CHAPTER 10: LUTHER, MACHIAVELLI, HOBBES, AND SPINOZA
MACHIAVELLI AND LUTHER are morally influential authors about whom books on moral philosophy rarely contain discussions. This is a loss, because it is often in books such as these, rather than in those by more formally philosophical writers, that we discover the concepts which philosophers treat as the given objects of their discussion in the course of manufacture. Machiavelli and Luther were authors much in vogue among the Victorians. Hegel and Carlisle, Marx and Edward Caird, all recognized in them the masters of their own society; and in this they were right. Machiavelli and Luther mark in their different ways the break with the hierarchical, synthesizing society of the Middle Ages, and the distinctive moves into the modern world. In both writers there appears a figure who is absent from moral theories in periods when Plato and Aristotle dominate it, the figure of “the individual.”
In both Machiavelli and Luther, from very different points of view, the community and its life are no longer the area in which the moral life is lived out. For Luther the community is merely the setting of an eternal drama of salvation; secular affairs are under the rule of the prince and the magistrate, whom we ought to obey. But our salvation hangs on something quite other than what belongs to Caesar. The structure of Luther’s ethics is best understood as follows. The only true moral rules are the divine commandments; and the divine commandments are understood in an Occamist perspective-that is to say, they have no further rationale or justification than that they are the injunctions of God.
To obey such moral rules cannot be to satisfy our desires; for our desires are part of the total corruption of our nature, and thus there is a natural antagonism between what we want and what God commands us to perform. Human reason and will cannot do what God commands because they are enslaved by sin; we therefore have to act against reason and against our natural will. But this we can do only by grace. We are saved not by works, for none of our works are in any way good. They are all the product of sinful desire.
We could not be further away from Aristotle; he is, said Luther, “that buffoon who has misled the church.” The true transformation of the individual is entirely internal; to be before God in fear and trembling as a justified sinner is what matters. It does not follow from this that there are not actions which God commands and others which he forbids. But what matters is not the action done or left undone, but the faith which moved the agent. Yet there are many actions which cannot be the fruit of faith; these include any attempt to change the powers that be in the social structure. Luther’s demand that we attend only to faith and not to works is accompanied by prohibitions uttered against certin types of work. He condemned peasant insurrection and advocated the massacre by their princes of peasant rebels against lawful authority. The only freedom he demands is the freedom to preach the gospel; the events that matter all occur in the psychological transformation of the faithful individual.
Although Luther had medieval Catholic predecessors on many individual points of doctrine, he was and boasted that he was unsurpassed in his upholding of the absolute rights of secular authority. In this lies his importance for the history of moral theory. This handing over of the secular world to its own devices is made the easier by his doctrine of sin and justification. For since in every action we are at the same time totally sinners and totally saved and justified by Christ, the nature of this action as against that does not come into the picture. To suppose that one action can be better than another is to be still using the standards of the law, from bondage to which Christ delivered us. Luther once asked his wife, Katharina, if she was a saint, and when she replied, “What, a great sinner such as me a saint?” reproved her and explained that everyone justified by faith in Christ was equally a saint. In such a perspective it is natural that the word merit should be expunged from the theological vocabulary, for it becomes impossible to raise the question of the merit of one action as against another.
The law of God becomes, therefore, only a standard against which we judge ourselves guilty and in need of redemption; and the commandments of God become a series of arbitrary fiats for which to demand any natural justification is at once impious and meaningless. Good and right are defined in terms of what God commands; and the tautologous character of “It is right to obey God” and “God is good” is not thought to be a defect, but rather to redound to God’s glory. “God is all-powerful” remains, of course, a synthetic proposition; what God can do is all that the most powerful man can do and far more. So God is not only an omnipotence, but an arbitrary omnipotence. Aquinas had almost civilized Jahweh into an Aristotelian; Luther turns him into Nobodaddy for good. And at this point the resemblances between Luther and Calvin are more important than the differences.
For, firstly, Calvin too presents a God of whose goodness we cannot judge and whose commandments we cannot interpret as designed to bring us to the τέλος to which our own desires point; as with Luther, so with Calvin, we have to hope for grace that we may be justified and forgiven for our inability to obey the arbitrary fiats of a cosmic despot. Secondly, even where Calvin appears most at odds with Luther, in his treatment of the realm of the secular, there is an inner identity. Luther took St. Paul’s attitude to the bureaucrats of the Roman empire as the model for his own attitude to the Elector of Saxony; Calvin took the attitude of the prophets to the kings of Israel and Judah as his model in dealing with the magistrates of Geneva. But although Calvin’s theocracy makes clergy sovereign over princes, it sanctions the autonomy of secular activity at every level where morals and religious practice do not directly conflict with such activity. Provided that sex is restrained within the bounds of marriage and that churchgoing is enforced on Sundays, political and economic activity can proceed effectively unchecked by any sanctions whatsoever. Only the most obviously outrageous are ever condemned, and the history of Calvinism is the history of the progressive realization of the autonomy of the economic. Luther, like Calvin, bifurcated morality; there are on the one hand the absolutely unquestionable commandments, which are, so far as human reason and desires are concerned, arbitrary and contextless, and on the other hand, there are the self-justifying rules of the political and economic order.
