Andy J. Baldassarre
Álvaro R. G. Barredo
Andy J. Baldassarre
Álvaro R. G. Barredo
Justifying Prison Breaks as Civil Disobedience
Abstract: I argue that given the persistent injustice present within the Prison Industrial Complex in the United States, many incarcerated individuals would be justified in attempting to escape on the grounds of civil disobedience. I begin by critiquing the classical liberal conception of civil disobedience envisioned by John Rawls. Contrary to Rawls, I argue that acts of civil disobedience can involve both violence and evasion of punishment, both of which are necessary components of prison breaks. I then outline the broad circumstances in which escape attempts would qualify as civil disobedience, which are when individuals have either been incarcerated on unjust grounds (such as coercive plea bargains, draconian laws, or institutionalized discrimination) or when individuals are subject to inhumane conditions within prison (such as physical or sexual abuse, inadequate medical care, and overcrowding). Finally, I outline some requirements that civilly disobedient escapees must fulfill in order to qualify as such. First, escape must be attempted as a last resort. Second, violence and other lawbreaking must be reasonable, meaning it is done with precision, discretion, and proportion. Third, escapees hold the burden of proving they have been subject to injustice. Fourth and finally, the act of escape must contain other key components of civil disobedience such as persuasion, communication, and publicity, which will most likely be accomplished via coordination with nonincarcerated individuals.
Prison breaks are generally not considered acceptable, that much is obvious. Conventional wisdom leads us to believe that those who are in prisons deserve to be there due to crimes that they have committed, and that they should be kept there to prevent them from committing more crimes. But a closer examination of mass incarceration reveals that this is not necessarily the case. Many innocent people are strong armed into pleading guilty by prosecutors, since plea bargains eliminate the risk of receiving an even harsher sentence during trial.1Additionally, there are cases in which perfectly good people are imprisoned based on laws that may qualify as unjust such as non violent drug offenses or sex work offenses involving consenting parties. The prison environment itself is a further source of potential injustice as inmates often lack proper food and medicine, are subject to violence and rape from other inmates and correctional officers, and face inhumane conditions like overcrowding or solitary confinement. It is clear that grave injustice occurs within both the Prison Industrial Complex as well as the criminal justice system more broadly.2 I argue that in the face of these injustices, incarcerated individuals may be justified in attempting to escape prison and subsequently evade reimprisonment on the grounds of civil disobedience.
This may seem radical and surprising at first since prison breaks are inherently a violent form of evading punishment, whereas civil disobedience is often understood to be inherently nonviolent and non evasive. It is for this reason that I begin with a critique of the classical liberal conception of civil disobedience envisioned by John Rawls. Contrary to Rawls, I argue that acts of civil disobedience can involve both violence and evasion of punishment. I then outline the appropriate circumstances and requirements which qualify escape attempts as civil disobedience.
Violence and Evasion in Civil Disobedience: A Critique of the Liberal Conception
Although arguments in favor of violent civil disobedience have been given,3 nonviolence is still assumed to be a part of the very definition of civil disobedience in much contemporary analysis.4 This is no doubt due in large part to Rawls’ definition of civil disobedience stated in A Theory of Justice. For Rawls, civil disobedience must be public, nonviolent, both politically and conscientiously motivated, and it must work contrary to the law/government in hopes of changing the law/government in some way.5 Rawls also thought that civil disobedience demonstrates fidelity to the law by accepting legal consequences, so evading punishment would be unacceptable for him as well.6 This certainly sounds like the intuitive conception of civil disobedience that we associate with figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. But this conception has its critics, and some even question whether or not it truly matches up with the actions of King and Gandhi.7 Pushing back on this traditional conception, contemporary philosophers have offered alternative conceptions of civil disobedience that allow for both evasion of punishment and the use of violence.8 A defense of these frameworks will lay the necessary groundwork for justifying prison breaks as civil disobedience.
I’ll start with the element of evasion, which becomes almost paradoxical in the case of mass incarceration, where it is the punishment itself that is identified as unjust and in need of change. Kimberley Brownlee points this out as well, and argues that accepting the legal consequences of one’s actions necessarily concedes legitimacy of the punishment.9 If acceptance of legal punishment was necessarily a component of civil disobedience then it would be impossible to protest any form of punishment as unjust via civil disobedience. This would lead to the contradictory conclusion that the punishment is unjust yet somehow legitimate. In fact Brownlee argues that citizens have a moral right to protest injustice via civil disobedience, which includes a moral right to evade lawful punishment. Rather than accepting the legal consequences for their actions, citizens need only to accept the risk of being legally punished.10 This makes civilly disobedient prison prison breaks more immediately plausible, and demonstrates that the idea of evasive civil disobedience is not as new and radical as one may assume.
Violence is a more difficult component to analyze due to the question of what exactly qualifies as violence. John Morreall argues that if we see violence as stripping someone of value, integrity, dignity, sacredness, or their rights to body, autonomy, and private property then we clearly cannot limit the term violence to obvious physical acts but must extend it to psychological harm, verbal acts, and coercion in general. Limiting the requirement of nonviolence in civil disobedience to strictly physical violence appears arbitrary and nonsensical to Morreall, and he argues that prohibiting violence of all kinds renders many acts we intuitively think of as civil disobedience unacceptable, such as blocking entrances to buildings in protest.11More important than the distinction between violence or nonviolence, Morreall argues, is the distinction between coercion and persuasion. Acts of protest and resistance might be necessarily coercive in some contexts,12 but this need not disqualify them as civil disobedience as long as the element of persuasion is still present to a sufficient degree.13 An action that is wholly coercive and not at all persuasive won’t qualify as civil disobedience, and this is where prison breaks might run into some trouble. In order for a prison breaks to qualify as civil disobedience, they will need to strike a balance between coercion and persuasion. This will be addressed later, I now turn to the question of what circumstances justify prison breaks and subsequent evasion on the grounds of civil disobedience.
Qualifying Prison Breaks as Civil Disobedience
I argue that there are two broad circumstances in which escaping prison might qualify as civil disobedience. Either the prison sentence itself is unjust, or the incarcerated individual faces such grave and persistent injustice within the prison that they fear for their health and safety. A prison sentence itself might be unjust in a number of ways: if the individual was coerced to plead guilty by a prosecutor; if they were coerced into the crime yet sentenced anyways; if they’ve been given a disproportionate sentence due to characteristics such as race, religion, or gender; if they’ve been incarcerated based on the violation of unjust laws, including laws criminalizing consensual and victimless acts (here following the liberal commitment against paternalism);14 or if the crime was committed in order to preserve the health and safety of the theirself or others (such as economic crime to avoid to starvation, or providing sanctuary to undocumented migrants). For injustice within the prison itself to qualify as a threat to one’s health and safety we might turn to instances of physical and sexual assault, excessive use of solitary confinement, and prison overcrowding, which are all too common in the U.S. incarceration system.15
Beyond the broad contexts in which a prison break and subsequent evasion might be justified on the grounds of civil disobedience there are additional requirements which need be met by escapees as well. For a more detailed framework of justified violence, I turn to Allan C. Hutchinson, who gives us four qualifications which must be met for violence to be justified in civil disobedience. First, it must be used as a last resort (this is reminiscent of Rawls’ stipulation16 that any form of civil disobedience must occur after all available legal channels have been exhausted). Second, the violence must be a proportional response to a serious violation of rights. Third, the burden of proof regarding the aforementioned violation of rights is on those who commit and advocate the violence. And finally, violence must be used with precision and discretion.17 Beyond Hutchinson’s requirements, escapees must also meet Morreall’s requirement of persuasion identified earlier. I’ve combined and distilled Hutchinson’s and Morreall’s frameworks into the following four points:
1. Escape as a Last Resort
As per Hutchinson’s first qualification, escaping prison must come as a last resort. The sheer fact that an individual has ended up in prison means they have gone through the available legal channels already, and faced injustices such as coercion into plea deals. There are few channels available within prisons themselves to remedy injustice. Congress has continually passed legislation making litigation against prisons difficult if not impossible and prison complaint forms have been known to hold no actual potential for recourse.18 I’d argue it is unrealistic to charge prisoners with the task of reforming laws from the inside. Additionally, prison guards who might theoretically be capable of remedying injustices are often committing the injustices in the first place or at least turning a blind eye to them.19 Thus it is not difficult to argue that prisoners facing injustice in the mass incarceration system have exhausted their legal channels, which were limited in the first place.
