Law and Politics – Schopenhauer and Baruch Spinoza

Law and Politics – Schopenhauer and Baruch Spinoza

Arthur Schopenhauer, at the beginning of “Law and Politics”, from Ethics, Law and Politics (1851), quotes Baruch Spinoza, author of the Theological-Political Treatise.

Baruch Spinoza began writing the Tractatus theologico-politics, commonly abbreviated as TTP, probably in 1665, because of the theologians who called him an atheist, as he explained in a letter. The work appears anonymously in 1670, and triggers
polemics and contestations. Indeed the TTP, approaches the thorniest questions of the century, in particular as for the relations between right, policy, and religion, in particular by the question of the biblical exegesis. The object of the book is to show that “freedom of philosophizing” is not harmful
“neither to piety nor to the peace and security of the State”, according to its own subtitle.

If Baruch Spinoza’s work had an immediate impact, Arthur Schopenhauer’s work did not become famous until the middle of the 19th century. The Parerga and Paralipomena, a collection published in 1851, contributed to the revaluation of Schopenhauer’s writing. In the chapter entitled ‘Law
in the chapter entitled “Law and Politics” in Ethics, Law and Politics, Arthur Schopenhauer expresses his view of the relationship between law and politics as the
relationship between law and politics, as the title indicates, but also the place of human
of human freedom.

Baruch Spinoza’s influence on Schopenhauer can be seen in the themes of chapter XVI of the TTP and the chapter “Law and Politics” of Ethics, Law and Politics. It is indeed common knowledge that Schopenhauer was an avid reader of Baruch Spinoza. It is for this main reason that I have chosen to study these two extracts. It seemed interesting to me to see how the thought of an author could find an echo two centuries later in Europe. The second reason that makes the comparison of these excerpts interesting is that they are two lesser-known works, and yet they express a fundamental vision of political philosophy, almost systemic in the case of Baruch Spinoza, and to a lesser extent in the case of Schopenhauer’s work. The strength of the philosophical and political vision of these excerpts contrasted, in my opinion, with the low profile of these works, giving the desire to understand more precisely the particular relationship between them.

How can law and politics, at first sight contradictory, leave room for the freedom of the individual? How can law and politics work together to safeguard human freedom, its natural or positive rights? How can human beliefs, especially religious ones, accommodate political and legislative obligations?

Both Baruch Spinoza and Arthur Schopenhauer first try to determine what the right man can legitimately claim. Then they are both interested, in a complimentary way, in defining what would be the best form of government with respect to the rights of
human rights. Finally, both authors give remarkable importance to religion and to the delicate question of power relations in politics, law, and human religious beliefs.


In their reflection on human rights, Baruch Spinoza and Schopenhauer choose to address this question first; then they question the notion of natural rights; finally, they give the scope of their definition of human right.

First of all, both Baruch Spinoza and Schopenhauer immediately set out to define human rights rather than the form of the state. Thus Baruch Spinoza writes at the beginning of chapter XVI, “We shall investigate the foundations of the state; but let us first examine the natural right of each person, without yet occupying ourselves with the state and religion.” Schopenhauer 1 explains this order almost poetically: “A peculiar defect of the Germans is that they look in the clouds for what lies at their feet. ‘2 Not only is it possible to define what the law of men is in a simple way, but this is already a fundamental divergence from Baruch Spinoza’s work.

In fact, Baruch Spinoza considers that there is a natural right: “By natural rights and institutions of nature, we do not mean anything other than the laws of the nature of each individual, according to which we conceive that each of them is naturally determined to exist and to act in a determined way.”3 Thus, man has the right to preserve himself, to persevere in his being like any other being, which in this sense does not distinguish him from the animal. For Schopenhauer, it is not necessary to have recourse to such abstract notions as natural law to describe reality: “by the way in which professors of philosophy treat natural law. In order to explain the very simple human conditions that constitute its basis – right and wrong, property, the state, criminal law, etc. – they appeal to the most extravagant, the most abstract notions, that is, the broadest and the most empty ones ‘4.

For Baruch Spinoza, therefore, it is not reflection or the faculties of reason that make natural law possible. On the contrary, it is the natural, spontaneous, and unthinking dispositions that give the measure of one’s natural right: “Thus it is not sound reason that determines for each person the natural right, but the degree of his power and the strength of his appetites.”5 Natural rights thus encompass for Baruch Spinoza the possibility of harming others, as long as this harm is caused by the power of an individual. Schopenhauer rejects the abstract distinction between
Schopenhauer rejects the abstract distinction between natural law and positive law, and thus by his definition of law opposes Baruch Spinoza in that law is precisely defined by the negation of harm to others: “the rights of man are easy to define: everyone has the right to do whatever does not harm another. ‘6
Schopenhauer initiates, as it were, the principle according to which the freedom of some stops where that of others begins
others begins.

The study of the rights that each individual has leads to the question of the best possible form of state.

