Theologico-Political Treatise 1862/Chapter 4

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The word Law, taken in an absolute sense, signifies that in virtue of which things of the same species act in a certain determinate manner. Now this comes either of natural necessity, or it depends on the will and pleasure of an agent. The law which depends on natural necessity is that which follows from the nature of things; that which depends on the will and pleasure of an agent — say man — again, and which were well entitled Jurisprudence (Jus), is prescribed by men for themselves and others, with a view to the safety and commodity of life, or for any other reason. For example, — It is a universal law of ponderable matter, and a natural necessity, that bodies in motion impinging on other bodies lose as much of their proper motion as they communicate to these. So, again, it is a law which follows necessarily from the constitution of human nature, that in recollecting some particular thing we bring to mind another similar thing, or something of which we were cognizant at the same time with the former. But when men cede or are forced to cede any of the rights which they have by nature, and restrict themselves to a certain manner of living, this depends on the human will and pleasure. And although I admit without reserve that all things are determined in their being and doing in certain definite ways by virtue of universal laws of nature, still I say that the kind of law in question depends on the will and consent of man. 1. Because man, in so far as he is part of nature, in so far he is also a part of the power of nature. Consequently, what happens from nature, in so far as we conceive this determined by human nature, still follows and necessarily follows from human agency. Therefore do we say, with perfect propriety, that laws for the regulation of society depend on the will, pleasure, and consent of man. They are plainly so immediately connected with the faculties of the human mind, that though mind itself, in its power of perceiving things in their relations to the true and the false, can be perfectly well conceived without these laws, it cannot be conceived without the idea of divine or necessary law, as we have but just defined it. 2. I have also said that jurisprudence or human social law depends on the will of man, because we ought ever to define and explain things by their immediate causes; inasmuch as general considerations of the order of nature, and the concatenation of causes, cannot in the least assist us in our considerations of particular things; and further, as we are plainly ignorant of the co-ordination an concatenation of things, in other words, of the way and manner in which things are co-ordinated and enchained, we see that in regard to the usages of life it is better to consider things in their immediate connections, as contingencies or possibilities, and not as necessities. So much of law, considered absolutely[1]

As the word Law, however, by an extension of its meaning, has been applied to common things; and as by the term nothing more is very usually understood than a precept or command which men may observe or neglect — something which human capacity may overpass, nothing which is beyond the power of man — it seems requisite to define law in a more particular manner, as a rule of conduct, which man imposes on himself and others for a definite end. As the true ends and objects of law are understood by very few, however, the great majority of mankind being incapable of apprehending these, the course which legislators have taken to enforce obedience upon all alike is this: They have proposed an object entirely different from that which necessarily follows from the nature of laws, promising occasionally rewards the most prized by the vulgar for their observance, much more constantly attaching pains and penalties the most dreaded for their neglect or violation. Legislators may be said to have undertaken to dominate mankind in the same way as a horse is controlled by his provender, the bit, and the spur. From this it has come to pass that it has been usual to designate as law rules of conduct imposed by a certain man or by certain men on all the rest of their tribe or nation, and to speak of those who obey these laws as living under them, and in a sort of slavery. And the truth is, that he who only renders their own to others through fear of the prison or the gibbet obeys an alien authority, and acts under constraint of an evil which he fears: the title of just does not belong to him. He, on the contrary, who renders to every one his due because he knows the true reason of laws and their necessity, acts with a resolved soul, not from any foreign authority, but of his own proper will, and truly deserves the title of just. This without doubt is what the Apostle Paul intended to say when he tells us that they who lived under the law could not be justified by the law (Rom. iii. 20). Justice, indeed, according to the definition usually given of it, consists in a strong and settled will to render to every one his due. This is why Solomon says that it is joy to the just to do judgment, but destruction to the wicked (Prov. xxi. 15).

