chapter  6
48 Pages

The State, Religion, and Scripture

Political philosophy examines the way in which people should be governed and the way in which a state should be structured. A guiding question of political philosophy, so understood, is: What are my rights? What actions do I have a right to perform and what actions do I not have a right to perform? By determining the extent and scope of one’s rights, one determines the nature of our obligations to one another, obligations that, in many cases, the state exists in order to enforce. Spinoza’s answer to the guiding question is deceptively simple: I have a right to do whatever is in my power. And the same goes for you and for all other human beings too. Indeed, the same goes for any individual whatsoever, whether table, chair, dog, pancreas or pan: each of these has a right to do whatever is in its power. Spinoza says:

Or, as Spinoza says even more succinctly in the Political Treatise, “right is defined by power alone” (chap. 7, §16, p. 84; see also TP, chap. 2, §4, p. 38). This doctrine applies also to the individual that is the state, the individual which comes into existence, as we will soon

see, in order to secure the safety and freedom of finite individuals such as you and me. In explicitly extending the notion of right to individuals in general, Spinoza’s naturalism is at work: the rights of human beings are not new additions to the furniture of the universe. Here again, the kinds of notions needed to understand human beings are applicable to things in general. In order to understand Spinoza’s claim that right is power and to

appreciate its deeply rationalist character, we need to articulate an important qualification that Spinoza makes most directly in the context of discussing the rights of the state (and of the sovereign who wields the power of the state). The right of the sovereign is what is in its power in the long run. If some course of action is within a sovereign’s power to perform now, but threatens to lead eventually to the downfall of the state, then, Spinoza says, the sovereign doesn’t really have the power to perform that action and so doesn’t have the right to do it. Spinoza makes this point in connection with the actions of particularly oppressive states. First, Spinoza says that sovereigns can act oppressively and that they have the power to do so:

Spinoza immediately adds his important qualification:

Thus, for Spinoza, a sovereign doesn’t have the right to do what is ultimately not in the state’s interest, what does not preserve or enhance its power. Similarly, Spinoza would also say-more positively-that a sovereign has the right to do whatever maintains or enhances the state’s power in the long run. Given Spinoza’s naturalism about rights, a similar point applies to

human beings and to individuals more generally: we have a right to do whatever will, in the long run, maintain or increase our power. And so, for Spinoza, right is defined in terms of power alone, but more specifically, in terms of power in the long run. With this qualification in mind, we can see that, for Spinoza, the

notion of an individual’s right just is the notion of what is right for an individual to do. As we saw in the previous chapter, for Spinoza, it’s right for one to do whatever increases one’s power. Because, as we have just seen, an individual has a right to do whatever increases its power, it follows that an individual has a right to do whatever it is right for the individual to do, and an individual, strictly, doesn’t have a right to do anything that is not right for that individual to do. The notion of our rights and the notion of what is right for us to do are coextensive, for Spinoza. One might have thought, contra Spinoza, that these notions can diverge. In particular, it might plausibly be thought that certain actions one has a right to perform are nonetheless not right for one to do. For example, arguably, one might have the right to refuse to give time or money to the more needy, but one may not be right in so refusing. Spinoza is simply denying this intuitive position, and, in this denial, he is motivated by his rationalism: one cannot, for Spinoza, make sense of the notion of a right that one has unless one unpacks this notion as the notion of what it is right for one to do. Further, the notion of what it is right for one to do is, as we

have seen in the previous chapter, just the notion of what it is good for one to do, and this in turn is just the notion of what increases or maintains one’s power. For Spinoza, as we have seen, one’s power just is the power to make things intelligible in terms of oneself. It follows that one’s right just is one’s ability to make things intelligible in terms of oneself. Here we have a characteristic twofold use of the PSR. For Spinoza, we must find the notion of a right intelligible. That is the first use of the PSR. A right can, for Spinoza, be intelligible only in terms of the notion of intelligibility itself. This is the second use of the PSR. Rights, like so many other central features of Spinoza’s philosophical system, are to be explained in terms of explanation itself. Here is another way to see Spinoza’s rationalism as generating his

account of rights. As we’ve seen, for Spinoza, the power of a thing is its essence or nature. By tying one’s rights to one’s power, Spinoza sees one’s rights as simply a function of one’s essence. If my rights did not stem from my very essence, then what would make them my rights, what would tie them to me? The connection between my rights and me would be ultimately arbitrary-a brute fact-unless the connection stems frommy very nature. In the previous chapter, we saw that any notion of what is good for me or what I ought to do that is not generated by my very nature would be arbitrary and could have no intelligible purchase on me. Why should this external standard be endorsed rather than another? But a standard that derives from my very nature obviously has a purchase on me. Similarly, the standards determining what I have a right to do will be arbitrary and not really mine unless they stem from my own nature. What does my right to do whatever will increase my power get

me? By itself, not a whole lot. Given that each human being has the same right as I do and given the universal striving to increase one’s power, there will inevitably be threats, conflicts, and violence that prevent me from realizing my good, my right to increase my power. Just as I have the power and right (at least in the short run) to take whatever I can from you and to kill you, so too you have the

same rights against me (p. 174). And, given our striving for selfpreservation, you and I will exercise these rights if need be and if given half a chance. In this condition in which each person exercises or attempts to exercise her rights against all others, human life “must necessarily be most wretched” (p. 175). Hereobviously guided by Hobbes-Spinoza gives expression to the bleakness of existence in the so-called state of nature, a condition that Hobbes famously called in the Leviathan “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”1