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Spinoza’s Political Treatise – Reason to Power

The Spinoza we read in Political Treatise is not the abstract metaphysical philosopher of Ethics, but the clear-sighted political thinker who addresses problems of his time. He projects reason as the definite tool for organizing and governing the state. Even if the system of government is kingship, it must follow the injunctions of reason, otherwise it errs, and if the Polity doesn’t have legislation that agrees with the natural laws of reason, we must see in it not something that belongs in nature, but a chimera. (4.4)

Baruch de Spinoza –portrait by an unknown painter, in 1665 (photo)
Baruch de Spinoza –portrait by an unknown painter, in 1665 (photo)

If we say that the state holds the right to order its citizens into doing what human nature abhors, like not to avoid one’s death, to kill one’s kin or to be a witness against oneself, it is like saying that a person holds the right to be insane or to be delirious. “By what rewards or threats can a man be brought to love one, whom he hates, or to hate one, whom he loves?” (3.8). The thing that makes people good citizens is their inability to live on their own, the hope that a good government will give them freedom and peace and the fear of retribution in case of insubordination to its orders. “Those who are without fear or hope are so far independent, they are, therefore, enemies of the dominion, and may lawfully be coerced by force.” (3.8). Therefore, on the one hand the ruler must respect the needs of his subjects and on the other hand the citizens have to obey the laws. “Every citizen depends not on himself, but on the commonwealth, all whose commands he is bound to execute…And so, however iniquitous the subject may think the commonwealth’s decisions, he is none the less bound to execute them.” (3.5)

Concerning country relations, Spinoza suggested cooperation, always guided by reason and necessity. “If two commonwealths are willing to offer each other mutual help, both together are more powerful, and therefore have more right, than either alone” (3.12). “The more commonwealths there are, that have contracted a joint treaty of peace, the less each of them by itself is an object of fear to the remainder” (3.16)

The pact will be valid as long as the cause that necessitated it lasts, be it the danger of a common threat or the hope of a benefit; otherwise, each of the participants has the right to break it. “If then a commonwealth complains that it has been deceived, it cannot properly blame the bad faith of another contracting commonwealth, but only its own folly in haveing entrusted its own welfare to another party, that was independent, and had for its highest law the welfare of its own dominion.” (3.14)

Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 and died at the age of 44 in Hague, probably of tuberculosis. (photo)
Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632 and died at the age of 44 in Hague, probably of tuberculosis. (photo)

Spinoza continues to address the problem of how to harmonize the wishes of the people with the state’s commands. “Vices will exist, while men do” (1.2) “This is certain, that men are of necessity liable to passions, and so constituted as to pity those who are ill, and envy those who are well off; and to be prone to vengeance more than to mercy: and moreover, that every individual wishes the rest to live after his own mind, and to approve what he approves, and reject what he rejects” (1.5)

Spinoza considers the role of the state to be moderating these natural vices of the people, to make them put aside their passions and embrace logic. Only he who lives by reason can be called a free man. Even if the despot manages to minimize violence and disobedience, if this is achieved only by force, the state should be called a “desert”, not a Polity, where the citizens become slaves and barbarians, not free subjects.

Spinoza’s vision of an ideal society is composed of a dynamic relationship between subjects and ruler, where “men are not born fit for citizenship, but must be made so” (5.2) and “peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from force of character: for obedience is the constant will to execute what, by the general decree of the commonwealth, ought to be done.” (5.4). Peace should not be the result of the inertia of subjects who are guided as sheep. Those who think that one man alone can have the supreme right of a Polity are making a big mistake, as the strength of one single man is unable to bear such a burden.

So, “the dominion, which is thought to be a perfect Monarchy, is actually working as an Aristocracy, not, indeed, an open but a hidden one, and therefore the worst of all.” (6.5) Since the good citizens (those who listen to reason) are rare, and the king will act in accordance to keeping his power, he will mostly fear the internal enemies rather than the foreign ones, resulting in oppression of his citizens.