Since, then, law, as commonly understood, is nothing more than the rule of life which for certain ends men prescribe to themselves and others, therefore is it to be distinguished into Human and Divine. By human law I understand that which applies to the security of life and estate, and the advantage of the commonwealth. By divine law I mean that which solely regards the highest good or true happiness, viz. the knowledge and love of God. The reason why I call this law divine is because of the nature of the supreme good, which I shall here explain as briefly and as clearly as I can.

Seeing that our better part consists in our understanding, it seems certain that if we would seek for what were truly good for us, we should strive above all things to have our understanding as perfect as possible; for in the perfection of this ought our chief good to consist. But since all our knowledge and certainty, all that removes doubt from the mind, depends entirely on the knowledge of God, then, as without God nothing is nor can be conceived, and, inasmuch as we doubt of everything so long as we are without a clear and distinct idea of God, it follows that our supreme good and highest perfection depend on the knowledge of God alone. Again: since, as we have said, nothing is nor can be conceived without God, it is certain that all that is in nature involves the conception of God: and since we, the more intimately we know natural things, acquire a larger and more adequate conception of God, or, inasmuch us the knowledge of an effect from a cause is nothing more than the knowledge of a certain property of a cause, the more we know of natural things the more do we enter into the essence of God, who is the cause of all things, so, and by so much the more, does the whole of knowledge resolve itself into a knowledge of God, in which indeed it may be said entirely to consist. The same conclusion follows from this, that man is the more perfect according to the nature and perfection of that which he loves and strives to know above all things; and he therefore is necessarily the most perfect, and participates most fully in the supreme good, who most delights in the intellectual cognition of God, the most perfect of beings. Our supreme happiness, therefore, our highest joy, again resolves itself into a knowledge and love of God. The means calculated to attain to this, the end of all human thought and striving, viz. the knowledge and love of God, in so far as we have an idea of him, may well be called his commandments; for they are prescribed to us by God himself, inasmuch as God dwells in our souls; and so the rule of life which regards this end is most properly entitled the Divine Law. But what these means are, and what constitutes the rule of life which this end requires, as well as how the true foundations of the commonwealth rest on them, are all particulars which properly belong to ethics, and here I have no intention to treat of the divine law otherwise than generally.

Assuming, then, that the love of God is the supreme good, the chief end of man, the purpose of all human action, it follows that he only observes the divine law who is sedulous to love God not from affection for any other thing, such as sensual pleasure, fame, riches, &c., not from fear of punishment or any other motive, but from this only, that he knows God, or rather that he knows the knowledge and love of God to be the highest bliss. The first precept of the divine law, therefore, indeed its sum and substance, is to love God unconditionally as the supreme good — unconditionally, I say, and not from any love or fear of aught besides; for the idea of God informs us that he is the supreme good, and that the knowledge and love of Him are the final issue to which all our thoughts and actions are to be directed. The carnal or animal man, however, cannot understand this; to him such a proposition even seems absurd; and this is because he has too poor a conception of God, and because in our idea of the supreme felicity he finds nothing which he can handle, nothing which he can eat or drink, nothing, in short, which affects his sensual nature wherein he finds his chief delight, nothing, in a word, but lofty speculation and purity of mind. But they who are aware that there is nothing more excellent than understanding and integrity of mind conclude differently and more justly.

Thus do we explain that in which divine law especially consists, and also show what constitutes human law, — law having reference to social existence. Human laws, however, may have been sanctified by being specially revealed by God, in which case they are properly referred to him. It is in this sense that the law of Moses, although not universal, but particular and adapted to the genius and preservation apart of a single people, may be called the law of God, or divine law; and, believing that this law was sanctified by prophetic light, I do not hesitate to speak of it as divine.

