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Bernard Rousset entitled one of his last articles ‘The Implications of the Spinozist Identity of Being and Power’. He showed, beginning with his major book, The Final Perspective of the Ethics and the Problem of the Coherence of Spinozism, to what extent the concept of this identity was at the very heart of Spinoza's doctrine. But he also showed, beginning with this same work, that this concept did not simply arrive immediately in its fully articulated form, but rather that Spinoza progressively shifted from the language of participation to that of power [puissance]. Subsequently, in order to pinpoint this development more precisely, Rousset devoted many articles, always pertinent and lucid in my opinion, to determining the successive stages of the drafting of the Ethics. And his last book on Spinoza addressed the role played by Spinoza's reading of the Objections and Replies to Descartes’ Meditations. In the present chapter, I will attempt to follow Spinoza's reading of Descartes along the different paths that have since been opened, by situating myself, as it were, at their intersection. I will try to suggest that Spinoza was able to explicitly formulate this identity of being and power after a period of reflection on two of his own texts, which he undertook in 1663 – the first propositions of the Ethics and then Proposition 7 of the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy – and which led him to transform a proof for the existence of God, which has since disappeared from the text, into the one that is currently found in the Scholium to Proposition 11 of Part I of the Ethics.
We know that the drafting of the first eight propositions of the Ethics contained at least five steps: Chapter II of Part I of the Short Treatise; Appendix I of the Short Treatise; the text sent to Oldenburg in 1661 and which it is possible to reconstitute from Letters II and IV; a first version of the Ethics, different than the final version, and which is known to us from Spinoza’s correspondence with De Vries (Letter VIII from De Vries and Letter IX from Spinoza) dated February 1663; and finally the Ethics as we know it today.
Spinoza, according to popular opinion, would have written on the topic of sexual love only deplorable platitudes, heavily influenced by the prejudices of his time and lacking a serious philosophical foundation: what he was once celebrated for, we reproach him for today; or, at best, we excuse it. Or he might have even, as some believe, outdone the prevailing puritanism: sexuality, as such, profoundly repulsed him, and women horrified him. The second of these two claims, if we stick to the manifest content of the texts, has no real basis; if we invoke their latent content, this claim would require, in order for it to be established with minimal rigour, a study whose theoretical possibility we will not contest, but which, in fact, has not yet been undertaken. The first claim, by contrast, obviously seems correct: that men love women for their beauty and cannot bear that they attach themselves to others, that they desire them more the more admirers they have, that the jealousy of the male is exacerbated by the representation of the pudenda and the excrementa of his rival, that sensual attachment is unstable and conflictual, that it often turns to obsession, that Adam loved Eve because of the similarity of their natures, that one who remains unmoved by the gifts of a courtesan does not commit the sin of ingratitude, that only free men and women get married, and only if they wish to have children – well, there you have it, and there really is nothing sensational about all of that. Now these eight passages, if we include as well the two definitions of the libido, are the only ones, unless I am mistaken, where Spinoza explicitly treated the question! There would thus only be, it seems, a negative balance sheet to be drawn up.
This, however, would be moving too quickly. After all, nobody will dispute that Spinoza was hardly in the habit of writing about anything carelessly. We have not finished tracking down in Spinoza so-called banalities that, once re-inscribed within their argumentative context, take on an unexpected meaning. Why would this not be the case here as well? Of course, we can never be too certain, but is it not better, all things being equal, to give the author of the Ethics the benefit of the doubt?
I would like to develop here a hypothesis that I first sketched out in 1986 in order to try to account for an apparent paradox concerning Spinoza’s development from the Theologico-Political Treatise to the Political Treatise. On the one hand, it is evident that in the TP one no longer finds any trace of the still-contractarian explanation with which the TTP had accounted for the genesis of the state. But on the other hand, it is just as obvious that the TP nowhere explicitly gives us any alternative explanation. Spinoza does tell us, in Paragraph 7 of Chapter I, that ‘we must seek the causes and natural foundations of the state, not from the teachings of reason, but from the common nature, or condition, of men’ – that is, quite clearly, from the condition of human beings subject to passions. But the promised explanation does not appear anywhere, and above all not where it should appear, that is, in Chapter II. From this the conclusion is often drawn that Spinoza’s problematic had simply changed, that he had ended up recognising that political society was ‘always-already-there’, and that there was nothing more to say. However, it always seemed strange to me that Spinoza did not seek to explain why, exactly, political society was ‘always-already-there’. This is why I tried a first time, twenty-four years ago, to fill in this lacuna by recourse to the theory of affective imitation expounded in Ethics III. But from this theory, I retained (following, for that matter, an indication Spinoza himself provided in TP I, 5) only the four passions that constitute what could be called the fundamental cycle of interhuman life: pity, ambition for glory, ambition for domination, and envy. The explanation that I gave still seems to me today to be a possible explanation, and even for the most part to be correct. But as such, it has the disadvantage of having to appeal to utilitarian calculations, and not all humans necessarily make this kind of calculation. It thus did not prove, strictly speaking, that – human nature being what it is – political society must necessarily exist. But I now think that in the TP there is a passage, and only one, which, when it is entirely clarified, accounts for this necessity and thus contains the sought-after explanation.