“The individual” is the subject of both realms; individual precisely because he is defined as against the God who creates him and as against the political and economic order to which he is subordinated. “For the first time,” wrote J. N. Figgis of the period immediately after the Reformation, “the Absolute Individual confronts the Absolute State.”25 The state becomes distinct from society; in the Middle Ages social ties and political ties have a unity, just as they did for the Greeks, even if the unity of feudalism and the unity of the πόλις were quite different. A man is related to the state not via a web of social relations binding superiors and inferiors in all sorts of ways, but just as subject. A man is related to the economic order not via a well-defined status in a set of linked associations and guilds, but just as one who has the legal power to make contracts. Of course this social process of transition from status to contract is not only slow and uneven, it never takes place once for all. Time and again, different sections of the community experience the shock of the dissolution of patriarchal ties; time and again, consciousness of the free market and the absolute state is sharpened. But in every case, what emerges is a new identity for the moral agent.
In traditional societies, and even in the Greek πόλις or under feudalism, a man defines himself in terms of a set of established descriptions by means of which he situates and identifies himself vis-à-vis other men. One reason why it is highly misleading to talk of a logical gulf between value and fact is that it suggests that in every society it is equally true that we can first set out the facts of the social order, and then as a second, logically independent task, inquire how in this society one ought to behave. But this could only be true for all societies if it was always necessarily the fact that one could describe a social order without making use of the Concepts of duties and obligations; whereas in fact for many societies we cannot provide a specification of the minimal social identity of an individual (as son of a chief, or a villein, or member of such-and-such class or family), let alone of his full social role, without specifying him as having such-and-such obligations or duties. To this the reply will be that the fact that in such a society such a man is held to have certain duties can only be a fact about that society. It does not commit us to say that the man ought to perform them. But this is again highly misleading. For it implies that it is possible to say, for example, “It is not true that a son of a chief ought to do such and such”; but in the language of the tribe this is simply a false evaluative statement, and in the language which we use to describe the tribe it is simply a false descriptive statement. What, of course, is true is that we can characterize the life of the tribe without accepting their values; but this implies, not that we can discuss independently of their stock of social descriptions how in this kind of society one ought to behave, but rather that we can always raise the additional question of whether this kind of society’s continuance is a good or bad thing. What we often cannot do is characterize their social life in their factual terms and escape their evaluations.
There are, of course, many societies where the language of factual description is such that it avoids commitment to evaluation in this way, and the transition from the traditional forms of precapitalist society in western Europe to the individualist and mercantile society of early capitalism is a transition of this kind. It is, therefore, not just that Aquinas’ Christian Aristotelianism and Luther’s Christian fideism are based on alternative and competing metaphysical schemes; it is also the case that they are providing an analysis of and insight into different moral vocabularies. Of course, in the case of Luther particularly, the analysis which is implicit in his preaching is causally efficacious; Luther makes sense of the moral experience of his hearers, and in so doing, leads to the acceptance of a framework in which their experience comes to be interpreted in stock Lutheran ways. The crucial feature of the new experience is that it is the experience of an individual who is alone before God. When Luther wants to explain what an individual is he does so by pointing out that when you die, it is you who die, and no one else can do this for you. It is as such, stripped of all social attributes, abstracted, as a dying man is abstracted, from all his social relations, that the individual is continually before God.
Thus the individual no longer finds his evaluative commitments made for him, in part at least, by simply answering the question of his own social identity. His identity now is only that of the bearer of a given name who answers as a matter of contingent fact to certain descriptions (red haired or blue eyed, laborer or merchant), and he has to make his own choice among the competing possibilities. From the facts of his situation as he is able to describe them in his new social vocabulary nothing at all follows about what he ought to do. Everything comes to depend upon his own individual choice. Moreover, the sovereignty of individual choice is not only a consequence of his social vocabulary, but of the theorizing derived from theology.
In Aristotelian ethics, as in the less explicitly formulated moralities of traditional societies, human needs and wants, understood in various ways, provide the criteria for judging human actions. The Aristotelian account of the practical syllogism is a model here, where the major premise is always of the form that someone desires (or needs, or would benefit from) something. Practical reasoning begins at this point. But the facts of human desires and needs can in the sixteenth century no longer provide a criterion for the choices of the moral agent, or a major premise for his reasoning, at least if he takes seriously the charge of Lutherans and Calvinists alike that his desires are totally depraved. Even the popular theology of the Counter Reformation takes a much blacker view of human nature than Aquinas did. Because all desires are corrupt (although as always, sex usually takes the worst beating, with political rebellion its only close competitor) choice remains open. Between salvation and damnation, between profit and loss, between the multitude of competing policies which claim his attention, the individual has to choose.
Three main concepts of moral import therefore emerge from the Reformation period: that of moral rules as being at once unconditional in their demands but lacking any rational justification; that of the moral agent as sovereign in his choices; and that of the realm of secular power as having its own norms and justifications. It is not surprising either that the new concepts of rules and of the agent take on a new look when placed in this secular context. Moreover, the secular context had already found its own Luther. The author who is the Luther of secular power is Machiavelli. Like Luther, he has his medieval anticipators. Within the context of natural law medieval theologians had often argued that certain political ends justified means that were normally not permitted; the removal of tyrants by assassination is a common example. Powicke has explained how, from Frederick II and Philip the Fair onward, “The next step was to identify the natural law of necessity with the natural impulses of a political community, its rights to natural frontiers and self-assertion, or even to identify necessity not with natural law but with the dictates of history.” This trend, so far as Realpolitik is concerned, was already adequately embodied in the medieval state, and the modern state has merely worsened Realpolitik by being more powerful. But Machiavelli is its first theorist.
