Spinoza (1632–1677) was a contemporary of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and pretty much influenced by the latter. Hobbes thought of humanity as self-interested and always struggling for power and, in his 1615 Leviathan, set out to understand why and how can men actually cooperate and trust each other despite their nature. Hobbes idea, as pointed out by David Held in Models of Democracy, is that to be able to escape a lonely, hard and most certainly short life men have to come together. So society is better than natural state, and as Spinoza would argue, in choosing between two goods or two evils one goes for the greatest of the goods and lesser of the evils, and this could almost be an universal truth, and the reason why men are willing to “surrender their rights of self-government to a powerful single authority” (Held 1996), for the sake of security and self preservation. Hobbes theories were the beginning of the need to establish “both the liberty of individuals and sufficient power for the state to guarantee social and political order.” (Ibid) Hence he thought that the perfect state was absolute but with the consent of the people. “A multitude of men, are One Person, when they are by one man, or one Person, Represented” (ibid – Leviathan p. 220). A sovereign, therefore, is someone or a group of people who has been given the right of governing through the social contract.
But before engaging in his own definition of the perfect government Spinoza will spend a considerable time convincing his readers, in his Theological-political Treatise, that the Bible “leaves reason absolutely free; that it has nothing in common with philosophy, in fact, that Revelation and Philosophy stand on totally different footing” (p. 9); demonstrating that there is no contradiction between being religious, i.e. obedient, and scientific experimenting and thinking. If we are looking for empiric knowledge we won’t find it in the bible. He always sought to “separate philosophy from theology, and to show the freedom of thought which such separation insures both” (p. 200) and having done that he could concentrate on the pursuit of the ideal state.
The concern of philosophers have been to understand what is the aim of the state, and how can a state secure that aim, but even before focusing on what is the goal and goodness of a state, the question might be how can men live together?
According to Spinoza “every individual has sovereign right to do all that he can; (p. 200) so the individual who does not “yet know reason” will act “solely according to the laws of his desire” as the wise man will live according to the laws of reason … “the natural right of the individual man is thus determined, not by sound reason, but by desire and power.” (p. 201) But men, he continues, that do not live in community and by reason “live most miserably”, as argued also by Hobbes, therefore “men must necessarily come to an argument to live together as securely and well as possible if they are to enjoy as a whole the rights which naturally belong to them as individuals, and their life should be no more conditioned by the force and desire of individuals, but by the power and will of the whole body” (p. 202) deciding by doing so to be guided by reason. The question is, how to keep men under human law? If everyone was led by reason, they will keep the social pact for the sake of the good of the state, but according to both Hobbes and Spinoza this is not true. Spinoza believed that mankind is drawn away by pleasure so we are only restrained by the hope of some greater good, or the fear of a greater evil.
Balibar, in Spinoza and Politics, explains how Hobbes argues that in order to establish security, “natural right must be replaced by civil right” (Balibar 1998) which can only be imposed by a higher force, the state, and through the acceptance of the social contract, the natural state is replaced by the “body politic”. But Spinoza rejects this distinction between “natural right” and “civil right”, for him freedom of thought lies beyond the reach of the state.
Having come together in society men are giving away part of their rights and power, but this, argues Spinoza, would not enslave them, because the individual might be less free but the state is the freest; the subject “obeys the orders of the sovereign power, given for the common interest, wherein he is included.” (p. 215) Here we can see how he differs from Hobbes, for men remain as they were in the state of nature, equals, because no one transfers his rights absolutely, one still has a voice. Furthermore even in acting out of fear for the state, men act according to their own thought, “obedience does not consist so much in the outward act as in the mental state of a person obeying.” (Ibid)
Security or common good have been seen as the aim of governance but for Spinoza the true aim is liberty. The best government allows “freedom of philosophical speculation no less that of religious belief” (p. 263) and this is why we went to such a length defending freedom of thought in the Theological Political Treatise. Freedom of speech was of extreme importance to Spinoza, which saw no contradiction between the liberty of saying what one thinks and the authority of the sovereign power.
Spinoza, as Hobbes, desired an absolute state, but, unlike the latter, he believed that it could be in the hands of the multitude, i.e. it could be a democracy. In a democracy “everyone submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason (ibid)
As Balibar exposes, all of Spinoza’s arguments, in the Political Treatise, are to prove that the closer a state is to democracy the stronger it will be. “The basis and aim of a democracy is to avoid the desires as irrational, and to bring men as far as possible under control of reason, so that they may live in peace and harmony: if this basis be removed the whole fabric falls to ruin.” (Balibar 1998) Moreover that his democratic propositions are strongly connected to his belief in equality and freedom, freedom of thought as mentioned above and equality between all citizens, which can “exist by the joint result of institutions combined with collective praxis” (ibid)
But Spinoza’s argument, weaved in the Political Treatise thought the analyses of different political regimes, was left unfinished in the middle of the democratic regime, for he died before being able to conclude it, but as Balibar points out, in all regimes’ analyses we see the tendency to democracy “the less sovereignty is physically identified with one fraction of society… the more it will tend to coincide with the people as a whole, and the stronger and more stable it will be. But at the same time, the more difficult it will be to imagine its unity (its unanimity) and its indivisibility (its capacity for decision), and the more complicated it will be to organise them in practice. (Balibar 1998) The question left unanswered then, and still threatening contemporary democracy is, how can the multitude govern its own passions?