2. Reasonable Violence
I find Hutchinson’s second and fourth requirements similar enough to lump them together as one requirement for civilly disobedient escapees, that the violence they use to escape and evade must be reasonable. That is it must be proportionate to the violence they are subject to, and it must be used with precision and discretion. Escapees should avoid direct confrontation with correctional officers and law enforcement as best they can, only engaging in physical violence when they are subject to physical violence themselves. Preventative and retaliatory violence would not be permitted. Escapees will no doubt be forced to break other laws while evading capture once they’ve escaped. This additional law breaking must follow the same rule as general violence. It should be proportionate to the escapees needs and similarly precise so as to minimize the harm to others. Stealing small amounts of food or money, and perhaps transportation (be it vehicle theft or not paying for public transit) would be justified.
3. Burden of Proof
Fulfilling Hutchinson’s third requirement is likely the easiest of the bunch. Injustice within the Prison Industrial Complex is well documented, and often self evident. For instance, physical abuse perpetrated by correctional officers and other inmates is likely to leave visible traces on the body. Unjust conditions such as overcrowding and the use of solitary confinement are matters of public record. In sum, the same instances of injustice which ground prison breaks as a potential form of civil disobedience also serve as the proof which fulfills Hutchinson’s third requirement.
4. Persuasion, Publicity, and Communication
Morreall’s requirement of persuasion intertwines naturally with two other important components of civil disobedience: publicity and communicativeness. The requirement of publicity is a part of Rawls’ classical liberal framework,20 and it has critics, notably Brownlee who argues that more important than publicity is communication.21 This particular debate is not necessarily of much important for this particular case, as I argue that escapees can accomplish persuasiveness, publicity, and communicativeness all in the same way. Escaped convicts naturally have incentive to hide from the public eye while the police have incentive to publicize the escape in order to raise awareness of potential danger as well as procure tips from the public. However I believe it is sensible to require publicity that is intentional on behalf of the escapee, if for no other reason than to also fulfill persuasion through communication to the public. Escapees could communicate by disseminating their stories through those on the outside who are capable of being in the public eye more directly such as family and friends or perhaps sympathetic journalists. This method of communication to the public also adds an element of collaboration, which is commonly thought to be another requirement of civil disobedients.22
The act of communication serves a dual purpose. First, by communicating that they intend no harm to anyone and will only use violence as a means of avoiding being reimprisoned, escapees aim to convince people that the typical conception of convicts as inherently dangerous and malicious is not necessarily accurate. This serves to break down the stereotypes of convicts that partially contribute to the injustice of the mass incarceration system, or at least combat apathy to the injustice and generate sympathy for escapees by publicizing their stories of injustice. Second, escapees aim to persuade the public and policy makers that reform of the criminal justice system is necessary from standpoints of both justice and efficiency, thus fulfilling the final requirement of pursuing legal change.23 The specific goals here might vary depending on the specific injustices escapees face. Escapees who were imprisoned on the basis of unjust laws would aim to persuade people that these laws should be changed, for example. With these conditions met, I believe the full requirements for a prison break to qualify as civil disobedience have been outlined.
The proposal to classify certain instances of prison breaks as civil disobedience may seem radical. Analogies of fugitive slave escapes and evasion of the Nazi regime during WWII come to mind, and even though mass incarceration may not be as blatantly unjust or as large in scale as these other examples I believe the injustice is sufficient to warrant civil disobedience. Although this framework is formulated with the U.S. criminal justice system in mind, it is potentially applicable to other instances of incarceration if they’re similarly unjust such as prisons in other countries, migrant detention centers, or psychiatric wards. There are likely many dimensions of this issue not sufficiently addressed here24 and more analysis is necessary in order to cement the justifiability of prison breaks on the grounds of civil disobedience. But by arguing against the requirements of nonviolence and non evasiveness while fulfilling other requirements such as persuasion, publicity, and communication I believe I have presented a sufficient prima facie case that may be useful in beginning the conversation.
1 John Pfaff argues that the power of prosecutors is actually the primary cause of increased prison populations. SeeLocked In, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2017.
2 For readers who are unconvinced of this I recommend: 13th. Motion Picture Documentary. Directed by Ava DuVernay. United States: Kandoo Films, 2016 as well as Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2003.
3 Allan C. Hutchinson, “Civil disobedience: Its logic and language”, The Law Teacher 13 no. 1 (1979): 111. John Morreall, “The Justifiability of Violent Civil Disobedience” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 6 no. 1 (1976): 3547.
4 See for instance, William Smith, “Policing Civil Disobedience” Political Studies 60 (2012): 826842. Smith’s project of determining how to police civil disobedience would obviously require drastic changes if the disobedience in question were to be violent.
5 John Rawls, “Defining Civil Disobedience” in A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge, Harvard, 1971), 364365.
6 Ibid, 366.
7 Candice Delmas takes up this discussion at length in her book A Duty to Resist, (New York, Oxford, 2018).
8 Delmas, A Duty to Resist. Kimberley Brownlee, Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience(Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012). Brownlee’s conception diverges from Delmas’ in an important way. While Brownlee argues civil disobedience itself can be violent, Delmas argues for a distinction between civil and uncivil disobedience that are both potentially defensible as principled disobedience. I believe this distinction has merit but for the sake of simplicity and focus I’ll use the more popular term civil disobedience inclusively as per Brownlee.
9 Brownlee, Conscience and Conviction, 8, 23.
10 Ibid, 146147.
11 John Morreall, “The Justifiability of Violent Civil Disobedience” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 6 no. 1 (1976): 3547.
12 Morreall’s example of fugitive slaves violently escaping draws obvious parallels to the application of modern day prison breaks, especially when one recalls that slavery is still entirely legal and constitutional as a form of punishment in the United States under the 13th amendment.
13 Morreall, “Violent Civil Disobedience”, 3547.
14 This raises the obvious question of what makes a law unjust, an important question too complicated to answer sufficiently here. Yet I submit that we can conceive of unjust laws and point to past instances of them such as fugitive slave laws. Other cases are less clear. I for one believe that non violent drug consumers and consensual sex workers are imprisoned on the basis of unjust laws.
15 Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, 7783. American Civil Liberties Union, The Dangerous Overuse of Solitary Confinement in the United States, New York, NY: ACLU Foundation, 2014. American Civil Liberties Union,Overcrowding and Overuse of Imprisonment in the United States, New York, NY: ACLU Foundation, 2015.16 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 363368.
17 Allan C. Hutchinson, “Civil disobedience: Its logic and language” The Law Teacher 13 no. 1 (1979): 111.
18 Kitty Calavita, Invitation to Law & Society: An Introduction to the Study of Real Law, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010), 4750,
19 Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?
20 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 366.
21 Brownlee, Conscience and Conviction, ch. 1.
22 Rawls for example would classify strictly individual acts as conscientious refusal rather than civil disobedience. Escapees may collaborate with other private citizens in other ways as well to further the collaborative element. These citizens would also be civilly disobedient by aiding escaped convicts. And of course collaboration between escapees themselves would be likely to occur.