Spinoza uses the story of Ulysses and the mermaids, where Ulysses gives his comrades strict orders not to release him from the mast, as much as he calls them to when mesmerized by their calling. Similarly, the monarch is bound by the laws he found to apply when he took command, since the citizens have silently agreed to give him power on the basis of those laws. “So that every law be an explicit will of the king, but not every will of the king a law” (7.1). Even a king is restrained by the laws of the land, and his subjects ought not to obey him when his commands contradict these laws.

Since the monarch cannot govern completely on his own and his decisions must not go unchecked, he should be surrounded by counsellors, who will be citizens from every class or tribe, who will help him make decisions and be the ones he answers to. But because egoism is inherent among humans, Spinoza calls for certain rules under which the counsellors themselves will need to operate. They must not be elected for life, or else the majority of the citizens will have no hope of being granted this honor. Moreover, the counsellors, not fearing punishment from successors, will act as despotically as their immunity allows them. Their term has to be brief to avoid corruption through bribery. (7.13)

Also, when the king acts, either guided by fear of the masses either because he wants to take the people on his side or even if he acts on generosity of spirit, he must always give the power of law to the opinion held by the majority, so that, as much as possible, he will be followed by the sum of the citizens. (7.11)

On the whole, the ideal Monarchy according to Spinoza resembles democracy. It seems that he considers the power of the majority to be an inherent characteristic of the Polity and it is the majority that gives authority to the state, because the majority has the power, and each has as much right as he has power” (2.8). We then follow his thoughts as he diverts from Monarchy to Aristocracy, a more advanced form of government.

The means an almighty king has at his disposal to dominate the population are presented to us by Machiavelli, who wanted rather to show us how much the mass needs to be alert and not leave its salvation in the hands of one man, who would have to be either naive to think he is liked by everyone or would constantly be afraid of an ambush and be vigilant for his own salvation, oppressing his people, rather than be vigilant on their account. (5.7) (photo)
The means an almighty king has at his disposal to dominate the population are presented to us by Machiavelli, who wanted rather to show us how much the mass needs to be alert and not leave its salvation in the hands of one man, who would have to be either naive to think he is liked by everyone or would constantly be afraid of an ambush and be vigilant for his own salvation, oppressing his people, rather than be vigilant on their account. (5.7) (photo)

In Aristocracy there is more control over the ruler(s) and greater diffusion of political power. Instead of a monarch who is controlled by counsellors, power and law enactment belong to a numerous-member Council that expresses the will of the people to a greater degree.

Councils don’t need counselors, like the king does, and their function is perpetuated, as the term of their members is brief and interchangeable, in contrast to the king’s term, which is for life. Because the king is mortal, along with him dies the Polity, in a sense, and any successor will need to be accepted by the people anew, in order to have real power. In the case of a king’s illness, old age or irrational changes of will, the constitution suffers under his complete control. Since “the constitution is the soul of a dominion” (10.9), the dominion will be more stable by the continuity of the Council, through the perpetual interchange of its members (8.3), in relation always to the Monarchy.

But the laws are easily broken, when those who must obey them are exactly those in position to break them. A safety net is necessary, a second congress of Syndics, which will be vigilant so that the laws of the state concerning the Council and the public servants will not be violated. These Syndics will be elected for life in order to be unaffected by fear of retribution by their successors (who would be public servants) and will have part of the military force under their command. (8.19) (8.23)

A third department of state power is the Senate, which holds the power to determine the way taxes are distributed, send ambassadors wherever it decides they are needed, give instructions to the army and declare war. Therefore, the payment of the senators must be such, so that it will be in their interest to maintain peace. So, their payment must be a percentage of the exported products, given that in time of war commerce is declined. (8.19) (8.31)

The members of these departments, according to Spinoza, are forced to assemble and hold meetings, and whoever abstains must be punished with a severe monetary fine. Or else, many will neglect the affairs of the state in order to engage their private ones. (8.16)

In a final evaluation of Aristocracy in relation to Monarchy, Spinoza says that it may be so, that the salaries of the Council, the Syndics and the Senators are a heavy expense for the state, but a king’s court is the cause of greater expenses which don’t have the goal of preserving the peace. Also, in a Monarchy, only a small part of the population is the beneficiary of all this expenditure, while in an Aristocracy a large one. Moreover, the king and his court don’t share the burden of these costs, while the Council, the Syndics and the Senators, who always in an Aristocracy are elected from among the wealthier, share a large part of the financial responsibilities. “Lastly, the burdens of a Monarchy spring not so much from its king’s expenditure, as from its secret policy”. (8.31)