A great deal of effort has been expended to show that, contrary to the Elizabethan dramatists, and in spite of his notorious admiration for Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli was not a bad man. This is partly because his was clearly an attractive personality, and it is widely although incorrectly felt that somehow one cannot be both bad and attractive. But more importantly it is because Machiavelli’s private and personal preferences were certainly for democracy (in his sense of the word-that is, extended limited rule, with small masters sharing power with large merchants, excluding of course servants and propertyless men), for generosity, honesty, and candor. But none of this must be allowed to confuse the issue. For Machiavelli the ends of social and political life are given. They are the attainment and holding down of power, the maintenance of political order and general prosperity, and these latter, in part at least, because unless you maintain them, you will not continue to hold power. Moral rules are technical rules about the means to these ends. Moreover, they are to be used on the assumption that all men are somewhat corrupt. We may break a promise or violate an agreement at any time if it is in our own interest so to do, for the presumption is that, since all men are wicked, those with whom you have contracted may at any time break their promises if it is in their interest. Men must act not as in some abstract way they think they ought to act, but as other men act; since other men are influenced to some extent by generosity, clemency, and the like, these have their place. But still they only have their place as well-designed means to the ends of power.
Machiavelli’s is the first ethics, at least since some of the sophists, in which actions are judged not as actions, but solely in terms of their consequences. He is therefore committed to the view that consequences are calculable, and most of The Prince and the Discourses on Livy is devoted to explaining how this is so. The study of history yields empirical generalizations from which we can derive causal maxims. The use of these maxims is to influence other people. Here again Machiavelli is both an heir of the sophists and an anticipator of modern writers. He must understand our evaluations as means to influence other people, rather than as answers to the question, What am I to do? It follows also that Machiavelli treats human behavior as governed by laws, and by laws of which the agents themselves are usually unconscious. For Machiavelli it is possible to take a very simple view of these laws, since he is prepared to treat human nature, its motives and aspirations, as timeless and unchanging. Generalizations derived from the ancient Romans can be applied without difficulty to sixteenth-century Florence. Nonetheless, “the individual” appears as starkly in Machiavelli as in Luther. He appears thus because society is not only the arena in which he acts but also a potential raw material, to be reshaped for the individual’s own ends, law-governed but malleable. The individual is unconstrained by any social bonds. His own ends-not only those of power, but also those of glory and reputation-are for him the only criteria of action, apart from the technical criteria of statecraft. Thus we meet in Machiavelli for the first time what will become a familiar crux: the combination of an assertion of the sovereignty of the individual in his choices and his aims with the view that human behavior is governed by unchanging laws. It is true that Machiavelli distinguishes between those whom he considers in the one capacity (ruler or potential rulers) and those whom he considers in the other (the ruled). But he is unconscious of any possible contradiction.
Although he pays verbal obeisances to the distinction between ethics and politics, he makes clear the irrelevance of drawing it too sharply. Such a distinction depends upon there being a distinction between private and public life of such a kind that I can consider what it is best for me to do without considering in what political order it is requisite for me to live, either because I treat the political order as a given and unalterable context of private action, or because I think the political order irrelevant for some other reason. Machiavelli resembles Plato in making it clear on how many occasions ethics and politics merge. Because from his age onward it becomes increasingly possible for more and more people to play a part in altering or modifying political institutions, the political order is less and less often a given and unalterable context. Because the power of the state continually grows, that power impinges more and more upon the private citizen and upon the alternatives between which he has to make his moral choices.
Finally there is a lesson to be learned from Machiavelli’s example as much as from his explicit teaching. In periods in which the social order is relatively stable all moral questions can be raised from within the context of the norms which the community shares; in periods of instability it is these norms themselves which are questioned and tested against the criteria of human desires and needs. Both Plato and Aristotle, although they lived out the decline of the πόλις, take its form and its institutions more for granted than Machiavelli does the forms and institutions of the Italian city-state. Machiavelli is more aware of the external threats to Florence from the larger powers than Aristotle ever was of the threat of Macedon to Athens. Living in an age of flux, Machiavelli understood the transience of political orders, and it is this which in one way makes his appeal to the permanence of human nature so striking. For the counterpart to a belief in the transience of political and social orders might easily not have been a belief in a timeless human nature with permanent needs against which these orders can be measured and in terms of which they can be explained.
It is, by now at any rate, clear that following the age of Luther and Machiavelli, we should expect the rise of a kind of moralcum-political theory in which the individual is the ultimate social unit, power the ultimate concern, God an increasingly irrelevant but still inexpungeable being, and a prepolitical, presocial timeless human nature the background of changing social forms. The expectation is fully gratified by Hobbes.