23 The justice aspect is obvious, but there is an efficiency element as well since mass incarceration constitutes a hefty use of resources that could be used elsewhere. The difficulty of former convicts to procure employment is another issue of efficiency perpetuated by mass incarceration.
24 Whether or not escapees can feasibly view the government in general as legitimate while objecting to such a large portion of it as the criminal justice system is debatable, for example.
13th. Streaming Services. Directed by Ava DuVernay. United States: Kandoo Films, 2016.
American Civil Liberties Union. The Dangerous Overuse of Solitary Confinement in the United States. New York, NY: ACLU Foundation, 2014.https://www.aclu.org/report/dangerousoverusesolitaryconfinementunitedstates
American Civil Liberties Union. Overcrowding and Overuse of Imprisonment in the United States. New York, NY: ACLU Foundation, 2015.https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/RuleOfLaw/OverIncarceration/ACLU.pdf
Brownlee, Kimberley. Conscience & Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Calavita, Kitty. Invitation to Law & Society: An Introduction to the Study of Real Law. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2003. Delmas, Candice. A Duty to Resist: When Disobedience Should Be Uncivil. New York, NY:
Oxford University Press, 2018.
Hutchinson, Allan C. “Civil disobedience: Its logic and language” The Law Teacher 13 no. 1
(1979): 111. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03069400.1979.9992506
Morreall, John. “The Justifiability of Violent Civil Disobedience” Canadian Journal of
Philosophy 6 no. 1 (1976): 3547. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40230600
Pfaff, John. Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real
Reform. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2017.
1/13/2019 Justifying Prison Breaks as Civil Disobedience – OPA Submission – Google Docs
Rawls, John. “The Definition of Civil Disobedience” in A Theory of Justice Original Ed. 1971. Reprint, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Smith, William. “Policing Civil Disobedience” Political Studies 60 (2012): 826842.http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.14679248.2011.00937.x
Practical Identity and Practical Principles: Kant contra Korsgaard
What is the relationship between practical reason and the self? Through a close analysis and critique of the work of one of the most influential Neo-Kantian philosophers, Christine Korsgaard, this paper begins sketching a response to that question. For Korsgaard, the self is fundamentally a normative posit, a construction made out of the “pragmatic necessity” to unify one’s desires and act as an agent. Although we may, in this picture, find utterly no self when we look at ourselves from the theoretical standpoint, we will need to act as if we have one when we practically reason. I will charge that this is a basically incoherent view of the self’s relationship to ethical theory, both because it sunders theoretical and practical reason, and because it ignores the multifarious ways in which the validity of our ethical principles might be dependent upon the actual existence of an enduring, rather than merely constructed self. In the end of the paper, I turn to the work of Kant to illustrate how acting from the practical standpoint involves making theoretical commitments, and how those commitments are themselves important to the validity of the practical standpoint.
Keywords: Kant, Korsgaard, Meta-ethics, Ethics, Theoretical Reason, Practical Reason.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in Kantian Ethics catalyzed by the work of John Rawls, Christine Korsgaard, Barbara Herman, Allen Wood, and Onora O’Neill (Rawls 1999, Korsgaard 2014, Wood 1999, Herman 1996, O’Neill 2014). These thinkers have not only given historical exegeses of Kantian texts, but also made Kant speak to contemporary normative ethics. Of course, there exist tensions between appropriationist readings of past philosophy that focus on reconstructing arguments and more contextualist histories that aim to understand texts for their own sake. Generally speaking, though, these scholars have attempted to tread the line between antiquarian contextualism and hyper-modern appropriationism. Wood writes, for example, that the picture of Kant’s ethical thought he constructs is both “a more accurate portrait” and a “deeper and more engaging ethical view than that with which Kant is usually credited” (Wood 1999: Xiii). Korsgaard, sounding a similar note, writes that once the differences between Kant and his opponents are “correctly understood”, his views will emerge as “the more compelling” (Korsgaard 1996: xiii). Writing good Kantian Ethics, then, is a matter of both remaining faithful to Kant and mining his texts for insights in present debates in value theory.
Korsgaard’s work in particular has attempted to demonstrate the tenability of a Kantian perspective in contemporary debates, and hence much of her writing is in more or less explicit dialogue with other contemporary philosophers (Korsgaard 2014, 1996: 275-310, 365-331). In a piece in Philosophy and Public Affairs that has now garnered multiple responses (Anomaly 2008, Shoemaker 1996) Korsgaard addresses a problem that had previously flown under the radar in much of Kantian Ethics: the relevance of the self for ethical theory (Korsgaard 1996: 365-391). I will argue here that Korsgaard’s account of the self fails as a work of Kantian Ethics, both because it does not offer a compelling account of the relationship between the self, practical principles, and practical reason, and because it is not faithful to Kant. Although containing some valuable insights, Korsgaard’s account fails to reckon with the various ways in which practical and theoretical reason are, although separate modes of cognizing human action, entangled with one another. This leads Korsgaard to offer an impoverished account of the self’s relevance to ethical theory, which one-sidedly emphasizes the practically-motivated reasons for belief in a self, while ignoring the importance of the actual existence of the self for the validity of ethical principles.
Korsgaard’s article emerged as a response to Derek Parfit, a utilitarian who critiqued the Cartesian thesis that there exists some simple, distinct and singular self that exists through time (Parfit 1987). Parfit’s criticisms were part of a project to revive utilitarian ethics by undermining the “separateness of persons” charge that originated in the work of Rawls. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that utilitarianism assumes that people are not separate agents but a single metasubject (Rawls 1999: 22-27). Parfit’s intuition is that by eroding our sense that we are distinct selves he could make it more justifiable to treat people as such a meta-subject. This is where Korsgaard steps in, trying to rescue Rawls (and by extension, Kantian ethics writ large) with a novel understanding of practical identity.
Curiously, Korsgaard’s article is discussed in Allen Wood’s 1999 article on Fichte and the ‘I’ (Wood 1999). Korsgaard’s inclusion in this article is not a matter of coincidence: both Fichte and Korsgaard see the self as a matter of taking up a certain kind of normative stance. By “normative stance”, I mean believing in or acting as if a proposition is true because of practical rather than epistemic reasons. Fichte speaks of the self as a practical “positing”, while Korsgaard writes that the “reasons” we have for regarding ourselves as “rational agent(s)” are “not metaphysical, but practical” (Korsgaard 1996: 369). She elaborates her view on pages 369-380. Her first argument for the “pragmatic” necessity of the self involves conflicting desires. In order to resolve them and act, we must treat ourselves as a “unified person” (Korsgaard 1996: 370). In-so-far as acting involves deliberation, we must regard ourselves as possessing some self over and above our various desires, which in turn chooses between them. Otherwise, we would be guided solely by our desires, and the entire deliberative, practical standpoint would drop out. In order to view ourselves as agents, then, we must regard ourselves as possessing some self that responds to reasons and thereby “regulate(s) your choices among your desires” (Korsgaard 1996: 370). The “need for identification with some unifying principle or way of choosing is imposed on us by the necessity of making deliberative choices, not by the metaphysical questions”, and therefore “It is practical reason that requires me to construct an identity for myself” (Korsgaard 1996: 370-371).
The conclusion is that the self is a matter of taking a certain kind of normative stance, and nothing more. It is a construction in response to pragmatic necessity. If I am to make decisions as an agent, I must regard myself as possessing a self at that moment that responds to reasons and unifies my activities such that I can take a singular action. I do this not because I know I have some self that is actually singular, but because I must if I am to take any action. In a similar vein, Korsgaard writes that in order to “carry out a rational plan of life”, I need to conceive of myself as a single, temporally identical person over time (Korsgaard 1996: 372). The self is thus, at least in-so-far as it is relevant for ethical theory (Korsgaard 1996: 380-388) a matter of a subjective response to the requirements of agency, rather than any sort of actually existent item in the world.
