Society & State: The Philosophies Of Thomas Hobbes And Baruch Spinoza

The period from the end of 16th century to the beginning of 19th century is the historical framework of the New Age. A characteristic feature of this time was the establishment of the rule of bourgeois relations in Europe. In the context of the constantly improving practice, science was a necessary mean of its rationalization. The tasks of an intensification of production required an urgent progress, especially in the sphere of natural science. Moreover, the development of natural science in the 17th -18th centuries was carried out together with the development and improvement of material production. Science and production appeared as two interrelated components.

The tasks of systematizing the knowledge, as well as problems in public sphere stimulated the development of humanitarian sciences, including philosophy. One of the most prominent representatives of that period’s philosophy were Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. This paper compares and contrasts the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza.

The political-legal doctrine of Thomas Hobbes, who was the public official and the philosopher during the era of the English bourgeois revolution, is of considerable interest. Thomas Hobbes’ trilogy “On the Body”, “On the Citizen” and “On Man” is a holistic and systematic review of his philosophical, social, and political views. It is the pinnacle of his philosophical thought. However, the most important social and political views of Thomas Hobbes are contained in the final work of his philosophical system “Of the Citizen” in his treatise Leviathan. Leviathan is a mighty monster of biblical legends and was the state symbol. In the treatise, Hobbes expounded his doctrine of man, state, and law. The Hobbes’ philosophy of law and state has a pronounced statist character, i.e. recognizes the active participation of the state in economic life of society.

The fundamental contrast between natural human condition and state is essential in Hobbs’ doctrine. Hobbes proceeds from the fact that nature has created men equal in relation to his physical and mental abilities. This equality of people means an equal opportunity to harm each other, in combination with three main causes of war, rooted in human nature: competition, diffidence, and glory. According to Hobbs, the natural state is transformed into the universal war of all against all. The absolute power of the state is the guarantor of peace and implementation of natural laws. Following Machiavelli and Grotius, Hobbes began to examine the state not in the view of theology, but in the light of reason and experience.

The requirement for a solid and strong state power objectively corresponded to the interests of the emerging bourgeoisie. In relation to the supreme state power, Hobbes identified three types of states:

  • The power is in the hands of an assembly, and every citizen has the right to vote – democracy;
  • The power is in the hands of an assembly, but only selected parts of citizens have the right to vote – aristocracy;
  • The supreme power is concentrated in one’s hands and is called a monarchy.

Hobbes considers monarchy as the best form of state. The ruler-sovereign, based on reason, should take care of spiritual and material elevation of subjects, the economic development, and increase of the level of morality. The ruler is assisted with laws, the obligatoriness of which is guaranteed by the public authority.

The next expressive democratic feature of Hobbes’ concept is his interpretation of the social contract as a natural equality of all people, which has become the principle source of the contractual relations. Although the concept of society, set out in the Leviathan, may seem undemocratic at first glance, but, in fact, it contains a profound democratic meaning. In this regard, one should pay attention to his understanding of citizen’s sovereignty.

A new rationalist approach to the problems of society, state, and law has been further developed in the works of Dutch philosopher and political thinker Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza entered the history of political and legal thought as a progressive thinker and humanist, a theological critic of political and legal ideas, and one of the creators of secular doctrine of state and law. The basis of the philosophical system of Spinoza is the doctrine of a single substance. According to Spinoza, God and substance merge in the single concept. God is not above or beyond nature, but He is right in it, as its immanent reason. Thus, Spinoza rejected a personal God and understood Him as the universal reason of the world.

These ideas are the essence of pantheism. In his doctrine of substance, Spinoza has overcome the contradiction of dualism. The substance exists in itself, excludes the existence of any other principle and is the cause of itself (causa sui). According to Spinoza, the world is dominated by rigid determinism.

Just as Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza proceeded from the natural state of society, understanding it as a period when the mind does not prevail in social life, but the law of nature does. This law leads each person to the concern about personal success only and satisfaction of his/her needs, which follow from the nature of man and the instinct of self-preservation. As well as Hobbes, Spinoza characterized this natural condition as “Homo homini lupus est.” According to Spinoza, society and state arise in order to ensure people’s safety as well as to provide mutual assistance.

Although Spinoza was guided by the same characteristic of the state of nature as Hobbes, and agreed with him in distinguishing basic forms of government (democracy, aristocracy and monarchy), he did not recognize neither absolute nor a constitutional monarchy, and was a supporter of democracy. Spinoza believed that the best form of state is the one in which all citizens participate in governance.