“Being in a Gentleman’s Library, Euclid’s Elements lay open, and ’twas the El. libri I. He read the Proposition. By G. . , sayd he (he would now and then sweare an emphaticall Oath by way of emphasis), this is impossible! So he reads the Demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a Proposition; which proposition he read. That referred him back to another, which he also read. Et sic deinceps (and so on) that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that trueth. This made him in love with Geometry.”26 The writer is John Aubrey, the subject is Thomas Hobbes, and the year of the episode referred to is 1629. Hobbes was already forty-one. His intellectual background to this date is symbolized by his rejection of Aristotle and his translation of Thucydides. The Aristotle who is rejected is the Aristotle of late, degenerate scholasticism. The complaint against this Aristotle is that he confuses the investigation of the meaning of words with the investigation of the things for which words stand. And with this complaint Hobbes rejects the whole Aristotelian epistemology of matter and form, essence and existence. In doing so, he believes that he is avoiding obfuscation; he is leaving himself with a universe composed only of concrete individuals, words and the bodies which they signify. Yet, in fact, Hobbes’ own investigations assume-and necessarily assume-the form of a conceptual inquiry; for he wishes to lay bare the notions of right, justice, sovereignty, and power. He finds a non-Aristotelian model for his inquiries in Euclid’s Elements. The impulse for these inquiries was that which sent him to Thucydides.
Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War was written, as Machiavelli’s works were, in the belief that history can be instructive. It exhibits the downfall of Athens through the misdeeds of the Athenian democracy. The moral is the political corrosiveness of democracy, the villain Cleon the tanner, the archetype of envious and aspiring men. The England of the 1620’s was full of envious and aspiring men. Not surprisingly, since the great price revolution which had begun in the previous century had destroyed the traditional economic patterns of the English landholder. Fortunes were made and lost; individuals rose in standing through adroit use of money; the relationships of small and large gentry, of great noblemen and their lesser dependents, were in flux. England stood on the edge of a market economy in which the feudal and aristocratic ties were in danger of being displaced by the cash nexus. The state power embodied in the crown stood in new and uncertain relationship to its subjects. The particular strand in the cash nexus which taxation represents was the point at which the crown’s assertion of what it claimed were traditional duties met the subjects’ assertion of what they claimed were traditional rights. (It is always a sobering thought that the incometax accountant searching for legal loopholes for his business clients is the spiritual descendant of Pym and Hampden.) Hobbes foresees danger in the claim to rights against the crown and translates Thucydides as a solemn warning against the threat to sovereignty of rival and warring social factions. It is as the loyal subject of the Stuart kings that Hobbes translates the admirer of Pisistratus and Pericles.
Yet Hobbes is entirely untypical in the manner of his intervention in the quarrels between the sovereign and his subjects. The hierarchical society of an earlier England is one in which personal, social, and political loyalties intermingle and support one another. Rights and duties are defined within a single, if complex, system. The justification of any particular move in the feudal game lies either in referring to the positions of the actors or to the rules of the game. What the economic revolutions, and particularly, in England, the price revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth century bring about is a breaking of these ties. Most of the traditional social landmarks remain; what is questioned is their interrelationship. God is still believed in, and the priest is still in his parish. But one can question in a more radical way what links the priest to God. The elements of feudal society are all present- servants and other propertyless men, small gentry, nobility, the king; what is in question is the mode of their interrelation. The age is ripe for theories of authority; and the two most popular sources of theorizing are the scriptures and history. The doctrine of the divine right of kings, with its model of King David, vies for Biblical warrant with Presbyterian doctrines of ecclesiocracy disguised as theocracy. The appeal to historical precedent is used to prop up both the doctrine of divine right and the doctrine that the sovereign is dependent on Lords and Commons. Hobbes appeals to neither. He breaks with the whole discussion by his appeal to a new method, learned from Galileo, which will enable him not merely to understand the elements of social life, but to estimate the worth of appeals to history or to scripture.
The method is that of resolving any complex situation into its logically primitive, simple elements and then using the simple elements to show how the complex situation could be reconstructed. In doing this we shall have shown how the situation is in fact constructed. This is the method which Hobbes took Galileo to have employed in the study of physical nature. In the case of physical nature, of course, the theoretical reconstruction of complexity out of simplicity has no moral function; but in the case of human society the rectification of our understanding may provide a rectification of how we conceive our place in society and consequently of our beliefs as to how we ought to live.
When society is resolved into its simple elements, what do we find? A collection of individuals, each of which is a system whose end is its own self-preservation. The fundamental human motives are the desire to dominate and the desire to avoid death. “Men from their very birth, and naturally, scramble for everything they covet, and would have all the world, if they could, to fear and obey them.”27 “Continually to be outgone, is misery. Continually to outgo the next before, is felicity. And to forsake the course, is to die.”28 The only limitations upon a “perpetual and restless stirring of power after power” are death and the fear of death. The individuals who are driven by these motives know no rules except those precepts which instruct them in how they may preserve themselves. Before society exists there is nothing but competition for domination, a war of each against all. Of this situation it is true that “Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.” Nonetheless reason instructs the individual that he has more to fear than to hope for from this war; death is a more certain outcome than domination. To avoid death, he must exchange peace for war, agreement for competition; and those articles of agreement which reason urges as prudent even in a state of nature constitute the Laws of Nature. The first is “that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of war”; the second, “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself”; and the third, “that men perform their covenants made.”29
Yet this is clearly not enough to assuage the fear of death. For while we may agree with other men in order to make ourselves mutually secure from each other’s aggression, how can we be sure that others will abide by these agreements and not merely use them to lull us into a false sense of security so that they may then attack us more effectively? In the state of nature there are no sanctions by means of which contracts may be enforced. “And covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”30 To give the covenants the backing of a sword there has to be an initial contract by which men transfer their power to a common power which becomes sovereign among them. This social contract effects the creation of “that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal God, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.”31
The commands of the sovereign power, whatever the political nature of that power-democratic, oligarchic, or monarchical- furnish a second set of precepts which demand obedience. The only limitations upon the obedience which the sovereign may demand is at the point where the motive for assenting to the transfer of power to the sovereign in the original contract, that is, the fear of death, becomes a motive for resisting the sovereign himself, namely at any point at which the sovereign threatens to take away one’s life. Otherwise the only point at which one may cease to owe the sovereign obedience is that at which the sovereign ceases to be able to perform the very function for which he was given the power in the first place, that of protecting the lives of his subjects. That is, the sovereign who becomes powerless is no longer owed obedience, is no longer indeed a sovereign. Rebellions are always wrong while they are unsuccessful. Successful rebellion however is the assumption of sovereignty and has all the justification of sovereignty behind it. It is, because successful, not rebellion.