In order to produce such a conception of what the State should be, the two authors first recall what the State is, even if this State does not stem from the same necessity for the two authors. For as much, it results from it for the two authors the same limit posed by the right with respect to
of the individual. It is then necessary to define which would be the best form of the State for the government of the men.

Baruch Spinoza develops a contractual conception of the State, speaking of a ‘pact ‘7. The foundations of this pact are close to Hobbesian thought, Baruch Spinoza starting from the observation that ‘there is no one who does not wish to live in security and freedom from fear, as far as it is possible ‘8. This security is impossible as soon as the appetites are not controlled, as soon as reason does not dominate the instincts. It is for this reason, and seeing that their greatest interest lay in the constitution of a state, that is to say a republic that men agree
it is for this reason, and seeing that their greatest interest lay in the constitution of a state, i.e. a republic, that men agree, ‘together to take advice only from reason, ‘9, and form a ‘common pact ‘10, which is the state. Schopenhauer gives a clear definition of the state, recalling the one he has already stated in The World as Will and Representation11. The state is ‘an institution existing for the protection of its members against external attack or internal dissension. In this sense, the formation of the state and its necessity differ between the two authors. For Schopenhauer, as for Baruch Spinoza, the state is a bulwark against violence and makes it possible to establish peace, but it does not have the same foundations: it is a question of a common pact according to Baruch Spinoza’s reflections, whereas for Schopenhauer, it is the observation of injustice in man that makes the state necessary: “But because injustice is the order of the day, it is necessary that the one who built the house should also be in a position to protect it. The law is powerless by itself for Schopenhauer, because in nature it is only the law of the strongest that takes place13.

This is how the state is limited in relation to the law it can produce. This conception is the same for Baruch Spinoza as it is for Schopenhauer, as the latter himself points out, quoting Baruch Spinoza: “unusquisque tantum juris habet, quantum potentia valet”,14 which Baruch Spinoza himself translates as “his right does not exist”
which Baruch Spinoza himself translates as “his right having no other measure than his power”. Each person has a right only to do what his own power allows him to do, and as much as his own power allows him to do.

Schopenhauer sees in this, as has already been noted in this paper, the influence of Hobbes, especially his work De Cive15, where it is a question of the possibility of men fulfilling themselves according to their freedom. Baruch Spinoza has a broad conception of democracy, which he uses to designate the form born of the common pact of all individuals. “The society in which this right dominates is called democracy, which is for this reason defined: a general assembly that possesses in common a sovereign right over everything that falls within its power ‘16. Thus democracy is understood in its broad sense of government by the people, but in this case it can be unified in a single sovereign. This conception is close to that developed by Hobbes in Leviathan, insofar as the sovereign perfectly expresses the will of the people and in this cannot be unjust.

Arthur Schopenhauer is radically opposed to this political vision, and expresses the wish for an elitist and enlightened government. ‘If one wants utopian outlines, here is mine: the only solution of the problem would be the despotism of the wise and noble of a true aristocracy, of a true nobility, with a view to generation, by the marriage of the worthiest males with the most intelligent and intellectual women. ‘17 This utopia is set in opposition to what Schopenhauer finds to be a natural form of government of men: monarchy. ‘The monarchical form of government is natural to man, much as it is to bees and ants.

The State is thus the keystone that allows us to address the question of individual freedom, as well as religion. Law is, first of all, produced by the State, but also is intimately linked to religion.

It is then necessary to ask the question of the superiority of the State over individual religious beliefs. This conception of the relationship between law and power thus reveals the importance of individual liberties, whether they are religious or more generally of thought and expression.

Baruch Spinoza wrote the Theological-Political Treatise in order to show the importance of freedom of thought for the functioning of a state, especially in philosophical and religious matters. It is in this spirit that he writes chapter XVI of the TTP. For Baruch Spinoza, natural law and the natural state has a natural superiority over religion: “the natural state, which has over religion a priority of nature and time. For nature has not taught anyone that he owes God any obedience ‘19.

Baruch Spinoza distinguishes in this sense between the natural state and the state of religion: the former has neither religion nor law.
It is only once religion has been revealed that there can be a divine right, which must then be obeyed imperatively: “Indeed, if men were naturally bound to obey the divine right, or if the divine right were a natural right, it would have been superfluous for God to make a covenant with men and to bind them by a pact and by an oath.”

Schopenhauer in “Law and Politics” 20 only evokes religion through the example of the Jewish people, devoting long pages to it. He sees in the “Jewish nation”, rather than in the “Jewish confession”, recalling that the Jews are originally a people rather than a religion, a situation in which religion is at the heart of the political constitution: “The Jews have no confession: monotheism belongs to their nationality and their political constitution, and, with them, is self-evident ‘21.

It is from this importance of religion that the necessity of the superiority of collective law over individual beliefs is seen. ‘It is certain that if no one were bound by law to obey the sovereign in what he believes to belong to religion, it would result that public law would depend on the judgment and the fantasy of each one ‘22.

