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Compare and contrast the political

theories of Hobbes and Spinoza


This analysis intends to explore the differences between two philosophers, a medieval philosopher
in England, often credited with producing the fundamental basis for modern day liberalism, and
Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese descent, active in the same period who through
biblical criticism laid the ground work for modern rationalism. I intend to argue that while there are
many similarities between the two, there are stark differences that discern the two. This analysis will
focus on their definitions of Natural Right, wherein I will argue that the naturalism held by Spinoza in
his definition achieves the ultimate goal of both philosophers, the removal of a universal definition
of just, while the Hobbesian viewpoint on the matter is unsuccessful in this regard. Furthermore, I
will argue that in demonstrating this, we can see that the two philosophers also differ on their belief
in obligation, with Hobbes acquiescing to man being controllable by covenants and agreements,
whereas Spinoza refuses to accept such claims.
While the bulk of this analysis will focus on the differences between Hobbes and Spinoza, it is
important to recognise that the two held very similar beliefs on many different topics. Both
philosophers held the belief that the fabric of human nature was an innate need for selfpreservation, or a conatus, and both held the belief that passion was what was demonstrative of this
need. Both held that said passions were what breeds conflict within humanity. Moreover, both
philosophers held that all problems that existed within human society could be fixed by the
implementing of a sovereign figure presiding over a standardised definition of good and bad
behaviour.
However, with regard to Natural Right, there is no such agreement between the two philosophers.
Spinoza is often shoehorned, as Connelly1 writes, as simply being a student of Hobbes, who said
what Hobbes should have said if he had been consistent. While I do not agree with this, I support
Connellys assertion that this does Spinoza a discredit, and ignores the expansive reading he
undertook, as well as the specific use of much of his terminology. Notorious for posing a
terminological barrier to readers akin to the one posed to mathematicians when trying to decipher
Euclids2 Elements, an apparent inspiration for Spinozas method of Natural Right. Therefore, given
that Spinoza only publishes his theory in the ultimately incomplete Tractatus Politicus, it is often
viewed as an extraneous addition to Spinozas metaphysics, and therefore obsolete. I argue that this
is cannot be a credible form of reasoning, and instead proffer the suggestion that instead of existing
on the fringes of Spinozism, it is central to it, and actually builds on the work of Hobbes on the
subject. The relevant passage on Spinozas definition of Natural right comes from chapter II [4] of
the Tractatus3, and reads as follows:
By the right of Nature, then, I understand the laws or rules of Nature in accordance with which all
things come to be, that is, the very power of Nature. So the natural right of Nature as a whole, and
1

Connelly, Stephen. Natural Right: Notes on the Thought of Spinoza. June 17, 2013. Accessed March 21,
2016. http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/06/17/natural-right-notes-on-the-thought-of-spinoza/.
2
Euclides and Richard Fitzpatrick. Euclids Elements of Geometry: The Greek Text of J.L. Heiberg (1883-1885).
United States: Richard Fitzpatrick, 2007.
3
Spinoza, Baruch and Benedict de Spinoza. The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza V1: Introduction, Tractatus
Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. United States: Kessinger Publishing, 2007.

consequently the natural right of every individual, is coextensive with its power
potentia]. Consequently, whatever each man does from the laws of his own nature, he does by the
sovereign right of Nature, and he has as much right over Nature as his power extends [quantum
potentia valet].
There are many, such as Barbone and Rice4, as well as McShean5 who argue that this translates into,
as Steinberg6 summarises, Might makes right, in that as long has man power extends, over what
he is influencing, his ability to influence it is his natural right and so is just, therefore proposing an
alternative definition of power. This seems somewhat short-sighted however, and I would argue
instead that this passage, generalised as the coextensivity thesis, does not propose a new basis of
justice. Instead, it can be argued that Spinozas proposal of natural right is simply a rejection of any
overarching definition of just. While philosophers as far back as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had
searched for the universal definition of just in both action and meaning, Spinoza argues instead that
the onus should be on not being unjust. Instead of acting in one singularly approved course, one
must simply act in a way that is not unjust, for once one removes the unjust, all that must be left,
however close or borderline unjust, is still just.
Hobbes supported this claim, having made one not too dissimilar to it himself. While Hobbes view
on the subject is one that changed throughout the course of his writings, there are many critics who
use Spinozas take on Natural Right as demonstrative of his Hobbesian tendencies. Initially, Hobbes
defined Natural Right in De Cive7 as the liberty each man has of using his natural faculties in
accordance with right reason...to protect his life and members. In essence, Natural Right of man to
do whatever is allowed under natural law (his own power), inclusive of anything necessary for selfpreservation. However, the exists a difference in this Hobbesian definition of Natural Right, in that
Hobbes wrote that there must exist a sincerity in ones belief in any action, writing that an action
would be just if it at least seems to him to contribute toward his preservation8, going on later to
add that drunkenness and cruelty, are not to be seen as sincere. I would argue that a Hobbesian
definition of Natural Right is not broad enough to cover all actions that one could partake in. If for
example, a government imposed a law that would damage a citizen, it would be in accordance with
right reason, for the citizen not to comply with the law, as it would damage them. However it
cannot be in accordance with right reason as the citizen wold get punished by the government is
disobeys. As Wernham9 argues, this definition of Natural Right only covers some of his actions, in
that it only covers actions that do not go against this definition of Natural Right.
Spinoza himself attempted to distance himself from Hobbes, regardless of what he owed him. As
Connelly shows, Spinoza wrote that the difference between Hobbes and myselfis that I always
preserve the natural right in its, and I hold that the sovereign power in a State has right over a
subject only in proportion to the excess of its power over that of a subject. Here, what I believe
Spinoza rejects, is the Hobbesian view of a transferral of Natural Right. Whereas Hobbes writes that
one has liberty of using ones faculties, he also writes that there are covenants, or bonds, that
can stop a man from exercising his Natural Right. The capacity to decide how to use ones faculties is

