On Spinoza’s God, the State

Creative Commons photo. Description courtesy of Wikipedia: Close up from Spinoza’s statue in The Hague. Statue erected in 1880.

I’m going through my old papers, and have digitized a great deal of them. This one, I haven’t yet. I did it for my college philosophy course in 2016. I don’t remember what the “prompt,” if any, was, only that it had to deal with Baruch Spinoza. To be honest, I was never a great philosophy student, even though it was my major in college. For this paper, I received a B-grade, with the comments, “Overall, a clear and interesting paper, but it could be grounded a bit more carefully in Spinoza’s text and relate a bit more directly to the paper prompt. Part of the difficulty in extrapolating from the Ethics on politics and not working through Spinoza’s Theological Political Treatise, which, of course, we did not read.” I always rebelled against the prompts, often to my detriment. Since I can’t do footnotes in WordPress, the footnotes follow the Bibliography at the end.

The Fourth Part of Spinoza’s Ethics, entitled, “On Human Bondage, Or the Powers of the Affects,” Spinoza offers his conception of society, the state and man’s place within it. It’s worth bearing in mind that Spinoza’s entire endeavor is to show that man ought to strive toward a model of human nature; in other words, man seeks to move toward a notion of adequacy. It’s this model of human nature, which the state, as conceived, can better enable men to strive toward, as it constrains man’s natural inclination toward conflict through seeking an advantage. However, Spinoza’s argument for the state contradicts his prior statements regarding religion. In short, Spinoza makes a god of the state. Furthermore, the state not only fails to do what Spinoza creates it to do (ensure no conflict), but the state actually perpetuates conflict. 

To better situate Spinoza’s politics and creation of the state in response to human nature, the following is instructive. Spinoza, in Proposition 37, gives us his definition of morality, which is, “The desire to do good generated in us by our living according to the guidance of reason” (218). Likewise, he gives a contrasting definition of religion, saying, “…whatever we desire and do to which we are the cause insofar as we have the idea of God, or insofar as we know God.” Furthermore, in “A Critique of Traditional Religion,” Spinoza says men fear, so they’re willing to believe anything and this fear makes men insane and create fictions. Ultimately, Spinoza says, religion turns men into beasts. Understanding this critique of religion and the contrast therein with his definition of morality and his conception of reason will be instructive as I move forward through this analysis. 

Men living in accordance with reason always agree in nature (216). And if men live in accordance with reason, then they agree among themselves. Which is to say, man is the most useful advantage another man can seek, i.e., man is a god to man (217). There’s nothing that more agrees with a man’s nature than man. Such is a form of informed eogism, wherein man seeks to strengthen his virtue and therein, his power, and the way to do this is through seeking the advantages offered by other men. The ultimate notion, then, is to get to that aforementioned human nature model. However, since men don’t actually live in accordance with reason and instead can be misguided by the affects (passions generated from external factors), there is strife and conflict. That is to say, man doesn’t do what’s in his rational self-interest (to live harmoniously and utilize the advantages rendered by working with his fellow man). The answer to this isn’t to retreat to solitary confinement, as that would mean losing the advantages offered by other men. Instead, it’s to find that guidance of reason. And to maintain an advantage and continue to accrue virtuous power, humans want others to live as we live, as Proposition 37 asserts, “The good which everyone who seeks virtue wants for himself, he also desires for other men; and this desire is greater as his knowledge of God is greater” (218). Herein comes the value and conception of the state, as conceived by Spinoza.

In order to attain harmonious living, men must give up their natural right, so that their fellow man can be sure there will be no conflict (220). The way in which this occurs is to have something that’s stronger than individual man’s affect. Spinoza says, “No affect can be restrained except by an affect stronger than and contrary to the affect to be restrained, and everyone refrains from doing harm out of timidity regarding a greater harm” (220). This greater affect is the state. The state does this not through reason, but through threats. The society — laws, common rule of life and the maintenance therein — preserves itself in this way. The natural right men are giving up, then, is what Spinoza argues man would be like without this common rule of life: men living by their own standards, not bound by any law. Spinoza is drawing a contrast, therefore, between a “state of nature” and a “civil state.” Only within the civil state do we conceive of “good” and “evil” and “just” and “unjust.”

Spinoza has created a false harmony, which is to say, what is harmony if it’s kept together by the threats of the state and the fear of the state? If humans have to be forced and coerced toward the human nature model by the state, then what’s the point of that end, to think Aristotelian[first footnote], if we’re not getting there well? Spinoza’s earlier cited definition of morality isn’t compatible with this view of the state, either. Ought we to do good, as guided by reason, rather than in fear of a state? In so doing this, Spinoza makes a god of the state. If men will believe anything, be driven insane and create fictions out of fear of God, as channeled through religious doctrine, would they not, likewise believe anything the state says, be driven insane and create fictions out of fear of the state? In fact, the ultimate fiction created by the fear of the state is that the state itself is legitimate and necessary (more on this in a moment). 

