Spinoza: Philosopher of the Peace of Westphalia

“Everyone has by nature a right to act deceitfully. and to break his compacts, unless he be restrained by the hope of some greater good, or the fear of some greater evil.”  This quotation, which sounds like it could come straight from Queen Christina’s aphorisms, is in fact from Baruch Spinoza’s “A theological-political tract.”  I have just been reading it, but I wish I had done so before publishing my book, for Spinoza expresses in words exactly the sense of international relations that was practiced by the diplomats of which I wrote.

He says of an alliance for mutual defense,

“Such a covenant is valid so long as its basis of danger or advantage is in force: no one enters into an engagement, or is bound to stand by his compacts unless there be a hope of some accruing good, or the fear of some evil: if this basis be removed the compact thereby  becomes void: this has been abundantly shown by experience. For although different states make treaties not to harm one another, they always take every possible precaution against such treaties being broken by the stronger party, and do not rely on the compact, unless there is a sufficiently obvious object and advantage to both parties in observing it. Otherwise they would fear a breach of faith, nor would there be any wrong done thereby…”

In other words, statesmen were right not to trust each other, because agreements are only valid so long as a state stands to benefit from their continuation.  Not only is this normal (“this has been abundantly shown by experience”), it is a positive moral right, for, “if we consult loyalty and religion, we shall see that no one in possession of power ought to abide by his promises to the injury of his dominion; for he cannot keep such promises without breaking the engagement he made with his subjects, by which both he and they are most solemnly bound.”

It is very Hobbesian, in a sense, except more chaotic, because Hobbes considers the pledge to obey a sovereign to be an absolute right that, once surrendered, is gone forever; whereas Spinoza, although he writes that a sovereign power can never commit wrong against a subject “however absurd [its commands] may be,” also believes that the sovereign only retains its right to power so long as it can enforce it.  Anyone may dare to overthrow the sovereign, with the risk that, if he lose, he will be justly punished for treason; but if he win, he is in the right to do so.

I am not surprised to find the morality of the 1640’s being embodied in a philosopher writing several decades later, for, as I explained in the book, the theorists of “reason of state” were not so much representative of the practice of the Congress of Westphalia as of an earlier generation.  I have always been much struck by John Maynard Keynes’s assertion that

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

And, being the contemplative sort myself, I like to think it is true.  However, in the period I study, at least, philosophers followed practice rather than preceded it, and I grudgingly acknowledge the justice of Hegel’s famous quotation that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

Everything Peace of Westphalia

Leave a Reply