Sunday Sermon: On Secret Diplomacy


Elsewhere I have implied that the US, UK, Russia, and China are (to some degree or another) oligarchies masquerading as democracies. They probably could be ordered on a scale from greater to lesser – but that’s a debate for another day. Today, we’re going to consider some of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus as reported by Will Durant in Story of Philosophy. [amazon]

I’ll let Durant make my excuse for not reading Spinoza and offering my own interpretation:

In short, Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied; you must approach him as you would approach Euclid, recognizing that in these brief two hundred pages a man has written down his lifetime’s thought with stoic sculptury of everything superfluous. Do not think to find its core by running over it rapidly; never in a work of philosophy was there so little that could be skipped without loss. Every part depends upon preceding parts; some obvious and apparently needless proposition turns out to be the cornerstone of an imposing development of logic.

Like a great many enlightenment thinkers after him, Spinoza grounds his political and moral philosophy on an incorrect assumption: that man had some primal existence that was antisocial, free of civilization. Civilization emerged (how?) and man and civilization mutually embraced and from that point forward, the game was on. Paleontology appears to show a different story, namely that humans co-evolved with civilization – we invented it and it shaped us and invented us in turn. The “noble savage” probably didn’t exist, ever; civilization appears to be violent authoritarians all the way down, until finally humans got to the point of asking “why?” In other words: until philosophers embarked on their 3,000+ year-long program of annoying rulers with pesky questions.

All political philosophy, Spinoza thinks, must grow out of a distinction between the natural and the moral order – that is, between existence before, and existence after the formation of organized societies. Spinoza supposes that men once lived in comparative isolation, without law or social organization; there were then, he says, no conceptions of right and wrong, justice or injustice; might and right were one.

“Nothing can exist in a natural state which can be called good or bad by common assent, since every man who is in a natural state consults only his own advantage, and determines what is good or bad according to his own fancy. and in so far as he has regard for his own advantage alone, and holds himself responsible to no one save himself by any law; and therefore sin cannot be conceived in a natural state, but only in a civil state, where it is decreed by common consent what is good and bad, and each one holds himself responsible to the state. … Te law and ordinance of nature under which all men are born, and for the most part live, forbids nothing but what no one wishes or is able to do, and is not opposed to strife, hatred, anger, treachery, or, in general, anything that appetite suggests.”

We get an inkling of this law of nature, or this lawlessness of nature, by observing the behavior of states; “there is no altruism among nations,” for there can be law and morality only where there is an accepted organization, a common and recognized authority. The “rights” of state are now what the “rights” of individuals used to be (and still often are); that is, they are mights, and the leading states, by some forgetful honesty of diplomats, are very properly called the “Great Powers.” So it is too among species; there being no common organization, there is not among them any morality or law; each species does to the other what it wishes and can.

But among men, as mutual needs begets mutual aid, this natural order of powers passes into a moral order of rights. “Since fear of solitude exists in all men, because no one in solitude is strong enough to defend himself and procure the necessities of life, it follows that men by nature tend towards social organization.” To guard against danger “the force or strength of one man would hardly suffice if men did not arrange mutual aid and exchange.” Men are not by nature, however, equipped for the mutual forbearance of the social order; but danger begets association, which gradually strengthens the social instincts: “men are not born for citizenship, but must be made fit for it.”

This is the heart of secular humanism, except for the initial wrong bit about the state of nature. Spinoza, however, corrals the question of primal humanity by making what most secular humanists would recognize as a very old argument: we need one other, if only to protect one another from the other. You can see in Spinoza’s observations above the framework for a great deal of enlightenment thought; there are direct lines shooting off in all directions from Spinoza’s pen to Rousseau’s, Paine’s, Voltaire’s, Hume’s, and all the way through time to Marx and Robert Paul Wolff. Hobbes and Locke spring-boarded from Spinoza, too – was this the invention of apologetics for the state? Probably not, but (as Durant shows us) Spinoza sure compressed those ideas down into a compact form that is hard to argue with.

Now, I skip forward a few pages (Durant is dense, too!) to a beautiful apologia for the state, and then we will let Spinoza tear apart the authority of government and we’ll stop on the verse that is this sermon: secret diplomacy.

“The last end of the state is not to dominate men, nor to restrain them by fear; rather it is so to free each man from fear that he may live and act with full security and without injury to himself and his neighbor. The end of the state, I repeat, is not to make rational beings into brute beasts and machines. It is to enable their bodies and their minds to function safely. It is to lead men to live by, and to exercise, a free reason; that they may not waste their strength in hatred, anger and guile, nor act unfairly toward one another. Thus the end of the state is really liberty.”

You can see the well where Thomas Jefferson dropped his bucket for inspiration.