Korsgaard takes her view to be a “Kantian” one, since Kant believed that rational beings view themselves from both the practical and theoretical standpoints (Korsgaard 1996: 377-378). She thus believes herself to be merely explicating the notion of a practical standpoint. The self is something we discover as necessary to our status as agents, and it thus belongs essentially to this “practical standpoint”. There is a sense in which Korsgaard’s view is correct. Acting according to practical principles clearly requires us to regard ourselves as possessing a unified self. Consider the instrumental principle:
Whenever you have some end, you have a reason to do the means to that end.
There are three elements here: ends, means, and reasons. If we didn’t imagine them as each belonging to the same entity, this principle would have no validity for us. I would have no reason to believe that I have reason to do the means to some end, since the entity that has the end might be completely different from the entity that has reasons to perform the means to that end! Though we could perhaps still say this different entity has a reason to perform the means to that end, it could hardly be an instrumental reason if it was not a reason to perform the means to its own end. Hence, we need to take the normative stance that we have a singular self if we are to regard ourselves as bound by the instrumental principle. It is in this sense that the reasons we have for possessing our beliefs about the nature of the self derive from practical and not theoretical considerations. For if I am to regard myself as bound by the instrumental principle, I have practical reasons to believe in the singular self, at least in-so-far as I am to legitimately view the principle as having normative validity. That is Korsgaard’s insight.
Critique of Korsgaard
Although a normative stance is practically motivated, it might contain an epistemic component. A normative stance has an epistemic component if it requires the agent in the stance to hold propositions to be true. Presumably, if Korsgaard’s normative stance possesses an epistemic component when applied to the instrumental principle, it would be something like belief in the proposition that a single, unified self exists. If it does not contain an epistemic component, then it requires us to merely pretend as if we had a self, but entails no beliefs. One merely needs to act as if a given belief is true without subscribing to that belief. However, this latter stance clearly is not sufficient for the instrumental principle to be regarded as valid. If we don’t have a singular, unified self to which ends, reasons, and means all belong, then, as we have already seen, we would have no reason to believe that the instrumental principle actually generates reasons we ought to consider in action.
Indeed, if an agent acts as if they have a self, they may not be truly regarding themselves as having one. One could simultaneously act as if one had a self while holding the proposition that there is no such thing as a self. Under this picture, the instrumental principle will require a sort of self-delusion: we would need to temporarily suspend our beliefs about the self in order to will the instrumental principle. That cannot possibly be what Korsgaard is advocating. More importantly, this would strip the instrumental principle of its normative force. If we knew that willing it depended on deluding ourselves, then it is hard to see how it could be a normatively valid principle. I must sincerely believe that I am, in fact, acting as a unified self if I am to regard the instrumental principle as valid. If I did not, then I would not have reason to believe that the instrumental principle necessarily provides me with actual reasons, since I would not have any reason to believe that the X that possesses ends is the same as the X that responds to reasons. Hence the normative stance requires an epistemic component if the subject is to regard a practical principle as valid.
At this point, Korsgaard could respond that even if we need to actually believe in the existence of the self, such a belief is still motivated by practical, rather than theoretical reasons, and hence the self is still largely something that belongs to the practical standpoint. Yet notice that this epistemic stance must be at least potentially true. If it was evident that there clearly was not any singular, distinct self, then it would make no sense to take up a normative stance with an epistemic component that included belief in the existence of this type of self. Indeed, it would involve a manifest contradiction: it would be to believe both P and not P, that there exists a self and that there does not exist a self. Or it would be to delude oneself, and, as I’ve already noted, that doesn’t seem to be a stable ground for how someone could regard a certain practical principle as valid. This all suggests that theoretical and practical reason are not quite as independent as Korsgaard believes. If theoretical reason rules out certain possibilities, it prevents us from consistently taking certain kinds of normative stances, especially if they have epistemic components.
Consider the whole problem of the identity of the self across time. Korsgaard writes that even if we knew that there existed a “succession of rational agents” over time in one body, there would be a necessity of finding some way to “cooperate with them” by cognizing ourselves as one single self (Korsgaard 2008: 372). We would need to consider ourselves as unified over time because it is practically necessary for us if we want to be agents. Yet it is difficult to understand this as more than a delusion. Suppose we know A) that our status as agents requires us to believe that there is a continuously existing self and B) that no such self exists. In this case, we might indeed have some sort of pragmatic necessity to believe we are unified selves if we want to consider ourselves as agents, but we could not possibly regard this move as justified if we don’t actually have a self that exists through time. To do so would require believing B and not B simultaneously, and hence the “unification” she speaks of would involve contradiction, pragmatic necessity notwithstanding.
There’s another problem for Korsgaard, besides the mere coherency of our beliefs. It’s this: if it is important for us to posit a self to understand ourselves as bound by practical principles, then the actual existence of that self is likely to figure into whether those same principles are valid or not. If such a self is needed for us to believe that a principle is normatively valid, then it’s likely that it will also be needed for a given principle to be actually valid. The example of the instrumental principle is instructive. For us to regard it as being valid, we need to consider ourselves as singular selves. Simultaneously, if we were in fact inhabited by a number of different selves that each had their own means, ends, and reasons, it wouldn’t actually be valid. This just means that the practical positing of the “self” won’t be enough for a certain principle’s validity: that posit will also need to correspond to something in reality. A response to Parfit will thus need to do more than show that we find it pragmatically necessary to think of ourselves as having a single, unified self: it would also need to demonstrate that it is possible that such a self actually exists. It is not, in other words, just the ‘practical posit’ of the self that is relevant for ethical theory. It is also whether such a posit actually is veridical.
The Kantian Alternative
The roots of Korsgaard’s problems are simple: in her work, theoretical and practical reason are treated as two completely different domains, “incomparable” and “separate” from one another (Korsgaard 2008: 378). But in fact, they are mutually entangled. When we posit the existence of a self out of pragmatic necessity, we are simultaneously committing ourselves on a theoretical level to the existence of such a self, at least in-so-far as we wish to regard the various principles we bind ourselves by as valid. In other words, even though the reasons for these various forms of commitment are practical, the commitments themselves are still theoretical in the sense that we are not merely implicitly asserting that there “ought” to be a self, but also acting as if there actually is a self.
Consulting the Kantian texts reveals that practical and theoretical reason do not legislate over completely separate domains. Consider the following remark from The First Critique:
“Now suppose that morality necessarily presupposes freedom as a property of our will… which would be absolutely impossible without the presupposition of freedom, yet that speculative thought had proved that freedom cannot be thought at all, then that presupposition, namely the moral one, would necessarily have to yield to the other one, whose opposite contains an obvious contradiction; consequently freedom and with it morality…would have to give way to the mechanism of nature” (Kant 1998: 116).
To paraphrase: the presuppositions of morality may come into conflict with the findings of theoretical reason, and if they do, we will have to dismiss them because we have overriding epistemic reasons to abandon the conditions for our moral principles. However, notice that this conflict is itself only possible if the presuppositions of morality are not merely practical, but have a theoretical content that asserts how things in the world arei . This is why Kant writes in the Groundwork that when practical reason posits freedom, it “entangles” itself in theoretical matters (Kant 2017: 48). It is also why he is so careful in The First Critique to carve out a space for transcendental freedom and the existence of a ‘simple soul’ that has identity across time (Kant 1997: 29). These are, in other words, more than posits we make out of a “pragmatic necessity” to view ourselves as agents: they are the transcendental conditions for the validity of the moral law, and they must have the possibility of actually obtaining if we are to believe in them, and in turn, in morality.