Baruch Spinoza poses this imperative to guarantee the peace and sovereignty of the State, because each individual interprets the Holy Scriptures differently, opening up a plurality of beliefs that would be dangerous for the government. ‘It follows that the sovereign (…) also has the absolute right to rule in matters of religion as he sees fit “23.

Schopenhauer was very reluctant to see the intrusion of the Jewish religion into the State: ‘Equity demands that they enjoy the same civil rights as others; but to grant them a share in the State is absurd.

24 However, Schopenhauer seems to justify this exclusion from state affairs more by the foreign character of the Jewish people, ‘oriental ‘25, almost anti-Semitic remarks at times 26, than by a need to exclude the religious from the political field. Baruch Spinoza wrote the Theological-Political Treatise in order to arrange and show a part of freedom of thought and expression, useful for the political system. Arthur Schopenhauer also recalls the fundamental role of these freedoms: ‘From this point of view, the freedom of the press is to the state machine what the safety valve is to the steam engine.

It allows all the discontented to soon find a voice, and if these discontented do not have very great grievances, this voice soon dies out. “Twenty-seven but he also reminds us of the dangers of this freedom, severely condemning, for example, the anonymity of those who express themselves in the press, seeing in it the possibility for anyone to pour the poison of his ideas to a large number.


In conclusion, both Baruch Spinoza and Schopenhauer develop a reflection on law and politics that is linked to their personal interests. However, it is always a question of studying the rights of the individual, but also, consequently, the best form of the
the state. If the two authors agree on the method, they differ profoundly in the implications.

The rights of individuals, derived from natural law for Baruch Spinoza, taken generally as a right as such for Schopenhauer, lead to the formation of the state, but according to two different processes: it is a common pact for Baruch Spinoza, intended to preserve security, while it is a reaction to injustices for Schopenhauer. While Baruch Spinoza, himself a Jew, develops a solution to the conflict between the commandments of reason and the state and those of God, through a revealed religion, by establishing the superiority of the state, taking into account the diversity of possible interpretations
given the diversity of possible interpretations, Schopenhauer insists on the naturalness of monarchical government, while utopianly advocating an enlightened aristocracy, in which religion would naturally have its role to play as it is linked to the elites who would constitute the government.

→ Corrected topic – “In a democratic state, absurd orders” — Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise

→ Baruch Spinoza and knowledge (propositions XXVI and XXVII)

→ Letter to Schuller – Baruch Spinoza

General Knowledge: Democracy

1 Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chapter XVI, 1670, p. 1
2 Arthur Schopenhauer, Ethics, Law and Politics (1851), “Law and Politics,” p. 42
3 Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chapter XVI, p. 1
4 Arthur Schopenhauer, Ethics, Law and Politics, “Law and Politics”, p. 42
5 Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chapter XVI, p. 2
6 Arthur Schopenhauer, Ethics, Law and Politics, “Law and Politics”, p. 43

7 Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chapter XVI, p. 3
8 Ibid, p. 3
9 Ibid, p. 3
10 Ibid. p. 4
11 Arthur Schopenhauer, World as Will and as Representation, chapter XLVII
12 Arthur Schopenhauer, Ethics, Law and Politics, “Law and Politics”, p. 43
13 Ibid, p. 49

14 Baruch Spinoza, Political Treatise, Chapter II, paragraph 8
15 Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, Chapter I, paragraph 14
16 Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Chapter XVI, p. 3
17 Arthur Schopenhauer, Ethics, Law and Politics, “Law and Politics”, p. 54
18 Ibid, p. 52
19 Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chapter XVI, p. 3

20 Ibid, p. 4
21 Arthur Schopenhauer, Ethics, Law and Politics, “Law and Politics”, p. 59
22 Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, chapter XVI, p. 5
23 Ibid. p. 5
24 Arthur Schopenhauer, Ethics, Law and Politics, “Law and Politics”, p. 59
25 Ibid, p. 59
26 Schopenhauer in “Law and Politics” says he is in favor of marriages between Jews and Christians
so that “there will be very few Jews left, and then, soon after, the specter will be
the specter will be completely dispelled”, Ibid. p. 59
27 Arthur Schopenhauer, Ethics, Law and Politics, “Law and Politics”, p. 50


Works studied

Baruch Spinoza, Oeuvres Tome 2 – traiter Théologico-Politique, Chapter XVI, Flammarion,
Garnier-Flammarion, Poche, 13/07/06 (available online: http://Baruch
% C3%A9_th%C3%A9ologico-political /Chapter_XVI)

Arthur Schopenhauer, Ethics, Law and Politics (ed. 1909), chapter II, “Law and Politics”,
Hachette Livre BNF, May 2013 (available online
shopenhauer_arthur/Ethique_droit_et_politique/Ethique_droit_politique .pdf p42-62)

Supporting works for the texts studied

Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, Flammarion, 1642
Baruch Spinoza, Traité politique (1842), Le Livre de Poche, 2002
Arthur Schopenhauer, World as Will and as Representation (1818), PUF, 2014

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