If, then, we turn to the nature of divine law, as it has just been defined, we shall find that it is, 1st, universal or common to all men; for we have inferred it from the whole nature of man; 2nd, that it does not require faith in historical narrative or historian. For since this divine natural law is conceived and understood on the sole grounds of human nature, it is as readily conceived to have existed in Adam as in any other man, to exist in one living among his fellow-men as in one passing his days in solitude and seclusion. Farther, no faith in history, however well attested, can bring our minds to a knowledge of God, or fill our souls with the love of him; for love here springs of intuitive knowledge, — knowledge of God derived from common ideas, certain of themselves and mentally understood, whence faith in historical records is not needed to enable us to attain supreme felicity. Faith in history, however, although of itself inadequate to impart to us a knowledge, and to fill us with the love, of God, may nevertheless be useful. The perusal of historical records, as they bear upon the social state and condition, may be extremely edifying, for, as we shall have better observed and more carefully studied the manners and customs and actions of mankind, so shall we have learned to live more guardedly in the world, and to accommodate our bearing and conversation, in so far as right and reason permit, to the peculiar genius of those around us, or with whom we have relations. 3rd, The divine natural law requires no ceremonial, i.e. no actions indifferent in themselves, and only called good because they are enjoined to us, or because they represent something good and held necessary to the soul's satisfaction, — or, if you please, no actions that exceed the grasp of the human faculties; for natural intelligence requires nothing which it does not reach and comprehend, but that only which can be pointed to as clearly good in itself, and is seen as a means to our happiness. But those actions which are good only from being enjoined, or from being symbols or representatives of some good thing, cannot improve our understanding; neither are they more than mere shadows, for they cannot be reckoned as the offspring or fruit of intelligence and integrity of mind. But it seems unnecessary to insist further on this head. 4th, Finally, we see the great reward of the divine law to be that law itself, in other words, the knowledge of God and the privilege of loving him in true liberty, in entireness and constancy of soul; whilst the penalty of being without it is subjection to the animal appetites, and inconstancy and tribulation of mind.

These points established, we have next to inquire, 1st, Whether by natural light or understanding we can conceive God as a law-giver or king prescribing laws to mankind; 2nd, What the Scriptures teach on the subject of natural light and natural law; 3rd, For what end rites and ceremonies were formerly established; and 4th, Of what import it is to know and to believe sacred history. In this present chapter we shall speak of the first two of these heads; of the two next we shall treat in the immediately succeeding chapters.

