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Spinoza’s political ontology

Из выпуска: N 100 , 2005 г

Сводный номер Новый исторический материализм

Jan Sjunnesson

" Spinoza’s true politics is his metaphysics " - Antonio Negri



Spinoza’s political ontology


by Jan Sjunnesson,

Dept of Philosophy,

Uppsala University,

Sweden. May 1997






" Spinoza’s true politics is his metaphysics "

Antonio Negri




This paper outlines areas of my research. It is not an original piece, but tries to focus in ordine non-geometrico on what I find most philosophically interesting and politically useful in Spinoza . It does not deal explicitly with Spinoza’s "political ontology", but with various topics in Spinoza’s political and metaphysical thought.

In section I, I give an overview of Spinoza’s metaphysical system as pluralist materialism, as it is presented from contemporary sources, mainly the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Section II expose his political views and try to develop a certain radical interpretation of Spinozist democracy. In section III, I conclude with a few remarks on this overall project.

The main question in this paper is to show some aspects of Spinoza’s ontology in his politics. As we will see, this way of presenting the question reveals a certain dualism that is very un- Spinozian, by separating ontology and politics. How do we escape it - and affirm an immanent practice and thought? This is a larger methodological question, as well as the whole idea of ontologizing politics or politicizing ontology, that I will postpone for further studies of Spinoza. I am aware of the brevity of this study, but to get readers started I hope it will do.



Baruch Spinoza (1632 - 1677) is most known for his metaphysical doctrine of monism - one substance, God or Nature. Immanence instead of transcendence. "There is only one substance which can be understood to depend on no other thing whatsoever, namely God" he claimed. The substance is expressed or actualised in two attributes, Extension and Thought, of which there are infinitely more, but unknown to human senses. The two attributes are within substance, but need a third kind existence to "enter" the world, i.e. modi, infinite and finite modes which as the attributes all are immanently within substance, or God, or as we might prefer to call all that exists, Nature.

There is nothing outside Nature. No goal, no finalism, no teleology. No external transcendent Creator, but a participating infinite existence that exists on one plane of immanence. This concept of God is not personal, but abstract and more like a principle of explanation. If one does not need another relation to God than the intellectual love or a third kind of knowledge, scientia intuitiva or amor intellectualis dei Spinoza proposes in part V of Ethics, one may label Spinoza an atheist, although he himself never gave up his controversial faith in "divine atheism".

This faith was labelled atheist, pantheist and gave its author much trouble. This paper wishes to interpret Spinoza in an unorthodox way, as if continuing in Spinoza’s heretical spirit. Many theses here are not explicit in Spinoza’s works , but none the less in a similar vein. "To be a heretical Spinozist is almost orthodox Spinozism, if Spinozism can be said to be one of the great lessons in heresy that the world has seen" as Louis Althusser noted. If contemporary Spinoza- studies do not disturb our conform ways of philosophying, it may not be both true to Spinoza and original enough.

In 1660’s, common Dutch people persecuted Spinoza, his Jewish congregation expelled him, fear of printing his works (only one book published in his lifetime) and many corresponding philosophers and enlighted laymen could not bear its radical consequences. One such consequence is materialism.


It may sound strange for a materialist to a speak of God as Spinoza does in the beginning of his major œuvre the Ethics. His attack on transcendence and naive theism is so thoroughly structured and well thought that he cannot do else. A theism presupposes a difference between a Creator and his Creation. The former immaterial spirit, the latter material world. The former logically and chronologically before the latter. Matter is devalorized both ontologically by being further away from what is more real, but also essentially as to its truth or meaning, since it also is prior and outside the world. This is natural for Plato as well as in emanist Neo-Platonist doctrines up to Kant, Hegel and contemporary search for inner meaning as in hermeneutics . "Nature comes to depend on what is external to it, what is above and beyond it, not only for it existence, but for its essence, its meaning and truth " (Montag 1989, p. 91). Matter is not really real, but expression of something more real than the apparent materiality. To counter this "derealization" of reality, Spinoza starts his system with an immanent God.

But he is not a naive materialist that inverts the duality spirit/matter by saying that all thoughts and non-material objects are material essentially. "Spinoza’s God is a conceptual device that prevents the formation of any ontological hierarchy, whether idealist or ’materialist’/. . . /If all that exists is in God and part of God, then all that exists is real, equally real" (op cit, p. 92). There exists only one substance, absolutely infinite, God, Spinoza writes at the beginning of Ethics and continues, there can not be more than one substance because "one substance cannot be produced by another substance" (Ethics, Part I, prop 6).

Materialism in Spinoza is a certain devaluation of thought in favour of body and is a correction of idealism. By privileging thought, is not only the material world devalorized but being becomes dependent on thought. Spinoza- scholars are divided in around the status of attributes, whether intellectual or material. Spinoza himself blurs many distinctions when writing, "By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence" (op cit , prop 4) . What is important to note here is that materialism in Spinoza means foremost that the attributes (and modes) are what is manifest, not substance itself. Of course substance exists since all is substance or God, but not as the Whole, a Totality. Instead Spinoza must be viewed as a thinker of the One and the Multiple as same concepts. Numerical distinctions as in infinite attributes are not real distinctions. God or Nature is not a number, but differ intensively, not quantatively (see Deleuze 1990, ch 1).

