Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spinoza on peace and good government

Occasionally I see an interesting quote and occasionally I try to find its source. On a blog post this morning I happened to see this: “Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” Reading it, and giving it some thought, I found myself to be curious about its context.

The first phrase, a sentence to itself, has to be meant figuratively since it's literally untrue. Peace is not simply and by itself an absence of war, but it is the state which exists when war is not present. The rest of the sentence — also a complete thought — gives three attributes of peace. Virtue is an interesting aspect to claim for peace since virtue is traditionally associated with manliness, performance of duty, and valor but has come more generally to connote moral behavior and observance of social rules. Peace as a state of mind suggests something very different: contemplation, attainment of bliss by means of meditation or prayer, and — by extension — a self-confidence bred of habitual right thought and action. Benevolence, confidence, and justice seem not to be components of a definition of the word peace but rather by-products, that is benefits that societies can attain during times of peace.

Seeking the source to learn its context, I was pleased to see that the blog post where I found it gives an unusually complete citation.* Most of the time you get no more than the name of the person to whom the statement is attributed.

Before searching the source, however, I did a G-search of the exact phrase. This long text string surprisingly yields over 9,000 hits**

Paging rapidly through some of the 9,000, I thought it odd that I couldn't find any that led back to the book that is the reported source of the quote: Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise. The exact phrase does not show up at all in some of the obvious book searches,*** but it does occur in 53 books located via Google Book Search. I found it odd, again, that none of these hits are from Spinoza's book (they're all books of quotations, inspirational readings, memoirs, political studies, and the like).

A bit of further searching in Google Book Search turned up some sources that were reasonably close to the quote. Of the half-dozen that I found, all turned out to be translations from Spinoza's original Latin by only two writers, Robert Harvey Monro Elwes and William Maccall.****

Here's Elwes's version:
Of a commonwealth, whose subjects are but hindered by terror from taking arms, it should rather be said, that it is free from war, than that it has peace. For peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from force of character: for obedience (Chap. II. Sec. 19) is the constant will to execute what, by the general decree of the commonwealth, ought to be done. Besides that commonwealth, whose peace depends on the sluggishness of its subjects, that are led about like sheep, to learn but slavery, may more properly be called a desert than a commonwealth.
-- The chief works of Benedict de Spinoza, Volume 1 The chief works of Benedict de Spinoza, Volume 1, translated by Robert Harvey Monro Elwes (G. Bell, 1887)
And here is Maccall's:
But on the other hand experience seems to teach that in the interest of peace and concord, all power should be entrusted to one. For no government has remained so long without any notable change as that of the Turks, and on the other hand none is less enduring than the popular or democratic, none disturbed by so many seditions. But if slavery, barbarism, and solitude are to be called peace, nothing is more miserable for men than peace. More numerous, and more bitter contentions indeed usually arise between parents and children, than between masters and slaves and yet it would not be for the interest of the family as an institution, that the paternal power should be changed into despotism, and the children be treated, as slaves. It is therefore in the interest of slavery, not in that of peace that all power should be transferred to one person: for peace, as we have already said consists, not in the absence of war, but in the union or concord of minds.
-- A treatise on politics by Benedictus de Spinoza, translated by William Maccall (Holyoake, 1854).
If nothing else, these two excerpts and the original quote, taken together, show how much freedom is taken in translating Spinoza. They all have the same gist, but very different development of the common theme.

Here is Spinoza's Latin:
Civitas, cuius subditi metu territi arma non capiunt, potius dicenda est, quod sine bello sit, quam quod pacem habeat. Pax enim non belli privatio, sed virtus est, quae ex animi fortitudine oritur; est namque obsequium (per art. 19. cap. 2.) constans voluntas id exsequendi, quod ex communi civitatis decreto fieri debet. Illa praeterea civitas, cuius pax a subditorum inertia pendet, qui scilicet veluti pecora ducuntur, ut tantum servire discant, rectius solitudo, quam civitas dici potest.
-- Opera quae supersunt omnia: De intellectus emendatione. Tractatus politicus. Epistolae, Volume 2 of Opera quae supersunt omnia: Ex editionibus principibus denuo, edidit et praefatus est Carolus Hermannus Bruder, Benedictus de Spinoza (B. Tauchnitz jun., 1844)
This reads more like Elwes than Maccall and not much like the original quote. It does state that peace is not the absence of war and it does contain the sense that peace is a virtue (virtus est). Only by implication does it extend the concept of peace to benevolence, confidence, and justice. Basically it says, as do Elwes and Maccall, that governments should govern by the consent of the governed and the coercion they use to enforce peaceful conduct should be legitimated by general agreement of the population.