Spinoza supported a strong state power. He taught that the law with respect to the citizens should be extremely high: it is directly proportional to the number of people who have entered into a social contract, which marked the beginning of the state power. However, unlike Hobbes, who defended the absolute monarchy, which had an unlimited right in relation to the subjects, Spinoza believed that the supreme power cannot interfere in the inner life of people and dictate the laws of conscience, the freedom of which he advocated. In addition, Spinoza fought for the freedom of thought and expression, not only from the constraints of state power but also from the religious authority. Freedom, according to Spinoza, can best be achieved under the democratic form of government.

In accordance with his ethics, Spinoza insisted that the government should be arranged rationally. A state, which seeks to ensure that its citizens do not live in constant fear, is rather infallible than virtuous. However, one needs to lead people in such a way so that it will seem to them that they are not led, but live on their own and decide their affairs quite freely. Spinoza believed that people should be restrained only by love for freedom, the desire to increase the estate and the hope to achieve an honourable status in public affairs.

Both Hobbes and Spinoza, starting from the same premises and using the same methodology, came to different conclusions, coinciding in some aspects. The core of Spinoza’s doctrine was the natural law ideas, combined with the theory of social contract. The common principle of Hobbs and Spinoza doctrines was the assertion that individuals own the personal rights and freedoms inherently, and some of them are not alienated, but retained by a society. Individuals consciously participate in creation of a society by means of a legal act – the agreement concluded between individuals, which defines the mutual distribution of rights and responsibilities between them.

One can see the difference between Spinoza’s and Hobbs’ political thought in the “Theological Political Treatise.” For example, Hobbes considers the natural law as a “precept, or general rule, found out by reason”, which does not coincide with natural right and even confronts it at some point. In turn, Spinoza combines two phenomena of natural law and natural right into one concept – “the right and ordinance of nature”. This fact allows him to introduce the natural right as one of the major phenomena of the universal laws. Based on the understanding of human nature, Spinoza deduced the laws of social system, which rest on the foundation of human mind.

Both Hobbes and Spinoza believed that the essence of any right could be allocated only from the inner nature of man. The essence of everything lies in its effort to maintain its existence and act according to its nature. Then, for a human, it means the preservation of life by any means, and the pursuit of maximum pleasure as an expression of internal activities, which help to identify the essence of human nature. It also means the desire to minimize the suffering, as the manifestation of external activity that prevents understanding of his/her essence.

However, Spinoza went ahead Hobbes and implemented the postulate of de-anthropomorphization. Some categories of values such as goodness, beauty, and justice, which appeared in philosophical thought, as a result of illusory subjectivity and anthropomorphization of reality, were presented by Spinoza without the objective content. However, since any philosophical category requires value characteristics, Spinoza initially considered good and evil, right and justice as subjective forms of imagination. Then he developed the rationale for their objective existence in reality, such as a discrepancy between essence and existence, and between the laws of nature in general and the laws of human nature. Thus, the method of objectivism is a way to construct abstract entities. As a result, the natural right appeared as the ideal that a positive law should rely on.

Introducing the concepts of natural right and social contract as a theoretical truth, Spinoza showed that, regardless of the historical origin of the state and society, they must be arranged in such a way as if they were based on the voluntary consent of individuals to recognize their inherent natural rights.

Later, Spinoza replaced the concept of social contract by the wording, according to which the commonwealth is set up along the natural course of thing “either by reason to eliminate common fear or through desire to avenge a common injury”. In such a way, Spinoza derogates himself from the Hobbes’ provisions and proceeds to the Stoic natural law understanding of the nature of the state. He wrote about it:

“The difference between Hobbes and me, about which you inquire, consists in this, that I ever preserve the natural right intact so that the Supreme Power in a state has no more right over a subject than is proportionate to the power by which it is superior to the subject”.

One more difference between Hobbes and Spinoza lies in the fact that Hobbes believed that individuals in the state should renounce all rights, except the right to life and civil peace. In turn, Spinoza insisted on the inviolability of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and public expression of one’s beliefs. The morally healthy society cannot exist without the ability to exercise freedom of thought, conscience and opinions. Spinoza valued spiritual freedom of citizens so highly that he declared it as the main goal of public life. He was convinced that freedom as a goal of public life is best manifested in a democratic society that is best suited to the natural state, since in such a state “no one transfers his natural right so absolutely that he has no further voice in affairs, he only hands it over to the majority of a society, whereof he is a unit”.

Thus, the comparison and contrast of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza revealed that they both profoundly posed the problem of man as a natural and social being, as a subject of society, the state and culture. They reframed the understanding of human freedom and introduced many important political and legal ideas into scientific circulation. Despite the fact that some of their concepts were subjected to rethinking in subsequent centuries, having lost the status of universality, their heritage, in particular the doctrines of the natural law, joined the world’s political and legal thought.

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