Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!

This is part of a series

July 2015

Freethought and Freedom: A Critique of Spinoza

Smith criticizes some features of Spinoza’s political theory, especially his theory of rights.

In a previous essay in this series, I explained Spinoza’s defense of freedom of speech and religion. These principles, along with his defense of democracy, might seem to make Spinoza an important figure in the early history of classical liberalism. And so he was, but only to a very limited extent. As we saw in my last essay, Spinoza defended the Hobbesian position that we have the right to do whatever we have the power to do. In thus rendering rights coextensive with power, Spinoza insisted that men are “natural enemies” who, while pursuing their self-preservation and welfare in a state of nature without government, would have the unlimited right to take any actions they deem conducive to those ends, including acts of violence against innocents who had not harmed them in any manner.

Spinoza refused to call invasive acts committed in a state of nature “unjust.” The concepts of just and unjust actions arise only under the jurisdiction of a sovereign government. In A Political Treatise, for example, Spinoza wrote that justice and injustice “in their strict sense…cannot be conceived of, except under [political] dominion. For nature offers nothing that can be called this man’s rather than another’s; but under nature everything belongs to all—that is, they have authority to claim it for themselves.” Only with a government that has enacted a legal code and has the power to enforce its laws do these ideas come into play. (This is obviously false, since we can easily conceive of property rights and just and unjust actions in a society without government. Whether we believe that such rights can adequately be enforced in a state of nature is of course a different issue.)

Even Spinoza’s defense of religious freedom, which is fine as far as it goes, was seriously undercut by his refusal to extend freedom to external religious practices. According to Spinoza, if we have an inalienable right to believe whatever we like, this is because our power to believe or not believe cannot be compelled by physical force or threats of force. And since a government, like an individual, has the right to do whatever it has the power to do, it cannot properly be said that a government has a right to dictate our religious beliefs, for the simple reason that no government can possibly accomplish this goal. But the same is not true of external religious practices, such as sacred rites and ceremonies. The sovereign has the power, and therefore the right, to control such practices, permitting some and forbidding others as he sees fit. Spinoza, like Thomas Hobbes and some other critics of institutionalized religion, defended a position known as Erastianism (after the Swiss theologian Thomas Erastus, 1524-83), according to which churches and religious practices generally should be under the absolute control of the sovereign secular state.

Much of Spinoza’s concern with religious practices lay in his understanding of the power that religion has in motivating human action, especially when a state issues decrees that are widely viewed as contrary to divine law. Churches, most notably the Catholic Church, had often served as a buffer, or intermediate power, between the individual and the state and had thereby prevented the state from exercising its (supposedly) legitimate authority. (This is why Hobbes, who agreed with Spinoza that a sovereign should not attempt to dictate the personal religious beliefs of citizens but should control external religious practices, likened the Catholic Church to “worms in the entrails of a natural man.”) Churches, moreover, were frequently behind political resistance, rebellions, and revolutions, so Spinoza demanded that all such institutions be kept under the thumb of the state in order to prevent these calamities. Since the primary function of government is to maintain peace and social order, anything that promotes seditious tendencies should not be allowed to roam free. This restriction applies not only to institutions but also to seditious books and speech, which Spinoza specified as exceptions to his general presumption of freedom. Thus although Spinoza did not wish churches to wield any political power, he did not defend the separation of church and state, as we now understand that expression. Rather, he argued that churches should be subservient to the state, and that religious believers should obey all state demands regarding rites and ceremonies, however personally offensive they may be.

We thus see how Spinoza was a mixed bag from a libertarian perspective. True, he believed that a sovereign should be rational, which means that a sovereign should impose only those restrictions on freedom necessary to maintain peace and social order—a society in which individuals can pursue their own interests without coercive interference. But Spinoza also believed that the vast majority of people are irrational, that they are guided by their passions instead of by their reason—this, after all, is why they need a government to restrain their actions—but he had no grounds for defending the superior rationality of rulers, who are as likely as anyone else to succumb to their lusts and other irrational desires. The only restraint on a ruler is his own preservation and welfare, so a rational ruler will not push oppressive laws to the point where citizens become so outraged that they attempt to overthrow him. But in Spinoza’s scheme, there is no moral principle of individual rights that would render anything a ruler attempts to do unjust in the libertarian understanding of that term. For Spinoza, therefore, there is no right to resist (or even to disobey) oppressive laws, much less a right to overthrow tyrannical governments. As he put it: “however iniquitous the subject may think the commonwealth’s decisions, he is none the less bound to execute them.” The rights of an organized political society, where the collective will of the people is represented by the sovereign, are rooted solely in the fact that the many are more powerful than the individual. As Spinoza put it: “the body and mind of a dominion have as much right as they have power. And thus each single citizen or subject has the less right, the more the commonwealth exceeds him in power.”

