Hanging Out With Spinoza and The Coof

Excommunicated Spinoza by Samuel Hirszenberg

This is going to be a brief and unstructured post as I have a vaccine-breakthrough case of Covid-19 and thus am not at the height of my mental faculties.

But while I linger here in inglorious self-isolation, I have been reading the collected philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. I am not finished yet and I do not mean to give a comprehensive take, but it is worth mentioning that I came to this task via a book I recently read for work that compared and contrasted various historical definitions of the concept of sovereignty. I knew Spinoza by some philosophical concepts but had no idea that he was a thinker on such relevant (to my interest) political concepts. The ideas that I read about in that book made me want to know more.

Spinoza is most famous today for his metaphysics and his radically materialist concept of a pantheistic god, rather than a spiritualist and religious one. This interests me much less than his politics here, but serves as a fascinating example of materialist thinking in a deeply spiritual age. He comes across as similar to an early Tantric thinker with elements of Vedanta philosophy but in a 17th Century Dutch context. His god, such as it can be called such, is really a combination of the will of energy serving as the connective force for all of matter. To Spinoza, this matter is the same everywhere and thus the creative energy may as well be ‘god’ because this is the only way things may happen by forcing change and interaction. Of course, we know now through the hard sciences that matter can indeed change its nature in many circumstances and that it can be converted into energy. This punctures his need for the god language, but was information that was unavailable to him in the time of his life. Therefore, we get an interesting example of a fully materialist god with the characteristics of the theology of the Dharmic religions. Good and evil are pointless, as is faith. The majesty of being leaves no use for the simple moralism of man. And it is the simple moralism of man that the Abrahamic faiths, of course, hold as supreme.

No wonder Spinoza’s Jewish community in Amsterdam excommunicated him. Then so did the Protestant Dutch municipals of that city. After death, his writings would be banned by the Catholic Church. Cancelled by three different religions, now that’s a guy I can respect! He would never end up joining any faith community again and lived the rest of his life as a private tutor and lens grinder, apparently content and with his own circle of friends from many outlier communities. Honestly, he sounds like a cool dude.

While his attack on the specifics of the Abrahamic God, (a being much more like Miura’s Idea of Evil than Spinoza’s omni-nature) and his creation of a deterministic world view of moderation and autonomy in service of living with nature while also exploring it would be his most famous contribution, what I really find interesting in his political philosophy.

Spinoza is an extremely interesting contemporary and counter-point to Thomas Hobbes. Both believed in the ultimate sovereignty of the state as the enabler of human thriving, particularly in societies that had grown large enough to have dense populations. Both sought state control over religion to quash sectarianism and outside societies interfering in domestic affairs. Both looked down on violent rebellion but left themselves each specific escape clauses when the situation became dire. Both, most interesting to me, upheld the right of different countries to have different political systems based in their own culture and untampered with by the designs of others…even if their personal preferences were for different kinds of systems. Both were aware of one another and Spinoza at least read Hobbes’ work.

The differences are more interesting, however. Whereas both Spinoza and Hobbes saw a strong state as the most effective way for maximizing human flourishing, Spinoza emphasized the state’s capacity to uphold freedom of thought, religion, and the press whereas Hobbes viewed such things as potential dangers to the state. Hobbes also sought a centralized state whereas Spinoza sought a more decentralized one, where the dynamic tension of regions and their differences sparked an engaged citizen-culture that would, over all, actually strengthen the state against outsiders. Hobbes’ personal preference for monarchy also contrasts with Spinoza’s personal preference for republics. But both, I will re-iterate, did not believe there was one universal best form of government for all places and peoples. In fact, Spinoza was insistent that a political system will always be regionally and situationally unique. He was also even more of a realist than Hobbes when it came to social contracts, finding that power, not safety, was the true ultimate determinator in who got what. And that power came not from ideas, but by living within nature and understanding it enough to get the most out of it.

Here we have a thinker who denies progress, teleology, and idealism for a fully deterministic and materialist world view, yet comes to support freedom of the press and secularism in service of a republican civic virtue. Is Spinoza a liberal with all the stupid bits cut out? Or a realist with a modern sense of nuance lacking in Hobbes? Or both? Nevertheless, you can see why I am interested in him.

To create an artificial binary here, I am probably more personally close to Spinoza’s world view than that of Hobbes. However, I will maintain that so long as certain caveats such as adding economic security to the Hobbesian bargain are done, that Hobbes might still be the more relevant thinker on sovereignty for much of the world. Why? Because the dynamic tension of Spinoza is often preferable but too dangerous to work in fragile or besieged societies. A very strong and secure society can afford a level of decentralized experimentation, but a weak one cannot. Hobbes wrote in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war and its resulting fanaticisms in his home country. Spinoza wrote exposed to fanaticism as all in 17th Century Europe would have been, hence his desire to relocate from region to region to avoid antagonists, but also in a society at its financial and military peak. The Dutch Republic was in a far stronger place than England in that period. It could afford to be experimental. The British would only shift to a more mixed political system once they pulled ahead of the European pack.

We see this today in the world’s conflict zones. Embattled states either fail or become more Hobbesian to avoid failure. And so, as I am want to do, let us bring in Ibn Khaldun to add a third corollary here: the passage of time matters. Personal bonds create a new ruling elite, the ruling elite, if successful, creates a Hobbesian (or Chinese Legalist or whatever) state focused on survival and establishing itself as the dominant force in a territorial unit. Then, the Hobbesian state can (and possibly should) morph into a Spinozan state, strengthening itself by more fully integrating its citizens into its body and allowing dynamism to survive the loss of the original solidarity provided by security needs. The cycle will eventually repeat itself again, of course, but the transition to a Spinozan state could delay the inevitable decline in the final phase, meaning while upheaval is still inevitable, it is less common. This is not to ignore, of course, that a state could go from a Spinozan position to a Hobbesian one as a matter of necessity due to security concerns and internal division. Indeed, this is to be expected as well. But if the state survived the crisis by doing this, it could always pivot back to the Spinozan position once things clamed down.

And now, because that is the most effort I have been able to put into anything for the last couple days, let me leave you with a Spinoza quote that I think sums up both his metaphysical and his political views quite well:

‘Whenever then anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have only a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence of the whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason; Although in fact what our reason pronounces is bad is not bad in regards to the order of laws of universal nature, but only in regards to the laws of our own nature taken separately.’