Unconditional practical laws, Kant writes in The Second Critique, require transcendental freedom if they are to exist at all (Kant 1997: 26). If we adopted Korsgaard’s reading, this would mean that agents are required to view themselves as if they were the “authors” of their action in some practical standpoint. But Kant clearly does not mean this: he is asserting that there must actually be transcendental freedom, because practical laws are only binding if such freedom exists. Practical laws require various kinds of theoretical conditions to obtain if they are to be valid, which means that when we take up the normative stance that we have a self, part of what we are doing is committing ourselves to a theoretical proposition – even if our reasons for adopting it are practical.
Practical and theoretical reason, although two different “standpoints” from which we view ourselves, are thus not isolable. The findings of theoretical reason bear on practical deliberation, and Kant was concerned to delimit the claims of theoretical reason precisely so our practical faculty could have space to make various kinds of posits that, though practically motivated, are theoretical in their content (if only in the sense that they assert of the world that various states of affairs actually obtain). And, vitally, these posits are in turn necessary for the validity of practical laws. Practical deliberation and theoretical reason are hence deeply entangled in Kant’s writing, which means that any properly ‘Kantian’ response to Parfit will need to show that an enduring self is not only practically necessary, but also theoretically possible. In failing to accomplish this, Korsgaard’s work fails to live up to its Kantian heritage.
Anomaly, Jonny. 2008. “Personal Identity and Practical Reason: The Failure of Kantian Replies to Parfit.” Dialogue 331-350.
Herman, Barbara. 1996. The Practice of Moral Judgment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Kant, Immanuel. 1997. Critique of Practical Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kant, Immanuel, Allen Wood, and Paul Guyer. 2007. Critique of Pure reason. Palgrave McMillian.
Kant, Immanuel, and Johnathan Bennett. 2017. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.
Korsgaard, Christine. 1996. Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. —. 2014. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge University Press. O’neill, Onora. 2014. Acting on Principle: An Essay in Kantian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Parfit, Derek. 1987. Reasons and Persons. Clarendon Press.
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press.
Shoemaker, David. 1996. “Theoretical Persons and Practical Agents.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 318.
Wood, Allen. 1999. Kant’s Ethical Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wood, Allen. 1999. “The ‘I’ as Principle of Practical Philosophy.” In The Reception of Kant’s Critical Philosophy: Fichte, Schelling and hegel, by Sedgwick. Cambridge University Press.
i If morality did not require theoretical propositions to ground it, there would be no need to vouchsafe a space for freedom in the first place, since it wouldn’t stand at risk of being disallowed by theoretical cognition.
Blessedness and Religion: the Errant Believer’s Portion in the TTP
Benedict Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus gives an account on the role of religion within the state, ultimately positing that the state is the best way to provide for peace among inhabitants, making it the best way to be obedient to God’s command of ‘love thy neighbor.’1,2 The state is what allows for man to live freely and securely, so that he is able “to use [his] reason freely,” or so that he is able to know and obey God because He is God, and not from fear.3 At times, however, this end of the state seems difficult to maintain. After all, in other places, Spinoza argues that the state’s goal is merely “to live securely and conveniently,”4 and he regularly asserts the difference between outward religion, or piety, and inward religion, or knowing God or Truth.5 At this point, there would seem to be an implicit break between the goal of the state for those who could live freely and those who could not, i.e. those who rely on reason and those who rely on faith.6
However, due to a particularly interesting passage at the end of chapter XV and hints to this elsewhere, it does not seem like Spinoza is prepared to have the state abandon the ordinary person’s search for the good. In this section, Spinoza asserts the “utility, even necessity, of Sacred Scripture,” since “we can’t perceive by natural light that simple obedience is a path to salvation [or blessedness per the ADN footnote].” Since the vast majority of people need revelation, which is errant in its speculative assertions, to “acquire a habit of virtue…if we didn’t have the testimony of Scripture, we would doubt nearly everyone’s salvation.”7 I will argue that Spinoza’s notes here and elsewhere about the necessity of Scripture or errant beliefs about God for the common people is not merely a cynical pragmatic point to make it possible for the philosophers to reason freely. Rather, I hypothesize that Spinoza entertains the possibility that people can receive some amount of blessedness from understanding God to the best of their abilities. By looking at the definition of the highest good, its psychologizing aspects, and Spinoza’s language regarding personal capabilities, I will establish a case for reading the TTP as concerned with a public with a range of abilities, rather than a state in which reasonable people begrudgingly withstand the faithful, and that this concern extends even to the vulgus’s ability to attain some form of blessedness, albeit not the highest one. Finally, I will show that this reading has fairly direct grounding within Spinoza’s text itself.
1. Defining the Highest Good
Spinoza’s definition of the highest or supreme good seems at the outset rather simple: knowledge of God.8 This definition is sometimes expanded to “knowledge and love of God,” or even just “love of God,” yet the essential idea is clear, actively and correctly appreciating God brings the highest reward.9 Notably, the supreme good for Spinoza is the entirety of the goal of the divine law, as opposed to human law, which aims “to protect life and the republic.”10 Yet this seems somewhat vague still. Spinoza gives us some hint as to what it might look life if someone follows the divine law, that is follows the path aiming at true knowledge of God. The reward for “following the universal divine law” is blessedness or the ability to act “freely and with a constant heart,” while the punishment for failing to follow it is “an inconstant and vacillating heart” and “act[ing] like a slave.”11 What is notable is that this seems separate from the normal idea of obedience to the divine command of love thy neighbor. That command would seem to protect life, putting it under the idea of human law rather than divine law, even if it does have a divine basis. Further, the command for obedience, or love thy neighbor is seen as scriptural, that is from a basis upon which we cannot base speculative judgments about God’s true existence.12 So it seems at this point that the highest good is primarily about knowing God through reason, with its ultimate goal as “understanding things through their first causes [God].”13 What is also clear is that this “intellectual, or, exact, knowledge of God is not a gift common to all the faithful,” since “not everyone is equally able to be wise.”14 It is likely that this is the underlying reasoning behind the statement at the end of chapter XV in which Spinoza says that scripture is necessary to provide an alternative path to salvation, one that would allow those not equipped with enough reason to acquire the habit of virtue.15 In other places, Spinoza comments that the “supreme good consists in the perfection of the intellect,” which is solely linked to knowledge of God.16
What is less clear within Spinoza is the relationship between the three competing terms “highest good,” “blessedness,” and “salvation.” The first two seem to be somehow linked, in that Spinoza says that “our supreme good, then, and our blessedness come back to this: the knowledge and love of God.”17 Salvation’s link to these two is less secure, but we can look toward the passage in chapter XV again for help. Spinoza’s last line there—“if we didn’t have this testimony of Scripture [that obedience without knowledge of God is enough for salvation], we would doubt nearly everyone’s salvation”18—implies that those whose salvation we would not doubt, or the remainder of ‘nearly everyone’, are the reasoning people. Similarly, Spinoza says that “true salvation and blessedness” so far as it is related to scripture consists in understanding it very clearly, something that the common people cannot do.19 Yet, on the other hand, Spinoza elsewhere writes that “everything necessary for salvation can easily be grasped” by the common people, even though they might not know the reasoning behind them.20 Similarly, Spinoza at some levels denies the very possibility of faith being sufficient for knowledge of God, i.e., the highest good.21 This would make clear that the highest good is unattainable to those who rely upon faith, yet it does not necessarily mention ideas of blessedness or salvation here. At this point we will keep these distinctions in mind—particularly between the highest good on one side and salvation on the other—in dealing with the possibility of salvation or blessedness without the highest good. Blessedness in some respects here could be, along with the hypothesis, accorded even to those who do not attain the highest good. We will return to this point later in considering the issue overall, but will rely on the provisionary set up of the highest good being the only thing that is definitively and totally dependent on intellectual knowledge of God.
