Friday, October 23, 2020

Spinoza on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

Spinoza's political theory is a highly underrated aspect of his overall philosophy. Back in the 1930s, when Professor Harry Wolfson came up with what was then considered the most comprehensive tome on Spinoza's thought (a 795 page work called "The Philosophy of Spinoza"), only ten pages were devoted to politics.  Similarly, when Oxford University recently came up with a 666 page compendium of essays by leading contemporary Spinoza scholars, only a single essay (26 pages) dealt with his politics.  Yet of the seven treatises he wrote, two included the words "Political Treatise" in the title -- indeed, politics was at the heart of what Spinoza was working on at the time of his death at the age of 44.  Not surprisingly, Spinoza's politics have been highly influential to a diverse set of thinkers, including John Locke, Moses Mendelssohn, and  Henry Kissinger. The political theories of the Enlightenment clearly owe a substantial debt to Spinoza's views.  

This past year, I have embarked on a lengthy effort to explore the foundational principles of Spinoza's politics.  I was especially struck by the importance Spinoza placed on fraternity, a societal characteristic that is sorely lacking today in contemporary America.  This research on Spinoza has inspired me to re-double my thinking about a topic I addressed in my first novel, "The Creed Room" --  namely, how to best build fraternity in a society that is not only polarized, but in which political leaders seem to be increasingly indifferent to retaining their credibility or honoring basic human values.  Building fraternity is surely a wonderful aspiration.  But these days, how to do it appropriately is easier said than done. 

The result of my research into Spinoza's politics is an essay that I delivered this past week at a meeting of the Washington Spinoza Society. Here is the essay.  I hope you enjoy it.