Political Treatise, Chap. 1 to 5 by Baruch Spinoza
Reading Group of 13 January, 2022 – Political Treatise, Chap. 1 to 5 by Baruch Spinoza. Facilitator for this session: Simona Ferlini.
Here are Simona’s notes:
I suggested to read the first V chapters of S’s TP for two reasons: 1. Because I think that this work is useful to better understand the tenth chapter of The Dawn of Everything, that about the State, or, better, about “Why the State has no origins”. 2. Because, more important, these are the pages where Spinoza expresses most clearly and most synthetically his key idea that “to exist is to be a cause” – that is, what here he calls power or natural right, and in the Ethics calls conatus or cupiditas, and this allows us to better understand,
retrospectively, what Spinoza says in the Ethics.
As some of you may remember, in our first reading group I said that in my opinion David had never read Spinoza: I stand corrected both by the tweet that Vassily shared, where David puts Spinoza together with Bashkar at the top of the list of his favourite philosopher, and, more important, by a short note he made in a webinar at Beaver 16, with Nika, in 2020: “this reminds me of Spinoza”, he said, “power is both the power to act but also to be acted on, or to affect and to be affected at the same time”.
This short note is important because at first glance what Spinoza says is quite the contrary: power is to affect, that is to be a cause, impotence is to be affected, that is to be subject to external causes. It’s only when one goes more in depth, and examines the idea of “convenire” in the fourth part of the Ethics, that it becomes clear that the relationship with external things can very well be one of mutual empowerment, and that this mutual empowerment is key to the relationships among human beings.
Starting from the 18 th proposition of the Ethics, the value of our relationship with external things is completely overturned: even if it is marked by need, this relationship, and even need itself, is not poverty, but wealth.
It’s not just “that we can never arrive at doing without all external things for the preservation of our being or living, so as to have no relations with things which are outside ourselves”. It’s also that “if we consider our mind, we see that our intellect would be more imperfect, if mind were alone, and could understand nothing besides itself. There are, then, many things outside ourselves, which are useful to us, and are, therefore, to be desired. Of such none can be discerned more excellent, than those which are in entire agreement with our nature. For if, for example, two individuals of entirely the same nature are united, they form a combination twice as powerful as either of them singly. 1 . This last sentence, as you may have noticed, is almost literally the same you encountered in with TP II, 13:
“If two come together and unite their strength, they have jointly more power, and consequently more right over nature than both of them separately, and the more there are that have so joined in alliance, the more right they all collectively will possess.”.
Misery is not in the fact that we belong to the natural order (ordo communis naturae) and therefore we are in need and can’t be alone in producing our effects; on the contrary, misery would be precisely the absence of need, to be alone and to not conceive anything outside oneself. What is good for us as human beings lies precisely in the possibility to increase the multiplicity of things on which our bodies and minds are mutually nourished and changed 2 ; for it is from this multiplicity that it comes the power of the human mind:
Eth. II, 14 Mens humana apta est ad plurima percipiendum, et eo aptior, quo ejus Corpus
pluribus modis disponi potest
1 Ethica, IV, 18 schol. (SO II, 222-3).
2 Ethica, IV, 38 (SO II, 239).
3 . (PROP. XIV. The human mind is capable of perceiving a great
number of things, and is so in proportion as its body is capable of receiving a great number of
To increase it, means to increase the ability of the body and mind to modify itself, and qui Corpus ad plurima aptum habet, is Mentem habet, cujus maxima pars est aeterna 4 v, 39
He, who possesses a body capable of the greatest number of activities, possesses a mind
whereof the greatest part is eternal”
The reason why I thought that David didn’t know Spinoza is that these ideas resonate so deeply with his
thesis that I was bewildered of never finding a quote of Spinoza where it would have been so relevant.
Think for example of the pages in Bullshit Jobs about “the pleasure of being a cause” (Chap. 3, why many of
our fundamental assumptions on human motivation appear to be incorrect), and about the misery of not
being a cause (Chap. 4): we are miserable when we feel we are not a cause because “much of our sense of
being a self, a being discrete from its surrounding environment, comes from the joyful realization that we
can have predictable effects on that environment. This is true for infants and remains true throughout life.
To take away that joy entirely is to squash a human like a bug (…).” 5
The foundational “pleasure at being the cause” is the unstated ground of our being, and the
fundamental violence of prisons consists in putting humans in isolation and stripping them of the
pleasure at being a cause together.