This distinction is better understood under the concept of God or substance. Substance may be viewed from its essence or what it is in itself, or from its existence, or what it is in actuality . These are formally distinct, but not really. They are not different things, but dynamically identical. The essence of substance is its infinite (but not indefinite) power, the absolutely unlimited power to exist and generate affects. "Essence is power" Spinoza states several times. Now, things exist not as essences but as existent finite and infinite modes. Substance does not exist as the power to generate affects but as those affects, as expressions in Deleuze’s interpretation. Substance is both the process of making expressions, natura naturans, and those expressions, natura naturata. "The existence of God and his essence are one and the same" Ethics, part 1, prop 20. Expression - the movement from power (essence) to act (existence) is the concept Spinoza uses to develop an immanent ontology, as shown in Deleuze 1990.

These considerations are not enough to explain the richness of Deleuze’s studies of Spinoza, which goes further towards immanence than Spinoza himself dared. Substance is still too divine, and modes are not real enough in its materialism (see Piercey 1996).


But where does all attributes and modes dwell one might ask ? Everywhere and nowhere? Individuality as in modes would drown in the immense substance into an "acosmic oriental night" Hegel conceived . "Reality as such conceived [as perfection and affirmation] is assumed to survive when all negation has been thought away; but to do this is to do away with all determinateness/.../ his system of philosophy, according to which all particularity and individuality pass away into the one substance " (Hegel quoted in Hardt 1993, p. 3). Hegel meant that Spinoza lacked negation. Since all is substance, what limits it ? Being not determined through negation will remain indifferent and abstract and dissolve into nothingness, an absolute void (see Hardt 1993, ch 1 and 3, Oittinen 1994 and Machery 1979).

But Spinoza did not use negation as Hegel did, but in a Scholastic fashion from the mediaeval Scholaticist Duns Scotus, where negation is not related to what something is not. Rather, negation as different, not opposite. A difference that relies on an external concept of what it is not, is too abstract and weak. If something relies on external causes, it does not have a cause in itself, which for decisive for all beings Spinoza thought (see below for discussion of causa sui). Deleuze tries to wrest Spinoza off all emantist and pantheist interpretations in order to stay away from indeterminateness and conceive of a positive difference, where substance or being differs from itself. The Deleuzean "difference - in- itself" grounds and creates being, not governed by analogy or similarity, dogma or common sense, will to truth or simplicity (Deleuze 1994).


The conception of substance was intelligible to Cartesians and other rationalists in the 17th century, but seems rather strange to us. It is very unusual to find discussions of substance in contemporary philosophy after the Humean attacks, as "unintelligible chimeras". The discussion of substance goes back to Aristotle, defining it as that which endures change, has independent existence or which cannot be predicated. All these notions of substance arises in 17th century philosophy, together with the Scholastic contributions in the Middle Ages (Cottingham 1988, ch. 3).

For mediaeval Scholastic philosophy it was possible to speak of a univocal God, i.e. a God that speaks in one voice of everything, univocity. "Being is said in the same sense of all there is . whether finite or infinite - although the sense may differ modally" (Boundas 1985, p. 51). In order to separate the distinctiveness of the attributes and modes, the theory of formal and real definitions was established by Scotus, as mentioned earlier. The theory of univocity opposes the theory of analogy, which seeks only the Same and "normalises" reason and creation. Nicholas of Cusa wrote: "God is the universal complication, in the sense that everything is in it; and the universal explication, in the sense that it is in everything "(cited at p.175, in Deleuze 1990, where this interpretation of Scotus is taken from). Spinoza’s alternative, an immanent monism, abolishes all separate levels of existence. All exists at the same plateau. Substance is expressed by the attributes in different forms but in the same sense. That is why they can be compared.

The greatness of Spinoza was his transformation of neutral theological uses of univocity to affirmative immanent expressivity.

"With Spinoza, univocal being ceases to be neutralised and becomes expressive; it becomes a truly expressive and affirmative proposition. Nevertheless, there still remains a difference between substance and the modes. Spinoza’s substance appears independent of the modes, while the modes are dependent on substance, as though something other than themselves" (Deleuze 1994, p. 40).


Spinoza identifies substance with attributes. If this argument is successful, and here many commentators have objections, some important consequences follow . "Since a substance could only be produced by another substance of the same kind, if there cannot be two substances of the same kind, substances cannot be produced, but must exist in virtue of their own nature, which is to say that they must exist eternally/.../[and what we are saying when we say that there is just one substance ?" (p. xxiii, Curley’s introduction in Spinoza 1994).

Attributes have as much existence as anything, Pierre Machery concludes:

First, it is no longer possible to affirm the exteriority of the attributes in relation to substance: the attributes are in substance as the elements or moments through which it is constituted. Further, if we absolutely insist on establishing an order of succession between substance and the attributes, it is no longer certain that substance ought to be placed before the attributes but it is rather they that should precede substance as the conditions of its self- production, since they have an essentially causal function in the process of its constitution"

Relying on a traditional concept of predication, one may conclude as Pierre Bayle did at Spinoza’s time, one substance implies one subject of predication, of which everything else is predicated. Predication was not at all in Spinoza’s mind. Rather, he identified his monism with " those permanent and pervasive features of the world [Spinoza] sometimes called fixed and eternal things, and sometimes calls divine attributes " (Curley, p. xxiv, in Spinoza 1994). We may call these the laws of nature and God their ultimate heuristic device. 17th century rationalism and scientific optimism was Spinoza’s intellectual environment, which he pushed further than maybe no one else at his time. No rescue to God as Descartes did when establishing a higher divine order of natural laws which God supervised .