2. A Psychological view of Blessedness
Blessedness in Spinoza seems to at the very least be connected to a psychological state of a person. This can be drawn out from the distinction in relation to following the divine law where the reward is a “whole and constant heart” and the punishment is an “inconstant and vacillating heart.”22 On this view, having some knowledge of God is correlated with a constant heart or peace of mind, while lacking that knowledge, that is not appreciating the world properly, results in having internal struggle. So far, it would seem that a positive psychological state, or peace of mind, should be tied to appreciation of the highest good. Yet, in other places, Spinoza links the possibility of peace of mind coming through faith, or without the highest good.
The clearest example comes only a few lines later than the prior one, in which “faith alone” equals “full consent of the heart,” at least from within the context of scripture.23 Full consent of the heart here implies obeying God wholeheartedly, or following the laws without any hesitation, rather than following God for fear of punishment. In other words, faith alone would mean following God’s command, i.e., practicing loving-kindness or loving the neighbor, due to love or reverence for God rather than corporal punishment. Similarly, this is why Jesus “taught things as eternal truths and did not prescribe them as laws. In this way he freed them from the bondage of law.”24 Spinoza also argues that the true message of Psalms, or the good moral sentiments it advances, are “only a question of blessedness” and thus perhaps peace of mind.25
There is ground to argue here that this is already within the notion of Scripture’s somewhat artificial necessity for the common person to believe that he is worthy of salvation.26 While this is possible on some level, it seems that a properly psychologized view of blessedness or salvation can even remedy this claim. This claim would most seriously come up in Spinoza’s distinction of “true salvation and blessedness” from salvation and blessedness simpliciter. The former can only come from “true peace of mind,” which is found “only in those things we understand very clearly.”27 This comes up in the passage where Spinoza is discussing how to interpret scripture and comparing it to the clarity we have when we read Euclid. He concludes that what we can understand clearly from scripture are these moral sentiments, and that we likely can acquire these same principles by reason. Perhaps we might distinguish “true peace of mind” with regard to scripture as requiring clarity in understanding those moral elements through reason, whereas simple “peace of mind” may only require a subjective drive of devotion to God. This idea of requiring clarity for “true peace of mind” is supported in the idea that scripture is necessary in the first place since most people cannot on their own attain clarity through rational thought.28
On the other hand, the possibility and perhaps necessity of everyone believing in God wholeheartedly is paramount in Spinoza. In chapter XIV Spinoza lists seven “doctrines of the universal faith” as being general principles about God’s perfection combined with acknowledgment of him as having supreme right and requiring loving-kindness.29 These doctrines serve to ensure obedience, whereas other more speculative matters, such as God’s true nature or being are not necessary for each person. In fact, each person only need to create certain ancillary principles that are necessary to “accommodate these doctrines of faith to his power of understanding…as it seems to him easier for him to accept them without any hesitation, with complete agreement of the heart, so that he may obey God wholeheartedly.”30 Elsewhere Spinoza echoes this call for each individual to determine his speculative opinions on his own, specifically outside the control of the state.31 This second context is especially important because it separates out the personal understanding of God from the outward showing of piety or religion, since it is outside the control of the state.32 In other words, they are separate from obedience in a meaningful way.
One might say that this is only the case because they are prior to obedience, i.e., they ensure that one will be obedient, and so they are not truly separated from obedience. This might be the case, except for that Spinoza wants to specifically separate speculative philosophy that allows the philosopher to live comfortably from the outward showing of obedience, arguing that the details of philosophy are not important so long as they lead to obedience.33 Similarly, “piety itself and the internal worship of God, or the means by which the mind is disposed, internally, to worship God wholeheartedly,” is without the control of the state, and is considered as unattached to the “external practice of religion.”34 If there were truly no benefit to free philosophizing other than simply ensuring obedience, it would be hard to justify so much effort on Spinoza’s part in proving this point. And this should come without surprise: after all, the true benefit is intellectual knowledge of God, i.e. the highest good. But it seems strange to ignore the possibility of a second benefit of obedience-forming beliefs even if those beliefs are entirely or somewhat erroneous.
It seems then that for everyone the ancillary benefit of forming such a belief that one is able to be obedient wholeheartedly could be the psychological benefit of the belief itself. There is proof to this idea. At one point, Spinoza notes that “really, the Holy Spirit is nothing but a satisfaction which arises in the mind from good actions.”35 His conception of the Holy Spirit is markedly different from reason, and therefore from the highest good, but it may not be pure salvation, or something acquired by obedience alone.36 Spinoza’s language here of “good actions” rather than obedience, piety, or loving thy neighbor, should make us question what Spinoza has in mind here.37 It recalls Spinoza’s discussion of doing “good acts freely and with a constant heart” versus acting from an evil compulsion.38 Presumably the latter case would be enough for piety, since he is still doing good acts ostensibly, and he would be considered like a slave.39 In this situation a man is not free, that is, he is unable to attain the highest good, but he is still acting piously. Thus, the phrase “good actions” should make us think that man is acting in a way similar to the manner in which a subject acts.40 Applied to religion though, it perhaps indicates that Spinoza’s language of good action in 188—which like the conception of the subject in 195 involves a psychological state in which one is doing the action because it is right or good for himself instead of out of fear— should be seen as implying constancy of the heart mentioned elsewhere. Thus, the “satisfaction that arises in the mind” or the Holy Spirit would be the reward for obedience with proper devotion. Notably, this proper devotion does not seem to require true conceptions of God, but merely accommodations of the true doctrine “so that he may obey God wholeheartedly.”41 This reading, while tenuous, supports an idea of a certain ancillary benefit to obeying the law on ones own accord rather than by fear of death and punishment. At this point, it is somewhat unclear whether this benefit can be classified merely as salvation or also as some form of blessedness. Supporting the reading of salvation, this would explain the necessity of claiming obedience’s sufficiency for salvation (at the end of chapter XV), in that it would allow people to obey comfortably, i.e., not from fear, and would be its own reward psychologically. However, one could read blessedness as “the way to salvation” indicating that the positive psychological state that would enable one to be truly obedient is blessedness.42 The upshot of either of these readings would still be that there is a real benefit, albeit a psychological one, to this process that is entirely outside the highest good.
3. The Role of Personal Capabilities
Throughout the TTP, Spinoza emphasizes the requirement to conceive of God intellectually as far as it is possible for that individual, or alternatively, that knowledge of God needs to be accommodated to the individual. Spinoza does not require each person to be able to understand God properly, but rather just to know God in a vaguer sense.43 The average man does not need to have any conception of God or know his attributes44 other than that provided within the seven doctrines of faith.45 In this sense, personal capabilities play a role within the area of the possible good, that is within the possibility of knowing and loving God. To look at this, we will take a very close look at Spinoza’s language when talking about ranges of abilities.
First, it is clear from Spinoza that some people simply are unable to achieve true understandings of God. Time and again, Spinoza asserts that “the man of the flesh cannot understand these things,” they being knowledge of God.46 Likewise anyone who relies on faith to attain knowledge of God will not form any true knowledge of God,47 and exact knowledge of God is said to be uncommon.48 In fact, the proper conception of God is quite far from the common conception of God, since “it is only because of the common people’s power of understanding and a defect in their knowledge that God is described as a lawgiver or prince.”49 Rather, God should truly be known as first cause or a perfect being.50 Yet, we can find some acceptance on Spinoza’s part of those with lesser rational abilities.
