Political Philosophy: Comparative Analysis of Spinoza’s and Hobbes’s Approaches to The State

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In the 17th century, political philosophy was widely practised as a discipline adhering to the psychological-realist school. Whereby, theories of governance and the state were theorised based on what humans are, not as what the state ‘wants them to be’ (Spinoza, Tractactus Politicus 1/1). The perspective of political philosophy was to analyse the role of government and the state in terms of fundamental human motivations and psychology. In this perspective, government was observant to the ways in which socio-political structures are fundamental to the human experience, and how they shape individual behaviour. Analogously, the state was viewed as a powerful entity, as it is today, that was formed to regulate the behaviour of its citizens, by having some influence on the affective processes of individuals lives. Contrast, to do today’s governments which are dominated by the ‘market state’, where governments argue that they will regulate the market in such a way to maximise opportunity. This approach is in stark contrast to the 17th Century approach, whereby according to Spinoza the state’s pejorative is to provide liberation and empowerment to its citizens. Contrast, Hobbes’s naturalistic approach to the state which is one based firmly on the assertion of the sovereign instilling a sense of fear into the citizenry, so that they abide by the rules and laws of the state. In this essay, I will argue that Spinoza’s account of the state is philosophically more justifiable than Hobbes’s and ought to be used as a model for current political leaders.

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Spinoza is one of the key political philosophers of the 17th century. His political philosophy of hope is centred on the syllogism that the state has one purpose; that is, to maximise liberation and empowerment for its citizens. In doing so, Spinoza argues that the state will foster such objectives more effectively if it does so by providing hope rather than relying on a system of fear to subjugate its citizens. Hence, Spinoza argues that in order to achieve a just state, the state itself must opt to maximise civil liberties, through the promotion of hope, peace, and trust.

Spinoza’s politics of hope is centred around the continuity of his ethical and political objectives. Spinoza argues that the key ordeal of the state is develop and foster a vision of human empowerment, that enables the completion of individual empowerment to be realised. Here, Spinoza differs from more modern liberal philosophers, in arguing that individual empowerment cannot be achieved without the direction of the state to facilitate collective empowerment. Here Spinoza argues that “first to understand as much of Nature as suffices for acquiring such a nature; next, to form a society of the kind that is desirable, so that as many as possible may attain it as easily and surely as possible (Treatise on the Emendation of Intellect Section 14).” Here Spinoza clearly argues for a society where individual empowerment, through the acquisition of knowledge of one’s nature, is first and foremost. Spinoza’s metaphysics offers not only a practical element, but most fundamentally an element that contributes to individual empowerment, by knowing of our nature and thus extending what we can do. This requires one to focus on the character of the generic terms which constitute the second kind of knowledge, that is the way that humans can overcome their falsity and amass an active and adequate knowledge. For Spinoza, this consists of actively and automatically shifting one’s view from using their imagination to the rational basis that is inherent in one’s intellect. The personal activation of their intellect arises through the creation of joint notions, which express the universal properties of all things. Hence, for society to achieve empowerment, individuals must properly utilise their reasoning functions.

Contrast, Hobbes’s political psychology which rests firmly upon his belief in natural law. Hobbes affirms that reason can only distinguish some ‘eternal and immutable’ natural laws that govern individuals conduct. Such principles are laws which are given by our nature, rather than by God. Hence, Hobbes is right in establishing that reason is knowable and does not require divine intervention (contrast to Spinoza). Hobbes’s philosophy is deep-rooted by two fundamental principles: namely, that rational imperatives preserves an individual’s life as well as promoting peace; and are a means in which the promotion of goods and peace can be harnessed and preserved. Hobbes thus combines an egoist form of moral psychology and conceputalises morality through natural law. He argues that people’s state of nature, is ultimately a state of terror and war, if and only if they are the judges of right and wrong. As according to Hobbes our individual rationality can only guide us to what is right and wrong, which is often characterized by fluctuating aversions and appetites. This view is guided by Hobbes’s normative belief that by the sovereign allowing people to be guided by their appetites, they see that war is the inevitable consequence of such appetites.

