VIII. THE STATE

Perhaps, when Spinoza had finished the Ethics, he felt that, like most Christian saints, he had formulated a philosophy for the use and salvation of the individual rather than for the guidance of citizens in a state. So, toward 1675, he set himself to consider man as a “political animal,” and to apply reason to the problems of society. He began his fragmentary Tractatus politicus with the same resolve that he had made in analyzing the passions—to be as objective as a geometer or a physicist:

That I might investigate the subject matter of this science with the same freedom of spirit as we generally use in mathematics, I have labored carefully not to mock, lament, or execrate human actions, but to understand them; and to this end I have looked upon passions, such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and the other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties just as pertinent to it as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere. 162

Since human nature is the material of politics, Spinoza felt that a study of the state should begin by considering the basic character of man. We might understand this better if we could imagine man before social organization modified his conduct by force, morality, and law; and if we would remember that underneath his general and reluctant submission to these socializing influences he is still agitated by the lawless impulses that in the “state of nature” were restrained only by fear of hostile power. Spinoza follows Hobbes and many others in supposing that man once existed in such a condition, and his picture of this hypothetical savage is almost as dark as in The Leviathan. In that Garden of Evil the might of the individual was the only right; nothing was a crime, because there was no law; and nothing was just or unjust, right or wrong, because there was no moral code. Consequently “the law and ordinance of nature . . . forbids nothing . . . and is not opposed to strife, hatred, anger, treachery, or in general anything that appetite suggests.” 163 By “natural right,” then—i.e., by the operations of “nature” as distinct from the rules and laws of society—every man is entitled to whatever he is strong enough to get and to hold; and this is still assumed between species and between states; 164 hence man has a “natural right” to use animals for his service or his food. 165

Spinoza moderates this savage picture by suggesting that man, even in his first appearance on the earth, may have been already living in social groups. “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.” 166 Men, then, have social as well as individualistic instincts, and society and the state have some roots in the nature of man. However and whenever it came about, men and families united in groups, and the “natural right” or might of the individual was now limited by the right or might of the community. Doubtless men accepted these restrictions reluctantly, but they accepted them when they learned that social organization was their most powerful tool for individual survival and development. So the definition of virtue as any quality that makes for survival—as “the endeavor to preserve oneself” 167—has to be enlarged to include any quality that makes for the survival of the group. Social organization, the state despite its restraints, civilization despite its artifices—these are the greatest inventions that man has made for his preservation and development.

Therefore Spinoza anticipates Voltaire’s answer to Rousseau:

Let satirists laugh to their hearts’ content at human affairs, let theologians revile them, let the melancholy praise as much as they can the rude and barbarous isolated life, let them despise men and admire the brutes; despite all this, men will find that they can prepare with mutual aid far more easily what they need. . . . A man who is guided by reason is freer in a state where he lives according to common law than in solitude where he is subject to no law. 168

And Spinoza rejects also the other end of the law-less dream—the utopia of the philosophical anarchist:

Reason, can, indeed, do much to restrain and moderate the passions, but we saw . . . that the road which reason herself points out is very steep; so that such as persuade themselves that the multitude . . . can ever be induced to live according to the bare dictates of reason must be dreaming of the poetic golden age, or of some stage play. 169

The purpose and function of the state should be to enable its members to live the life of reason.

The last end of the state is not to dominate men, nor to restrain them by fear; rather it is to set 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 . . . is not to make rational beings into brute beasts and machines [as in war]; it is to enable their bodies and their minds to function safely. It is to lead men to live by, and to exercise, a true reason. . . . The end of the state is really liberty. 170

Consequently Spinoza renews his plea for freedom of speech, or at least of thought. But yielding, like Hobbes, to fear of theological fanaticism and strife, he proposes not merely to subject the church to state control, but to have the state determine what religious doctrines shall be taught to the people. Quandoque dormitat Homerus.

He proceeds to discuss the traditional forms of government. As became a Dutch patriot resenting the invasion of Holland by Louis XIV, he had no admiration for monarchy, and he sharply counters Hobbes’s absolutism:

Experience is supposed to teach that it makes for peace and concord when all authority is conferred upon one man. For no political order has stood so long without notable change as that of the Turks, while none have been so short-lived, nay, so vexed by seditions, as popular or democratic states. But if slavery, barbarism, and desolation are to be called peace, then peace is the worst misfortune that can befall a state. . . . Slavery, not peace, comes from the giving of all power to one man. For peace consists not in the absence of war, but in a union and harmony of men’s souls. 171

Aristocracy, as “government by the best,” would be fine if the best were not subject to class spirit, violent faction, and individual or family greed. “If patricians . . . were free from all passion, and guided by mere zeal for the public welfare . . . , no dominion could be compared with aristocracy. But experience itself teaches us only too well that things pass in quite a contrary manner.” 172

And so Spinoza, in his dying days, began to outline his hopes for democracy. He who had loved the mob-murdered de Witt had no delusions about the multitude. “Those who have had experience of how changeful the temper of the people is, are almost in despair. For the populace is governed not by reason but by emotion; it is headlong in everything, and easily corrupted by avarice and luxury.” 173 Yet “I believe democracy to be of all forms of government the most natural, and the most consonant with individual liberty. In it no one transfers his natural right so absolutely that he has no further voice in affairs; he only hands it over to the majority.” 174 Spinoza proposed to admit to the suffrage all males except minors, criminals, and slaves. He excluded women because he judged them by their nature and their burdens to be less fit than men for deliberation and government. 175 He thought that ruling officials would be encouraged to good behavior and peaceful policies if “the militia should be composed of the citizens only, and none of them be exempted; for an armed man is more independent than a man unarmed.” 176 The care of the poor, he felt, was an obligation incumbent on the society as a whole. 177 And there should be but a single tax:

The fields, and the whole soil, and, if it can be managed, the houses, should be public property, that is, the property of him who holds the right of the commonwealth; and let him lease them at a yearly rent to the citizens. . . . With this exception, let them all be free and exempt from every kind of taxation in time of peace. 178

Then, just as he was entering upon the most precious part of his treatise, death took the pen from his hand.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!