The rules which bind the individual are therefore of two kinds, pre- and post-contract, natural and social. To use the word social is to be reminded of one of the oddest of Hobbes’ confusions, that he appears not to distinguish the state and society, to make political authority not dependent upon the prior existence of, but constitutive of, social life. There are of course situations where the disappearance of the state’s power of repression may lead to the rise of anarchic violence. But there are and have been plenty of situations where an orderly social life continues without such a power being present. Indeed if one contrasts eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century urban life, where the state’s repressive power is close at hand, with the moral life of those other periods where it is often absent or far away, one might draw the conclusion that the state’s presence is a demoralizing factor. This would be-at any rate, so far as the argument has taken us already-as ill-founded, because as one-sided, a conclusion as Hobbes’. But it underlines Hobbes’ error.
According to Hobbes the social rules are rules which we obey for two kinds of reason: first, because they are enforced by the sanctions of the sovereign; and second, because our desires are such that we prefer to obey the sovereign, in order to escape death at the hands of others, except where we are liable to incur it at the hands of the sovereign. The rules which constitute the law of nature we obey simply because they are precepts which tell us how to get what we want (domination) and avoid what we do not want (death). Both sets of rules are of the form, “If you want to get X, you must do Y.” They are thus factual statements which may be true or false; and they are selected out of the set of such statements for inclusion in the list of natural and social precepts because the desires named in the antecedent clauses are the desires which all men do, as a matter of contingent fact, have.
Hobbes’ position on this point has been attacked on two kinds of ground. The first of these attacks is misconceived. It is that moral rules are not the kind of prudential, factual statement that Hobbes makes them out to be, that moral rules are simply of the form “You ought to do so-and-so” and contain no reference to desires or inclinations. What is quite true is that in some societies (notably in modern Western ones, such as our own) this form of moral rule has been predominant; but it is not at all clear why the adjective moral should be restricted to this form of rule. To this it may be replied by Hobbes’ critics that the moral rules in fact used by Hobbes’ contemporaries were of this form and that Hobbes has simply misrepresented and misanalyzed them. The difficulty with this version of their contention is that it is difficult to know how to interpret utterances of the form “You ought . .” where the absence of any hypothetical clause referring to desires may be due either to the fact that no such reference is intended or to the fact that such a reference is so clearly and commonly shared that it does not need to be made explicit. But it is important to note that Hobbes, in giving desires a central place in the moral picture, is at one with his predecessors; it is only gradually that Protestantism and other influences cause morality and desire to appear to be sharply contrasted. Hence this attack on Hobbes is perhaps slightly anachronistic.
That Hobbes did, however, misrepresent and misanalyze his contemporaries’ use of moral rules remains true. Aubrey has a story of how, outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, an Anglican clergyman who had seen Hobbes give alms to a poor man tried to improve the occasion by asking of Hobbes (who was reputedly impious and atheistic) if he would have given the alms, had not Christ commanded it. Hobbes’ reply was that he gave the alms because not only did it please the poor man, but it pleased him to see the poor man pleased. Thus Hobbes tries to exhibit his own behavior as consistent with his theory of motives, namely that human desires are such that they are all self-interested. The kind of lie told by Hobbes according to this anecdote is a kind of lie indulged in more often by philosophers than by other men, a lie told in the interests of saving the face of a theory. It remains a lie and a culpable lie, although one that Hobbes needed to tell. For the root of his error is here. Human nature and human motives are not and cannot be what he says they are.
According to Hobbes any regard for the welfare of others is secondary to a regard for, and indeed is only a means to, my own welfare. In fact, both in ourselves and in others we find other-regarding and self-regarding motives side by side. What could justify us in representing the former as a secondary offspring of the latter? What justifies Hobbes is his view of the contract as intervening between the state of nature and social life. But what justifies his view of the contract? Not any historical or anthropological evidence that man ever is or was like this. Hobbes does in passing refer to the American Indians, but his whole argument is based on a method that makes him independent of historical evidence. He is resolving timeless human nature into its timeless elements, not recounting an evolutionary progress. The story of the contract must then be read as an extended metaphor; but it can only function, even as a metaphor, if it is an intelligible story, if it satisfies certain elementary requirements of logical coherence. This it fails to do.
