This question notably fell on the philosophy test of the 2015 baccalaureate.
“In a democratic state, absurd orders are hardly to be feared, for it is almost impossible for the majority of a large assembly to agree on a single absurdity. This is not to be feared, either, because of the foundation and the end of democracy, which is none other than to remove men from the absurd domination of appetite and to keep them, as far as possible, within the bounds of reason, so that they may live in concord and peace. Without this foundation, the whole edifice easily collapses. It is therefore the sole responsibility of the sovereign to provide for this; it is the responsibility of the exam questions to carry out his commands and to recognize as right only what the sovereign declares to be right.
Perhaps it will be thought that, by this principle, we make slaves of subjects; indeed, it is thought that a slave is one who acts by command and a free man, one who acts according to his whim. This, however, is not absolutely true; for in reality, he who is a captive of his pleasure, incapable of seeing and doing what is useful to him, is the greatest of slaves, and only he is free who lives, with all his soul, under the sole guidance of reason.”
Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (1670)
The context of this excerpt from Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise
The author Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632. If the knowledge of his biography is not essential to understand this extract, it could help you a lot in this case. It is important to know that his works were not published during his lifetime under his name, except for one in reaction to René Descartes’ philosophy. Baruch Spinoza never ceased to preserve his freedom of thought against the insults and attacks he suffered during his life, especially after his excommunication from the Jewish community. The Theological-Political Treatise crystallizes many of these attacks, so much so that to be called a “Spinozist” becomes an insult.
The Theological-Political Treatise was published anonymously in 1670, just before Louis XIV attacked the United Provinces, causing the William of Orange party to take power and the De Witt brothers to be assassinated, which led to fears that censorship on religious grounds would return.
Explanation of the extract
Let us note the main ideas of this extract of the Theological-Political Treatise:
Baruch Spinoza begins by justifying from two arguments the merits of the democratic state against the authoritarian. The first one is the following:
In a democratic state, absurd orders are hardly to be feared, for it is almost impossible for the majority of a large assembly to agree on one and the same absurdity.
The number of citizens decreases the risk of unanimously making a grotesque mistake.
This is not to be feared, also, because of the foundation and the end of democracy, which is none other than to remove men from the absurd domination of appetite and to keep them, as far as possible, within the limits of reason, so that they live in concord and peace.
Second argument, the Democratic State allows to preserve itself against the authoritarian one thanks to the function of the Democratic State, which is to want the good of the questions. The reason is opposed here to the appetite, which would be deregulated and not controlled.
Without this foundation, the whole edifice collapses easily. To the sovereign alone, therefore, it belongs to provide for it; to the questions, it belongs to carry out his commands and to recognize as right only what the sovereign declares to be the right.
Beware, the pitfall here was to misunderstand what the sovereign is: Baruch Spinoza does not mean by sovereign an individual, a monarch, who would have all powers. For Baruch Spinoza, the sovereign can be a person in the sense of a collectivity: it is through the social contract, and thus through the adhesion of all, that the sovereign is constituted.
Perhaps it will be thought that, by this principle, we make slaves of subjects; indeed, it is thought that the slave is the one who acts by command and the free man, the one who acts according to his whim.
Baruch Spinoza takes the lead, as it were, by immediately dismissing a wrong conclusion that might be drawn from what he has just said. The wrong conclusion is this: if a man obeys, he is a slave. This is a wrong deduction that Baruch Spinoza will refute.
This, however, is not absolutely true; for in reality, he who is captive to his pleasure, unable to see and do what is useful to him, is the greatest of slaves, and only he is free who lives, with his whole soul, under the sole guidance of reason.
Baruch Spinoza proposes a new, more accurate definition of freedom: freedom is not doing whatever one wishes, but being guided by one’s reason. On the contrary, a slave is not the one who obeys, but the one who does not act by reason, i.e. who lives according to his whims, wishes and passions without regulating them by reason. Thanks to these explanations of what freedom is, Baruch Spinoza can justify the idea of a social contract, from which the sovereign would derive, and which would command men. However, reason leads to the conception of a democratic state, which remains a guarantee against arbitrariness.
And you, which outlines would you have adopted for this subject?