Attributes are as real as substance, in fact, their infinite diversity is as real as substance which in this line of thought can be viewed as "that infinite diversity itself, a process of production without beginning or end of itself through an infinity of attributes" (Montag’s "Althusserian " formulation, but also Deleuze’s in his notion of being as difference).


Substance or God exists necessarily and not as an essence waiting to become realised. Nothing is behind the curtains, God is pure actuality. Causation is not to be thought of as God is prior to what is the effect of a cause; rather, God is the "immanent, not the transitive cause of all things (op cit, prop 18). God is self-caused, not in temporality but internally. Causality is internal. God as cause of itself, in itself and through itself, but not as origin (Hegel’s wrong interpretation). "By substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself. i.e., that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed (op cit, prop 3). Causa sui. might be explained as a rejection of three inadequate conceptions of causation :

1) material - physical cause that causes an external effect,

2) final - refers to end or goal in its effect,

3) accidental - an unnecessay effect and as such not intelligible.

Spinoza grants only an (internal) efficient cause. For being to be necessary, the fundamental ontological cause must be internal to its effect (Ethics, part I, prop 34 -36, and appendix).


A contemporary detour: The concepts of "structural causality" and "process without subject "as used by the French Spinozists , Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar et al. in 1960s when reading Marx’ Capital, are close to Spinoza’s thought.

"Effects are not outside the structure, are not a preexisting object, element or space in which the structure arrives to imprint its mar; on the contrary, the structure is immanent in its effects, a cause immanent in its in the Spinozist sense of the term, that the whole existence of the structure consists in its effects, in short that the structure which is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects" (Althusser & Balibar 1970, p. 108- 9)

Not determinism which is as teleological as dogmatic Marxism. Here we may also note the critique Spinoza, and three centuries later Althusser, relinquished towards a simple concept of the subject. Man is never as "kingdom within a kingdom", that is, an exceptional animal, unaffected by nature and its laws. He is neither master of his body nor of his emotions. The mind does not govern the body any more than the body governs the mind. They work in parallel fashion, as two views on the same object. Man does not know his body and its causes well, and alike isn’t conscious of all his thoughts. What does Spinoza mean when he invites us to take the body as a model ? Deleuze asks (in Deleuze 1988, p. 18):

"It is a matter of showing that the body surpasses the knowledge that we have of it, and that thought likewise surpasses the consciousness we have of it. There are no fewer things in the mind that exceed our consciousness than there are things in the body that exceed our knowledge / . . /that fact is that consciousness is by nature the locus of an illusion. Its nature is such that it registers effects, but know nothing of causes. The order of causes is defined by this: each body in extension, each idea or each mind in thought are constituted by the characteristic relations that subsume the parts of that body, the part of that idea. / . . . /The order of causes is therefore an order of composition and decomposition of relations, which infinitely affects all of nature. But as conscious beings, we never apprehend anything but the effects of these compositions and decompositions. / . . . /The conditions under which we know things and are conscious of ourselves condemn us to have only inadequate ideas, ideas that are confused and mutilated, effects separated from their real causes" (p. 18- 9)

Man does not see this and attributes his false concept of freedom to God. We humans cannot coherently conceive God as immanent. Instead we try to figure God as being like us, an anthropomorphic God that judges and behaves in false and ideological freedom,l like us. Nothing is more dangerous, since it leads humans to superstition, by taking natural events for divine interventions as the wonders in Old Testament, and desire their servitude as freedom, by institutionalising ideology ( in Spinoza’s time religion) in material practices. How would we else explain how men often " see the better and do the worse" ( Ethics,part III, prop 2, scol) ? We take our suffering for the sake of God’s wrath and repent sins we never committed.

CONATUS Spinoza introduces the conception of conatus (self- preservation, striving to existence) in Prop 7, Part III Ethics. Propositions 4-6 shows that each particular thing attempts to preserve its own existence. Further, Prop 4 states that "No thing can be destroyed except by an external cause".

This assertion rests upon the principle of contradiction: if a thing could be destroyed by an internal cause, that would imply that its essence contains a negation of itself, that is, that its essence contradicts itself: the definition of anything affirms, and does not negate, the thing's essence: that is, it posits, and does not annul, the thing's essence. So as long as we are attending only to the thing itself, and not to external causes, we can find nothing in it which can destroy it. This is critical of Hegel’s external negation, since by definition something must affirm what it is not. Impossible for an immanent substance .

