Freethought and Freedom: Spinoza’s Political Theory
Smith explains the fundamentals of Spinoza’s theory of rights and government.
Spinoza presented his political theory in two works: A Theological‐Political Treatise (beginning with Chapter 16), published anonymously in 1670; and A Political Treatise, an unfinished book that was published posthumously in 1677, the year of Spinoza’s death. Although the latter book presents one of the earliest defenses of democracy ever written, its discussion of Spinoza’s fundamental ideas about rights and sovereignty does little more than summarize the more extensive treatment found in the former.
In an age during which it was increasingly common to write scholarly books in the vernacular, Spinoza wrote everything in Latin, and he did so for what he regarded as a compelling reason. As he explained in the Preface to A Theological‐Political Treatise (TPT), only educated philosophical readers were likely to give his ideas a fair hearing: “To the rest of mankind I care not to commend my treatise, for I cannot expect that it contains anything to please them.” Most educated readers in Spinoza’s day could read Latin, which had served for centuries as the universal language among Europeans (as French would later do, and as English does now). As for the common people, most of whom could not read Latin, Spinoza viewed the “multitude” as so filled with “prejudices embraced under the name of religion,” and as so prone “to praise or blame by impulse rather than by reason” that it was better for them not to read TPT at all rather than “misinterpret it after their want.” Utter neglect of his ideas by the masses was preferable to the public outcry that his ideas, especially his call for freedom of religion and his denial that “Reason is a mere handmaid to Theology,” might provoke among the common people if those ideas became widely known. Spinoza’s ideas might jeopardize his personal safety and lead to the censorship of his writings (a measure advocated by many of his critics, even in liberal Holland), in which case TPT might become unavailable to those who stood to benefit from it the most.
Spinoza concluded the Preface with a type of political genuflection that was regarded as a necessary safety measure by many freethinkers of his time. “I have written nothing,” he declared, “which I do not most willingly submit to the examination and judgment of my country’s rulers, and that I am ready to retract anything, which they shall decide to be repugnant to the laws or prejudicial to the public good.” Spinoza had “taken scrupulous care, and striven to keep in entire accordance with the laws of my country, with loyalty, and with morality.”
Spinoza’s controversial ideas extended beyond the realm of religion into the realm of politics, both theoretical and practical. In Spinoza’s political ideas lurk the ghosts of Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes—a defense of Realpolitik that claimed to base politics on the stark realities of human nature, on man as he really is rather than man as we think he ought to be. This perspective led Spinoza to repudiate the conventional moral nature of rights and to substitute a purely descriptive account of rights that equated rights with sheer power. According to Spinoza, what we have the power to do we also have the right to do. Spinoza, a strict determinist, believed that human nature impels every individual to seek his own preservation and welfare, so we have a right to take whatever measures we deem necessary to achieve those ends, however incorrect or irrational our judgments may be. As he put it in TPT:
Whatsoever, therefore, an individual (considered under the sway of nature) thinks useful for himself, whether led by sound reason or impelled by the passions, that he has a sovereign right to seek and to take for himself as he best can, whether by force, cunning, entreaty, or any other means; consequently he may regard as an enemy anyone who hinders the accomplishment of his purpose.
Spinoza applied his purely naturalistic conception of a “right” to all living entities, not merely to human beings. We may say that large fish have the sovereign right to devour small fish because such behavior is inherent in their natures. Spinoza reached this conclusion by personifying nature, as when he wrote that “it is certain that Nature, taken in the abstract, has sovereign right to do anything she can; in other words, her right is co‐extensive with her power.” Hence the rights of human beings are limited only by their powers. This principle applies as much to irrational actions and persons as it does to rational actions and persons. Spinoza, of course, was a great champion of reason who defended its indispensable role in the pursuit of happiness, but he also understood that most people are motivated largely by their passions, however destructive to oneself and others those passions may be. Passions that generate irrational behavior are part of human nature, so rights do not vary according to the rationality of the acting agent. Just as “the wise man has sovereign right …to live according to the laws of reason, so also the ignorant and foolish man has sovereign right to…live according to the laws of desire.” To expect a foolish, irrational man to live like a thoughtful, rational man is like expecting a cat to live according to “the laws of the nature of a lion.”