The Hobbesian contract is the foundation of social life in the sense that prior to the contract there are no shared rules or standards; indeed, the story of the contract functions as some kind of explanation of how men came to share social norms. But any exchange of words, written or spoken, between men which it would be appropriate to characterize as a contract or agreement or making of promises can only be so characterized in virtue of there already existing some acknowledged and shared rule according to which the use of the form of words in question is understood by both parties to be a binding form of words. Apart from such an already acknowledged and accepted convention, there could be nothing which could be correctly called a contract, agreement, or promise. There could perhaps be expressions of intention; but in a Hobbesian state of nature there would be every reason to suspect that these were designed to mislead. The only available standards for interpreting the utterances of others would prevent any conception of agreement. Thus Hobbes makes two incompatible demands of the original contract: he wishes it to be the foundation of all shared and common standards and rules; but he also wishes it to be a contract, and for it to be a contract, there must already exist shared and common standards of the kind which he specifies cannot exist prior to the contract. The concept of an original contract is therefore ruined by internal self-contradiction and cannot be used even to frame a metaphor of a coherent kind.
If this is so, does not the whole Hobbesian case founder? It does. Hobbes wishes to picture a transition from a state of affairs where aggression and fear are the only motives and force is the only effective instrument to a state of affairs where there are acknowledged standards and legitimate authority. Clearly such transitions are sometimes made; an authority comes to be regarded as legitimate and is obeyed although originally imposed by force in at least this sense: the question of who is the legitimate authority in any state and the question of who has the power there do not necessarily receive the same answer. It is quite clear that Dutch William and the German “fools and oppressors called ‘George’!”-Byron’s description for them-had the power in Britain after 1689, when the legitimate authority rested with King James II and his descendants. But this also makes it clear that the concept of legitimate authority has application only within a context of socially accepted rules, practices, and institutions. For to call an authority legitimate is to appeal to an accepted criterion of legitimacy. Where there is no such criterion there can only be power or rival powers-as when an occupying army imposes its rule on a defeated country; and whether there is such a criterion or not is a matter of the acceptance by people in general of the criterion. De facto power can become de jure legitimacy. It was Hobbes’ insight to see this; indeed every inhabitant of England saw it in the transition from the de facto power of the Cromwellian army to the de jure legitimacy of the Commonwealth. But what Hobbes failed to see was that the acceptance of an authority is in fact the acceptance of rules which give others and ourselves the right to act in certain ways or the duty to act in certain ways, and that to have right is not to have power, while to have a duty is not to act from fear of the power of others. Hobbes equates “having a right to” with “having the power to” for at least two reasons. He saw correctly that authority is usually enforced by power, that authority often relies on the sanction of force. And he has such a limited view of human motives that he cannot provide any other explanation for acceptance of authority than the fear of such sanctions. But in fact an authority accepted only because men feared the consequences of not accepting it, or only because they feared the sanctions which it deployed, could not function with the effectiveness with which most political authorities do function. Political institutions only have the stability they have because most men most of the time grant a willing obedience to their authority, and men do this because they see their own desires and those the satisfaction of which the authority safeguards coinciding. So does Hobbes. But he has such a limited conception of human desires that he necessarily has a limited conception of political authority.
This limited conception of motives, desires, and activity insures that most of the substance of human life goes unmentioned in Hobbes. We have a sovereign power so that our lives may continue securely; but what are we to do with our lives within the framework of order thus secured? Hobbes does say that men are inclined to peace rather than to continuance in a state of nature not only by the fear of death, but also by “desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them.” But what is commodious living? Hobbes has already said that “there is no such finis ultimus, utmost aim, or summum bonum, greatest good, as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers,” and his reason for saying this is his view that human felicity consists in “a continual progress of the desire from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter,” and that men are driven on by “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.” This is a picture in which men are driven from desire to desire without the question, What kind of life do I want? ever arising. Hobbes’ conception of the possible objects of desire is as limited as his conception of motives. Why?
The root of the trouble is perhaps twofold. Hobbes’ theory of language commits him to the view that all words are names and that all names are names of individual objects or of collections of individual objects. Hence all objects of desire must be individual. At the same time, Hobbes’ determinism, with its theological reinforcement (for Hobbes believes in God, a material though invisible deity, not the God of Christian orthodoxy, but the author of nature, who expresses his will in the precepts which in fact govern our natures), leads him to treat our desires as given and unalterable. The criticism of our desires and their rational remolding have no place in the Hobbesian system. It follows that, inevitably, our desires are for one individual object after another; and thus desires cannot include the desire for a certain kind of life, the desire that our desires should be of a certain kind.
Nonetheless, we owe to Hobbes a great lesson. This is that a theory of morals is inseparable from a theory of human nature. Just because Hobbes commits himself to a conception of a timeless human nature he commits himself to an unhistorical answer to the question of what had destroyed political order in England in the 1640’s, replacing it by the question of what social and political order as such consist in. But although this question is dangerously overgeneral, it is a type of question which increasingly invades and must invade the domain of moral philosophers. In particular, we cannot hope to ask and answer questions about freedom without specifying the nature of the social background to the moral life. But this is a class of question which Hobbes himself never asks. He discusses the freedom of the will only in order to stress that all human acts are determined; and he discusses political freedom only within the limits allowed by the limitless power of the sovereign. That this should be so perhaps requires explanation. It is remarkable that Hobbes should be as impressed as he was by the fact of civil war and as unimpressed as he was by the declared and avowed aims of those who fought that war. But he was unimpressed and he was so because his theory of motives led him to suppose that high-minded ideals were necessarily but a mask for the drive to domination. Consequently he takes no stock in the appearance of freedom as an ideal and a goal, and in this he is blind to the most important social change in the history of this time. Certainly the appeal for freedom often did mask religious intolerance and economic ambition. But did it always? Could men have in fact specified their desires and their objects of desire in the kind of social order that was then emerging without invoking the concept of freedom? That Hobbes can ignore this question reinforces the view of him as a backward-looking philosopher. He remains preoccupied with the vanishing bonds of a former pattern of social life which is falling apart. In private life he himself was as concerned to escape dangers as to pursue more positive ends; when he saw the Civil War coming he went to France, “the first,” as he says himself, “of those that fled.” But if he feared death, he showed no signs at all of aspiring to domination. There is thus a crucial gap even between the values exhibited in his own quiet life at Malmesbury and those which he claims to pervade human life.
