Spinoza’s Politics of Immanent Transcendence

Authors: Joseph Bermas-Dawes (PhD candidate at DePaul University.) & A. Kiarina Kordela (Professor of German at Macalester College.)

Essential to Spinoza’s argumentation in the Theologico-Political Treatise is the link between power, truth and obedience.1 Spinoza analyzes these terms not by contrasting religion and politics but rather by likening them. Obedience –to either God or political authority– can be produced out of ignorance and superstition when a subject’s passions are manipulated through fear of punishment or hope of reward. This obedience, however, “passes into love” when the decrees of authority –God or the state– are seen not as “human law” which is “laid down by man for himself … with a certain object,” but as “divine command” which always “involve[s] necessity or truth.”1 Obedience that results out of love rather than fear and that perceives laws not as decrees of some potentate but as eternal truths, similar to scientific truths, coincides with freedom. For “man is free, in so far as he is led by reason,” and so obeying laws based on their veracity, and not out of fear of punishment, is “to love [authority] out of free choice.”2 In this ideal or scientific religion and political state, true faith and obedience to the laws of political authority would become indistinguishable from reason, that is, indistinguishable from observing eternal truths. This overlap of obedience and reason is the ideal of biopower: biopolitical authority bases itself on the illusion that the function of knowledge is to reveal objective or eternal truths rather than to sustain authority. Biopower, therefore, would appear to be the realization of Spinoza’s ideal State in which subjects would read laws not as the prescriptions of authority, obeying out of fear of state or divine violence, but as the apodictic propositions of scientific law, infallible and, therefore, impossible to transgress.

However, as Foucault and other thinkers of biopower have noted, the presumably ‘objective knowledge’ of biopoltical discourse hides the fact that, in truth, this knowledge is enunciated from, and sustains, a position of power. The underside of the pastoral power of the biopolitical state is the sovereign power it supposedly overcame. Crucially, as Spinoza knows, the difference between these two forms of power lies not in the effect –which in both cases is obedience– but in the subject’s perspective and motive. What motivates obedience can be “love, or fear or (as is more frequently the case) … hope and fear together” —but, “in any motive whatever,” the fact is that one obeys and acts “in submission to the sovereign, and not in virtue of his own authority.” Both forms of power strive to produce obedient subjects; what differs, however, and in fact decreases, in the passage from fear to love, and from there to reason, is the desire for resistance. For “he is most under the dominion of another who with his whole heart determines to obey another’s commands.” 3 But we love the one who has dominion over us only when his commands appear to us as eternal truths grounded on reason. In Spinoza’s words, political or “[d]ivine rights appear to us … [as] commands, only as long as we are ignorant of their cause; as soon as their cause is known … obedience passes into love of God,” hence, “[r]eason … leads us to love God, but cannot lead us to obey Him.”4 In our relation to authority, there is no difference between love and reason –in both cases we do not experience ourselves as obeying– and where there is no obedience, there is no question of resistance either. This is why, unlike sovereignty, it is almost impossible to resist biopower, since here the motive of obedience is reason, insofar as the decrees of the law appear to the subject as eternal truths.

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