As early as the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, it was clear that the philosopher, according to Spinoza, would necessarily end up being concerned with politics. In Paragraph 14 of that work, in fact, having just claimed to have conceived, as an ideal model, a perfect human nature – perfect, that is, as powerful as possible – consisting in the ‘union that the mind has with the whole of Nature’, Spinoza immediately added: the end that I pursue is ‘to acquire such a nature, and to strive that many acquire it with me. That is, it is part of my happiness to take pains that many others may understand as I understand.’ From which he concludes, a little farther on: for that, it is necessary ‘to form a society of the kind that is desirable, so that as many as possible may attain it as easily and surely as possible’.
To be sure, if we take this text in isolation, it doesn't yet prove that politics is at issue. But now let us consider what he had said earlier, throughout the first eleven paragraphs of the same treatise, concerning pleasures, honours and riches. These external goods, having previously appeared to Spinoza in succession first as certain goods, then as uncertain goods and then as certain evils, acquire their definitive status in Paragraph 11: these are conditional goods, which are only evil for us if they are pursued for themselves, but which, insofar as they are mere means, can contribute greatly to the acquisition of the true good. Now, if we connect this passage to the preceding one, the implication is clear; for if one wants the same end for everyone, one also wants the same means for everyone. Therefore what Spinoza implicitly wants is the formation of a society in which the greatest possible number of people could peacefully enjoy the pleasures of the senses (without being disturbed by this or that religious authority), where the greatest possible number of people live in economic comfort (which implies at least that the regime of property must not be too inegalitarian), and where honours would be spread among the greatest possible number of people (which implies at least a certain degree of democratisation of political institutions).
It is generally agreed that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the critique that he levels against the ‘right of the stronger’ in Chapter III of Book I of The Social Contract, is above all attacking Hobbes; sometimes it is added that he is also attacking Spinoza. Now this is quite possible, even if it might address only a minor aspect of the question. But supposing that these are indeed the two adversaries that Rousseau targets, does this critique hit its mark?
Let us briefly recall in what this critique consists. Rousseau first of all indicates the aim pursued by those he is after, namely to secure an inviolable legitimacy for whomever actually possesses power [pouvoir]: ‘The stronger is never strong enough to be forever master, unless he transforms his force into right, and obedience into duty. Hence the right of the stronger.’ After this comes a brief characterisation of the thesis in question. On the one hand, the ‘right of the stronger’ is ‘apparently understood ironically’: since right must add something to the force of the stronger in order to reinforce it, it is important to declare that the two must not be confused, and even to condemn those who reduce the former to the latter; this is why one agrees that it is a ‘moral power [pouvoir moral]’. But, on the other hand, the ‘right of the stronger’ is ‘in principle really established’: since the objective is to justify existing powers [pouvoirs], it is important to ground the theory of right on principles from which one could always deduce, whatever the case may be, that whoever possesses force has, as if by chance, the right to it; and this amounts to including this conclusion, in a disguised form, in advance. In other words, the thesis of the ‘right of the stronger’ consists in two equally indispensable propositions, but of which only one is explicit, whereas the other only plays its role via the intermediary of its applications without ever being stated as such:
Proposition 1 (explicit): Right is a moral power [pouvoir] whose nature has nothing in common with that of a physical power [pouvoir].
In order to understand the relations between State and morality in Spinoza, it would suffice, in principle, to make two basic claims and to develop all that they imply. First claim: considerations regarding the State have their place in moral philosophy. Spinoza explicitly indicates this place; it appears in Scholium 2 of Proposition 37 of Part IV of the Ethics. Its context is well known. The preceding propositions had established in what the Supreme Good of human beings who live under the guidance of reason consists, both on the individual level and on the interhuman level. The propositions that follow will show what means we have at our disposal in order to attain this Supreme Good and what are the obstacles that oppose it: they will show, in other words, what is good and what is bad. And, between these two groups of propositions, we have, precisely, this scholium. Whence we can infer that the object it mentions, that is to say political society, is considered by Spinoza as the condition without which it would be impossible for us to have these means at our disposal of accessing the Supreme Good and to eliminate these obstacles. And this is indeed the case: what highlights the place assigned to politics in Part IV are the reasons for which moral philosophy is necessarily led to take interest in the State, insofar as it discovers therein that upon which the realisation of its project depends.
