Durant 1926: The Political Treatise (Spinoza)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 5 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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V. The Political Treatise

There remains for our analysis that tragic torso, the Tractatus Politicus, the work of Spinoza’s maturest years, stopped suddenly short by his early death. It is a brief thing, and yet full of thought; so that one feels again how much was lost when this gentle life was closed at the very moment that it was ripening to its fullest powers. In the same generation which saw Hobbes exalting absolute monarchy and denouncing the uprising of the English people against their king almost as vigorously as Milton was defending it, Spinoza, friend of the republican De Witts, formulated a political philosophy which expressed the liberal and democratic hopes of his day in Holland, and became one of the main sources of that stream of thought which culminated in Rousseau and the Revolution. 

Spinoza formulated a political philosophy which expressed the liberal and democratic hopes of his day in Holland, and became one of the main sources of that stream of thought which culminated in Rousseau and the Revolution. 

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 or bad, and each one holds himself responsible to the state. … The 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.

Sin cannot be conceived in a natural state, but only in a civil state, where it is decreed by common consent what is good or bad, and each one holds himself responsible to the state.

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 states 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. 

“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. 

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 necessaries 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 social order; but danger begets association, which gradually nourishes and strengthens the social instincts: “men are not born for citizenship, but must be made fit for it.”

Men are not by nature equipped for the mutual forbearance of social order; but danger begets association, which gradually nourishes and strengthens the social instincts.

Most men are at heart individualistic rebels against law or custom: the social instincts are later and weaker than the individualistic, and need reinforcement; man is not “good by nature,” as Rousseau was so disastrously to suppose. But through association, if even merely in the family, sympathy comes, a feeling of kind, and at last of kindness. We like what is like us; “we pity not only a thing we have loved, but also one which we judge similar to ourselves”; out of this comes an “imitation of emotions,” and finally some degree of conscience. Conscience, however, is not innate, but acquired; and varies with geography. It is the deposit, in the mind of the growing individual, of the moral traditions of the group; through it society creates for itself an ally in the heart of its enemy—the naturally individualistic soul. 

Most men are at heart individualistic rebels against law or custom: the social instincts are later and weaker than the individualistic, and need reinforcement; man is not “good by nature.”

Gradually, in this development, it comes about that the law of individual power which obtains in a state of nature, yields in organized society to the legal and moral power of the whole. Might still remains right; but the might of the whole limits the might of the individual—limits it theoretically to his rights, to such exercise of his powers as agrees with the equal freedom of others. Part of the individual’s natural might, or sovereignty, is handed over to the organized community, in return for the enlargement of the sphere of his remaining powers. We abandon, for example, the right to fly from anger to violence, and are freed from the danger of such violence from others. Law is necessary because men are subject to passions; if all men were reasonable, law would be superfluous. The perfect law would bear to individuals the same relation which perfect reason bears to passions: it would be the coordination of conflicting forces to avoid the ruin and increase the power of the whole. Just as, in metaphysics, reason is the perception of order in things, and in ethics the establishment of order among desires, so in politics it is the establishment of order among men. The perfect state would limit the powers of its citizens only as far as these powers were mutually destructive; it would withdraw no liberty except to add a greater one. 

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 or 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.

The perfect state would limit the powers of its citizens only as far as these powers were mutually destructive; it would withdraw no liberty except to add a greater one. 

Freedom is the goal of the state because the function of the state is to promote growth, and growth depends on capacity finding freedom. But what if laws stifle growth and freedom? What shall a man do if the state, seeking, like every organism or organization, to preserve its own existence (which ordinarily means that office-holders seek to keep themselves in office), becomes a mechanism of domineering and exploitation? Obey even the unjust law, answers Spinoza, if reasonable protest and discussion are allowed and speech is left free to secure a peaceful change. “I confess that from such freedom inconveniences may sometimes arise; but what question was ever settled so wisely that no abuses could spring therefrom?” Laws against free speech are subversive of all law; for men will not long respect laws which they may not criticize. 

