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Right, Justice, and Peace – On the Limits of Realism in Hobbes and Spinoza

Political Theory
Ethics
Normative Theory
Peace
Dirk Brantl
independent scholar
Dirk Brantl
independent scholar

Abstract

Hobbes and Spinoza are two of the most prominent political thinkers in early-modern philosophy and both are usually listed under the heading of realism. Superficially, there is good reason: One is an admiring translator of Thucydides, the other an avid reader of Machiavelli; both highlight a sober account of human nature and conduct, both of the citizen and the sovereign. However, I will argue that Hobbes does not belong at all in the category of political realism (understood as the political realm being somehow independent of moral normativity) while the case of Spinoza is at least more difficult than it seems. Hobbes, it will be shown, is integrating the political fully into the moral, with the virtues of justice and equity at the heart of his argument. While the former creates moral obligations on the citizenry, the latter does so regarding the sovereign. While both types of obligation are bound to the concept of power, neither is strictly prudential. Rather, they are moral obligations as traditionally understood. At the same time, both are clearly consequentialist: All morality describes behavior and habit conducive to peace as the only sustainable solution to the universal striving for self-preservation. Far from separating the political from the moral, Hobbes rather limits his writing to the field of political morality. Spinoza’s use of right as coextensive with power and his neglect of justice in his theory make him much more of a “classical” realist. Yet, as Edwin Curley already pointed out, Spinoza’s political theory, like Hobbes’, is not just concerned with any sort of stability, but with peace that provides social stability, individual security, and human flourishing. Indeed, the latter is ultimately the purpose of the political realm: It creates a space of individual liberty that allows for the full development of human faculties. Thus, politics as developed in the Tractatus politicus and Tractatus theologico-politicus serves the moral purpose of producing room for the moral life as envisioned in the Ethica. On the other hand, all free action is action determined by one’s power as opposed to determined by others’ or one’s own passions: Moral behavior itself is tied to a reason-guided use of power. And reason in Spinoza guides the individual to the same goal as in Hobbes: A meaningful peace and a stable social order in which the individual, always her own supreme end, can flourish. The “realism” in Hobbes and Spinoza is connected not with a purportedly autonomous political realm but with a political morality shaped by “realistic” as opposed to idealized claims about human nature. Thus moral behavior in the public realm is invariably tied to the proper use of power. While Spinoza is much more interested in the technical details of this use and the engineering of its balance in society, and while he more closely connects virtue and power, his political normativity is ultimately as much tied to his moral theory and Hobbes’.