IV. The Social Contract of a Democratic State

In constructing his conception of the state, Spinoza starts from the view of social contract theorists of his time that individuals in the state of nature - that hypothetical time before the invention of civil society - have a natural right to all resources that ensure them as much power as they can acquire over others for the sake of realizing their desires.18 As a consequence, the state of nature for Spinoza is similar to that of Thomas Hobbes. It is a place of continuous strife guided by the constant presence of “force” and the sense that anyone standing in one’s way is an enemy who must be defeated.19 No doubt, then, fear and uncertainty permeate the state of nature. To overcome these conditions, individuals by mutual agreement decide to live together in accordance with the terms of a social contract or “compact” by which the rights of each person will be protected. In this situation, reason, rather than “force and desire,” governs their circumstances.20 Here, by mutual consent, individuals leave the state of nature and form a civil society where all “enjoy as a whole the rights which naturally belong to them as individuals.”21

Now, in choosing to form a new “compact” to escape the uncertainty of the state of nature, the citizens construct a new state with its own power.22 But will the power be used for the stated purposes embedded in the social contract? Spinoza’s Machiavellian realism reflects the fact that placing power into the hands of anyone, even when good intentions are to guide the use of that power, always evokes worry about whether the power will be used well or poorly. Faced with this uncertainty, people must ponder the options before them and choose among the alternatives, placing the highest priority on the greatest of the several goods while shunning the least of the evils.23 In this case, people choose the new social contract because it represents the hope that a democratic state will, on the whole, use power more in keeping with people's vital needs than would be the case were such a social contract not in place.

Why should we place such hope on a social contract that embraces democracy? Why not a social contract that is more in keeping with the absolutist form of government that Hobbes propounded? Spinoza's answer is that democracy is “consonant with individual liberty.”24 In saying this, Spinoza makes the achievement of liberty the main objective of a decent society, and not just security as some might say is Hobbes’s objective. Additionally, liberty is best protected in a democracy.

The main reason why this is the case is that democracy establishes, as the basis of governmental power, an obligation to ensure that it is used for common purposes deemed necessary by the majority. But what is to prevent the majority from establishing a tyranny of its own, one that denies regard for the rights of the minority? The answer, for Spinoza, is that all citizens help constitute the majority, so when the majority speaks, it speaks for each citizen. Now, of course, it is possible that a minority might claim that the majority fails to properly represent the needs of the minority. But even when this happens, the members of a minority always retain the right to convince the majority to encompass minority approaches. As Spinoza says, in a democracy, individuals do not give up “natural right[s] so absolutely,” or, in other terms, their power to govern themselves so completely, that they have “no further voice in [public] affairs.”25 What makes it possible for the minority to appeal to the majority on behalf of making changes in its dispositions is that each citizen is an equal, politically and civilly speaking, to everyone else.26 Indeed, each person’s political or civil liberty is never denied, no matter what the policy of the majority may be. In consequence, each person retains both the right and the ability to effect changes in the positions the majority holds.

In support of this position, as indicated at the beginning of this chapter, Spinoza seeks to provide all people with the opportunity to realize the free use of their own reason in the determination of both personal and public matters. To this end, there must be full freedom of thought and speech, a major subject that we address in our discussion of John Smart Mill in Chapter 14. With freedom of thought and speech, citizens are not forced to acquiesce in their opinions to predominant religious or political authorities, but, instead, people rely on their own reason-formed judgments. Moreover, since the free use of reason requires an environment in which people listen to diverse views and seek the best arguments among them, individuals come to appreciate the wide diversity of views on the issues before them. Thus, freedom of thought is the basis for richly textured openness to and toleration of difference, not just of ideas but of diverse ways of life.

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