The more a government strives to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately is it resisted; not indeed by the avaricious, … but by those whom good education, sound morality, and virtue have rendered more free. Men in genera! are so constituted that there is nothing they will endure with so little patience as that views which they believe to be true should be counted crimes against the laws, … Under such circumstances they do not think it disgraceful, but most honorable, to hold the laws in abhorrence, and to refrain from no action against the government. … Laws which can be broken without any wrong to one’s neighbor are counted but a laughing-stock; and so far from such laws restraining the appetites and lusts of mankind, they rather heighten them. Nitimur in vetitum semper, cupimusque negata.*

*(“We always resist prohibitions, and yearn for what is denied us.”) 

Laws against free speech are subversive of all law; for men will not long respect laws which they may not criticize. 

And Spinoza concludes like a good American constitutionalist: “If actions only could be made the ground of criminal prosecutions, and words were always allowed to pass free, sedition would be divested of every semblance of justification!”

“If actions only could be made the ground of criminal prosecutions, and words were always allowed to pass free, sedition would be divested of every semblance of justification!”

The less control the state has over the mind, the better: for both the citizen and the state. Spinoza, while recognizing the necessity of the state, distrusts it, knowing that power corrupts even the incorruptible (was this not the name of Robespierre?); and he does not look with equanimity upon the extension of its authority from the bodies and actions to the souls and thoughts of men; that would be the end of growth and the death of the group. So he disapproves of state control of education, especially in the universities: “Academies that are founded at the public expense are instituted not so much to cultivate men’s natural abilities as; to restrain them. But in a free commonwealth arts and sciences will be better cultivated to the full if everyone that asks leave is allowed to teach publicly, at his own cost and risk.” How to find a middle way between universities controlled by the state and universities controlled by private wealth, is a problem which Spinoza does not solve; private wealth had not in his day grown to such proportions as to suggest the difficulty. His ideal, apparently, was higher education such as once flourished in Greece, coming not from Institutions but from free individuals—“Sophists”—who traveled from city to city and taught independently of either public or private control. 

The less control the state has over the mind, the better: for both the citizen and the state. Spinoza’s ideal was higher education coming not from Institutions but from free individuals and taught independently of either public or private control. 

These things premised, it makes no great difference what is the form of government; and Spinoza expresses only a mild preference for democracy. Any of the traditional political forms can be framed “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, men 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.

Any of the traditional political forms can be framed “so that every man … may prefer public right to private advantage; this is the task” of the law-giver.

To which he adds a word on secret diplomacy: 

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.

Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens.

Democracy is the most reasonable form of government; for in it “every one submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason; i. e., seeing that all cannot think alike, the voice of the majority has the force of law.” The military basis of this democracy should be universal military service, the citizens retaining their arms during peace; its fiscal basis should be the single tax.* The defect of democracy is its tendency to put mediocrity into power; and there is no way of avoiding this except by limiting office to men of “trained skill.” Numbers by themselves cannot produce wisdom, and may give the best favors of office to the grossest flatterers. “The fickle disposition of the multitude almost reduces those who have experience of it to despair; for it is governed solely by emotions, and not by reason.” Thus democratic government becomes a procession of brief-lived demagogues, and men of worth are loath to enter lists where they must be judged and rated by their inferiors. Sooner or later the more capable men rebel against such a system, though they be in a minority. “Hence I think it is that democracies change into aristocracies, and these at length into monarchies”; people at last prefer tyranny to chaos. Equality of power is an unstable condition; men are by nature unequal; and “he who seeks equality between unequals seeks an absurdity.” Democracy has still to solve the problem of enlisting the best energies of men while giving to all alike the choice of those, among the trained and fit, by whom they wish to be ruled. 

*”The fields and the whole soil, and (if it can be managed) the houses, should be public property, … let at a yearly rental to the citizen; … and with this exception let them all be free from every kind of taxation in time of peace.”

Democracy is the most reasonable form of government; for in it “every one submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason. The defect of democracy is its tendency to put mediocrity into power.

Who knows what light the genius of Spinoza might have cast upon this pivotal problem of modern politics had he been spared to complete his work? But even that which we have of this treatise was but the first and imperfect draft of his thought. While writing the chapter on democracy he died. 

Spinoza could not complete his treatise on Politics because of his death.

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