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10 - “Promising” ideas: Hobbes and contract in Spinoza's political philosophy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2011

Yitzhak Y. Melamed
Affiliation:
The Johns Hopkins University
Michael A. Rosenthal
Affiliation:
University of Washington
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Summary

Broken promises don't bother me. I just think, “Why did they believe me?”

(Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy)

Like Hobbes, Spinoza prominently invokes promising and contract or covenant in his discussion of the foundations of the state – primarily, though not exclusively, in his Theological-Political Treatise. But how does Spinoza understand their nature and significance, and how, if at all, does his understanding of them differ from that of Hobbes? I begin by posing a set of related puzzles concerning the interpretation of Spinoza's claims about promises and contracts specifically as they relate to Hobbes. I then compare the doctrines of Hobbes and Spinoza concerning several key topics: rights and powers, good and evil, reason and passion, and faith and deception. Finally, I appeal to these doctrines to resolve the puzzles about the nature and significance of promising and contract in Spinoza's political philosophy.

PUZZLES ABOUT HOBBES AND SPINOZA ON PROMISING AND CONTRACT

The similarities between the political philosophies of Hobbes and Spinoza are striking, extensive, and deep. Both philosophers aim to ground a scientific treatment of politics on a fundamental principle of endeavor for self-preservation. Both assign a theoretical role to a pre-political “state of nature,” and both ascribe a nearly unlimited “right of nature” to human beings to do as they will in that state. Both conceive the commonwealth or state as a composite entity instituted through a contract in which its members transfer rights.

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Spinoza's 'Theological-Political Treatise'
A Critical Guide
, pp. 192 - 209
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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