice both on how to stabilize regimes and on how to protect freedom (TP 5.7). Yet he makes an important distinction in his political writings that is meant to address this criticism. He writes in the Political Treatise that:

It does not make any difference to the security of the state in what spirit men are led to administer matters properly, provided that they do administer them properly. For freedom of mind [libertas animi], or strength of character [fortitudo], is a private virtue. But the virtue of the state is security [securitas].

[TP 1.6]

One purpose of this distinction is surely to emphasize the role of institutional design in the success of a state. Even a state that does not have public-minded citizens can still persist if it has fair laws and its military is well-organized. But the distinction also undermines the identification of private virtue with political participation and sets a limit on the republican ideal of the state.

(p. 430) This limit functions both from the point of view of the state and also from the point of view of the individual citizen. Fundamentally, as we have seen, the state depends on the continous transfer of power for its stability. While oppression might in the short term produce stability, in the long term it will not because it will undermine the initial reasons for which the individual transferred his right to the state in the first place, i.e. he was convinced that he would be better off with the state than without it. It also works against a more insidious form of control by which the state attempts to mold individuals who will conceive their well-being only in terms that the state defines. Of course, the state certainly contributes much to the well-being of its citizens. Spinoza glosses the idea of “security” provided by the state in terms of its ability to achieve not only continued physical existence of its subject but also in terms of “peace” and “harmony” (TP 5.2). However, even when the various activities of the state contribute to more than the physical well-being of its citizens, it can contribute only to some and not all aspects of these goods. True, there may be some men who identify their goods wholly with the goods of the state—for instance, career soldiers who have renounced all private good for the honor of public glory achieved through dutiful service. Most public-minded men, though, will not identify their goods exclusively with those that the state can provide.45 There may be some goods that are wholly private, such as the satisfactions of friendship, or others that are only partially public, such as the pursuit of scientific inquiry. The state might provide resources, such as universities, that are crucial in the production of scientific knowledge but cannot itself arrive at the truths, which depend on individual minds. The fact that the scope of individual goods exceeds the scope of the political constitutes an important check on the state’s power.

So even if we can (and should) analyze the conditions of a state’s virtue independently of an individual, it ultimately supervenes on the well-being of the individuals that constitute it. This is the point that the social contract element of Spinoza’s political thinking emphasizes against classical Republicanism. Individual participation in the state has both instrumental and qualified intrinsic value. It has intrinsic value to the extent that the state can embody shared qualities (common nature) with the individual. But the state is never identical to the individual, and its thriving is never identical with the thriving of its individual citizens. So it also provides instrumental value to the individual insofar as its well-being aids in the pursuit of the individual’s own projects. Thus, as Spinoza emphasizes in the final chapter of TTP, a state that is stable allows for the flourishing of goods that are not directly or at all political. The more a state allows its citizens to thrive the more likely in turn it will be stable, for they will have little or no reason to be discontented and they will have many reasons to promote the state’s interests. Because (p. 431) Spinoza does not identify the virtues of an individual and a state, there will sometimes be conflicts between the two. Spinoza’s idea of Republicanism, however, offers a balance between individual freedom and the necessity of a highly organized political regime with its own elaborate demands.

The distinction between private and political virtue also helps to resolve a larger problem concerning the source of political normativity. If the virtue of a state is its stability, then what would prevent it from harming other states or its own citizens in order to maintain its power? As commentators have noted, once Spinoza has identified right with power in his social contract theory, then does not anything that we have the power to do make it right?46 In the case of the state, if its goal is stability, then would not any means that leads to that end be justified? In Edwin Curley’s words,47 if there is no “transcendental standard of justice” then how could we condemn the excesses of Genghis Khan or any other tyrant? A classical form of Republicanism avoids the problem by identifying a particular form of the state as a kind of natural good. The actions of the state must be in conformity with that ideal, and all actions of its citizens must contribute to it if they are to realize their own nature. But when Spinoza refuses to identify a single kind of state as the good and distinguishes private from political virtue, he seems to have given up what would be an otherwise useful corrective to the artifices of social contract theory. However, if the stability of the state depends on the active transfer of individual power to the sovereign, and if the individual’s goods always exceed the scope of the state’s power, then it is the individual’s well-being that serves as the normative standard against which we can measure the state’s activities. In other words, private virtue, expressed as individual freedom, serves as the natural check on the excesses of state power.

