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.
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.