This is the very same thing as Spinoza says, yet David doesn’t even mention him, and justifies his
affirmations on the basis of the findings of a German psychologist, Karl Groos. By now, I think that , rather
than about his knowledge, this not mentioning Spinoza tells us something about David’s method and his
choices in writing: I think he consciously avoided any hint of the call to authority that is so common in our
writing, especially in philosophical writing: the pleasure at being a cause and the expansion of human
existence that comes from the process of common creation are not true because Spinoza said so, but
because we have psychological evidence of it.
Sorry for having been so long on this point, but it was necessary in order to put the chapters we are reading tonight in the right context, and to avoid misunderstandings about what Spinoza says about reason and to be driven by reason. As it may be understandable from what I said until now, “reason” and power – the power to be a cause and to understand are the very same thing: we are reasonable inasmuch our nature expresses itself at the most of its power, and this happens when we think and act together, because “we are projects of common creation”.
It remains time just for some notes about the text we are reading tonight, so I’ll just outline the essentials:
3 Ethica, II, 14 (SO, II, 103).
4 Ethica, V, 39 (SO, II, 304).
5 Children come to understand that they exist, that they are discrete entities separate from the world around them, largely by coming to understand that “they” are the thing which just caused something to happen—the proof of which is the fact that they can make it happen again. Crucially, too, this realization is, from the very beginning, marked with a species of delight that remains the fundamental background of all subsequent human experience. It is hard perhaps to think of our sense of self as grounded in action because when we are truly engrossed in doing something—especially something we know how to do very well, from running a race to solving a complicated logical problem—we tend to forget that we exist.
But even as we dissolve into what we do, the foundational “pleasure at being the cause” remains, as it were, the unstated ground of our being (BJ Chap. 3)
- By now, it is quite clear, I guess, that when Spinoza says “power” it has nothing to do with
“domination”. The term he uses for domination is “authority”
- The concept of “natural right” as it is defined in these pages (just as it happened in TTP) is totally
reversed and taken back to hearth: the idea that God is a legislator whose laws can be disobeyed is
pure superstition (much Epicurus’ objection), there is no transcendent reality of right, individual
right is just individual ability to be a cause, and the only plan where right exists is that of human
- Spinoza totally overturns the idea of Imperium Absolutum: Imperium, power to act, is nothing
other than the union of the rights and powers of the individuals.
1, 4: “to deduce from the very condition of human nature”
Spinoza is just claiming he will draw from a definition of human nature based on
experience as opposed to a definition based on what “ought to be”. It’s up to the readers to
compare this theory with their experience and to decide if this is a sound description of the
real human nature.
2.2 the power, by which natural things exist, and therefore that by which they operate, can be no other
than the eternal power of God itself
1) The very essence of the Universe (God, that is Nature) is to be a cause, to engender effects
(Ethics, Part 1, Prop. XVI: From the necessity of the divine nature must follow an infinite number
of things in infinite ways https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ethics_(Spinoza)/Part_1#prop_16)
Ethics (Spinoza)/Part 1
2) Individual things (and humans amongst them) are also causes, or, in other terms, ways in which
the infinite creative power of God expresses itself. That is, to exist is to be a cause. (I,25, note and
corollarium: “God must be called the cause of all things, in the same sense as he is called the cause
of himself. (…) Individual things are nothing but modifications of the attributes of God, or modes by
which the attributes of God are expressed in a fixed and definite manner
Ethics (Spinoza)/Part 1
3) Part 2, definition VII: “By particular things, I mean things which are finite and have a
conditioned existence ; but if several individual things concur in one action, so as to be all
simultaneously the effect of one cause, I consider them all, so far, as one particular thing”
Ethics (Spinoza)/Part 2
Prop. VI. Everything, in so far as it is in itself, endeavours to persist in its own being. Prop. VII.
The endeavour, wherewith everything endeavours to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the
actual essence of the thing in question
(https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ethics_(Spinoza)/Part_3#prop_6 and 7)
Ethics (Spinoza)/Part 3
4) The endeavour to persist in one’s own being is not a static thing, as the individual being’s essence
is the very essence of God, inasmuch it is expressed in a certain and determined manner
2.3. every natural thing has by nature as much right, as it has power to exist and operate; since the
natural power of every natural thing, whereby it exists and operates, is nothing else but the power of
God, which is absolutely free. /2.4. And so by natural right I understand the very laws or rules of nature,
/ 2.5. natural right, considered as special to mankind, 2.6 of nature, and conceive of mankind, in
nature as of one dominion within another.