Spinoza rejected the notion of a universe that is intrinsically rational. Nature per se is neither rational nor irrational; to render any such judgment is to impose on nature a human judgment. Man is a mere “speck” in the cosmos, a being whose first and primary natural impulse is to preserve his own being. If some methods of survival strike us as better or more rational than other methods, this is true only from our limited perspective: “nature is not bounded by the laws of human reason, which aims only at man’s true benefit and preservation.” If some human actions appear to us evil, immoral, or unjust, this is only because we are ignorant of the ways of nature in the broadest sense; “in reality that which reason considers evil, is not evil in respect to the order and laws of nature as a whole, but only in respect to the laws of our reason.” These and similar comments are closely related to Spinoza’s insistence that philosophers should study human passions objectively, as entomologists study bugs. The goal of a philosopher is to understand how our passions influence our actions, not to assess those passions as good or bad, right or wrong, rational or irrational.
From Spinoza’s contention that power and right are coextensive, that we have a right to do anything we regard as useful to our own preservation and welfare, it follows that people in a state of nature (a society without government) are “natural enemies.” If I deem it useful to kill you so that I can expropriate your property, then I have the “right” to kill you—and from this unlimited right perpetual social conflict will inevitably ensue. This is a thoroughly Hobbesian premise, despite the considerable efforts of philosophers sympathetic to Spinoza to distance him from the odious Hobbes. But this is not to say that Spinoza agreed with Hobbes down the line. There were significant differences, most notably Spinoza’s repudiation of political absolutism in favor of democracy, his defense of freedom of speech and religion, and so forth. Indeed, in contrast to Hobbes, Spinoza made it clear that individual freedom should be the ultimate goal of government.
[T]he object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and injustice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.
So how did Spinoza get from his Hobbesian premises, such as the claim that justice and injustice do not exist in a state of nature but are determined solely by government, to his defense of an essentially free society? The journey—a bumpy ride, to say the least—was based on the contention that people will come to understand that their interests are best served by leaving the state of nature, an anarchistic condition where people may do anything they have the power to do, and by agreeing to form a civil society wherein they transfer their right of free action in favor of a government that will determine which actions are just and permissible and which actions are not. This is a peculiar version of the social contract, since Spinoza’s conception of a “right” has no moral element that would permit us to say that people, whether rulers or the ruled, are morally obligated to respect their part of the social contract.
Spinoza did not flinch when considering this problem; rather, he held doggedly to his naturalistic conception of rights while defending his version of social contract theory. Consider a democracy, a civil society in which the people as a whole control government. The right of the people to rule is based on nothing more than the fact that the majority will possess greater power than a minority, and so will be able to enforce their common will against dissenters. And it is precisely this greater power that gives them the right to rule. The government in a democracy, which supposedly speaks for the people, can pass any laws it likes and is able to enforce. As we would expect in Spinoza’s theory, the rights of a government are identical to its power. Whatever a government can do, it has the right to do in virtue of its superior power to enforce its will.
So where can individual freedom possibly find refuge in Spinoza’s thoroughly anti‐libertarian theory of rights? Spinoza’s answer was covered in my last essay, in which I explained his theory of inalienable rights. Inalienable rights, according to Spinoza, are those rights (i.e., powers) that are so embedded in human nature that they cannot possibly be transferred, abandoned, or otherwise alienated in any circumstances. It is therefore absurd, because it is impossible, for any government to claim dominion over such rights. Governmental power is limited by human nature itself, not by moral principles based upon reason. Since no government can do what cannot possibly be done, since no government has the power to accomplish the impossible, no government can claim the right to control freedom of speech and religion and other rights based on the inalienable powers of human beings.
In addition (and as I also explained in my last essay), a democratic government must retain the respect of the people if it wishes to elicit obedience to its laws and decrees. People will regard a government as desirable only if they believe that life under that government is preferable to a state of nature or to another government, so current rulers will be able to retain their power only so long as they do not lapse into tyranny. And, in line with Spinoza’s theory of rights, a government that loses its ability to rule also loses its right to rule.
If Spinoza’s theory of rights and government strikes my libertarian readers as downright bizarre, welcome to the club. I regard it as a massive failure, considered as a whole, and an embarrassing failure to boot. How someone with Spinoza’s brilliance and passionate love of freedom could seriously defend such a rickety theory will always remain a mystery to me. Its holes are so huge and obvious that I hesitate to point them out, for fear of insulting the intelligence of my readers. Nevertheless, I shall run that risk in my next essay, where I shall discuss some objections to Spinoza’s political theory in particular and to the Realpolitik approach in general. Those philosophers who pride themselves on their political realism, and who repudiate and ridicule the supposedly soft‐headed, speculative reasoning of those philosophers who defend the conventional notion (in classical liberalism) of natural rights, often end up producing the most godawful philosophical mush imaginable.