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                                                                                      Notes:

                                                                                      (1) I would like to thank Michael Della Rocca for his helpful comments.

                                                                                      (7) References to the Theological-Political Treatise and to the Political Treatise are to the forthcoming Curley edition. The numbers immediately following the chapter numbers of TTP are references to the section numbers introduced by Bruder and used by Curley.

                                                                                      (8) On this general topic, see Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests.

                                                                                      (9) See Rousseau, On the Social Contract, Book I, Chapter III.

                                                                                      (10) Since some scholars question whether Spinoza’s later political theory is consistent with his earlier theory in TTP, it is significant that the same language appears here. For a recent treatment of this issue, see Balibar, Spinoza and Politics.

                                                                                      (11) For more on the relation to Hobbes, see Curley, “‘I Durst Not Write So Boldly’.”

                                                                                      (12) For the background to Hobbes’s work and the relation to his arguments, see Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty. There are other factors as well, such as the rise of capitalism, what C.B. Macpherson in his classic book called the theory of “possessive individualism,” and the very birth of the idea of a modern nation state. See Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism.

                                                                                      (13) See Ep. 74 and Spinoza’s response in Ep. 75.

                                                                                      (14) I refer to Curley’s edition of the Leviathan by chapter and section number.

                                                                                      (15) There is a brief discussion in TTP 4.20/G 3:73. Hobbes argues that the “chief causes of quarrel” are “competition … diffidence … and glory” (Leviathan, xiii.6).

                                                                                      (16) Jonathan Bennett raised several objections to this key argument: (1) that how a thing helps or harms an individual relates not to its nature as such (i.e. its essence as a human being) but to its particular nature (i.e. its location and needs as a discrete individual), a problem that stems from a conflation between what is good for my nature and what is good for me; (2) that the role of reason is confused: because we all have knowledge of God (i.e. what is common), it does not follow that more of it would be better for us; and (3) that Spinoza has confused two moral visions: is he talking about the good of the collective or the good of each individual? See Bennett, A Study, pp. 299–307. Despite Bennett’s various and often astute criticisms of the particular arguments, I think that the main line of thought is consistent and plausible, both in terms of Spinoza’s metaphysics and in terms of common sense. The view is that there is a basis for cooperation in our common natures. (There may be other grounds for cooperation, i.e. in terms of the ways in which we differ, and indeed, Spinoza is well aware, as we shall see, of how our passions emphasizing our differences can lead to forms of cooperation, albeit inadequate ones.) Reason is the way in which we come to understand these common features. The more we understand these common features of our nature through reason, the more we will be able both to act together for the common good, and, because the common good is a necessary if not sufficient condition for many of our individual goods, to use these common features to provide for our own well-being.

                                                                                      (17) For instance, see E4p37s2/G 2:237.27–32 or TTP 16.21–23/G 3:192–93.

                                                                                      (18) Curley notes that he would prefer a different text, “formari,” which would be translated as “formed” or “established” (C 567). The textual reason is that there is a parallel passage with formari in TTP 16 (G 3:193.20). But I will come back to this point in what follows because it bears on an important philosophical problem in Spinoza’s account.

                                                                                      (19) This raises an interesting question. Is the same principle—that what we have in common tends to benefit us—operative in both cases, consciously among rational individuals and unconsciously among passionate individuals? Or does the cooperation of passionate individuals depend on some completely different principle that nevertheless results in the same kind of benefits as those that cooperate on the basis of reason enjoy? This is parallel to a well-known problem in TTP: is the salvation of an ignorant person who is led to acts of justice and loving-kindness through faith the same state as that achieved by someone on the basis of reason? The best discussion of the latter problem is found in Matheron, Le Christ. Thanks to Michael Della Rocca for pointing out to me the presence of the former difficulty here.

                                                                                      (21) It would be a violation of Spinoza’s fundamental doctrine of conatus, the striving of all things to persevere in their being (E3p6).