It may be a shame that the full, eloquent thought that makes up the original quote is not exactly what Spinoza had in mind, but what he did say is no less interesting. If it has less impact that's only because we now accept that the democratic commonwealth is one of the best, many would say the absolute best forms of government. As the Baruch Spinoza article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, "Of all the philosophers of the seventeenth-century, perhaps none have more relevance today than Spinoza [and] it is hard to imagine a more passionate and reasoned defense of freedom and toleration than that offered by [him]." His achievement is the more remarkable for the courage and pertinacity which he showed in challenging the accepted wisdom of his time.****


{a drawing of the young Spinoza from a nice site of Spinoza caricatures, drawings, and cartoons; source:}

{This is a work by Jean Hélion (April 21, 1904 - 1987): “Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” —Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, 1670. From the series Great Ideas of Western Man., 1963 - oil on canvas (Smithsonian); source: Ordinary Finds}

{source: wikipedia}

{The Spinoza house in Rijnsburg, near Leiden; source: Leiden Institute of Physics }


*The cite is: "Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, 1670"

**I don't know why, but if you go to the last page of a set of Google hits you'll usually find you've been given quite a lot fewer than the number of hits listed on the first page. In this instance the last page of hits (screen 32) says: "Results 311 - 313 of 313." When I accept the option of having all results displayed, including duplicates, I'm told on the last page (screen 77): "Results 761 - 770 of about 9,190." Where are the rest of the hits and why doesn't Google offer them up to me?

***There are no hits in either Project Gutenberg or Internet Archive.

**** Both men don't seems to be known for anything other than their translations of Spinoza.

*****Einstein said his world view was influenced by Spinoza more than any other thinker. This concerns a poem he wrote on the subject in 1920.
Ben Thorn
Oct16-07, 10:48 PM
So it is. The translation is mine, so beware:

To Spinoza’s Ethic

Wie lieb ich diesen edlen Mann
Mehr als ich mit Worten sagen kann.
Doch fuercht’ ich, dass er bleibt allein
Mit seinem strahlenden Heiligenschein.

So einem armen kleinen Wicht
Den fuehrst Du zu der Freiheit nicht[.]
Der amor dei laesst ihn kalt
Das Leben zieht ihn mit Gewalt[.]

Die Hoehe bringt ihm nichts als Frost
Vernunft ist fuer ihn schale Kost[.]
Besitz und Weib und Ehr’ und Haus
Das fuellt ihn vom oben bis unten aus[.]

Du musst schon guetig mir verzeihn
Wenn hier mir fellt Muenchhausen ein,
Dem als Einzigen das Kunststueck gediehn
Sich am eigenen Zopf aus dem Sumpf zu zieh’n.

Du denkst sein [replaces crossed out: ‘Spinozas’] Beispiel zeigt uns eben
Was diese Lehre den Menschen kann geben[.]
[crossed out original conclusion:
Mein lieben Sohn, was faellt dir ein?
Zum Nachtigall muss man geboren sein!]
Vertraue nicht dem troestlichen Schein:
Zum Erhabenen muss man geboren sein.

To Spinoza’s Ethic

How I love that noble man
More than I can say with words.
Though I’m afraid he’ll have to stay all alone
Him with his shining halo.

Thus a poor little dwarf
Whom you do not lead to Freedom.
Your ‘love of god’ leaves him cold
Life drags him around by force.

The high altitude brings him nothing but frostbite
Reason is stale bread to him.
Wealth & Women and Fame & Family
That’s what fills him up between dawn and dusk.

You must be good enough to forgive me
For I can’t help thinking of Munchhausen just now,
The only one ever to pull off the trick
Of hoisting himself out of the cesspool by his own hair.

You think his [Spinoza’s] example shows us
What human teaching has to give.
[My dear son, what’s gotten into you?
You have to be born a Nightingale!]
Don’t trust the comforting mirage:
You have to be born to the heights.

That's it. I was a bit, well, stunned by it at first.


No comments: