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Finis Reipublicae: Spinoza on Political Freedom

By R. Bijlsma


In this thesis, the relation between politics and ethics in Spinoza’s philosophy is investigated. Central to Spinoza’s politics is the search for the right power equilibrium. A good sovereign attempts to restrain the human passions, yet also to safeguard a reasonable amount of freedom. In fact, the purpose of the state is freedom. Now the first question that the thesis addresses, is what kind of freedom Spinoza has in mind here. Just a condition of peace and security, or also the moral freedom of Ethics parts 4 and 5? There seems a lot to say for the first answer, as Spinoza’s politics is chiefly occupied with matters of peace and security. However, he also speaks of life in the best state as characterized by ‘reason, the true virtue and life of the mind’. This passage in the Political Treatise echoes the moral ideal of the Ethics, namely that of a free life through an adequate understanding of Nature and our place in it. It is therefore argued in this thesis that Spinoza’s political notions of reason and freedom are ultimately identical with their moral counterparts; they cannot be reduced to (the seeking of) peace and security. The impossibility of such a reduction, it is suggested, becomes especially clear when we read Spinoza’s political writings in conjunction with his analysis of socio-political life in the Ethics. \ud The ground has now been cleared for the second question of the thesis, namely how Spinoza’s ‘politics of freedom’ can be made to work. In the preface to the Political Treatise, Spinoza states that he seeks to develop a political theory that takes humans as they are. Is collective moral freedom not an illusory ideal, then, in the light of this demand of realism? Through a careful analysis of Spinoza´s view of socio-political development, this thesis aims to show that it isn’t. Rational development, it is argued, guides the Spinozist state from the outset. The transition from state of nature to political order is grounded on the passions of fear and hope, combined with a rudimentary kind of reasoning that shows the necessity of a life according to common rules of behaviour. Now the submission to state power starts a dynamics that leads to a mutual rational enhancement between state and citizens. The rationality of the law forces citizens to behave rationally, while rational discussion among them leads to new insights that may be incorporated into the law subsequently. However, this development is not infinite. Though a small philosophical elite may achieve the condition of blessedness that arises from a truly adequate understanding of God, most citizens will only be able to live in a basically rational way, strongly mitigated by their imagination and passions. \ud Now this brings us to the crux of the answer to the thesis´s second question. If, for Spinoza, freedom would only arise insofar as a man has fully adequate ideas, then his politics would be unrealistic indeed – just a few wise men would be able to live up to its ideal of collective freedom. In this thesis it is argued, however, that a live lived largely in the sphere of the imagination does not exclude the possibility of all moral freedom. In addition to the law, Spinoza thinks, a people is united by a collective identity, which arises from e.g. a shared history and religion. Though these ‘social narratives’ may not represent reality adequately – and thus belong to the domain of the imagination – they are not necessarily devoid of rational components. For instance, if the superstitious elements of religion are removed, there remains a minimal credo. This credo still represents God as anthropomorphic – and thus remains accessible and acceptable for many people – but it is no longer wholly alien to the God of the philosophers. Thus, within narratives like the religious one – i.e. within imaginative frameworks – progress in adequacy can be made. This implies that a substantial realisation of collective moral freedom is not a political illusion, provided that we adopt a more inclusive approach towards Spinoza´s conception of freedom

Topics: Wijsbegeerte, Spinoza, politics, ethics, moral psychology, freedom, social contract
Year: 2009
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