1. It is easy to come to a conclusion on the first head, from the nature of the will of God, which is not distinguished from his intelligence, save as regards our human capacity; in other words, the will of God and the intelligence of God are in themselves one and the same; they are only spoken of severally because of our ideas of the divine intelligence. For example, do we only conceive that the nature of the triangle is involved from eternity in the divine nature as an eternal truth, we then say that God possesses the idea or comprehends the nature of the triangle. But if we then imagine that the nature of the triangle is thus involved in the divine nature by the sole necessity of that nature, and not by the essential necessity and nature of the triangle, yea, that the necessity of the essence and properties of the triangle conceived as eternal truths depend on the sole necessity of the divine nature and intelligence, and not on the nature of the triangle itself, then do we call by the title of will or decree of God that which we speak of as his intelligence. Wherefore, in respect of God, we affirm one and the same thing when we say that he from eternity has decreed and willed, or has understood, that the three angles of a triangle shall he equal to two right angles. Whence it follows that affirmations and negations in connection with God always involve eternal necessities and truths. If, for example, God said to Adam that he willed Adam should not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it would imply a contradiction that Adam should have the power to eat of the fruit of that tree, and so it would be impossible that Adam should eat of it; for the divine decree must involve an eternal necessity, an eternal truth. But as Scripture tells us that God gave such a command to Adam, who nevertheless ate of the fruit, it is imperative on us to conclude that God only revealed to Adam the evil that would befall him if he ate of the fruit, but did not will that this evil should follow as matter of necessity.[2] Whence it came to pass that Adam understood the commandment given him not as an eternal and necessary law, but as an ordinance which reward or punishment accompanies, not of necessity, and from the nature of the act done, but in virtue, as it were, of the will and pleasure of a sovereign prince. Wherefore, the commandment in question is to be regarded as made in respect of Adam alone: it was a law only by reason of his defect of apprehension, and God stood to him in the relation of a legislator or prince to his people. For the same reason, viz. the want of apprehension (cognitionis), the Decalogue was law in respect of the Jews only, for, as they knew not the existence of God and eternal truth, when it was made known to them in the Decalogue that God existed and was alone to be worshipped, this must have been apprehended by them as a law in the social sense; because, had God spoken to them immediately, not making use of physical media for his communication, they must then have apprehended the revelation made, not as a law in the human sense, but as an eternal truth. The same thing may be said of all the laws enunciated by the prophets in the name of God; they were never adequately apprehended as decrees of God, involving eternal truths and necessities. Of Moses himself, for example, it may be held, that though from the revelations made to him he saw how the people of Israel might be united in a certain country, and a separate community or empire established, and further, how the people might be disposed to obedience, yet that he did not perceive, neither was it imparted to him, that the means he made use of to accomplish the ends he had in view, were the absolute and best means for effecting his purpose. Moses had no adequate assurance even that, with the children of Israel united in common obedience within the promised land, the purpose contemplated would follow. Moses, in short, apprehended the revelations made to him not as eternal truths and necessities, but as precepts and institutes; and he, therefore, prescribed them as laws of God in the mere human sense, and so brought it to pass that God was conceived by the Israelites as a king, ruler, or legislator; as merciful, just, jealous, &c., though all these attributes belong to human nature alone, and ought not to be named in connection with the Divine nature. In this way, from this point of view, I say, are those prophets to be regarded who have uttered laws in the name of God. But Christ is an exception to this rule. Of him I hold we are to opine that he perceived things immediately, adequately, truly; for Christ, though he also appears to have enunciated laws in the name of God, was not so much a prophet, as he was the mouth of God: God revealed certain things to mankind by the mind of Christ immediately, as he had formerly made revelations immediately through angels (vide chap, i.), by articulate sounds, visions, dreams, &c. Wherefore it were as irrational to maintain that God accommodated his revelations to the opinions of Christ, as that he had formerly accommodated his revelations to the opinions of angels (i.e. of voices, visions, dreams, &c.), in order to impart to the prophets the things that were to be made known; an idea than which nothing more absurd can be conceived, especially when we know that Christ was sent as a teacher not to the Jews only, but to the whole of the human kind. It was not enough, therefore, that his ideas should be accommodated to Jewish views and opinions; they required to be in harmony with the opinions common to the whole of mankind, in other words, with absolutely true and universal ideas. And, indeed, when we say that God revealed himself immediately to Christ (i.e. to the mind of Christ), and not mediately as to the prophets by words and signs, nothing more is to be understood than that Christ perceived revealed things truly, adequately and in themselves, or that he comprehended them; for then is a thing really comprehended when it is perceived by the mind itself without the interposition of words or signs. Christ, therefore, perceived revealed things in themselves and adequately; so that if he ever prescribed them as rules or laws it was because of the ignorance and obstinacy of the people he addressed. Standing as the substitute of God, he accommodated himself to the capacity of the vulgar, and spoke more clearly than the prophets generally had done, though still somewhat obscurely, often teaching by parables, especially when he was addressing those to whom it was not yet given to understand celestial things (Matt, xviii. 10, et seq.). To those to whom it was given to know the mysteries of heaven, Christ undoubtedly taught eternal truths, not prescribing them as rules or commandments. In this sense he declared that he freed his disciples from the slavery of the law, all the while that he confirmed and established the law, engraving it deeply on their hearts. This truth Paul seems to point to in several places (Rom. vii. 6, and iii. 28); still he nowhere declares himself altogether openly on the matter, but speaks rather, as he says (Ib. iii. 6, 19), in a mere human manner. This, indeed, he shows sufficiently when he speaks of God as just, which is done by reason of the weakness of the flesh and to meet the views of the people, who always connect with the idea of God such qualities as mercy, grace, anger, jealousy, &c. In 1 Corinthians (iii. 1, 2) the language of Paul is at first plainly accommodated to the ideas of carnal men; for further on he teaches absolutely that the mercy and anger of God do not depend on the doings of men, but on the sole nature, in other words, the will of God. Previously, indeed, Paul has said that no man is justified by the works of the law, but by faith alone; whereby we are to understand the entire assent of the soul. And finally he says (Ib. viii. 9) that no man is blessed unless he have in him the mind of Christ, whereby he comes to know the laws of God as everlasting truths. Let us conclude, therefore, that it is only to meet the vulgar apprehension, or from defect of right understanding, that God is spoken of as just, merciful, jealous, &c., as though he were a king and lawgiver. God in reality acts and governs all things by the necessity of his nature, and his all-perfection alone: his decrees, his volitions, ever involve eternal truths, eternal necessities. So far the first point which I proposed to illustrate.