And yet it also must be said that Spinoza himself does not at all present things in this way. In fact – and this is the second claim – Scholium 2 of Proposition 37 is presented with all the appearances of a digression: its content does not depend in any way upon what immediately preceded it; or, more precisely, it is deduced exclusively from those among the preceding propositions that concern neither the Supreme Good nor the desires of the reasonable human being, but that are simply direct consequences of the theory of the passions laid out in Part III. This does not mean that this scholium does not have theoretical foundations in the system. Quite the contrary. But it does mean that the theoretical foundations of political science have no relation, or at least no direct relation, to the practical reasons for which the philosopher is led to take interest in the object of this science.
Alexandre Matheron is considered one of the most important interpreters of Spinoza's philosophy in the 20th century. These 20 essays, translated into English for the first time, focus on ontology, knowledge, politics and ethics in Spinoza, his predecessors and his contemporaries.
It might seem that nothing is more straightforward than the first two paragraphs of Chapter I of the Political Treatise. Spinoza, rejecting his predecessors wholesale, divides them into two groups: the philosophers, on the one hand, whose many theories have as a common denominator their being perfectly inapplicable; and the ‘politicians’ on the other hand, who, without any theory, knew how to draw from their own practice a certain number of lessons that were very pertinent but too limited in scope. And his ambition, proclaimed in the next five paragraphs, is to present for the first time a theory that would be adequate to practice. A banal pretension, it might be said: what political thinker did not propose to overcome the opposition between a doctrinaire irrealism and an unprincipled empiricism? But there are a thousand ways to undertake such an overcoming; Spinoza’s, as we will see, involves an approach ‘as difficult as it is rare’! And above all, banalities themselves have their histories: the dichotomy in question here, far from having always been insisted upon as though it went without saying, only gained its meaning in light of a problematic that, in the seventeenth century, was entirely novel. The interest of these two paragraphs emerges precisely when we give an account of this problematic, coupled with a reflection on its genesis – and at the same time, implicitly, with a reflection on the conditions of the possibility of Spinozism.
‘Philosophers’, Paragraph 1 says. Which ones? All of them, apparently. If not, Spinoza would have spoken of ‘some’ of them, or of ‘the majority’ of them. A bit further on he would use that kind of language, but only with regard to their ethics (plerumque pro Ethica Satyram scripserint), being careful to specify that what he says about their politics admits of no exception (nunquam Politicam conceperint, etc.).
Now this doesn't come without some problems; for at first glance, the content of this initial paragraph hardly seems to lend itself to such a generalisation. Spinoza, in a first step, indicates to us what constitutes, according to him, the theoretical foundation of the politics of philosophers; his description, once we allow for the requirements of polemic, ultimately provides a good account of the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas;
Spinoza's political doctrine is, in a sense, deduced entirely from his theory of passions, even though Spinoza himself did not always carry out this deduction explicitly. Indeed, we can show, first of all, that the Spinozist theory of passions allows us to account for what Spinoza calls ‘the causes and natural foundations’ of political society and the main types of institutions that it includes. We can show, second, that this theory of passions allows us to account for the way in which Spinoza conceives of the institutional dysfunctions that are at the origin of the self-destruction of the majority of actually existing political societies. And finally, we can show that it allows us to account for the way in which Spinoza conceives of the remedies to be given for these dysfunctions: these remedies consist in the establishment of perfectly self-regulating institutional systems. These are the three points that I wish to try to summarise here.
‘The Causes and Natural Foundations’ of Political Society
Spinoza tells us explicitly in Paragraph 7 of Chapter I of the Political Treatise that ‘the causes and natural foundations’ of the State must be deduced not from the teachings of reason, ‘but from the common nature, or condition, of men’ – that is to say, very clearly, from the nature or condition of human beings subjected to passions. But which passions exactly? On this point, we have three kinds of indications at our disposal.
A. Throughout the TP, Spinoza presupposes as self-evident that human beings desire necessarily to possess material goods (this is avaritia, a passion ‘that is universal and constant’) and that they are necessarily superstitious.