This naturally leads to the definition of contrary natures, important for Spinoza’s dynamics: Things are of a contrary nature, that is, unable to subsist in the same subject, to the extent that one can destroy the other. The transition from this conception of a thing's essence as self-affirmation to conatus as striving to persist in existence is made through the following proposition: "Each thing, in so far as it is in itself, endeavours to persist in its own being". The proof states: Particular things [...] express in a definite and determinate way the power of God whereby he is and acts, and no thing can have in itself anything by which it can be destroyed, that is, which can annul its existence (prop 4, Part III). On the contrary, it opposes everything that can annul its existence ; and thus, as far as it can and as far as it is in itself, it endeavours to persist in its own being. Passions, affections and sadness weaken one’s power to exist, actions, active affections and joy make one more powerful, having more essence, more conatus.

Spinoza has thus far demonstrated that the essence of a particular thing involves the opposition of anything capable of annulling its existence. He then proceeds to identify this opposition, this endeavour to persist in its own being, with the essence of the thing:

From the given essence of a thing certain things necessarily follow (prop .36, Part I), nor do things effect anything other than that which necessarily follows from their determinate nature (op cit, prop .29). Therefore, the power of any thing, or the conatus with which it acts or endeavours to act [...], that is the power or conatus by which it endeavours to persist in its own being, is nothing but the given, or actual, essence of the thing.

Insofar as a thing exists, it cannot be negated by any internal cause, as this would be a self-contradiction and the essence of a thing is pure affirmation of that thing; this also implies that to be able to agree with a thing of a contrary nature would involve the same self-contradiction. An existing thing must oppose all things capable of annulling its existence; and since this striving or conatus is an affirmation of the thing's nature, it is not to be distinguished from its essence, which is pure affirmation of that thing. The essence of a thing is its conatus; conatus is the existence of a mode's essence. This lengthy analysis is important since Spinoza builds his concept of man’s right of nature on conatus, individually and collectively.

One may speak of a "horizon of forces" (Negri 1991) as the metaphysical horizon, since forces, powers, essences --striving-for-existence, is al substance there is. Ethics then becomes the practical constitution of mapping and the art of liberation the horizon of forces. But since ethics itself is constituted by the infinite substance, it is infinite in its ways of mapping the forces. There is no preconceived model for political change. " . . . the infinite substance will itself be the structural organization of ethics, the organization of force, and the expression of the adequacy between subject and object. In other words, the infinite itself will be the organiser of man’s liberation. For Spinoza, to know, and therefore to move towards liberation, is to annex more Being. " ( Boundas 1985, p. 427).

* * *


Spinoza’s political philosophy has been traditionally labelled liberal and democratic in its vision of freedom of speech and thought. I hope to show that there is more to him than a simple advocacy of enlightment liberalism and capitalism. Spinoza put his theses forward in two treaties of which just one was published, Tractatus theologico- politicus (cited as TTP, from Spinoza 1989) in 1670. The Political Treatise (cited as PT from Spinoza 1958) remained unfinished at his untimely death 1677, left at the chapter on democracy. From these and the Ethics it is possible to construct a political thought, even though it is not a coherent whole as in works of classical political philosophers.

Spinoza’s political theory is not in the"sublime" tradition of Hobbes, Rousseau, Hegel but in an empirical and realist tradition with Machiavelli, Marx, Toqueville, Nietzsche and Max Weber. In particular Spinoza anticipates the idea of what Harold Lasswell paraphrased with the brisk book title, Politics: Who gets What, When, How (from Geismann 1991, p. 52). I rely on contemporary interpretations of him that put forward his radical republicanism, or even anarchism.


Spinoza developed his political theory close to his ontology and the two cannot be separated, as I hope will be clear in my studies. Since all is in God as substance, political matters are also a part of God as ethics and anthropology. Spinoza’s practical concern also in metaphysics is clear from his autobiographical notes. Man does not know the real sources behind natural or human events and relies on superstition and conventions. Spinoza wanted to free man and open his eyes to the peaceful union of nature and mind. "This is the end I aim at: to acquire such a nature, and to strive that many acquire it with me. this is, it is part of my happiness to take pains that many others man understand as I understand" ( from the early "Treatise on the emendation of the intellect", in Spinoza 1994, p. 4). His intellectual work was directed towards practical concerns, not (only) for it’s own sake. All pieces hang together. Laws of nature and laws of the mind are the same .

If we start by explaining Spinoza’s doctrine of the state with the decline of natural right, as Leo Strauss does in his Spinoza’s critique of religion (1965), we find that political views contemporary or precedent him relied of concepts of natural right; different Christians ones as Aquinas, secular as in Grotius and Hobbes. Spinoza’s solution is far more naturalistic and realistic, as immanent as his ontology. For him, all political theory must start with two basic conditions:

1) Human emotions are not contingent vices , which just can be thought away. Rather, they are necessary, in harmony with the rest of nature

2) Therefore they must be understood, not criticised or loathed

He had no use for theories of people written by thinkers " as they would like them to be". Rather he held that common people can not be trusted nor can rulers govern without their trust. A political theory must start from the predicament of common men, not saints.