2. We now pass to our second head, and turning to the Sacred Volume we seek to know what is therein taught of natural light or understanding, and of divine law. At the very outset we encounter the history of the first man, and the narrative of God's command to Adam not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This seems to signify that God commanded Adam to do good, and to proceed under the guidance of the good in itself, and not as it is the opposite of evil; or otherwise, that he should seek good from the love of good, not from the fear of evil. For he, as we have shown, who does good from true knowledge and love of good, acts freely and with constancy of soul; whilst he who acts from fear of evil acts under constraint of evil as a slave, and as if he lived under the authority of another. The command which God gave to Adam (interpreted as above) may therefore be said to embrace the sum of the divine natural law. It accords absolutely with the dictates of the whole of the natural light or understanding; and it would not be difficult, I apprehend, to explain the entire history or parable of our first parent on this basis. But I am not disposed to enter on the task; first, because I am not absolutely certain whether my interpretation agrees with the views of the writer of the Old Testament history or not; and next, because many do not admit that the history of Adam is a parable, but maintain that it is a narrative of actual events.[3] It will be better, therefore, that I go on citing other passages of Scripture as means of illustration of the position I have in hand, and I shall have recourse to those texts especially that were dictated by him who for strength of natural understanding excelled all the sages of his time, and whose sayings are held of equal worth with those of the prophets, I mean Solomon, whose wisdom and prudence are even more esteemed in Scripture than his gifts of prophecy and piety. In his Proverbs (xvi. 22) Solomon speaks of understanding as the true well-spring of life; and he makes misfortune to consist in foolishness only, in which sentence it is to be observed that by life, from the Hebrew word used, is to be understood true life, as plainly appears from Deuteronomy xxx. 19, 20. The fruit of understanding, therefore, consists in true life alone, and chastisement in deprivation of understanding only, a conclusion that accords entirely with what will be found set forth in our fourth position concerning the divine natural law. But that this fountain of true life or understanding is that which alone gives laws to the wise is further plainly taught by our Sage, who says (Ib. xiii. 14), "The law of the wise is a fountain of life," which law, from the text quoted above, is seen to be understanding. Again, he teaches in the plainest terms (iii. 13) that understanding gives joy and true peace of mind to man: "Happy. is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding;" the reason being (ver. 16,17) that "'Wisdom gives length of days, and riches, and honour; her ways being ways of pleasantness and all her paths peace." The wise alone, therefore, according to Solomon, live in peace and equanimity, not as the wicked, whose minds are disturbed by opposing emotions, so that, as Isaiah has it (Ivii. 20, 21), "They are like the troubled sea, for them there is no peace."

