Spinoza’s celebrated doctrine of the conatus asserts that “each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” (E3p6). Shortly thereafter Spinoza makes the further claim that the (human) mind strives to increase its power of acting (E3p12). This latter claim is commonly interpreted as asserting that human beings (and their associations) not only strive to persevere in their existence, but also always strive to increase their power. Spinoza’s justification for E3p12 relies (among others) on E3p6. For this reason, it seems reasonable that we strive to increase our power because having more power is likely to help us persevere in our being. The more power we have, the less likely we are to be out-powered by external causes that may conflict with our striving for persevering in our existence. The logic here is quite sound. Insofar as human beings are mere finite modes, i.e., entities whose existence is not guaranteed by their mere essence, and are distinct from other finite modes with whom we interact in various manners, it would seem that our striving for power should be insatiable. No finite degree of power can ever guarantee the continuation of our existence. On one occasion, Spinoza even defines good and evil as “what increases or diminishes, aids or restrains, our power of acting” (E4p8d).
Having this sound logic in mind, we should be taken aback by a brief claim Spinoza makes in passing in the seventh chapter of Political Treatise. In this passage, Spinoza seems to assert that the stability of a state – which is one of the chief political virtues for Spinoza – is a function of having just the right degree of power, not less, but also, not more. The passage seems to imply that having too much power might be detrimental to the state. But how can such a view be consistent with Spinoza’s assertion and approval of our constant “will to power” in the Ethics?
In the current paper, I will explain the tension between these two strands in Spinoza’s thought, and attempt to reconcile them. I will begin with a close examination of the passage from the seventh chapter of the TP, and its apparent contrast with Spinoza’s claim in the Ethics about our striving to increase our power of acting. I will then turn, in the second part, to consider whether Spinoza’s claims in TP Ch. 7 – a chapter dedicated to the exploration of the nature of non-tyrannical monarchy – are valid only with regard to a monarchic state, or whether we may generalize the claim that having too much power might be harmful to other forms of the state or even other kinds of individuals. In the third and final part I will attempt to solve the tension between Spinoza’s apparently conflicting claims by looking more closely at Spinoza’s understanding of human power, and its political dimensions.