Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, Continued

The political part of this book is much smaller and less convincing than the theological part.  Spinoza tries to outline an entire theory of politics in far too little space.  He begins with a Hobbesian state of nature in which everyone has a "right" to do anything:
every individual has sovereign right to do all that he can; in other words, the rights of an individual extend to the utmost limits of his power as it has been conditioned. (16:8) Now it is the sovereign law and right of nature that each individual should endeavour to preserve itself as it is, without regard to anything but itself.
It seems odd to assign everyone a "right" to do whatever they want.  What is the point of such a right?  If I have a right to shoot you, and you have a right to shoot me, then it seems to me that rights are pointless.  Of course, this is a pre-social setting, so there is no judge to decide rights in any case; but it seems like a more sensible starting point would be a right to defend oneself against an imminent threat.

I don't know how influenced Spinoza was by Hobbes, but he sounds very similar:  "It follows from what we have said that the right and ordinance of nature, under which all men are born, and under which they mostly live, only prohibits such things as no one desires, and no one can attain: it does not forbid strife, nor hatred, nor anger, nor deceit, nor, indeed, any of the means suggested by desire."

He proceeds to describe how people come together and cede power to a sovereign authority for the purpose of gaining greater security; but even then, the law of the jungle still holds.  Since "everyone has by nature a right to act deceitfully and to break his compacts, unless he be restrained by the hope of some greater good, or the fear of some greater evil," it follows that a king will retain his sovereign right "only so long as he can maintain his power of enforcing his will; otherwise he will totter on his throne, and no one who is stronger than he will be bound unwillingly to obey him."  This is very different from Hobbes, for whom the power of sovereignty, once alienated, can never be regained.

While a government is in power, subjects "are obliged to fulfil the commands of the sovereign power, however absurd these may be," whereas "wrong is conceivable only in an organized community: nor can it ever accrue to subjects from any act of the sovereign, who has the right to do what he likes."  The only mitigating circumstance that Spinoza admits is that a sovereign will not want to rule despotically because it will put his own life and reign at risk; but what constitutes "despotism" is for each individual to judge, and the final arbiter is only that those who successfully overthrow the government had a right to do so, whereas those who fail are justly punished for treason.  For someone looking for a theory of political association based on something other than power, this is barren ground indeed.

On the whole, I found Spinoza's political commentary rushed and superficial, in contrast to his thorough analysis of Scripture in the rest of the book.  I was particularly struck by the following passage about laws proscribing certain opinions:

Moreover, such laws are almost always useless, for those who hold that the opinions proscribed are sound, cannot possibly obey the law; whereas those who already reject them as false, accept the law as a kind of privilege, and make such boast of it, that authority is powerless to repeal it, even if such a course be subsequently desired.
This reminds me closely of one of the arguments that Thomas Aquinas addresses concerning laws.  He asks what purpose laws can serve, when the bad will disobey them anyway, and the good don't need laws to behave properly.  He answers (I'm paraphrasing :) ) that it is the marginal case, the one where someone is not wholly good or bad, who will be swayed by the existence of a law.  [I might add that there are circumstances when it is not entirely obvious what is the right thing to do without a law to instruct, but that is another matter.]  Spinoza seems to have taken up the objections that Aquinas posed without taking the next step of considering where the objections might fail.

The purpose of the whole treatise is to commend allowing people to think and argue whatever their reason leads them to think in matters of religion, since the Bible is not so literal or so sacrosanct in all matters as is generally supposed.  He adds the condition that this freedom is only valid so long as a person doesn't promote rebellion or bad behaviour, but I think that his qualification undermines his whole case.  What could promote rebellion to the early modern state more than disagreeing with the government's view of religion?  All the more so in monarchies that are buttressed by an established Church hierarchy; to deny the established Church is halfway to denying the authority of the monarchy.  And, as for good or bad behaviour in general, I don't think it would be hard to make a case that deviating from the standard line on religion, even if not immediately harmful, opens the way to deviating in all sorts of ways that could create harmful behaviour.  In short, Spinoza's political analysis is decidedly unconvincing.

There is one thing that I would like to call attention to, which Spinoza says "ought to be counted among eternal truths and axioms":  "everyone will, of two goods, choose that which he thinks the greatest; and, of two evils, that which he thinks the least. (16:29) I say advisedly that which he thinks the greatest or the least, for it does not necessarily follow that he judges right."  It wasn't new to say that people followed their own interest, but Spinoza phrases it in a way that makes it sound like the fundamental tenet of modern economics.  And he goes beyond that, by pointing out that people are not always perfect in their judgements, but will always choose that which they perceive to be better.  This, I think, is a welcome hint to people who, like Dan Ariely, think they have overthrown traditional economics when they find people misjudging their own good.  I have enormous respect for Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and their advances in economics, but I don't think what they accomplished changes the basis of fundamental economics at all; and I think that Spinoza was not the last person before the 1980's to realize that people could be rationally consistent in choosing what they see as the greater good without always judging properly.

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