But what we have particularly to observe in these Proverbs of Solomon, inasmuch as our views are greatly confirmed thereby, are the sentiments contained in the 3rd verse of the second chapter, where we find these words, "If thou criest after knowledge and liftest up thy voice for understanding, … then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God; for the Lord giveth wisdom; out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding." By these words Solomon clearly declares, first, that wisdom or understanding alone teaches us that God is to be reverenced with knowledge and worshipped in a truly pious spirit; and, secondly, that wisdom and understanding flow from God, the only giver of these inestimable gifts. This truth we have ourselves insisted on when we showed that all our understanding and all our knowledge depended on the idea or knowledge of God alone, with whom they originate and by whom they are made perfect. Solomon proceeds immediately after (Ib. 9) to teach that this wisdom involves true principles of ethics and politics. "When wisdom entereth into thy heart," he says, "and knowledge is pleasant to thy soul, discretion shall preserve thee, understanding shall keep thee; then shalt thou understand righteousness and judgment and equity, yea every good path." Now all of this plainly agrees with natural science; for it is especially when we have come to a right understanding of things, and have tasted the pleasures of knowledge, that we perceive a universal system of ethics, the principles of true virtue, to be evolved.[4] Wherefore true happiness and the peace of mind it brings which satisfies natural understanding, even in Solomon's opinion, depends not particularly on the smiles of fortune, that is, on the favour of God, as things external are concerned, but on intrinsic satisfaction or virtue, which is God's favour as regards inward things, and is best assured and kept by watchfulness, counsel, and virtuous conduct. And here I must by no means pass by that passage of Paul in his Epistle to the Romans in which he says (i. 20), "For the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse, because, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were they thankful,"[5] &c.; words which very plainly proclaim that every one by his natural light may understand the power of God and his eternal divinity, from which may be known and inferred what things are to be sought after and to be done, what to be avoided. All are therefore "without excuse;" no one indeed can be entitled to plead ignorance for shortcomings here; though he might fairly do so were the question of aught supernatural, such as the passion of Christ in the flesh, his resurrection from the dead, &c. "Wherefore," continues the apostle (Ib. 24), "God gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts; "and so on to the end of the chapter, wherein he describes the vices of ignorance, which he specifies as its punishments, a conclusion in which he is plainly at one with Solomon in the passage already quoted, where the punishment of the foolish is declared to be their proper folly. It is not surprising therefore that Paul should hold evil-doers to be inexcusable, for as every man sows, so shall he reap; from evil, unless wisely corrected, evil necessarily springs, as from good follows good, if it be but joined to constancy of mind. Scripture therefore acknowledges and refers to the authority of our natural understanding and the divine law. And so I leave the subject I had proposed for discussion in this chapter.


  1. The above paragraph in the original is exceedingly obscure, made so, plainly, by the recondite metaphysical ideas of the author, which it would require large references to his Philosophy or Ethics to explain. — Ed.
  2. "Deum Adamo malum tantum revelavisse quod cum necessario sequeretur si de illa arbore comederet, at non necessitatem consecutionis illius mali."
  3. It is reasonable subject of regret that one so acute and learned as Spinoza should not have proceeded with his interpretation here, all the more as The Fall is the ground on which the whole dogmatic scheme of the Christian redemption as now understood reposes. It seems to be an element in man's nature to imagine things better and more happily constituted in times gone by than at the present hour — best of all, therefore, in times of the most remote antiquity; whence the idea of a primæval state of innocence and bliss. But natural science leads to other conclusions. Evolution, development, progress, not decline, is the history we read in the records of creation. Man, when he was called into being on this earth by his Almighty maker, may have been as perfect as we now find him, most probably he was less perfect, and very certainly he was not more perfect than he now is. — Ed.
  4. A universal system of morals must be based on the faculties proper to man under the guidance of the intellectual powers, the faculties man has in common with the lower animals being in subjection but not annulled. — Ed.
  5. This remarkable passage of the apostle, taken in the largest sense, seems to settle the question of verbal revelation or literal inspiration completely: Man and the universe around him are the true revelation of God to man. The mind of man, acting of itself and on the things beyond itself, and acted on in its turn by these, makes known the Being of God, and discovers the laws by which he has ordained that the universe and its parts shall be eternally and unchangeably ruled. Hence love, reverence, obedience, as duties of man to the Almighty. — Ed.