"I have therefore regarded human passions like love, hate, anger, envy, pride, pity, and other feelings that agitate the mind, not as vices of human nature, but as properties which belong to it in the same way as heat, cold, storm, thunder and the like belong to the nature of the atmosphere." ( PT, ch. I, )

Strauss interprets Spinoza’s severe critique in the beginning of PT as Spinoza " opposes philosophers a such. /.../ he reproaches them not so much for their assertion of freedom of will, but for their imperfect awareness of reality. He does not speak as a philosopher engaged in argument with other philosophers, but, as it were, blushing and disclaiming the fact that he is a philosopher, he speaks against philosophers in the name of the statesmen . . ." ( p. 225 -6). These practical men may be sly or cunning, but realises what is effective and what is pure wishing. The same critique applies to religion, as Spinoza showed earlier in TTP. Spinoza had no use for utopists in politics even though he himself was a kind of "unpolitical utopist", according to Strauss .


If we grant men their necessary passions, we may build up a secure state. Politicians who relies on good faith are not long-lived and would prepare his own destruction , a Machiavellian theme Spinoza comes back to. Their difference is that Machiavelli recognised a civic virtue in all men that possibly could ground a stable state, whereas Spinoza kept the virtuous way open only to the wise. The multitude neither could nor wanted to walk the narrow road to higher political or theoretical interests. Machiavelli resigned himself to the people’s passions ("They should know better!"), but Spinoza noted that they probably neither should nor could ("No, they’re only natural !"). "To resign oneself to the incorrible folly and wickedness of men is one thing. It is quite another matter to affirm the folly in its positive being, with a view to the natural necessity which brings it forth ", Strauss notes (op cit , p. 228).

Power has two equal sides, the power to exist and to be affected (Hardt 1993, ch 3), but above all we seek in all ways to become active, joyful. Production of affects (chosen actions from self-preservation, conatus) and sensibility to be affected. Their sum is constant (either you decide, or someone else). This sensibility may be chosen, actively, internally caused or willed ( i.e. by the mode’s essence if we accept that mode is what manifests itself, finite or infinite) , or passive, externally caused. Most of our lives are filled with passive affections, since we do not understand the real causes behind things and events.

But passive affections may also be divided into joyful passive and sad passive affections . Our bodies meet other bodies and change accordingly to relations of power and affects. An encounter between two bodies, that are not fixed units according to Spinoza but may form a new "body", a relationship of bodies, will be interpreted to their composability or incomposability. A body of any kind is defined by the possible relation into which it may enter. This is its power of acting (Deleuze 1988, p 123). If the bodies agree " in nature" it is a joyful passive affection that increases the bodies’ power to act. If not, sadness occur and either body or both may be decompose the relationship , the new "body". Thus we get a complicated triad (from Hardt 1993, p 94):


The question arises immediately: How can we get as many active affections and as little passive as possible ? How do we experience as much (self-caused) joy as possible ? Most encounters are sad since men are often subject to passions. Spinoza’s pessimism may be saddening but realistic. The theory of "common notions" will help as they may transform the joyful passive affection to active affections, collective and political (see op cit, p. 100). But Spinoza did not mean a mediation from above by common notion, but a building of power from below, from the modes. The term "contract" in TTP is replaced in PT with "common consent", to which individuals renounce their rights (but not all). The reason they do this is that the extends their power to constitute the state, if that is their goal. In order to build a community of mutual consent, free communication must be possible between citizens, who always have the right to think and speak, but not act unlawful while they adhere to the state , that is.

Spinoza sees the passions as virtues of Nature (or God), even in the life of the cruel or happy multitude. To rejoice in this conviction is political realism, " ‘loving’ them in the manner of ‘amor fati’" (Strauss 1965, p. 229). But it is not for the wise to engage in politics, rather to understand and "love" from distance the passions of the multitude. Spinoza thus affirms for others (the people’s passions) what he rejects for himself , an "anomalous" position Strauss comments. Theory as understanding the passions of the multitude mediates for the wise so they may be closes to perfect happiness. "For the wise, the multitude becomes an object of theory " (ibid).

Passions like fear are important to understand (for the wise) in order to survive . The fear of the masses in both ways, i.e. what it fears and the fear it induces in rulers , is present in Spinoza ( Balibar 1994). The ruler posses right only insofar as his real force is greater than the masses’. For Spinoza who himself were persecuted by common Dutch people and saw his friend and philosophical colleague, the Dutch liberal governor Jan de Witt, being murdered by a Christian and royalist mob in 1672, the question of how to rule safely was of not light concern.



Spinoza starts his theory of right from a state of nature, as in Hobbes, but this right is equal to the power of the right - holder. The contract is not an abstract entity which keeps a society stable. Rather all rules must depend on power, Machiavellian force or Spinozist divine power in all beings.

"It follows that the power by which things in nature exist, and by which, in consequence, they act, can be none other than the eternal power of God. / . . ./Now from the fact that the power of things in nature to exist and act is really the power of God, we can easily see what the right of nature is. for since God has the right to do everything, and God’s right is simply God’s power conceived as completely free, it follows that each thing in nature has as much right from nature as it has power to exist and act.; since the power by which it exists and acts is nothing but the completely free power of God " (PT, ch. II, )

Passions lead the multitude to use its power by natural right. If people are in bondage by their passions it follows that they may use it in a wrong or good way. To strive to exist, conatus, is the base whatever means one chooses. The multitude use passions, the wise reason. Both ways have the same natural right. Non- utopian politics may just use the first way, the passions of the multitude. "The natural right of the passions, and therewith the rule, founded in natural right, of conflict, hatred, anger and so on is against reason in respect to our [the wise] nature, but not against reason in respect of the laws of nature as a whole "( Strauss 1965 , p. 232).