Let us now consider some brief objections to Spinoza’s political theory.

First, as noted previously, Spinoza repeatedly observed that most people are governed by their passions, not by their reason, yet he also argued that in an ideal government rulers will self-limit their powers according to rational calculations of utility. Rational rulers will understand that tyrannical measures will ultimately diminish their power and are therefore detrimental to their own self-interest. But why should we assume that rulers are, or will be, more rational than the many irrational people they rule? If history proves anything, it proves the exact opposite. Many rulers throughout history would have been leading candidates for the first available vacancy in a lunatic asylum. Spinoza’s rational rulers smack of Plato’s philosopher-kings; both ideas are dangerously naïve.

Second, Spinoza used his theory of inalienable rights to argue that no ruler may claim dominion over freedom of religion and speech. But even if we agree that no ruler can possibly control those practices in every detail, it does not follow that rulers lack the power to make the attempt. The ability to achieve a goal and the ability to try to achieve that selfsame goal are two different things. Countless rulers have attempted to control the religion and speech of their subjects; and however much those rulers may have failed in the grand scheme of things, they obviously had the power to make the efforts which they believed would attain the desired ends. At the very least, therefore, if we follow Spinoza’s identification of rights with power, we need to say that rulers have the right (since they have the power) to attempt to suppress freedom of religion and speech. This is not where Spinoza wished to end up, but it follows logically from his theory of rights.

Third, the problems I have mentioned so far pale in comparison to the problems attending any attempt to identify rights with powers. Yes, we may have the power to murder other people or to enslave them, but in what sense may this power be said to confer a right to murder and enslave? There is a serious ambiguity in any such assertion, one that haunts Spinoza’s entire discussion. Did Spinoza mean to say that our power to do x confers upon us the right to do x in a moral sense? If so, then our right must entail a duty by others to respect our right to do x. But it is highly doubtful that this is what Spinoza intended to say, especially since he expressly affirmed that the distinction between just and unjust actions depends entirely on the decrees of a government and would not exist in a state of nature. Rather, Spinoza appears to mean that there is no difference between power and right, that these are one and the same concept. But if this is the case, then to derive rights from power is a useless and misleading redundancy. If whenever we say “I have the right to do x,” we simply mean “I have the power to do x,” then the term “right” adds no new information. It simply repeats what was said before, with no change in meaning.

Many classical liberals criticized the effort to identify power with rights. (Whether they were criticizing Hobbes or Spinoza, or both, is not always clear.) One of the best comments is found in William Wollaston’s important book, The Religion of Nature Delineated. First published in the early 1720s and running through eight editions, this was a best-seller in its day that attracted the attention of many better-known philosophers, including David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and Jeremy Bentham. In considering the proposition that we have the right to do whatever we have the power to do, Wollaston wrote: “power and right, or a power of doing any thing, and right to do it, are quite different ideas: and therefore they may be separated, nor does one infer the other.” Wollaston continued:

If power, qua power, gives a right to dominion, it gives a right to every thing, that is obnoxious to it; and then nothing can be done that is wrong. (For no body can do any thing which he has not the power to do.) [This] is to advance a plain absurdity or contradiction rather. For then to oppose the man who has this power, as far as one can, or (which is the same) as far as one has the power to do it, would not be wrong: yet so it must be, if he has a right to dominion, or not to be opposed.

It is crucial to understand Wollaston’s point here, which may be restated as follows: If we equate “rights” with “power,” then it is literally impossible to violate anyone’s rights, since we cannot do anything that we lack the power to do. Suppose someone assaults you in an effort to steal your money. He has the right to make this assault, according to Spinoza, because he has the power, or ability, to attack you. But you likewise have the right to resist his assault if you have the power to resist. And he, in turn, has the right to counteract your defense if he is able, while you, in turn, have the right (if you have the power) to fight on. And so on indefinitely, until we are lost in a tumultuous sea of conflicting rights.

As traditionally conceived—not only in classical liberalism but in other political traditions as well—rights were conceived as the flip side of moral obligations. Thus if you have a right to x, I have the obligation not to coercively interfere with your use and disposal of x. Rights were regarded as principles that distinguish between mine and thine in a social context. To equate rights with power makes mincemeat of this important distinction and ultimately reduces to redundancy or nonsense. In the final analysis, Spinoza’s theory of rights amounts to saying nothing more than we have the power to do whatever we have the power to do.

This is part of a series