“[E]very individual wishes the rest to live after his own mind, and to approve what he approves ... reason can ... do much to restrain and moderate the passions, but ... the road, which reason herself points out, is very steep...” (p. 289) Reason will then refrain the passions, but it does not mean that it destroys them; and passions, Balibar argues, create forms of dependency to others.
To better understand Spinoza’s preference for the democratic rule we follow his own path: what is the best Dominion?
“Where men have general rights, and all guided, as it were, by one mind, it is certain that every individual has the less right the more the rest collectively exceed him in power; that is, he has, in fact, no right over nature but that which the common law allows him. But whatever he is ordered by the general consent he his bound to execute, or may rightfully be compelled thereto. This right, which is determined by the power of a multitude, is generally called Dominion.” (p. 297)
He continues by saying that if the rule, which is decided by the multitude, is entrusted to a “council composed of certain chosen persons” we are facing an aristocracy; if to a sole man, then it will be a monarchy, if “to a council, composed of the general multitude” (ibid) then the dominion is a democracy. But what is the best, i.e., which one can ensure individual’s liberty? Spinoza thought that the best and most independent would be the one “founded and guided by reason” (p. 313) and he added... “a free multitude is guided more by hope than fear” (p. 314). Hope is then the bond between individuals and of those with the state. Hope in Liberty?
How can a Monarchy ensure a good governance and freedom? According to Spinoza, a monarchy is always, in fact, an aristocracy; for no man can “by himself hold the supreme right of a commonwealth.” (p. 317) Moreover, because normally aristocrats are more interested in securing their lineage and plotting against each other, than governing for the people, their subjects will be under worst conditions. Nevertheless, and because from his perspective politics is the science of preserving the state, Spinoza will articulate how could a monarchy persist. First a monarch should be careful of is own inconstancies. “Every law be an explicit will of the king, but not every will of the king a law.” (p. 328) And he thought that the multitude would be willing to hand to a king that “which it cannot itself have absolutely within its authority, namely, ending controversies” (p. 330) and regarding that the king is surrounded by many counsellors that can express the multitude’s interests, “the multitude may preserve under a king’s an ample enough liberty, if it contrive that the king’s power be determined by the sole power, and pursued by the defence of the multitude itself.” (p. 344)
What about aristocracy?
“A king needs counsellors, but a council like this” as we said before, composed of chosen people, “doesn’t. Kings are mortal, but councils are everlasting” (p. 346) Here the multitude is under no consultation and the only reason why aristocracy is not absolute is because the council fears the multitude, therefore the multitude retain some liberty, even if only by a tacit agreement. Spinoza’s conviction was that “aristocracies were formerly democracies… that augmented with foreigners…” (p. 351) and since those could not become citizens of full rights a class of patricians was formed. Spinoza states that if “the nature of patricians was that they were free from all passions (in choosing who his or not a citizen) and guided by mere zeal for the public welfare in choosing their patrician colleagues, no dominion could be compared with aristocracy.”(p. 387) but has said before, reason can refrain passions but never extinguish them.
Therefore we arrive at the third dominion; democracy, which differs from aristocracy mainly because the latter “depends on the supreme council’s will and franchise only, that this or that man is made a patrician, so that no one has the right to vote or fill public offices by inheritance, and that no one can by right demand this right as is the case in the dominion whereof we are now treating.”(Ibid) Thus, a man can claim the right to vote and fill public offices, and even if the supreme council might have fewer citizens this shall still be called a democracy, “because in them the citizens who are destined to manage affairs of the state, are not chosen as the best by the supreme council, but are destined by law.”(Ibid)
That the rule is chosen by lot is the main characteristic of democracy, how it can be, as Spinoza wished, an absolute government is what he did not succeed to explain. Therefore the only clue given has to why he thought this would be the best dominion is what Balibar points out when we says that in the analyses of the former dominions, they are best as they approach a more democratic governance.
But then, how can the multitude govern its passions when one knows that every man thinks the other should live as he does? Can state institutions distil the multiple opinions into a common opinion? Although true equality does not exist and can only be achieve through the action of the state, as true independence does not exist, and citizens have to establish relations of dependence between each other and between them and the state; it is this state and their institutions who should “distil a single opinion, and thus a choice, out of the fluctuation of minds” and to produce a union around a common purpose. Then, as Balibar states, it is imaginable that the multitude might rule itself “on the basis of the dialectic between these two forms of rationalisation of the State, one of which begins by privileging equality, and the other, freedom”. (BALIBAR 1998)
BALIBAR, E. 1998. Spinoza and Politics, Verso.
HELD, D. 1996. Models of Democracy. 2nd edition, Cambridge: Polity Press.
SPINOZA, B. 1951. A Theological-Political Treatise. Dover Publications.