Now, on the one hand, the origin of the desire to possess material goods was explained perfectly in the first half of Part III of the Ethics, even independently of any reference to interhuman relations. We necessarily strive to persevere in our being. When this striving (conatus) is favoured by external causes, it becomes joy. When this joy is accompanied by the idea of an external cause that we attribute to it, it becomes love for this external cause: we attach ourselves to it unconditionally, we desire to appropriate it for ourselves at any cost and to preserve it, we alienate ourselves entirely to it.
What is pouvoir? Why do we desire to wield it over others? Why do we desire that others wield it over us? What forms do these relations of pouvoir assume in the different spheres of our existence? How far do its effects extend? Are these effects unsurpassable? All these questions, which are being raised again today, were, in a sense, at the very heart of the anthropological problematic of the seventeenth century: they were generally treated under the rubric of a ‘theory of the passions’. It is true that, when it comes to political pouvoir, a totally different type of investigation tended to come to the forefront: that which bears on its juridical foundations (the ‘right of sovereigns’ and ‘duties of subjects’), and in relation to which the analysis of the modalities of its actual exercise (the ‘means of containing the multitude’) seems only a distant relative. To the extent that there too answers were sought on the side of an anthropology, all sorts of aporias followed – as, for example, in the prodigious oeuvre of Hobbes. But Spinoza, for his part, cut the Gordian knot: by identifying, through God, right and fact, he abolished all distance and all conflict between the problematic of legitimacy and that of real functioning; the former was resolved purely and simply in the latter, which nothing could any longer prevent from occupying, at all levels, the totality of the terrain. From this there follows a general theory of pouvoir – of political pouvoir as well as non-political pouvoir, of ‘micro-pouvoirs’ as well as ‘macro-pouvoirs’, of their displacements as well as their interactions – all of which, and this is the least one could say, is far from having lost its interest. We propose to provide only a brief sketch of this theory here.
Pouvoir is the Alienation of Puissance, and a Being's Puissance is the Productivity of its Essence
Pouvoir (potestas) is a derivation, partly real and partly imaginary, of puissance (potentia). Thus we must start with puissance in order to understand pouvoir. Should we therefore start with the puissance of the human being? No doubt, but not the human insofar as it is human, as if some particular privilege radically distinguished it from other beings: the originality of Spinozist ‘anthropology’, if one can call it that for the sake of convenience, lies in having nothing specifically anthropological about it.
Spinoza clearly did not say much about the problem of property, quantitatively speaking: a few allusions in the Ethics, some lines in the TTP concerning the Hebrew State, and five paragraphs in the TP. But it is also clear that, each time he speaks of it, it is always at decisive strategic points, and that, consequently, he accords great importance to it. Why is this? What is at stake here? In order to understand this, we must first ask ourselves what exactly are, for Spinoza, the basic elements of the problem. After which we will be able to try to reconstruct the internal logic of the solutions that Spinoza proposes.
The point of departure here clearly consists in a certain conception of property that is already entirely spelled out in Grotius, with which Spinoza’s readers would have been familiar, and which Spinoza himself seems to consider as self-evident. Property is a right, in the subjective sense that the word ‘right’ had just taken on at the time, and which was entirely recent: it is a faculty, or a moral power. This right is a real right: it is the faculty of having a thing at one's disposal, in opposition to rights that we can have over people (personal rights), like the right a creditor has over a debtor, and, in particular, that a tenant has over their landlord. Finally, this real right is distinguished from other real rights by two specific characteristics. On the one hand, it is exclusive, in opposition to the rights that we have over things that we all can access freely: air, the water in rivers, the sea, etc. On the other hand, it is absolute. It is true that there are degrees in the absolute, since Grotius associates the right to property not only with full property (the right to have things at one's disposal in ‘the most absolute’ manner, as it says in Article 544 of the French Civil Code), but also with perpetual usufruct and temporary usufruct; but these three rights, in spite of everything, are indeed absolute with respect to those other real rights, servitudes: the former allow us to do anything we wish with a thing within certain limits, that is, to use it for an infinite number of things, whereas a servitude only grants us this or that perfectly determined usage (the right to pass through someone else's land, etc.).