The first example of this is when Spinoza writes that “since the intellect is the better part of us, we should certainly strive above all to perfect it as much as we can.”51 This last clause is key, and in the Latin reads “ut eum quantum fieri potest, perficiamus,” with the infinitive “fieri” implying a sense of activity or of formation of the intellect. Additionally, the term “eum quantum” implies a range of extents. In this context, it is possible for the intellect to be perfected in degrees, and also it could be possible that some intellects are perfectible more than others. Similarly, Spinoza asserts that common people need erroneous conceptions of God either because they have “too meager a knowledge of God—nimis ieiunam Dei habet cognitionem”52— or due to a shortage in their “power of understanding and a defect in their knowledge—ex captu vulgi, et ex solo defectu cogitationis/cognitionis.”53 The language here is particularly interesting. In the first section one could translate “ieiunam” as insignificant or trifling as well, which gives an idea of a natural incapability to have a fuller conception of God. Similarly, the phrase “ex captu vulgi” in the second example works to indicate their natural potential or ability, although it does not necessarily specify here abilities of understanding or cognition.54 The last clause also aids here, in the reading of either “defectu cogitationis” or “defectu cognitionis,” in that in the former case it would accord more to a defect in their reasoning understanding of God, while in the second case could be read either as a “defect in knowledge” or a “defect in their acquiring of knowledge.” These seem somewhat less supportive of our argument, but nonetheless there is room to claim that an imperfect knowledge of God counts as a defect.55
These help explain Spinoza’s acceptance of men who “err [in their understanding of God] from simplicity of the heart.”56 This error is not only acceptable for Spinoza, but it is even expected as “men’s minds differ as much as their palates.”57 Yet this error seems to be only acceptable to such an extent. For example, Spinoza asserts that “cognitionem illam,58 quam Deus per Prophetas ab omnibus universaliter petiit,”59 with this knowledge being cognition of God. God and the prophets make it clear that each person is supposed to have some knowledge of God, that is, knowledge of God’s “Divine Justice and Loving-kindness.” Since Spinoza asserts these principles elsewhere, it would seem far fetched to call these absolutely false, as opposed to some other understandings of God, such as God as a “lawgiver or prince.”60 Importantly Spinoza asserts that though scripture cannot teach men true knowledge of God, it can “teach and enlighten men enough to imprint obedience and devotion on their hearts.”61 In other words, scripture does not just lead men to obedience, it also causes them to be devoted to God. It does not seem to be a great leap to move from devotion to God to love of God, at least so far as that is possible for the average person.
Further, Spinoza even asserts that some of the theoretical opinions that the common people have are “true,” since the person who arrives at knowledge of God without scripture has a “distinct [rational] conception” of God that scripture cannot provide.62 Notably, it is not that this person is the only one who is blessed, period. Rather, he is “completely blessed (beatum omnio esse),” or “more blessed than the common people (vulgo beatiorem)” because of this rational conception.63 Spinoza advances this point even further, saying that the one who has neither the scriptural conception of God nor the rational conception of God is worse off still. This person is “devoid of human feeling, and almost a beast. He does not have any of God’s gift.”64 This is true even if he is not impious, that is if he acts with obedience. The devotional aspect that can be supplied by the scriptural sense of God and knowledge of him within it (cf. “cognitionem illam” above) provides some sort of benefit (here “ullum Dei donum”) to the believer that is simply not given to the pious non-believer. Given the context, and especially the “ullum” which implies the same sort of quantitative scale above, it would seem that this “Dei donum” is “beatum esse” or to be blessed. An alternative is to consider this salvation, since this is normally considered within the context of God’s grace or gift.65 However, given the contexts in which “donum” arises verses “gratiam,” it would seem to support a more intellectual idea of blessedness than that of salvation.66 This is especially shown where they arise together paralleling “love” and “worship” of God, respectively.67 This seems tied especially well to other instantiations of linking this belief to devotion with outward acts usually according with worship.
4. Conclusion and Objections
So far in this paper I have advanced a reading of Spinoza’s TTP in which there is an idea of the average person attaining some sort of non-material benefit out of her faith-based (i.e. somewhat erroneous) belief in God that is necessary for her obedience to God.68 This has been accomplished first by separating out the notion of the highest good, or true knowledge and love of God, from those of blessedness and salvation. Then, I laid out the psychological tendencies in describing blessedness as related to a constant or unwavering heart or soul (animus), contrasted with the possibility of carrying out obedience under coercion. Finally, I established that a close reading of Spinoza’s text, especially in the Latin, allows for the possibility that knowledge of God, or rather having true opinions of God, can come in various levels. This attitude toward God seemed to correspond with experiencing love or devotion to God, which I argued resulted in a form of blessedness, albeit a lesser form than that of attaining the highest good. According to this view, blessedness would be a gift that would be possible for man to receive depending on how well his conception of God provides him peace of mind in doing his divine duty.
One objection would be that this argument is reading too much concern for the common person into Spinoza. This would accord with a Straussian reading of the TTP, and would be supported in fact by some of Spinoza’s sharp comments toward the common people, particularly in his letter to Albert Burgh.69 Additionally, it agrees with Curley’s comments on the “vulgus,” in which he says that Spinoza does not have much concern for them.70 The argument here would run along the lines that Spinoza merely includes these strange comments about common people being able to receive blessedness or salvation as a means of satisfying the common person if he happens to read Spinoza’s book. This would help Spinoza avoid censorship and it would help him keep his duty to the state.71 Additionally, it could be understood by Spinoza’s own hermeneutic principle where if the text (there by scripture, but maybe here too by the TTP) contradicts reason, the text must be interpreted figuratively.72 So in all these places where blessedness or salvation is assured to the faithful, we can wink them away as figures of speech, or things Spinoza does not really mean, but rather that they are intended to hoodwink the masses.73
There are several difficulties with this reading. The first is the historical account that Spinoza explicitly printed this book in Latin, not Dutch, which would limit his readership to the learned. In other words, it is somewhat unlikely that an average common person would read this book, and thus it seems strained to claim that Spinoza spends fourteen out of twenty chapters talking about the Bible when the reasonable person would do away with it anyway. Secondly, Spinoza acknowledges this likelihood by addressing his reader as “Philosophical” and in discouraging the common person from reading the book, especially when they have a strong attachment to scripture.74 Even if he was trying to convince other philosophers who are stuck in their so-called pious ways, the amount of time and effort Spinoza puts into the biblical criticism sections still seems excessive.75 Finally, and most importantly, far too much of the TTP mentions the necessity of scripture, or of a faith-based understanding of God. It seems rather strained to suggest that one read a work of philosophy, especially one as systematic as the TTP, in a periphrastic way, by which one would have to cherry pick the arguments in order to make sense of the work. Of course it would be impossible to disprove the objection: we simply do not have definitive statements from Spinoza that the goal of his work was or was not to hoodwink common people and secretly enlighten the proud few. Yet, I believe that my reading requires fewer emendations of the text without hurting the political philosophy of Spinoza nor disturbing the sense to which his rational believer in God does have significantly more blessedness than the scriptural believer, since he has attained the highest good. Thus, I find that in expanding Spinoza’s idea of blessedness to include those for whom their most accurate and most calming conception of God is the erroneous religious one aids in understanding the text as is, or in the way Spinoza suggests we understand texts.76 The additional benefit of my reading would be that it would allow us to see Spinoza as maintaining a sort of intellectual elitism while not consigning the common person to the role of automaton. In other words, this reading would see people filling their roles within the intellectual hierarchy.77
A second objection would be quite the opposite. This objection would say that I have not laid out anything particularly new as one could already see this line in Spinoza’s thinking before my intervention. In other words, my effort was unnecessary and my reading is the most obvious one. This objection can be refuted by the previous one itself: the very fact that a major school of thought about Spinoza’s TTP works against this argument and likewise against his concern for the common believer, shows that my intervention is useful and that I have established a provocative reading of the text.