Barbone, Steven and Lee Rice. Introduction and Notes to Spinozas Political Treatise. 1st ed. Translated by
Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000.
5
McShea, Robert. The Political Philosophy of Spinoza. Dialogue 7, no. 03 (December 1968): 49799.
6
Steinberg, Justin. Spinozas Political Philosophy. October 7, 2013. Accessed March 21, 2016.
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza-political/#BasFeaSpiPol.
7
Hobbes, Thomas. De Cive. 1:7, United States: Kessinger Publ. Rare Reprints, 2004.
8
De Cive, 1: 10
9
Wernham, A. G. Notes and Introduction. The Political Works, 14. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1958,.

the foundation of Hobbesian political theory, and something he basis his argument on the
commonwealth and the sovereign, however to act as if Natural Right is not a right, but instead a
privilege, distances the concepts of power and the commonwealth. In doing this, Hobbes never
voided his political theory of the universality of justice his predecessors held, whereas by rejecting
this part of Hobbesian politics, Spinoza does.
Obligation
The differentiation between the two philosophers on their definitions of the Natural Right allow us
to Segway into their differences on obligation. As mentioned, Hobbes held the belief that man could
retain his Natural Right as long he was not bound by a covenant, or some other agreement. Spinoza,
on the other hand, holds the Belief that the validity of an agreement rests on its utility, without
which the agreement automatically becomes null and void.10 This is consistent with Spinozan
politics, as we have already established that men have the ability to perceive what is in their best
interests, and if an agreement stops being in ones best interests, it is only logical that this agreement
can be broken. When applied to the duty of the sovereign and to the commonwealth, this produces
stark contrasts between Hobbes and Spinoza. Spinoza wrote that the sovereign power in a State
has right over a subject only in proportion to the excess of its power over that of a subject. I argue
that this charges the sovereign with the maintenance of political serenity, as opposed to the people
under the influence of the sovereign. The commonwealth must be created in a way that encourages
obedience, and any fault for lack of obedience is laid at the door of the commonwealth. While
Hobbes argues that the sovereign carries almost total power in regard to legislation and the
legislative process, Spinoza argues that since the right of a commonwealth is determined by the
collective power of a people, the greater the number of subjects who are given cause by a
commonwealth to join in conspiracy against it, the more must its power and right be diminished.
While it must be said that Spinoza does not include a right of uprising in this regard, he uses his own
philosophy of Natural Right to, as Sharp11 argues, defend the peoples right, as it is the peoples
Natural Right that constitutes the states Natural Right.
Therefore, I have clearly shown that the two philosophers contrast heavily in their definitions of
what is right under the laws of nature, as only Spinoza is successful in achieving the ultimate goal of
dispensing with the juridical nature of the traditions held before him, and I have also demonstrated
that in showing this, it can be argue that the two differ greatly on their views on the obligation of
man, given that in agreeing that many has the capacity to decide what his best interests, Spinoza
Departs the Hobbesian tradition of allowing ones Natural Right to be limited by entering into an
agreement, or covenant.

10

Tratacus, 16: 182


Sharp, Hasana. Violenta Imperia Nemo Continuit Diu. Edited by Erick Raphael Jimenez, Matthew Lampert,
Christopher Roberts, and and Roco Zambrana.Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 34, no. 1 (2013): 13348
11

Bibliography
Barbone, Steven and Lee Rice. Introduction and Notes to Spinozas Political Treatise. 1st ed.
Translated by Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000.
Connelly, Stephen. Natural Right: Notes on the Thought of Spinoza. June 17, 2013. Accessed March
21, 2016. http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/06/17/natural-right-notes-on-the-thought-ofspinoza/.
Euclides and Richard Fitzpatrick. Euclids Elements of Geometry: The Greek Text of J.L. Heiberg (18831885). United States: Richard Fitzpatrick, 2007.
Hobbes, Thomas. De Cive. United States: Kessinger Publ. Rare Reprints, 2004.
McShea, Robert. The Political Philosophy of Spinoza. Dialogue 7, no. 03 (December 1968): 49799.
Sharp, Hasana. Violenta Imperia Nemo Continuit Diu. Edited by Erick Raphael Jimenez, Matthew
Lampert, Christopher Roberts, and and Roco Zambrana. Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 34, no.
1 (2013): 13348.
Spinoza, Baruch and Benedict de Spinoza. The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza V1: Introduction,
Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. United States: Kessinger Publishing, 2007.
Steinberg, Justin. Spinozas Political Philosophy. October 7, 2013. Accessed March 21, 2016.
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza-political/#BasFeaSpiPol.
Wernham, A. G. Notes and Introduction. The Political Works.Oxford: Clarendon Press 1958,