Spinoza, however, has a surprise for us: as if predicting today’s oligarchs, who pretend to be democratic, he proceeds to rubbish democracy, monarchy, and tyranny much as Plato did.

These things premised, it makes no great difference what is the form of government; and Spinoza expresses only a mild preference for democracy. And of the traditional political forms can be framed as “so that every man … may prefer public right to private advantage: this is the task” of the law-giver. Monarchy is efficient, but oppressive and militaristic.

“Experience is thought to teach that it makes for peace and concord to confer the whole authority on one man. For no dominion has stood so long without any notable change as that of the Turks; and on the other hand there were none so little lasting as those which were popular or democratic, nor any in which so many seditions arose. Yet if slavery, barbarism and desolation are to be called peace, man can have no worse misfortune. No doubt there are usually more and sharper quarrels between parents and children, than between masters and slaves; yet it advances not the art of household management to change a father’s right into a right of property, and count children but as slaves. Slavery, then, and not peace is furthered by handing over the whole authority to one man.”

Then, almost, as an aside:

“It has been the one song of those who thirst after absolute power that the interest of the state requires that its affairs should be conducted in secret. … But the more such arguments disguise themselves under the mask of public welfare, the more oppressive is the slavery to which they will lead. … Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nation have it absolutely under their authority; and as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.”

I have often found myself thinking of this little aside, when discussing matters of the police and intelligence state. The proponent of the intelligence state says “the secrets of the government must be kept inviolate, because disclosing them serves our enemies.” That’s a rather odd argument to square with the US’ “we are the world’s one superpower; we do whatever we want” attitude – after all, US diplomacy in the 21st century makes Melians of the world: they suffer what they must. The US, from its position of power, ought to be able to operate completely openly – besides, if what we’re doing is right and necessary, surely public opinion will support it. Right? Spinoza’s point seems truer, to me: government wishes to act in secret in order to hide its incompetence, corruption, criminality, and lies.

And so it seems to be; as we learn over and over again that the intelligence state has lied to us, and trampled citizen’s constitutional rights without even flinching. A wiser political philosopher than me could probably draw a line between this, and Rousseau’s social contract being repudiated, but I don’t think I need to make that argument – Spinoza goes straight for the finishing move: government that operates in secret is plotting against the citizens. Surely Rousseau, who had doubtless studied Spinoza, felt a tickle against the back of his neck when he learned of the Little Committee in Geneva, and discovered that secret government and the social contract negate one another. [stderr] I feel the same when when I see a president bypass Congress’ duty to control the president’s ability to make war, and Congress’ weak later attempt to rein that in with the War Powers Act, to deploy troops all over the world, then classify their missions. Is there an American (even the president?) who knows where all the US special forces are out, skulking around, murdering people? If the US were a democracy, that activity would have to be the responsibility of we, the people, who pay for it.

I often think of Spinoza’s little aside when I hear that US combat troops have just killed a bunch of people someplace where (per Von Clausewitz) there is little need for state-craft. These things just remind me that the people of the US have never had their hands on the steering wheel of government. Enjoy the ride.

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This bit is embarrassing: I remembered the quoted section above as having been from Voltaire, not Spinoza. So, naturally, I searched all around the internet for the original quotes and never found them. In fact, I couldn’t find them in Durant, either – which is when I realized that I must have mis-remembered something. So, I re-read Peter Gay (thank you!) and then re-read Durant, and eventually stumbled across it. I’m not able to read Spinoza – I fall asleep; I admit it’s a personal failing – so I’m being careful to delineate this as Durant’s take on Spinoza, not mine.

All quotes in this piece are from Durant.

Durant’s writing is a bit ‘precious’ – he is trying to write philosophy as art, and he wants his love for the beauty of philosophy to come through every sentence. That makes his writing a bit chewy for a generation raised on Cormac McCarthy or Hemingway, but Durant is on my recommended reading list for a reason. Blackstone audio has an audiobook version, read by the amazing Grover Gardner, which is excellent though slightly soporific in a good way. It’s almost hypnotizing.

By the way, in the 1930s Simon and Schuster and a couple other publishers did very nice editions of Durant, and Durant’s expanded work on the history of civilization. Those sets are remarkably affordable on Ebay, but shipping may be a killer – 11 volumes of paper is a lot of paper. They’re lovely books, though, if you know someone’s mind you want to warp. My recommended reading list refund policy does not apply to antiquarian editions of books.

Dirant (like Rawls and Dewey) got smeared with a bit of red-bait during the great anti-communist scare. He was sympathetic to socialism. So, he fell from popularity. I think his books are a great introduction to philosophy and I wish he’d done a book on socialism.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.

    No, the Powers plot against citizens in times of war and peace; and against “the enemy” only intermittently in either condition.