Rights as external norms are not to be taken seriously, when judging acts according to Spinoza’s theory of causality. Less if they are "freely chosen", as Spinoza does not believe in a simple form of human freedom of choice . Power gives rights "To be able to exist is power " ( Ethics, part I, prop 11, 3rd proof). Power is the essence of substance, as viewed in the attributes.

We should not confuse Spinoza’s concept of right as power with cynicisms as "might as right", "the right of the stronger" etc. The weak man have as much power as the strong in absolute terms, but is somehow separated from what his powers, his essence, can attain. To attain as much as we can, we must increase our actions and increase our active affections, joys and lessen what makes us sad and powerless.

"When considering right as a natural ability, including the ability of reasoning, Spinoza never leaves to any degree the ‘naturalistic’ level. Whatever one does is ‘right’ in his concept of right, because one can do it and must do it" (Geismann 1991, p. 44). Spinoza bases his doctrine of natural right not on humanity but on God or the one substance where all participate.

Each being in its difference is a result or an element in God, so in this all beings are comparable in that they express God in different degrees, i.e. that they are to different degrees. " Man is only a particle of nature. But this particle of nature which is man must, in an eminent sense, be nature, be power" ( Strauss 1965 , p. 239). The right to exist is greater in beings that "exists" in a higher degree. The power of the multitude has greater power and therefore right than the wise men , if they not quantitatively change that balance (with technical and ideological means for example ).

If we conceive power as the power of a body, we get closer to Spinoza’s concept of power. We do not know what a body can do, he says, but we know that it will exercise its natural powers, its rights. "Pushing to the utmost what one can do is the properly ethical task. It is here that the Ethics take the body as a model; for every body extends its power as fast as it can. In a sense every being, each moment, pushes to the utmost what it can do " (Deleuze 1990, p. 269). This model applies to states too, and people’s ability to conceive new states, or abolish states altogether .


Man’s ability to preserve himself is the power that grounds his right. Here the contract theory is useful as an example. Spinoza states that men may form a promise but break it if needed to preserve themselves. If taken by robbers, a man may promise them all goods he has if released. However, when released he may refuse to give anything away if he is not in danger and the robbers been defeated. The first promise was only real when the internal balance of powers was negative to the prisoner ( TTP, ch. 16). Hobbes solution is exactly the opposite. "Covenants must be honoured", even to robbers. For Spinoza there is greater chance of individual self- preservation by breaking a bond sometimes, than grounding one’s existence in some abstract contract, or state coercion for the sake of a false peace.

The contract theory as in Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau does not have the same value in Spinoza, although he mentions "pactum" in TTP for men in order to live in security beyond the reach of fear . Men must obey their rulers, not subvert or overtake the state. Unreasonable laws shall be exposed in public but all citizens must submit to their power, although they do not agree. But this contract does not mean that men give up all their power to a sovereign ( whether monarch, noble or democratic council).

"Nobody can so completely transfer to another all his right, and consequently all his power, as to cease to be a human being/. . ./It must therefore be granted that the individual reserves to himself a considerable part of his right, which therefore depends on nobody’s decision but his own" (op cit, ch.17).

TTP states fully that right (jus) must rely on and is the same as power (potentia) (Montag 1995 and Balibar b1985). If Hobbesian individuals would gain all natural and contractual rights without full power, they would be in a contradictory position visavi the state. Now, individual powers are less isolated than taken together, which is what rulers know. From what the ruler fears, the mass (multitudo) can know. "If it is true that we can know the people only from he view of the prince [ as Machiavelli stated], it is equally true that we can know the people only from the point of view of the Prince" (Montag 1995, p 101).

The conflicts of power are what the state must balance, but not as Hobbes wanted. Spinoza says explicit what differs in their similar theories:

". . . the difference between Hobbes and me/. . . / consists of this: that I continually preserve the natural right intact so that the supreme Power in a State has no more right over a subject that is proportionate to the power by which it is superior to the subject. This is what always takes place in the state of nature" (Letter to Jelles, 1672) .

Peace and stability are the aims of the state for Hobbes, as they are for Spinoza. But peace is not to best at all costs for Spinoza. Peace must be endurable, otherwise opposed, even with arms. The winner had the power to win , and the right to oppose the loser and preserve his existence.


Spinoza envisioned that men only can live as reasonable and free in a state or a city. Experience teaches man that living together in states or other communities is the best way to attain security and develop free thoughts . The formation of society is necessary and useful, although not " natural" in the sense of being self-evident to all citizens at all times. If men lived according to reason, and were not prey to superstition, a state based on reason would be possible. "There is no singular thing in Nature which is more useful to man than a man who lives according to the guidance of reason (Ethics, part IV, prop 35, cor. 1). / . . . /Still, it rarely happens that men live according to the guidance of reason. Instead, their lives are so constituted that they are usually envious and burdensome to one another "(ibid, schol.) . The urge to exist, conatus, teaches man that life in common is better than solitary life. Better in the sense of useful to oneself, to one’s advantage. Spinoza lets the "satirists" laugh at human affairs, the "theologicians" curse them, and "melancholiacs" praise lower animals and disdain mankind - all are mislead by not taking man’s own desire for his advantage, his conatus, , as his real cause for building society (ibid).

