After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of Spinoza.
Life of Spinoza:
Spinoza was born at Amsterdam on November 24, 1632. He belonged to the Jewish community and his family lived in Portugal. To escape the Roman Catholic persecution his parents fled from Portugal and settled at The Netherlands.
Spinoza received education here and developed his philosophy. But his philosophy was in a large measure determined by the conditions of his life. Spinoza’s scientific mind and proclivity towards intellect incurred the displeasure of the Jewish authority.
The Jewish community adopted several measures so that he could amend his attitude towards religion and when all attempts met with failure the Jewish community was finally compelled to excommunicate him. This happened when he was only twenty-four years old. He took up his residence with his friends and started his culture of philosophy independently.
Philosophers and historians have investigated the background of his intellectual and philosophical development. They have found the most conspicuous influence of Descartes. Descartes’s conception of homogeneous substance underlying all forms of matter and another homogeneous substance underlying all forms of mind attracted him.
Descartes explained the entire world except God and soul by mechanical and mathematical laws. During Renaissance and afterward machinery and industry developed remarkably and this created an impact upon Descartes’s mind.
It is held by many that the excommunication from Jewish community was blessing in disguise for Spinoza. He got the opportunity to think freely. He earned his living at first by teaching children and then by polishing lenses. He had learned the optical trade while living in the Jewish community. His earning was meagre, but his living was very plain.
So he did not face any financial difficulty. He devoted himself to intensify his thought and study. Few friends and admirers gathered around him. With them Spinoza formed a small school of thought. Many times he stayed in his room for two or three day’s together, seeing nobody and having his modest meals brought up to him.
His first famous treatise on politics was published in 1670. The author, printer and publisher were kept in secret. The book immediately earned the wrath of the authority. In 1671 it was officially damned by the Synod (religious council) and in 1674 it was banned by the States-general of Holland.
“Finally the book gained the accolade of the free-thinking books… Thus assured of a wide circulation, the book went through a long series of bootleg editions and enormously added to the prestige of its author.” His last work on politics is Tractatus Politicus or Political Treatise. It was published after Spinoza’s death in 1677.
Political Ideas of Spinoza:
1. Social Compact:
“Since fear of solitude exists in all men, because no one in the 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 equipped for mutual forbearance of social order, but danger begets association, which gradually nourishes and strengthens the social instinct. Men are not born for citizenship, but must be made fit for it. The state of nature is insecure and without mutual help it is impossible to sustain life or cultivate the mind. Men must agree to live under the laws of society. Without law and government right and wrong cannot be determined and wrong-doers cannot be punished. In order to enjoy the freedom to the fullest extent men must unite themselves. It is not possible for them to forego freedom which is their natural heritage.”
This observation of Spinoza clearly reveals that an environment was in his mind which may be called state of nature. His state of nature may be compared with a situation where there is no government or administration.
In such an environment people decided to enter into a contract in order to set up a civil society or state whose primary function would be to enforce law and order which would restrain their harmful passions and unsocial behaviour because all these were against the interest of others.
With the help of the compact people will be able to defend their rights and freedom and all men will come to the aid of each other. But it is difficult to enter into a pact when one cannot trust one’s neighbour, and so each man must transfer all his power to the society.
The supreme power will be vested in the society to decide everything and it is obligatory for everyone to show allegiance to the supreme power and accept the decision. The whole society is sovereign and not any person.
The compact theory of Spinoza is different from that of Hobbes and Locke Instead of men transferring their natural powers to a sovereign ruler, they transfer them to the whole society and the state is created a democracy. Hence Spinoza’s sovereign power is not Leviathan. He has not depicted a gloomy picture of human nature.
He recognizes that men have natural sympathy and pity and they feel the necessity of mutual assistance. Enmity and friendliness both are present in human nature. Of course, the former is stronger.
Like Hobbes he does not think that man is always guided by selfishness. Generosity is also a motive force. Locke’s state is an emasculated one.
It has no power to go against the terms and conditions of the compact. Spinoza’s compact is made valid by its utility without which it becomes null and void. Spinoza says that it is foolish to expect or require a man to keep a compact that does him more harm than good, or to keep a compact when the violation of it does him less harm than good.
This consideration should have great weight in forming a state. To put the matter in other words, according to Spinoza, the aim of social compact should be a state in which each man or majority of men will have more to gain than to lose.
It can be inferred from Spinoza’s conclusion that it is the prudence of man and the desire to expand the quantum of liberty that led the people of pre-political society to lay the foundation of civil society.
So we can say that the civil society depicted by Spinoza is of different nature. It will have many functions and the main function is to protect liberty and rights. The contracting individuals have also kept the controlling power in their hands. This is really a new aspect of contract theory. It may be compared with Locke’s thought.
2. Republican Philosophy:
In Spinoza’s republican philosophy there is no place of Hobbesian absolute sovereignty or any sort of absolutism. Since all power rests with society, people are the sources of governmental authority.
The whole society is now entrusted with the task of the protection of individual’s liberty. Previously people could not protect liberty and enjoy other privileges on their individual capacity. So the main utility of the social compact lies in the enhancement of liberty. What place the concept of liberty occupies in Spinoza’s thought can best be illustrated by the following passage.
“The last end of the state is neither 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 neighbour. The end of the state, I repeat, is not to make rational things 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 towards one another. Thus the end of the state is really liberty.”
The above passage is self-explanatory. In the opinion of Spinoza the supreme aim of the state is the realisation of liberty. Without liberty people cannot lead a peaceful and comfortable life and needless to say that it is the supreme goal of every individual.
The state will promote a rational rather than bestial life in men. Spinoza had a very clear and rational concept about liberty and this is evident when he announces that liberty is never a license, it is always conditional and must be a controlled one.