I. I do not intend to treat the question of democracy in Spinoza and Hobbes in its totality, for it is much too vast. It is well known, for example, that Hobbes preferred monarchy to democracy, whereas the opposite is true for Spinoza. And it would be easy to show in detail how Spinoza, on this point, goes to the trouble of refuting one by one the arguments put forward by Hobbes, drawing much inspiration, moreover, from the refutation already given of them in Pieter de la Court's Politike Weegschal. But this is not the aspect of the problem that I will examine here; I will be content to presuppose it. The problem I would like to raise concerns not the judgement passed by Hobbes and Spinoza on the practical advantages and disadvantages of democracy, but the theoretical role democracy would ultimately play in their respective doctrines of the foundations of political legitimacy in general. Put differently: to what extent, in both Hobbes and Spinoza, is the recourse to democracy indispensable for founding theoretically the legitimacy of all other forms of sovereignty? And we will see that, on this subject, Hobbes and Spinoza followed trajectories at once parallel and inverse: parallel with regard to their premises and inverse with regard to their conclusions.
But in order to really understand the meaning of this problematic, we must first say a few words about its origin. This origin, in a sense, precedes the very appearance of the notions of sovereignty and social contract. It is to be found in a very old principle traditionally taken as a commonplace: the principle according to which a political community as such, insofar as it is a collective person, has the highest conceivable human authority over its own members. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, tells us that the consent of the entire multitude has more power [pouvoir], in legislative matters, than the authority of the prince itself, for the prince is only authorised to legislate to the extent that it represents the multitude, insofar as it assumes its juridical personality (in quantum gerit personam multitudinis). To be sure, in Aquinas, there is neither sovereignty nor social contract. But, as soon as these two notions appeared in correlation, they would combine with this traditional principle in order to make possible the establishment of the common problematic that Hobbes and Spinoza would have to take up.
In this chapter I would simply like to present some remarks on the reasons that justify Proposition 39 of Part V of the Ethics: ‘He who has a Body capable of a great many things has a Mind whose greater part is eternal.’ In order to do this, given that the eternity of our mind has a relation to intellectual knowledge, we must first of all try to specify what exactly is the correlate of our adequate ideas: what happens in the body when the mind understands? After that, we will be better able to understand what Spinoza tells us about the relations between the body and eternal life.
What is the corporeal correlate of our adequate ideas? We know, of course, what corresponds to universal common notions and proper common notions: for the former, it is the properties that are common to all bodies and that are equally in the whole and in the parts of each; and, for the latter, the properties that are common to our bodies and to certain external bodies by which they are usually affected, and that are equally in the whole and in the parts of each of these external bodies. We also know what the correlate of the true idea of God is: it is God itself, considered under the attribute of Extension, which is present in each and every one of our body’s affections. But what is the correlate of the deductions that we undertake based on common notions or the idea of God? On this point, we can look to Proposition 10 of Part V, to which the demonstration of Proposition 39 refers: ‘So long as we are not torn by affects contrary to our nature, we have the power of ordering and connecting the affections of the Body according to the power of the intellect.’ And the demonstration explains: so long as we are not torn by affects contrary to our nature, our mind is not prevented from understanding; thus it understands, in this way organising its adequate ideas according to the order of deduction; and consequently, in our bodies, affections are organised in the same order.
What is Scripture? In a sense, the entire Theologico-Political Treatise constitutes an answer to this question. But to say what something is, is not immediately the same thing as explaining what its being is, or what kind of being it has. Spinoza obviously accepts that, one way or another, Scripture is a being. And he certainly agrees with Leibniz that, in order for there to be being, there must necessarily be a being. Scripture qua being therefore has a unity that confers upon it a certain individuality. But it is well known that in Part II of the Ethics Spinoza explains to us what he understands by individual: an individual, he tells us in the definition that follows Proposition 13, is any set of bodies that is held together, or which, if they are displaced in relation to one another, reciprocally communicate their movements according to a well-determined law. Now can one really say that Scripture, or for that matter any human work in general, literary or otherwise, has individuality in this sense? That seems absurd. And yet, in fact, one can say just this. It is true that, at first glance, it can only be said in a metaphoric sense: this is what emerges from the very principles of Spinozist exegesis such as they are elaborated in Chapter VII of the TTP. But we will see that Chapter XII provides us with the means to grant Scripture the ontological status of an individual in the literal sense.
Let us begin with the metaphoric sense. In a certain way, what constitutes the unity of Scripture is explained to us in Chapter VII. This unity, at first glance, is not immediately visible: the books that constitute Scripture have very different natures, they were written at very different times, and they respond to very different concerns. Their unity, at least superficially, might appear as the product of an arbitrary historical decision: the Pharisees of the second temple for the Old Testament, and certain councils for the New, decided at some point to unify all these books into a single corpus. But those who made this decision obviously had their reasons for doing so: these books are all one, they thought, because they express the Word of God.