There is no such a thing as a natural right special to mankind – right, just as ethics and
justice, is something human that concerns the relationships of humans among themselves.
Mankind is not special.
2.9 Besides, it follows that everyone is so far rightfully dependent on another, as he is under that other’s
authority, and so far independent, as he is able to repel all violence, and avenge to his heart’s content all
damage done to him, and in general to live after his own mind. / 10. He has another under his authority,
who holds him bound, or has taken from him arms andmeans of defence or escape, or inspired him with
fear, or so attached him to himself by past favour, that the man obliged would rather please his
benefactor than himself, and live after his mind than after his own. He that has another under authority
in the first or second of these ways, holds but his body, not his mind. But in the third or fourth way he
has made dependent on himself as well the mind as the body of the other;
Definition of “power” (in Foucault’s sense)
2.11. The judgment can be dependent on another, only as far as that other can deceive the mind; whence
it follows that the mind is so far independent, as it uses reason aright.
It is TTP’s argument about superstition, the Legislator, and the political use of religion
- The pledging of faith to any man, where one has but verbally promised to do this or that, which one
might rightfully leave undone,
This destroys the very foundations of Natural Law theory, that promises have to be kept
(pacta sunt servanda)
- If two come together and unite their strength, they have jointly more power, and consequently more
right over nature than both of them separately, and the more there are that have so joined in alliance,
the more right they all collectively will possess.
- This right, which is determined by the power of a multitude, is generally called Dominion
(IMPERIUM). – or “the State”
“Imperium” is just collective power
- Therefore wrong-doing cannot be conceived of, but under dominion (Peccatum itaque non nisi in
imperio concipi potest) – right and justice are something that concern human relations and
are created by humans
3.2. From Chap. II. Sec. 15, it is clear that the right of the supreme authorities is
nothing else than simple natural right, limited, indeed, by the power, not of every
individual, but of the multitude, which is guided, as it were, by one mind — that is,
as each individual in the state of nature, so the body and mind of a dominion have
as much right as they have power. And thus each single citizen or subject has the
less right, the more the commonwealth exceeds him in power
The physics of power (capabilities) starts: an absolute (unlimited) power (imperium
absolutum) is and can only be that of the Multitude as a whole
- 3 it can by no means be conceived, that every citizen should by the ordinance of the commonwealth
live after his own mind, and accordingly this natural right of being one’s own judge ceases in the civil
state. I say expressly “by the ordinance of the commonwealth,” for, if we weigh the matter aright, the
natural right of every man does not cease in the civil state.
Making fun of Hobbes: if natural right is the very essence of humans, their ability to do and
to exist, it is simply not possible to alienate it and to surrender it to a sovereign: the power
of citizens always remains as a threat to authorities, and only ceases when there are no
authorities and power is in the hands of all of the members of the multitude together (4.1
the right of the supreme authorities is limited by their power) 4.4 So, too, though we say, that men
depend not on themselves, but on the commonwealth, we do not mean, that men lose their human
nature and put on another; nor yet that the commonwealth has the right to make men wish for this or
that, 4.6 Contracts or laws, whereby the multitude transfers its right to one council or man, should
without doubt be broken, when it is expedient for the general welfare to do so. –
5.5. When, then, we call that dominion (imperium / collective power / way the forces are connected)
best, where men pass their lives in unity, I understand a human life, defined not by mere circulation of
the blood, and other qualities common to all animals, but above all by reason, the true excellence and
life of the mind.
(I guess David would have said: “but above all by imagination”, but it amounts to the same)
5.6 by the dominion which I have said is established for this end, I intend that which has been established
by a free multitude,
as different from that which is established by a legislator through a discipline of obedience, like Moises did
5.7 But what means a prince, whose sole motive is lust of mastery, should use to establish and maintain
his dominion, the most ingenious Machiavelli has set forth at large,
Actually, Machiavelli’s answer to the question: “how do we manage to establish a good social order” was:
let’s have a Prince. Spinoza is saying that Machiavelli’s solution is self-contradictory.