Hobbes argues that as rational actors, people implicitly know that war is not desirable, as it is a threat to one’s self-preservation, but rational actors ought to also acknowledge that the absence of war, that is - peace, is a good outcome. Also, according to Hobbes, the means of ensuring the peace is irrelevant as the peace is the ultimate good; and that justice is good as it is a means to make peace. Hence, Hobbes’s moral philosophy is centred around peace and the means in which humans can achieve the best life. Morality is not inherent to human’s, it is not found in the natural state (not sociable), morality is the consequence of the value which humans themselves attach to their own self-preservation, which defines the basis for all goods. Thus, morality is a human construct, justified fundamentally by the extent to which it furthers human interests. For Hobbes, morality is governed by rational self-interest and is understood by acting with obedience to the moral law – which is only possible when the civil law is based upon natural law, with the application of punishment. Hence, according to Hobbes, only in a state of nature, where agents agree to be guided by civil law, can peace be realized.

Hobbes’ view of the state, is one based firmly on the assertion of fear. Hobbes argued in the De Cive, “men’s natural disposition is such that if they are not restrained by fear of a common power, they will distrust and fear each other.” Here Hobbes makes the argument that the state, at its most fundamental level, is intent on replacing the pervasive anxiety of the state of nature that is inherent in individuals and replace it with a more attentive and less enervating form of fear: fear of the sovereign. For Hobbes, his primary motivation is to enable individuals to mutually agree to conform to authority, and thus advocates to establish a ‘sovereignty by institution’, that is, a natural order, where individuals submit to the sovereign out of fear of violent persecution. For fostering an environment of fear, is the primary way in which the sovereign can secure enduring obedience to the laws which they prescribe of the state. Of all passions, that which enclineth men least to break the Lawes, is fear. Nay…it is the onely thing… that makes men keep them (Leviathan 2.27). Spinoza accepts that the state, or in this instance, the ‘commonwealth’ must must ‘preserve the causes that foster fear and respect’ but dismisses Hobbes’ role of fear. Spinoza not only argues that it is more beneficial to govern ‘more by benefits than by fear’ (TP 9/14), but also claims that the definitive purpose of the government is to ensure liberty for its people from fear, and to foster an environment that promotes peace freedom. Spinoza’s ultimate claim is that a state which promotes security for its citizens, in the form of hope without fear, is able to liberate its citizens from fear, and thus able to create a state conducive to the ideals of freedom and peace.

Spinoza’s political philosophy rests firmly on the assumption that, if one is subject to fear by another, then they are also subject to oppression, as to act on the foundation of hope, is to enjoy the innumerable benefits of freedom. In TP 5/6 Spinoza argues that “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. Here Spinoza claims that the former wishes to cultivate life; whilst the latter, care about avoiding death. Moreover, the former is willing to live life for themselves and their personal ideals; whilst the latter, is subjugated to live for the victor. Hence, Spinoza argues that those belonging to the former are free; whilst those belonging to the latter are slaves.

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Spinoza is ultimately advocating, similarly to Hobbes, to establish a system whereby citizens are obedient to the state. Afterall, a state’s stability and its very existence is borne from its ability to both enforce, as well as, secure individual’s obedience to the laws of the state. Hobbes and Spinoza differ on how to best achieve obedience. Hobbes argues that fear of punishment is the only way to ensure obedience; whilst, Spinoza argues that providing hope for citizens is a more effective way of securing obedience. Why does Spinoza argue that hopeful obedience is a more effective method of citizen compliance than fearful obedience? For Spinoza, the hopeful individual is ‘eager to live for themselves’, that is hopeful disobedience involves an individual completing one’s duty willingly. Whereas, the fearful individual is ‘compelled by evil, acts like a slave, and lives under the command of another’, in other words, fearful obedience necessitates the person being constrained by the state with force, to live the life that the state intends, not the individual. In arguing for a metaphysical state, where the government leads through hopeful obedience, rather than fearful obedience. Spinoza in this sense argues for a liberal state where citizens can voluntarily work and are able to live their lives the way they see fit, without normative interferences from the state. Moreover, if an agreement is formed between state and agent, this ultimately leads, in the eyes of Spinoza, to a more stable state; and has the capacity to free people from fear and tyranny, so that they can act from virtue.

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The Concept of Political Freedom and Freedom of Faith in Spinoza’s and Hobbes’ Works. (2022, December 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from
“The Concept of Political Freedom and Freedom of Faith in Spinoza’s and Hobbes’ Works.” GradesFixer, 07 Dec. 2022,
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