Spinoza’s Political Philosophy

Author: Sandra Leonie Field (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.)

Many find Hobbes’s political conclusions unacceptable. University syllabi often pair Hobbes with Locke, who argues that the state’s authority is delegated from the people, and must be used for the people’s benefit. When the state behaves tyrannically (in the judgement of the people), then they are justified in rebelling. In our contemporary world, people argue back and forth about what kind of government malfeasance might justify resistance, and what form that resistance might justifiably take.

But Spinoza’s response to the Hobbesian argument is strikingly different. Where Hobbes, Locke, and many threads of current discourse seek to answer the question of what oppressed subjects have a right to do, what they can be justified in doing, Spinoza specifically avoids such questions. Instead, he asks instead what generates different kinds of behaviour in a populace.

“I have laboured carefully, not to mock, lament, or execrate, but to understand human actions; and to this end I have looked upon passions, such as love, hatred, anger, envy, ambition, pity, and the other perturbations of the mind, not in the light of vices of human nature, but as properties, just as pertinent to it, as are heat, cold, storm, thunder, and the like to the nature of the atmosphere, which phenomena, though inconvenient, are yet necessary, and have fixed causes, by means of which we endeavour to understand their nature.” 

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