There is not much sense in the notion that individual man, as misguided by the affects, will create conflict among his fellow man, so the proper reaction to this is to create an entity bigger than either of those two men, which itself is run by misguided individual men, but now is further misguided by the affects of the concentrated power over those two men. Furthermore, the state has become a god because what is more powerful than the state? Spinoza contradicted himself in this way, as he said an affect can only be restrained by an affect stronger than and contrary to the affect to be restrained, but what is greater than the state? Who watches the state? If the state is conceived by now-defined lesser affects generated by men, then how can they be said to be able to keep the state’s own affects in check? An unchecked, powerful state runs contrary to the rational self-interest of man, which is to say, sacrificing one’s natural right to fellow men with power, so as to make yourself less-than, hardly seems rational. . 

But to the deeper point: Spinoza’s argument for the state rests on the false premise that the state is so conceived so one’s fellow man can be assured that conflict will not arise. And yet, the state does not prevent conflict. Interpersonal violence, fraud, deception and the like still occur. Likewise, a much greater conflict is only manifest from the machinations of the state: war. Only a state with its power (which is to say, operating with a monopoly on violence), the ability to create fictions of other men bound by their particular state and ability to mobilize masses of people can there be large-scale war and destruction[second footnote]. Only a state, for instance, could mobilize the necessary funding, peoples and then carry out the construction and detonation of nuclear weapons. Slavery occurred under and was bolstered by the state. In other words, the state is so conceived to stop conflict, but not only does it not, not only can it not, but it further perpetuates conflict by pitting man with state (political) favor against another. No other organizational mechanism, save for religion (and even then, religion lacks the monopoly on violence), which Spinoza denounces, could so organize a man to quarrel with another man on the basis of an arbitrary state border or within its own borders. 

However, what about my claim of necessity? One could take the track that the state is a necessary evil, nevertheless, because on the whole, statelessness would be more chaotic than the chaos engendered by the state. I would posit, though, that the vast majority of human beings who don’t kill one another or even commit violence refrain from doing so not because they fear the state, rather, because they personally view it as wrong or would feel guilt afterward. Consider a simple thought experiment: contrary to the movie series, The Purge, do serious thinkers really think the vast majority of people would turn into violent beasts if the sanction against murder, rape and other serious offenses were lifted tomorrow? Keep in mind again, that a small number of humans commit the aforementioned crimes under the sanction now, anyhow; therefore, let’s presume that sans the sanction, a small number would continue to disobey the customs and norms of social cooperation among human beings, which out of necessity, must predate civil law (how else would the human species have moved out of the cave, if not for coming to realize by experience that working together is more conducive to harmony than perpetual conflict and violence, to which the civil law then reflected the custom, which was already there?). Spinoza doesn’t do enough leg work to demonstrate why exactly man without a state would be prone to conflict and chaos more so than under a state. 

It is as if Spinoza sees the state, as an organizing principle, as something distinctly non-human, otherwise he would surely consider the implications of concentrated power among individual humans. Instead, the state when so devised and conceptualized, is given undeserved status as the arbiter of conflict[third footnote]. And in so giving it this status, Spinoza employs the language he used to denounce religion and the silly men who are blinded by it to justify the existence and machinations of the state as an organizing principle. The true failing, however, is that the state doesn’t even prevent conflict and in fact, helps to perpetuate it more so than if man was left in his natural state, as I have demonstrated with the example of state-to-state war and nuclear weapons. 

Bibliography 

Aristotle, and Joe Sachs. Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Santa Fe, NM: Green Lion, 1999. Print.

Spinoza, Benedictus De, E. M. Curley, and Benedictus De Spinoza. A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994. Print.

Footnotes

  1.  Translator to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Joe Sachs, talks about the goal of the work in the Introduction, “Various roads are traveled, that are partly parallel, partly divergent, but always finally convergent; the goal is not simply to get to an end but to get there well, to cast a variety of lights on the way that it is an end…” (Sachs xvi). 
  2. One ready rejoinder to this from detractors: wouldn’t private defense firms, for example, war? Space permitting, I could explore that rejoinder further, but suffice it to say, a private defense firm lacks the necessary monopoly on violence that the state enjoys.
  3. And of course, it’s worth noting, that if the space were so permitting, it would be worth pointing out in greater detail that the state also fails to be the arbiter of conflict in an egalitarian sense, i.e., for much of U.S. history and to the present, the state favored white (and straight) men. 

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