To conclude, I have shown that it is viable to read Spinoza’s concept of blessedness as being partially accorded to those for whom erroneous beliefs of God are satisfactory, and push them to devotion as well as obedience. This would create two rewards with definitive categories: the highest good would be accorded to those who truly know and love God, while salvation would go to those who obey God, without these being mutually exclusive. Blessedness would exist in a category somewhat attached to both, in that for the truly rational people, blessedness and attaining the highest good would coincide. For the common person, blessedness would come about when he felt no conflict about obeying the divine order, and this peace of mind would prove to be a real yet non-material benefit.78
1 All citations of Spinoza will refer to Gebhardt page and line numbers in Volume III of Gebhardt’s collected works of Spinoza as formatted in Benedictus de Spinoza, The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. II, ed., trans., Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016). Tractatus Theologico-politicus will be abbreviated TTP and Tractatus Politicus will be abbreviated TP.
2 E.g., Spinoza, TTP, 229.9-17.
3 Ibid., 241.3-8, 62.18-21, cf. id., TP, 296.11-5.
4 Id., TTP, 48.13-5, cf. id., TP, 275.35-6, 295.15-7.
5 E.g, id., TTP, 59.23-6, 70.9-10, 71.10-1, 71.26-7, 202.20-2, 228.19-30.
6 E.g. ibid., 59.29-31, 65.28-9, 77.32-78.5, 168.27-32.
7 Ibid., 188.21-29.
8 Ibid., 59.25-6.
9 Ibid., 60.13-62.21, cf. 66.7-9.
10 Ibid., 59.23-6.
11 Ibid., 62.18-21, 66.7-9.
12 Ibid., 61.34-5, 77.32-78.1, 174.19-176.31.
13 Ibid., 46.27-30.
14 Ibid., 168.27-32, 170.1-6.
15 Ibid., 188.21-9. At the very least it would allow those who are not able to reason to merely think obedience is enough for salvation. This cynical reading will be addressed later.
16 Ibid., 59.32-60.3.
17 ibid., 60.18-9.
18 Ibid., 188.27-9.
19 Ibid., 111.29-34. See similar language of “true blessedness” in 45.2.
20 Ibid., 115.8-13.
21 Ibid., 61.28-35.
22 Ibid., 62.19-21.
23 Ibid., 65.25-6.
24 Ibid., 65.10-1.
25 Ibid., 71.29-72.1.
26 E.g. ibid., 185.16-32.
27 Ibid., 111.29-34.
28 Ibid., 65.28-9, 78.4-5.
29 Ibid., 177.14-178.10. There is the somewhat strange seventh principle, that “God pardons the sins of those who repent.” Spinoza comments that this is what allows people to believe in the possibility of salvation, since otherwise they could not think of being saved since everyone sins. This seems parallel to the note in chapter XV about obedience being enough for salvation, and should be kept in mind.
30 Ibid., 178.30-5.
31 Ibid., 239.13-18.
32 Cf. ibid., 229.4-8.
33 Ibid., 10.31-11.8, 188.12-19, 229.13-7.
34 Ibid., 229.3-6.
35 Ibid., 188.2-3.
36 Ibid., 188.4-5, cf. 188.21-9.
37 Cf. virtue in 69.31-2.
38 Ibid., 66.7-9.
39 Ibid., 196.10-1.
40 Ibid., 195.13-4.
41 Ibid., 178.30-5.
42 Ibid., 97.3-4.
43 Ibid., 168.27-32.
44 See ibid., 170.1-6.
45 Ibid., 177.14-178.10.
46 ibid., 61.6-7.
47 Ibid., 61.28-35.
48 Ibid., 167.27-8.
49 Ibid., 65.28-9.
50 Ibid., 46.27-30. 51 ibid., 59.29-31.
52 Ibid., 66.6-11.
53 Ibid., 65.28-9. As Curley notes on this line in his volume, he emends the Gebhardt text to read cognitionis instead of cogitationis to accord with 63.25-9.
54 Cf. Leo Strauss, “How to Study Spinoza’s Theological Political Treatise,” in Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research vol. 17 (1947-8): e.g., 106, 107n63, 111.
55 Although “cognitionis” agrees better with the parallel passage in 63, due to other places in which “cognitionis” is associated with a more universal knowledge of God whereas “cogitationis” is solely used for intellectual knowledge, I find reading “cogitationis” preferable here with Gebhardt.
56 Spinoza, TTP, 176.25.
57 ibid., 239.23-5.
58 Contra earlier in the sentence where it is “intellectualem, sive accuratam Dei cognitionem” or “intellectual, or exact knowledge of God.” Curley here inserts a comma after “exact,” which I find potentially confusing. Nonetheless, “intellectualem cognitionem” and “accuratam cognitionem” clearly serve as a foil to “cognitionem” below, see ibid., 168.27.
59 Ibid., 168.28-32. Curley translates: “knowledge of God, through the Prophets, has demanded of everyone” but would be more literally translated as “this knowledge [of God], which God through the Prophets universally requested/demanded from all.”
60 Ibid., 65.28-9.
61 Ibid., 78.1-2, teach and enlighten here are “docere” and “illuminare,” in which docere might not necessarily imply teach but rather guide or lead men to obedience. Illuminare is unambiguous here and clearly gives an idea similar to our enlighten.
62 Ibid., 78.10-2.
63 Another way of reading “beatum omnio esse” would be that the rational person is “blessed in every way” or “blessed in everything,” implying a difference in the ways or areas in which he is blessed rather than a difference in overall degree.
64 Ibid., 78.12-4.
65 See ibid., 165.27-9. 188.23.
66 See, for “donum” ibid., 15.23, 112.31, 113.7, and 182.13 meaning natural cognitive ability especially one that is not particularized to a group, cf. at 168.28, 170.1, 170.32, and 172.26 as (intellectual) or other knowledge of God. See for gratiam, as Spirit at 26.34, as God’s presence, 53.23, as complementing knowledge and love of God, 55.34- 5, as the phrase “God’s grace,” like a gift, e.g., 152.1, 168.36, 177.33, 178.8, as an attribute of God, e.g., 65.18, as linked to salvation, 157.24, 165.27, and 188.24.
67 They appear together, with “freedom,” in paralleling “true life, and the worship and love of God’ at 41.6-8.
68 On this connection, see ibid.,175.13-5.
69 See id., “Letter 76 to the Most Noble Young Man Albert Burgh,” IV.319a.1-320a.2, 322a.13-324a.5.
70 Edwin Curley, “Glossary,” in The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. II, ed., Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016): 620-1 s.v. “Common People.”
71 Cf. Strauss, “How to Read,” 106.
72 Cf. ibid., 110 in thinking about how this could parallel Maimonides’s Guide.
73 See ibid., 112ff.
74 Spinoza, TTP, 12.3, 12.13-19.
75 Strauss raises this point, and thinks that the primary audience is Christians who are capable of philosophy, thus explaining the necessity of comments on all of Scripture. Yet Strauss’s argument relies on the idea that the philosopher is using relatively little of the text, and so my objection can still be maintained. See Strauss, “How to Read,” 113, 119.
76 Ibid., 98.17-99.7.
77 Perhaps this is similar to discussions about who Maimonides thought the thirteen principles of faith espoused in his first comment on Perek Chelek were for.
78 Of course, Strauss suggests the most important upshot of this: maybe Spinoza is right. This solution would be much more palatable than one that heavily condescends to the vulgus. Se Strauss, “How to Read,” 81-2.