In the state of nature, men fight and try to convince or force his neighbour to agree "In so far as men are subject to passions, they cannot be said to agree in nature " (op cit, prop 32). In this state of nature men do not as Hobbes tried to show, break any rules, divine or human. Since all laws are laws of God, men can only break laws of nature, which is inviolable. Nor can they sin against God, because God is not as a king who lays down laws which men can break. Life in state of nature is not free, but men fear each other and are slaves of their own passions. Men cannot use reason nor moral liberty fully in this state of fear. Man lives better in a state, Spinoza assures. The end of the state is to secure freedom and stability for its citizens. The sovereign occupies a mediating role, since each man is drawn by the laws of desire in different directions.

Democracy is to be preferred, being the most natural government of men. A democracy is better since there is less danger of a government behaving unreasonably, for it is practically impossible for the majority of a single assembly, to agree on the same piece of folly. But Spinoza views democracy also as an effective means to rule. Tyranny might arise, but they do not last long . Spinoza notes, with Seneca, that despotic regimes never lasts long,whereas moderate ones do . The state is usually superior to the individual by its united strength of many citizens, that power is the state’s " right". Spinoza asserts that

" . . . since the right of the commonwealth is determined by the collective power of a people, the greater the number of the subjects given cause by a commonwealth to join in conspiracy against it, the more must its power and right be diminished . . . the greater cause for fear it has, the less is it posed of its own right . . . The right of the state is nothing more than a natural right, limited not by the power of the individual , but by that of the multitude[mass], which is guided by one mind" (PT, ch.3,).

The best lives are lived under guidance of reason for men as for states. Reason and freedom are empirically necessary for piety and security. "The true aim of government is liberty " (TTP, ch. 16). With experience statesmen can understand the passions, although not in a detached manner like philosophers, but in the state’s capacity of ruling. All government relies on practical men, politicians, with powers to rule over others, and the mass’ acceptance of being ruled by them. "The reason of the state lies not in the governing nor in the governed, but in the capacity of the ruler to rule, and in the capacity of the ruled to be ruled " (Strauss 1965, p. 240). A state ruled by force is weaker than a free multitude. Therefore the state must secure that the citizens get advantages out of adhering to the state .

At the end of his short life, Spinoza saw the democratic experiment in Holland fall and concluded that his former utopian theories in TTP were not immanent enough to the real power, the people’s power ( potentia, as opposed to rulers’ potestas ). The rights and obligations that Spinoza claimed in TTP that rulers and citizens must follow seemed like transcendental norms, not taking into account that people failed to act in accordance with them . The state must rely on a balancing of collective powers, rather than individual rights, obligations and contracts. Since it is not individuals who counters the state’s Power, but the united mind of the multitude, the conclusion is that this mind of its own has a certain existence, essence and power. History becomes a history of mass struggle, not of relationships between individuals and states (Balibar 1994).

Spinoza rejected in PT (written 1675 -77) the juridical and transcendental apparatus of contracts, obligation and rights since he saw where the real power was, in the multitude. The murder of his friend de Witt 1672 was decisive. Individual power were never as strong as collective material forces. Hobbes started from pure individuality in the origins of the state, where Spinoza could speak of a "body" being composed of several individuals, with one nature (Ethics, part II prop 13, lemma 7, schol). The multitude is not reducible to anything but itself, a new body of (former) individuals (Montag 1989, p.102). It has then attained a state when its passions have been transformed to actions.

The multitude is hard to govern, since "whoever has experienced the inconstant temperament of the multitude will be brought to despair by it. For it is governed not by reason but by the affects alone" (TTP, ch 17). The state must combine affective means ( piety, patriotism, superstition) with rational ( utility, private wealth). The mass terrorises if it is not afraid ! he wrote in PT (ch. VII, 27), but in order to refute it and say that " all men have one and the same nature: it is power and culture which mislead us " (ibid)

The way to guide the multitude into peaceful activities, which they do not always chose voluntarily being driven by short- sighted passions, is religion, something halfway between reason and superstition. Spinoza did not advocate a specific religion, but recommended the Bible as a source of "universal faith", a kind of simple faith that had practical use and led to justice and mercy. Reason and the Bible both teach men mutual love and peace, but the religious way is easier for the common man. Instead of a traditional God, Spinoza proposed a simple almost secular God outside churches and synagogues, like Kierkegaard. Religion is not opposed to reason, and reason has its own piety and mercy - freedom of thought and speech. The "affections of reason" are outside the scope of the free community’s mutual consent, since they are useful, at least in the long run, to the community. "Men should really be governed in such a way that they do not regard themselves as being governed, but as following their own bent and their own free choice / . . / they are restrained only by love of freedom" (PT, ch. x)

"By reality and perfection I mean the same thing ", (Ethics, part II, prop 6). Norms and other human considerations are therefore not to be referred to another higher realm, but compared with what is apparent. Men often form "general ideas" and "preconceived ideals" Spinoza writes (part IV, preface), blaming nature for being misconstrued when it is themselves who do not fully investigate natural causes. "A thing is termed contingent for no other reason than the deficiency of our knowledge" (ibid) . The same goes for human life and leads to a moralist teleology and politics suiting prefabricated models, whether revolutionary or reactionary..