Hobbes is at every point a contrast to his only peer as a moral philosopher in his own century, Spinoza. It is not just that Spinoza’s life unites philosophy and practice, that Spinoza manifests that very impersonal love of truth which he proclaims in his writings as the highest human value. It is also that he brings together a set of concepts which are forward-looking in that they are going to be constitutive of much of later human life: freedom, reason, happiness. The state exists to promote positive human goods, not merely as a bulwark against human disasters. Religion is a matter of truth primarily and of the magistrates only secondarily.
In the ordinary practice of pursuing moral judgments Spinoza sees two errors embodied. The first is that our standard of judgment is arbitrary and capricious. When we criticize a man as defective in some way, as being or doing what he ought not to be or do, we judge him, so Spinoza argues, against some picture we have formed of a proper or ideal man. But this picture is inevitably an arbitrary construction, put together of our own limited and chance experiences. Moreover, when we judge a man we say that he ought not to be as he is in a way that implies that he could be something other than he is. But this implies an illusory notion of freedom. Since everything is determined, nothing can be other than it is. Our ordinary state of mind, then, in which we pass everyday moral judgments, is one of confusion and illusion.
How so? Spinoza’s answer is that ordinary sense experience, and the ordinary uses of language which embody that experience, are inevitably a matter of conditioning, of association, of blurred meaning. Contrast the clarity of a mathematical system where every symbol has one clear and distinct meaning, and where it is therefore unambiguously obvious what propositions are entailed by and entail what other propositions. Thought becomes rational as it approaches the condition of geometry, geometry now being conceived of as the embodiment of the only possible approach to rigor and clarity. The ideal of a deductive system is not, however, merely an ideal for knowledge; this ideal mirrors the nature of the universe. The universe is a single web in which the whole determines every part. To explain any state of affairs is to understand that and how it must necessarily be as it is, given that other things are as they are. If we try to envisage anything apart from the system, we are trying to envisage something whose occurrence could not be made intelligible, since to be intelligible is to be exhibited as part of the system. The name of this single system is “Deus, sive Natura” (God or Nature).
There is therefore no good distinct from or apart from the totality of things. The attributes of God, infinity and eternity, belong to the single substance which is at once Nature and God. Is Spinoza here simply an atheist retaining the name God? Or is he a serious pantheist? Novalis was to call him the “god-intoxicated man”; Plekhanov was to hail him as the ancestor of materialist unbelief. There is a twofold answer. The first part of it is that compared with traditional Judaic or Christian theology Spinoza is an atheist; he believes in a single order of nature, and miraculous intervention is ruled out. The natural scientist need not reckon with supernatural irruptions or disturbances. The importance of this belief in the seventeenth-century scarcely needs to be stressed. But, nonetheless, Spinoza did not simply dismiss the theological vocabulary; he treated it, as he treated ordinary language, as a set of expressions which needed reinterpretation to be made rational. He is thus the ancestor of all those skeptics who have treated religion not as simply false, but as expressing important truths in a misleading way. Religion needs not so much to be refuted as to be decoded. What is the relevance of this to morals?
The ordinary Jewish or Christian believer thinks of God as a being apart from the universe, and of the divine commandments as external precepts which he ought to obey. Spinoza did not undervalue the utility of what he saw as this superstitious morality of external obedience for ordinary uncritical people. But the counterpart of understanding God as identical with Nature is understanding ethics as the study not of divine precepts but of our own nature and of what necessarily moves us. Our nature as human beings is to exist as self-maintaining and self-preserving systems; this is true of the nature of all finite beings, which are subsystems of nature itself. Our unity as beings is disguised from us by our manner of thinking of ourselves as a unity of two quite distinct types of substance, body and mind. Those who believe in the duality of body and mind have, according to Spinoza, an insoluble problem on their hands as to how these can be related. But this problem disappears when we understand body and mind as simply two modes or aspects under which we have to conceive ourselves. We are a unity of body and mind. This is perhaps one point in the argument when we cannot avoid asking whether what Spinoza says is true. But where we ask this, we realize that the difficulty with Spinoza’s system lies both in its form and in the use of some of the key terms. The form is of a deductive system in which all truths can be known by sufficiently careful reflection upon the meaning of the terms used in the propositions which express them. Consider Spinoza’s claim that all men pursue their own interests or his assertion that all events have causes. These look at first sight like factual claims which could be refuted by citing counterexamples, whether that of a man who neglects his own interests to care for those of others, or that of a particular event without a cause. But Spinoza holds his positions to be true simply because they follow from the axioms of his deductive system, the axioms being propositions which he thinks no rational being could deny, because their denial appears to entail a contradiction. And the meaning of the key terms is such that we are left with no language in which counterexamples could be presented.
