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Spinoza: the Enemy or the Rebel?



The intense political news-cycle of the year 2020 has offered us virtually unlimited occasions for philosophical reflection. From a pandemic which radically challenged our being-with-others, to an inflamed debate regarding the role of science in leading politics, which brought out serious questions of social epistemology. However, the most important feature of the philosophical landscape of 2020 was perhaps the deep reflection regarding the forms of civil disagreement, disobedience, and rightful rebellion.

Many public figures belonging to the philosophical world have declined to engage in such discussions, relying on a worldview that legitimizes activism in the fact itself of action. This attitude has its merits as it avoids the inhumane risk of pontificating about people’s political engagement from the very safe space of an ivory tower. However, it can be argued that analyzing the current state of the world is not just a possibility, but a duty for someone who believes in philosophy as a gateway to engaging reality beyond prejudice and comfort-based structures.

One of the most subtle (but disruptive) opposers of prejudice and oppression is Baruch Spinoza: descendent of refugees, political and religious outcast, radical philosopher. While the Western vulgata has identified Locke and Rousseau as the putative fathers of liberal democracy, the factual commitment to Spinoza’s political philosophy is as fundamental as it is unrecognized. Therefore, it is to Spinoza that we must once again turn, to understand the birth of civil disobedience in the face of oppression. The centerpiece of this reflection should be the political distinction between rebellion, intended as sedition, and resistance, meaning the inevitable eruption of reformative energy deriving from the suppression of human rights. The moral assessment of rebellion – which Western democracy have alternatively and conveniently described as a duty, a right, or a repugnant subversion of order – is beside the point, for Spinoza. Nevertheless, he describes a long arc intended as a guide to maintain social peace and at the same time warn governments against the risks of oppressing their people.

A child of persecution, Spinoza wrote his political works during an age of scorching religious intolerance, censorship, and harassment. The foreseeable consequence of this historical climate was an understandable caution on his part, employed especially in the construction of brutally realistic political theory. In his two main works dedicated to the subject – the Theological-Political Treatise and the unfinished Political Treatise – Spinoza devotes brief but carefully crafted pages to the figure of the rebel, the internal enemy of the current order. 

Before turning to these pages, however, it is important to remind the reader that Spinoza’s political philosophy – aligned to the zeitgeist of the 17th century – saw the social order as born from a contract between individuals: their natural right towards reason, mental independence, and security is expressed through constitutional legitimacy. It is impossible to negate those rights without thereby invalidating the very constitution that functions as their regulator, and thus give rise to a rebellion. Spinoza – ever the pragmatic realist – affirms this simple fact in succinct terms. “A contract can have no force except by reason of its utility…no one can doubt how much more advantageous it is to man to live according to the laws and certain dictates of our reason”.[1] The political mandate given to the rulers and representatives under a fair constitution is oriented towards the good of all people, and that good is identified with “living under the dictate of reason”. Restrictions to unbridled libertarianism, according to Spinoza, are just and justified, insofar as they can bring about peace and security. For example, the right to bear arms and defend oneself, which is a natural right, is regulated by the State since citizens defer their protection to their lawful representatives.

Preoccupied with maintaining peace and safety for all, especially in his tumultuous age, Spinoza fiercely opposes agitators and demagogues who rile up the population against the established order, seeking a transformation of the State to further oppress minorities. Bearing in mind the massacres and religious persecutions that made millions of victims during the early stages of the modern era, the Theological-Political Treatise urges citizens to find lawful ways to challenge unjust regulations. Armed with all the best intentions of democratic founding fathers, Spinoza says: “If someone shows that a law is contrary to sound reason, and therefore thinks it ought to be repealed, if at the same time he submits his opinion to the judgment of the supreme power and in the meantime does nothing contrary to what that law prescribes, he truly deserves well of the republic, as one of its best citizens”.[2] This paradigm for social change aims for the best case scenario, in which the “supreme power” is open to challenges and corrections coming from the oppressed. Of course, warns Spinoza, some will attempt to exploit democracy: “If he does this to accuse the magistrate of inequity, and make him hateful to the common people, or if he wants to nullify the law, seditiously, against the will of the magistrate, he’s just a troublemaker and a rebel”. Rebels, for Spinoza, seem to be despicable citizens who attack the constituted order for personal gain, and not with the aim of combating oppression.

The definition of rebel as someone who attempts to nullify the law, not recognizing its rule, is juxtaposed to Spinoza’s conception of enemy: someone who lives outside the State, not recognizing its authority as a subject, or as an ally. The actions of these two figures, the enemy and the rebel, motivate the State’s repression. As a political realist, Spinoza knows that States will always attempt to crack down on sedition, in self-defense, whether their laws are justified or not. As a political scientist, not interested in judgmental deliberations but committed to unveiling the processes of social interaction, he accepts that this will happen and that the designation of enemies and rebels will always carry the internal justification of a State’s self-preservation.

But Spinoza is not a conservative. One of the most interesting political axioms of his philosophy is that “whatever formal powers the constitution may give the king, the possibility of discontent among his subjects, and the consequent threat of a coup or a rebellion, limits those powers”.[3] Let us boil down the political and philosophical significance of those words, especially in the 17th century. 

You cannot indefinitely oppress your people. 

Spinoza certainly recognizes the formal authority of the sovereign or political class, and therefore their ability to hinder the rights of minorities. He is also (as we said before) uninterested in determining whether this oppression is justified or unjustified. As a political realist, he claims that it is impossible to oppress people forever. Human beings are not sponges, as my friend and fellow Spinozist, Yitzhak Melamed, is fond of repeating. They cannot absorb oppression. Instead, a more apt comparison is an elastic spring: oppressed citizens are subject to the law of action and reaction, and their malcontent is detonated by the impossibility of lawful paths to social recognition, as we saw earlier. Rebellion, “troublemaking”, and ultimately revolution – these are all consequences of oppression, as certain as the laws of nature.

A Spinozist lens applied to 2020 urges us to not discuss whether activists are legitimately challenging political authority. Certainly, they are not. The very act of standing up against governmental and systemic oppression is technically rebellion and is therefore unlawful. Instead, we should reflect on the reasons that charged civil disobedience as an elastic spring, since “we should impute rebellions, wars, and contempt for, or violation of, the laws not so much to the wickedness of the subjects as to the corruption of the state. Men aren’t born civil; they become civil”.[4] Repeatedly depriving your citizens of the possibility of lawful resistance against oppressive laws mathematically leads them to lawless resistance. The social contract, this all-important staple of democracy which has been held sovereign by political thinkers since the Modern Age, is dissolved by the structures of power when they fail to be responsive to the suffering of their most oppressed subjects. 

Resistance does not seek justification. Rebellion, for Spinoza, is not a moral entity. It is the inevitable consequence of oppression and turns a citizen into an enemy. The final warning of Spinoza, written in the final weeks leading to his death, resonates more actual today than it did in 1677: “A free multitude is guided by hope more than by fear, whereas a multitude which has been subjugated is guided more by fear than by hope”.[5] Hope is the fuel of rebellion, and freedom – the freedom to fight one’s oppression – is its natural consequence.

[1] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chapter XVI [III/191].

[2] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chapter XX [III/241].

[3] E. Curley, Designs for Stable States – Editorial Preface to the Political Treatise, in Spinoza, The Collected Works, volume II, Princeton University Press, 2016.

[4] Spinoza, Political Treatise, chapter V [III/295].

[5] Spinoza, Political Treatise, chapter V [III/296].

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