The purpose is to enable the largest number of men to enjoy the fruits of liberty. According to Spinoza the perfect state will limit the powers of its citizens only as far as these powers are mutually destructive.
In other words, for the greater interest of the society the state will have the power to limit the freedom of the citizens. Otherwise it cannot rule. Spinoza analyses the ideal of freedom from another angle. It is the most important precondition of growth.
The freedom of speech and expression is very important. It enables man to express what he thinks. Education and culture have taught him to think freely. If any law curtails that liberty man will resist the attempt.
If freedom of speech creates inconveniences to others then that should be decided through free discussion and not through the application of draconian laws. Laws against free speech are subversive of all laws.
For men will not long respect laws which they may not criticize. Needless to say that Spinoza’s emphasis upon freedom of speech and liberty makes him a republican-thinker of the first rank. About the control of the state he has said the less control the state has over the mind, the better for both the citizen and the state.
In Theological-Political Treatise Spinoza has strongly argued for giving sufficient freedom to various political, social and religious institutions so that they can perform their duties without any obstruction. Spinoza thought that it was essential for the development of democracy. Spinoza was also in favour of religious freedom and toleration.
Every citizen will have the liberty to pursue his own faith and the state cannot impose restriction. Though he was against state interference with individual liberty in political and religious affairs, he was not at all in favour of radical democracy.
There is a striking similarity between Spinoza and Milton in respect of their attitude towards liberty and few other liberal concepts. In Milton’s view, liberty is the birth-right of the individual and the state cannot control it. For the sake of individual’s liberty Milton proposed a popular sovereignty.
We also find Spinoza championing the cause of liberty and rights. But the crucial difference between the two republican thinkers is Milton’s liberty was individual-centred, whereas Spinoza’s liberty is state-centred.
Dunning writes “To the Jewish philosopher the conclusive argument is that freedom of the thought and expression are essential to the preservation and welfare of the commonwealth, while to the Englishman this freedom has for its permanent justification the guarantee it carries of the supreme excellence of the human reason and the dignity of manhood.”
Spinoza’s attempt to view liberty in the background of the whole complex of society, his tendency to treat the state as an organic unity and his effort to regard sovereignty as resting upon the common reason of general mind of its members remind us of Rousseau. Like Spinoza, Rousseau makes reconciliation between individual liberty and state authority.
Spinoza does not find any conflict between individual and state. Frankly speaking, in this respect Spinoza’s view is modern. He strongly argues for individual’s freedom. But where the individual is unable to make his position suitable for the protection of liberty the state will come forward.
Hence no question of conflict between the two does arise. Purpose of both is almost the same. Even modern political scientists hold the same view.
Spinoza’s republicanism is again manifested by his preference for popular monarchic institutions. Spinoza’s conclusion is that monarchy is efficient but an oppressive and militaristic form of government.
The will of the king is all-powerful and there is no place of alternative opinion. So it ultimately leads to slavery and barbarism. In his words “if slavery, barbarism and desolation are to be called peace, men can have no worse misfortune.” Democracy is the most reasonable form of government. For in it everyone submits to the control of authority over his actions, but not over his judgment and reason i.e., all cannot think alike, the voice of the majority has the force of law.
The defect of democracy is its tendency to put mediocrity to power and there is no way of avoiding this except by limiting office to men of trained skill. As to the type of government, Spinoza’s opinion is to some extent peculiar because, being a republican thinker; he did not hesitate to support monarchy. However, the monarchy must not be oppressive. A good and efficient monarchy is better than an inefficient democracy.
Assessment of Political Ideas of Spinoza:
Spinoza sees the state as a purely natural phenomenon. It is the product of human nature acting in response to varied factors, forces and conditions which make human nature what it is and not what it ought to be. He has viewed the origin of the state from a realistic point of view.
The motives which guide men are self- preservation and self-satisfaction and not any ideals. Law is made by men to achieve these two prime objectives. This is, comments Maxey, crass materialism; for others it is sordid realism; but for the objective student of political phenomena it is simply an attempt to come to grips with facts and no derogation either of God or humanity.
Spinoza is not the victim of imagination or wishful thinking. He has explained things as they are and how he sees them. Under the existing circumstances how man can adopt the best methods to reap best advantage. He has depicted human nature as neither noble nor depraved.
On this point he departs from Hobbes. In his analysis we find man as a political creature and, consequent upon this, it is natural that he will form political organizations for his maximum advantages.
It is quite natural for a political animal that he will make the best efforts for the protection of his liberty and rights. As a political animal he is endowed with reason and consciousness.
He cannot make the sovereign absolute. Spinoza’s men have not made sovereignty all-powerful. Materialism of Spinoza can be compared with that of Machiavelli and Hobbes. But Hobbes’s materialism is of quite different type. “Spinoza was a truer scientist and a more penetrating philosopher than any of his materialistic predecessors.”
Maxey further observes “The world was no more ready for his political than his religious philosophy. It did not welcome his ideas, but could never ignore them. No great iconoclast is ever acclaimed as a prophet and teacher by contemporary generations. Nor is he ever passed over in silence. His radicalism and irreverence always draw fire from the snipers of the Old Guard. No cult of political pragmatism bears his name, but his utilitarian concept of the state gradually permeated the thought of the world and later, through the genius of such theorists as Bentham and Mill, was evolved into a dynamic system of political philosophy. His name is not associated with the monistic doctrine of sovereignty, but 19th century jurists such as Austin and Jellinek built largely on the foundations that he prepared.”
In the history of Western political thought—particularly republical thought—Spinoza has a special place. He was not a propagator of radical democracy but his attitude towards republicanism is still remembered by the students of political thought. Many scholars have discovered materialism in his thought. It is, however, somewhat controversial.