Common men consider God in a sense that put him as an external being who governs mankind. Man has a tendency to interpret all they encounter as means, as signs of God etc. This leads to sacrifices, rites and cults, which Spinoza criticised as superstitious. To speak of divine rule in anthropomorphic ways as a judge and ruler is to be ruled by dangerous passions, e.g. leading to meaningless bloodshed if one nation’s God tells its people through a prophet to fight another nation and its God. Rather, Spinoza enivisages a tranquil simple faith with a strong practical use (he socialised with Quakers and other Christians for a while in Amsterdam). "God has graven His eternal word in all human hearts. This word requires of us love and righteousness, and nothing beyond these. This is the true universal religion " (Strauss 1965, p. 249)

Religion can degenerate to superstition as Spinoza showed. But other ideological means are just as efficient and lead to obedience and destructive stupidity. A central question if men strive for self- preservation is why do men fight for their own repression?

"Granted , then, that the supreme mystery of despotism, its prop and stay, is to keep men in a state of deception, and with the specious title of religion to cloak the fear by which they must be held in check, so that the will fight for their servitude as if for salvation, and count it no shame, but the highest honour, to spend their blood and their lives for the glorification of one man " Preface, TTP

The answer is that inadequate but useful ideas for a short brutal life, hold us down with power from material strength. The reasons why the mass obeys its rulers are not just pure power, but foremost ideology in a qualified and material sense. Spinoza’s analysis of 17th century ideology, i.e. religion, degenerated to superstition and dominating theories, have been viewed as a useful model for critique and theory of ideology today (see especially Norris 1991 and all of and on Althusser’s work). Etienne Balibar concludes:

If we admit with Spinoza /. . . / that communication is structured by relations of ignorance and of knowledge, of superstition, of ideological antagonism, in which are invested human desire and which expresses an activity of bodies, we must also admit with him that knowledge is a practice, and that the struggle for knowledge (philosophy) is a political practice. In the absence of this practice, the tendentially democratic processes of decision described by the Political Treatise would remain unintelligible.

We understand thereby why the essential aspect of Spinozist democracy is from the outset liberty of communication. We understand also how the theory of the ’body politic’ is neither a simple physics of power, nor a psychology of the submission of the masses, nor the means of formalising a juridical order, but the search for a strategy of collective liberation, for which the password is: to be the greatest number possible to think the most possible (thoughts) , p. 118 in Balibar 1985

Spinoza is a thinker who wants to combine democratism with Machiavellian realism. The multitude must be made to obey. Willingly or with force or out of necessity, all " are compelled to live according to the dictates of reason" (PT, ch 6). Ideology is here useful since it works to keep people in place out of fear, necessity, hope related to fear and anxiety that feed superstition (cause by inadequate ideas). Only for a few is it possible to see ideology, but all "live inside" ideology. Ideology is "true" since it works, it has a true meaning for people Althusser claimed and referred to Spinoza’s theories on error and superstition.

" Such is Spinoza’s attitude when dealing with truthclaims of revealed religion, with prophesies, miracles, divine interventions and the like. These delusive beliefs can be accounted for largely in terms of their social efficiency, i.e. their power to impose obedience, self-discipline and respect for law on an otherwise fractious and well-nigh ungovernable populace. / . . . / But they have no place in any rational religion based on an adequate knowledge of God, a knowledge that conceives ‘his’ attributes and powers as wholly coextensive with - or immanent in - the order of natural necessity " ( Norris 1991, p. 92 -3, referring to Althusser’s work).

Virtue can be seen as ideological masking of power but also as power itself as a means for self- preservation and strive for perfection, for men and states. "Plato had said: all virtue is knowledge. Francis Bacon added: All knowledge is power. Spinoza concluded: Therefore all virtue is power" (David Bidney quoted in Norris 1991, p. 167). Theory for itself and theory in history. Spinoza balanced between both uses of theory.


It is hard to tie up all the different threads that I have picked up in this paper, since they all need one paper each, at least. However as I hope have been clear, my intentions are more chartographic than geological, more cognitive mapping than grinding lenses as Spinoza did.

My overall question is how the Spinozist - Deleuzan "scandalous" ontology applies to practice. Vesa Oittinen poses it pertinently and better than I do:

"Die Frage ist nun, ob das spinozitische Skandalieren in der Metaphysik tatsächlich einem subversiven Anarchismus nach dem Munde redet, wie seine deleuzianische Interpretation als ‘philosophie de l’affirmation pure’ uns versichert" ( Oittinen 1994, p. 101).

The powers of states and multitudes that Spinoza investigates with such cool observation are very important to keep track of as a citizen and thinker. Spinoza enables us to regard our governments and their ideological apparatus with fresh eyes, with adequate ideas. As all things are explained be their acts, and capacities for affecting and being affected, man and his collective efforts will be judged by of what they are capable of. What are we capable of ? What are states capable of ? What makes us and political initiatives joyful or sad, effective or powerless ? Spinoza’s political ontology helps us posing new questions in politics and ontology.


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