diumenge, 27 de gener de 2019

The founding virtues of the new world order

In the closing sections of his Tractatus, Spinoza sketches the outlines of a radical and quintessentially modern political theory. His fundamental aim is to replace the reigning, theocratic conception of the state with one founded on secular principles. According to the theocrats, the state is the temporal representative of a divine order. The purpose of the state, in other words, is to serve God; and the role of the ecclesiastics is to tell the people just what it is that God wants. Spinoza says, in a nutshell, that the purpose of the state is to serve humankind; and it is up to the people to tell the state what they want.

Spinoza, like most modern theorists, grounds the legitimacy of political authority in the self-interest of individuals. He argues not only that everyone, and every thing, for that matter, is driven by self-interest but that they ought to be as well. "The more every man endeavors and is able to seek his own advantage, the more he is endowed with virtue," he says in the Ethics. "To act in absolute conformity with virtue is nothing else in us but to act, to live, to preserve one's own being (these three mean the same) under the guidance of reason on the basis of seeking one's own advantage."

It turns out, of course, that self-interested human beings have much to gain from cooperation. Spinoza stresses that human beings in the absence of an ordered society live in miserable circumstances. Like Thomas Hobbes before him, he envisions something like a "social contract," according to which individuals cede their rights to a sovereign collective in order to acquire the benefits of living under the rule of law. The function of the state, in this view, is to provide the peace and security that enable naturally free individuals to cooperate with one another and thereby fulfill themselves. Spinoza, with the pithiness so characteristic of his work, condenses it all into a lapidary formula: "the purpose of the state is freedom."

Unlike Hobbes, however, Spinoza does not present this social contract as a one-off, absolutely binding surrender of all rights by the individual to the state. Rather, Spinoza says, the contract is constantly up for renewal; and should the state fail to live up to its end of the bargain, the citizenry has a right to revoke the agreement. Furthermore, he maintains, there are some rights that no one is able to cede-such as the right to think and hold one's own opinions, or what he calls "the freedom of conscience." Finally, whereas Hobbes concludes that the terms of the original contract are best realized in an absolute monarchy, Spinoza concludes (albeit with a number of caveats) that justice is most fully realized in a democracy, for a democracy is most apt to express the collective will that legitimizes the state in the first place.

Spinoza's advocacy of democracy on the basis of individual rights was extraordinarily bold for its time, and it qualifies him as the first truly modern political philosopher. He was indisputably the forerunner of the theorists who would later underwrite the Constitution of the United States, the French Revolution, and the rest of the secular, liberal, and democratic order of today.

Spinoza did not invent the idea of a secular state founded on self-interest; rather, he observed it clearly for the first time. In the late seventeenth century, the bewildering diversity of religious creeds that grew out of the Reformation, the variety of human experience on display in public life brought about by economic development and urbanization, and the manifestly secular quality of allegedly divine rulers who emerged at the top of national administrations –in other words, the same combination of developments that made Spinoza's own life as a double exile possible– had already rendered the old theocratic ideals de facto obsolete. The "problem of authority"–that is, the source of the legitimacy of political power– had already become the subject of intense concern among thinkers such as Hobbes and Machiavelli. The defining move of Spinoza's political philosophy was to affirm this new world of secular self-interest. He embraced modernity as the foundation of a new kind of ideal-the ideal of a free republic. The very features of modernity that were then and are still regarded by many as its signature evils –the social fragmentation, the secularity, and the triumph of self-interest– he enshrined as the founding virtues of the new world order. His political philosophy was, in essence, an active response to the challenges of modernity.


Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic.

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