  2. cvoinescu says

    Marcus, you don’t tend to get a lot of comments on this kind of post. This is not because they’re not interesting — they’re some of my favorite posts of yours. I can’t speak for others, but my silence is usually agreement. (Also, I have read just enough philosophy to know it’s not enough to offer informed opinion on that side of things.)

  3. says

    cvoinescu@#2:
    Thanks for the feedback; these take more time to write than my usual stuff.

    Also, I have read just enough philosophy to know it’s not enough to offer informed opinion on that side of things.

    I’m thinking I probably should comment on this with an entire posting. But, briefly: I don’t believe a philosopher has done a good job if they aren’t able to convey the idea they wish to convey without insisting that their reader haul along an entire back-catalogue of philosophy texts. One of the things that turned me off of philosophy for decades was my perception that I couldn’t really engage with someone else’s ideas unless I waded through all the references that they made in passing. When you feel that way, what you are encountering is poor philosophy. For example, in this piece, I was clear about the fact that I have not, personally, parsed through Spinoza and allowed Durant to do the hard work for me. We should be comfortable with that – we’re engaging with Durant’s explanation of Spinoza and as long as some Spinozist scholar doesn’t come along and explain that Durant was horribly wrong (I hope not!) then we have avoided that problem of hauling in the back-catalog and years of effort grappling with Spinoza. We don’t have to argue that Spinoza is right about everything; we can discuss whether or not that particular bit of what he said was wise or interesting.

    When I encounter a philosopher who says “well, blah blah blah Hegel said that.” I assume they are trying to appeal to authority (what, Hegel never got anything wrong?) or they are trying to bamboozle me – because just saying that doesn’t actually clarify anything. So when I selected the bits from Spinoza, I was not trying to say “Spinoza is right because he’s Spinoza” but rather “damn, that is a really good way of explaining a viewpoint!” As such, you can agree (which I hope you do) or argue with the point (which you are welcome to do) without fear that I will parry with “but Spinoza says!” appeal to authority.

    One of the other things I love about Durant is that he seems to be scrupulously fair in his sketches of the great philosophers’ works. He’s not afraid to accuse Nietzsche of bloviating, or Aristotle of failing to perform simple observations – it’s a very balanced view and there’s none of the hero-worship that would lead someone to conclude that “so and so is always right!” … Although Durant appears to also have great affection for Voltaire. But, hey: Voltaire.

  4. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#3:
    Oh, that’s cool!
    Alec Steele did a bit on his youtube channel where he tried to forge/weld a knife from a meteor. It looks like it was really hard to work with although it was very strong, presumably having been cryo-tempered, annealed, and shocked during re-entry.

    Most likely meteoric iron was crucible melted with other iron (i.e.: an iron sand smelt) so that it provided an exotic alloy.

  5. oldmanbynow says

    Another thought-provoking piece by the blogger. One should note in passing that the trope of the “Golden Age,” common to Spinoza and Rousseau, as what preceded civilization’s “Bronze Age,” derived universally from ancient thought, as evidenced everywhere from Genesis to Hesiod; it ruled notions of social evolution for millennia, and comes to us even now as “the good old days.”

    Today’s first-world regimes are often critiqued by the standard of whether they are serving the interests of the people. That standard is misleading in an important way, because it distracts attention from basic fact of rulership: that rulers do what is good for themselves–for government–at every level; not what is good for the people–at any level. Bureaucrats go to lunch when people need passports desperately. TSA steals things from bags. Congressmen do whatever it takes to get elected, and to get rich. You can fill in the blanks in between. None of these people actually serves the interests of the people, first and foremost. The more power government has, the more it does to serve and protect–itself. Whether that is good for the people, or not. Hence the important idea of “regime change.”

    The math of contemporary political organizations is hostile to popular political involvement such as Machiavelli, Locke, and Spinoza contemplated. For unless the principal governors walk unarmed in the streets daily with the people they govern, as Aristeides and Pericles did, they are not properly termed governors, but rather rulers. And face it, imperial governments are necessarily bad, as Spinoza would have it: in many ways, they are necessary and good and inevitable. The life of a “slave” in the brave new world is better than having one’s head on a pike in the war of all against all. And small polities have never lasted long, even when they were arising from the void, either at the dawn of civilization, like Athens and Sparta and Rome, or from ashes of civilization, like the Italian city-states of the fourteenth century.

    It’s a shame is to have the people of an empire such as ours still believing in the shibboleth of “representation,” and acting as if they believe it, and having their rulers catering to that notion. It’s just wasteful, and silly, and leads to even worse government than an empire rightly should have: we could have a Trajan instead of a Nero, if we were running this thing properly, with our eyes open.

  6. says

    The proponent of the intelligence state says “the secrets of the government must be kept inviolate, because disclosing them serves our enemies.”