Spinoza’s difficulty here is that he wants his propositions to have the content of factual truths, but to be guaranteed in the way in which the propositions of logic and mathematics are guaranteed. These wishes are incompatible. Factual assertions have the content that they have because their truth excludes some possible states of affairs from being actual. If it is true that it is raining, then it cannot be the case that it is not raining. But the assertions of logic and mathematics are compatible with any and every possibility in the world of fact. They cannot be falsified by the world being other than they assert it to be. To say that they are true is simply to say that they are framed in accordance with the appropriate rules. (I say nothing here about the status of such rules.) This is why they possess the kind of certainty and the kind of clarity which Spinoza wishes his propositions to have. But he also wishes these propositions to be factual. He wants to be able to use his propositions as truths about man and nature with a factual content. Is the whole system then just a product of confusion?
The only fruitful way to approach Spinoza’s ethics is to ignore the geometrical mode as far as is possible. We have to treat Spinoza’s contentions as a mixture of factual claim and conceptual analysis, and we often have to ignore obscurities rooted in terms which are never satisfactorily explained. So it is with Spinoza’s treatment of the unity of body and mind. But what we can draw out from his scheme is an important attempt to understand the relation between reason, the passions, and freedom.
For Hobbes man is simply driven by his passions. Deliberation has the role simply of intervening between passion and action as a middle link in the chain. The role of reason is simply to note facts, to calculate, and to understand; reason cannot move to action. For Spinoza this is a perfectly good description of man in his ordinary, unelightened state. For in this state human beings are systems interacting with other systems, but unaware of the nature and causes of this interaction. By these encounters men are caused pleasure or pain, depending on what affected them at what time and the state they were then in. Objects which become associated with pleasure are desired; those associated with pain become objects of aversion. In pursuing pleasure and pain we are therefore being affected by causes outside rational knowledge and control; and so also with those complex evocations of pleasure and pain, the emotions of pride, joy, pity, anger, and so on. But this nonrational realm only dominates us for as long as we remain unconscious of its nature and power. As we form adequate notions of our emotions we cease to be passive in relation to them. We recognize ourselves for what we are, we understand that we cannot be other than we are; but to have understood is to have been transformed from what one was. One no longer sees oneself as an independent being confronting this, but as part of the system of necessity. To have seen this is to be free. Self-knowledge and only self-knowledge liberates.
Why does knowledge free us? Because, as we know more, we recognize that what we desire, hate, love, take pleasure or find pain in, has been the result of chance and accidental association and conditioning. To know this is to break the association. We recognize that pleasure and pain arise from our “power and perfection” as self-moving, self-preserving beings. We do not blame others, and we do not blame ourselves. Envy, hate, and guilt therefore vanish. External causes are not hindrances, for if they are real, the wise man knows them to be necessary and does not treat them as hindrances. He is therefore not frustrated. The joy of the man who has freed himself through knowledge of nature and of himself as part of nature is happiness. Genuine virtue is simply the realization of this state in which knowledge, freedom, and happiness are combined.
The possession of freedom in Spinoza’s sense is of course compatible with being unable to do a great many things, provided that it is impossible that what hinders and prevents one should be altered. Spinoza thinks it impossible that one should rage against what could not be otherwise, for one can frame no conception of the impossible and hence cannot desire it; and if it is impossible that things should be other than they ate, we cannot possibly desire that they should be. If we do so desire, we are irrational and our desire is not informed by genuine knowledge and adequate ideas. About this Spinoza is clearly wrong; knowledge is not a sufficient condition of being free. But it is often a necessary condition. I am not free merely because I get what I want, if I am not free to understand the causes and nature of my wants and reassess them. Spinoza’s first great importance is that he sees the emotions and desires not as merely given, but as transformable. Aristotle had envisaged us as controlling and ordering our emotions and desires, but for Spinoza human nature appears even more malleable and transformable, and the largest transformation is that from being patients to being agents, from being those whose lives are determined by factors of which they are unaware to being those who are molded by themselves. The development of human powers becomes the end of the moral and political life. In this light both politics and theology are reinterpreted.
Spinoza agrees with Hobbes in seeing the need for the state as arising from the fact that all men pursue their own interests and seek to extend their own power. But for Hobbes the reasoning which justifies me in handing over myself and my rights to the sovereign is purely negative-only thus shall I escape being overpowered and killed by others. For Spinoza obedience to the sovereign is justified because thus civil order is procured and men are left free to pursue knowledge and self-liberation. Spinoza agrees with Hobbes in equating “having a right to” with “having the power to”; but he has a quite different picture of what enlightened men have the power to do and desire to do. It is not just that they desire an end of hate, envy, and frustration in themselves; but they will be gravely impeded unless they can diminish hate, envy, and frustration in others. Spinoza’s enlightened man is therefore cooperative with others in the search for knowledge, and this cooperation is based not on fear, as all cooperation in Hobbes is, but on a common interest in the goods of self-knowledge and knowledge. Thus although Spinoza confuses “having a right to” with “having the power to” as much as Hobbes does, his picture of society is not disturbed in the same way, just because he recognizes human goals of a different kind. The state is for Spinoza at best a means; politics is an activity to procure the prerequisites for the pursuit of rationality and freedom. Spinoza is thus the first philosopher to make central to ethics two concepts which are defined to express the distinctively new values of modern society, those of freedom and reason.