                                                                                      (22) Let me emphasize that this is Spinoza’s own interpretation of his difference with Hobbes. There has been and is a vigorous debate about the mechanism of Hobbes’s theory, particularly the function of the so-called “laws of nature.” It could be, as some scholars have argued, that the laws are not merely “counsels of prudence,” as Hobbes himself described them, but binding laws whose force derives from God’s commands. Spinoza resolves this debate for his purposes by claiming that, for Hobbes, there is a remnant of non-utilitarian obligation in the laws of nature and in the promise that binds individuals to obey the contracts they make with each other in the state of nature. This then sets the stage for his theory.

                                                                                      (23) Of course, it does not really “solve” the problem in its own terms at all.

                                                                                      (24) For more on this problem, see Rosenthal, “Two Collective Action Problems.”

                                                                                      (25) For more on this subject, see Della Rocca, “Getting His Hands Dirty.”

                                                                                      (26) The threat of punishment without effective enforcement might work once but not repeatedly, which is precisely what is required for the maintainance of the state.

                                                                                      (27) There is a large literature on this subject. See, for instance, Gauthier, “Three against Justice.” See also Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, whose analysis I have followed here.

                                                                                      (28) For recent useful discussions of the imagination and its political role in Spinoza, see Gatens and Lloyd, Collective Imaginings, and James, “Narrative as the Means to Freedom.”

                                                                                      (30) “[T]‌he people, when they saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpets, and the mountain smoking, removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, speak thou with us, and we will hear, but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:18–19, quoted by Hobbes in Leviathan xl.6).

                                                                                      (31) The theme has already been broached in the first chapter: “For men are so constituted that they cannot live without being subject to some common law” (TP 1.3).

                                                                                      (32) The most thorough account of the doctrine of the “imitations of the affects” and of the metaphysics of Spinoza’s political philosophy is Matheron, Individu Et Communauté.

                                                                                      (33) Etienne Balibar, for instance, writes that the philosophical concerns of the two works are wholly different. See the beginning of chapter 3 of Balibar, Spinoza and Politics.

                                                                                      (34) For the Dutch context and Spinoza’s place within it, see Haitsma Mulier, The Myth of Venice; Blom, “Virtue and Republicanism”; and Prokhovnik, Spinoza and Republicanism.

                                                                                      (35) For a recent survey of this, see Nelson, The Hebrew Republic.

                                                                                      (37) Eric Nelson has described this debate as between those who were “exclusivists” about republican, non-monarchical systems, and those who were not.

                                                                                      (38) See chapter 2 of Nelson, The Hebrew Republic.

                                                                                      (39) Due to this prejudice, when I write about Spinoza’s political theory I have used the male pronoun exclusively.

                                                                                      (40) For a full range of discussion on this issue, see Gatens, Feminist Interpretations.

                                                                                      (41) This point has been argued recently by Eric Nelson. See pp. 54–56 of Nelson, The Hebrew Republic.

                                                                                      (42) “But for whatever reason a King may be chosen, by himself, as we have said, he cannot know what is to the advantage of the state. For this purpose, as we have shown in the preceding Article, it is necessary for him to have many citizens as Counselors. And because it is inconceivable that something will escape such a large number of men concerning the matter about which they are being consulted, it follows that, apart from the opinions which this Council reports to the King, none conducive to the well-being of the people is conceivable” (TP 7.5).

                                                                                      (44) For a thorough discussion of Hobbes’s view, see Skinner, Hobbes and Republican Liberty.

                                                                                      (45) Much more could be said on this point. In E4d8, Spinoza writes, “By virtue and power I understand the same thing,” but then goes on to gloss this identification as “the very essence, or nature of man, insofar as he has the power of bringing about certain things, which can be understood through the laws of his nature alone.” So we could restate the distinction between the two kinds of virtue as saying that the nature of the state is not isomorphic and that the two intersect only in certain limited aspects. For an individual to identify his virtue with that of the state would be to restrict his virtue to only one aspect.

                                                                                      (46) See, above all, Curley’s statement of this problem in “Kissinger.” See also Matheron, “Le ‘Droit Du Plus Fort’”; also Della Rocca, “Getting His Hands Dirty.” For an interesting recent attempt to answer this question on the source of normativity, see Gatens, “Spinoza’s Disturbing Thesis.”

                                                                                      (47) “Kissinger,” p. 322, also pp. 334–35.