Laws, nevertheless, are possible to be overpowered, and the great enemy for Spinoza is fear. “In whatever degree, therefore, a commonwealth is rightly ordered, and its laws well made; yet in the extreme difficulties of a dominion, when all, as sometimes happens, are seized by a sort of panic terror, all, without regard to the future or the laws, approve only that which their actual fear suggests, all turn towards the man who is renowned for his victories, and set him free from the laws, and (establishing thereby the worst of precedents), continue him in command, and entrust to his fidelity all affairs of state”(10.10)

Spinoza’s answer is that in a Democracy fear cannot lead to these results, as in a Democracy it can’t be that only one man has a reputation so glorious that all will turn to him. Necessarily he will have competitors who will have their own followers. (10.10)

Unfortunately Spinoza died before he probed Democracy as much as Monarchy and Aristocracy; his Political Treatise remains unfinished. But we can discern his preference for Democracy throughout this work. Even in autocratic forms of government he illustrates the usefulness of democratic elements.

When he justifies the necessity of the Council in the legislation procedure, and as a means to decentralize power from the king to the elected aristocrats, he writes: “if there be any absolute dominion, it is, in fact, that which is held by an entire multitude.” (8.3). Illiteration and differences in the ability of individuals, stem only from the fact that the people are kept in ignorance on the important affairs of the state (7.4). Otherwise, “all have the same nature”. (7.27)

He considers the abilities of only one man not to be enough to lead the Polity to peace. “Men’s natural abilities are too dull to see through everything at once; but by consulting, listening, and debating, they grow more acute, and while they are trying all means, they at last discover those which they want, which all approve” (9.14)

“The will of so large a council cannot be so much determined by lust as by reason; because men are drawn asunder by an evil passion, and cannot be guided, as it were, by one mind, except so far as they desire things honourable, or that have at least an honourable appearance.” (8.6)

Moreover, in a previous work, the Theological-Political Treatise he writes:

“In a democracy there is less danger for a government to behave unreasonably, for it is practically impossible for the majority of a single assembly, if it is of some size, to agree on the same piece of folly.” (Chapter 16)

“This system of government [Democracy] is undoubtedly the best and its disadvantages are fewer because it is in closest accord with human nature”. (Chapter 20)

As for religion? Spinoza was a staunch supporter of religious tolerance. Churches shouldn’t be built on the expense of the state, but of those who are given the freedom to practice whichever religion they prefer, as long as it is not revolutionary and does not destroy the foundations of the Polity. (6.39)

The military must only be composed of citizens, not of foreigners, and all citizens must bear arms, that they are trained on. An armed man is more independent than an unarmed, he has more power and therefore more rights. (6.10) (7.17) (photo)
The military must only be composed of citizens, not of foreigners, and all citizens must bear arms, that they are trained on. An armed man is more independent than an unarmed, he has more power and therefore more rights. (6.10) (7.17) (photo)

For the purposes of this article I used this online version of the Political Treatise.

3 Comments

  1. I appreciate the detailed analysis. This is a breath of fresh air in Blog. I am forced to admit that Cenk Uygur, whom I have also just recently encountered through random googling, is not exactly an emissary of truth in all areas. He is very clearly so in the particular case of the democratic primary and the superdelegates. Obviously not so on Cyprus and the the Armenian genocide. That photograph of Cyprus is particularly effective. It troubles me to find a Greek and a Turk at odds when my own preference is for a cosmopolitan/eclectic unity of evolved culture. But that’s just what it is. Moreover, I am in full accord with the veils thing. I want that cosmopolitan tolerant culture, but that doesn’t mean tolerance for intolerance. Keep doing your homework. I’ll do mine: I haven’t gotten around to Spinoza, so I appreciate the lucid summary.

  2. Thanks for the outstanding information, it actually is useful.

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