    What kind of information is kept secret influences my willingness to believe this argument. If the secret information was specific details about how to compromise USA nuclear facilities, I’d probably accept this argument. If the secret information is about what deals politician X made with lobbyist Y or what kind of data NSA is collecting and storing about the country’s citizens, then I’m definitely no longer accepting this argument.

    I agree with cvoinescu@#2. It’s similar for me. My knowledge about philosophy is extremely fragmented. I have read some authors that seemed interesting. I haven’t read many other famous and canonical authors (I have only heard about their existence).

    One of the things that turned me off of philosophy for decades was my perception that I couldn’t really engage with someone else’s ideas unless I waded through all the references that they made in passing. When you feel that way, what you are encountering is poor philosophy.

    Yes, I agree. Still, it’s often useful to be familiar with the references. On many occasions I have attempted to argue some ideas only to find afterwards that some philosopher already formulated that idea and expressed it a lot more eloquently than I could. For example, some years ago I found myself arguing against governments intervening in people’s private life (things like euthanasia, abortions, marihuana, national flag desecration and so on). I felt like people shouldn’t get involved into other people’s business, but I wasn’t sure how to best argue the idea. And then I read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, which beautifully formulated the harm principle. Ever since reading Mill that’s basically my default argument against all conservative people attempting to limit other people’s choices. Another example would be Isaiah Berlin’s concept of positive and negative liberty, which I often find useful when discussing different topics.

    Or consider, “No doubt there are usually more and sharper quarrels between parents and children, than between masters and slaves; yet it advances not the art of household management to change a father’s right into a right of property, and count children but as slaves. Slavery, then, and not peace is furthered by handing over the whole authority to one man.” I really like this formulation. I wish I could be that eloquent.

    As such, you can agree (which I hope you do) or argue with the point (which you are welcome to do) without fear that I will parry with “but Spinoza says!” appeal to authority.

    I agree. I also agree with the points you made in this blog entry.

    There’s no way I’d be willing to discuss what Spinoza said without actually reading/studying his texts. I have gotten pretty cautious to stay silent unless I know what I’m talking about. After all, it’s not like I can make a fool of myself by staying silent. It’s a whole different matter if I try talking about things I barely know about.* Over the years I have made a lot of online comments expressing views that I now consider false. It’s not like I expect any of that to haunt me in the future (who really cares?), but it’s still better not to populate Internet with anything silly that I might later regret.

    But, hey: Voltaire.

    Speaking of Voltaire, I read “Candide”. I liked it; I can see why you like Voltaire. It was a rather unusual novella. It seemed like a catalogue of disasters. Pretty much every bad thing that can happen with people happened with the protagonist or his companions. When it comes to willing suspension of disbelief this novella seemed for me a lot less realistic than fantasy novels involving wizards and spells. On numerous occasions in a row the protagonist was the sole survivor in the middle of countless human corpses. Of course it is possible to survive after a battle where everybody else dies, but when such things happen again and again and again, the plot armor is so noticeable, that the story just stops being believable. I was also completely unable to relate to Candide. The way how he reacted to everything that happened with him was just too unrealistic and weird. Normally when reading fiction, readers are supposed to get immersed in a realistic seeming story; they are supposed to relate to the protagonist, to root for him, to care about what will happen next with the protagonist. This is not how I viewed “Candide”. And I actually find that as a good thing for this particular story. If I cared about what happens with Candide, it would quickly become depressing to read about all the disasters he experienced. What kept me reading this story instead was a curiosity about what other disasters will Voltaire think about next. And a curiosity about how long it will take Candide to realize that the world sucks. And I really enjoyed the satire. The critique of Leibnizian optimism and human civilization in general with all its flawed institutions was beautiful.

    * “Try talking about things I barely know about” — I have been doing that a lot at the university during exams. If I was asked a question and I didn’t know the answer, it was a bad idea to honestly say that I don’t know. Instead I always talked at length about something (without really saying anything) and sounded convincing. There always was a chance that my professor will interpret my words favorably and assume that I meant whatever they wished to hear. And it worked surprisingly often. It seems like even professors fall for the old politicians’ talent of convincingly talking at length while sounding smart and saying nothing. And it’s not like anybody was making audio recordings of all the stupid things I said.

  7. cvoinescu says

    @Ieva Skrebele

    There’s no way I’d be willing to discuss what Spinoza said without actually reading/studying his texts. I have gotten pretty cautious to stay silent unless I know what I’m talking about.

    I agree with Marcus’s point that, for practical reasons (i.e., life is short), one may have to read what someone else said about the work one is discussing. I would not hesitate to use that shortcut, either, but it’s good advice to make that clear upfront.

    After all, it’s not like I can make a fool of myself by staying silent.

    There’s this funnily pertinent saying, roughly translating to “Had you kept quiet, you would have remained a philosopher” (it’s shorter and it rhymes in the original Romanian).

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