June 13, 2024


The following is the second in a multipart series. The first can be found here.

In Part two of these posts, I will build on the argument with which I have opened in Part 1 of this series – that the state of exception, while seen commonly as a purely legal decision, is conceptually tinged with Christian apocalyptic violence.  Of course, politics are involved here as well, and the recent interest in Carl Schmitt’s work on political theology drew on the definition of the sovereign as the one who decides in the state of exception.  I contend that the “state of nature” precedes the state of exception, and it occupies this place because of a broader eurochristian imaginary that had to rework its metaphysical views based partly on the early modern “discovery” of what would come to be known as the Americas.

There are several ways I could approach a genealogical unpacking here.  By way of provocation, let me lead with one implication of my connecting thee two concepts.  What if the well-known Rawlsian “justice as fairness” and “veil of ignorance” is a mask for status-quo White supremacy, not of the cartoonish versions of National Socialism or communism or garden-variety totalitarianism, but of liberalism itself? 

Without exactly implying an affirmative answer to that question right off, I do think that a political-theology present in the ways we have received liberalism is at the crux of where the “state of nature” and the “state of exception” meet.  I know scholars who would find Rawls deeply embedded within White supremacy while others whose jaws would drop at such a suggestion.  The tensions between these positions are already situated within a eurochristian dramatic context that saturates liberalism.  By turning to a Jewish “proto-liberal” like Spinoza, I hope to give an outsider’s take on some of this largely eurochristian drama.

Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-1677) is especially important for looking at the roots of liberalism because in The Theological Political he defends himself against religious violence.  The stock story of liberalism is of course that it provides an answer to religious violence.  Living in a Protestant country, yet having been excommunicated from his Jewish community in 1656 as a heretic, Spinoza was at the mercy of supposed tolerance. 

Spinoza’s Sephardic Jewish family had fled the Portuguese Inquisition with many others due to forced conversions.  To be clear, even the “New Christians” or “conversos” made up of Jews who converted to Christianity to escape the wrath of the Inquisition were considered suspect by “old Christians.”  After the Union of Utrecht in 1579, many Jews moved the Protestant-leaning Netherlands, settled in The Hague, and then reconverted to Judaism.  Influenced by emergent modern philosophy, Spinoza found himself exiled from the Jewish community yet simultaneously discriminated against by Protestant anti-Semitism.  He thus saw a vexed relationship between theology and politics, not separating scriptural interpretation from political authority.

His rationale is worthy of digression because it is not covered in broad arguments like William Cavanaugh’s (see part 1) about the shift to modernity and the preservation of violence in the name of the State from violence in the name of religion.  In The Theological Political Treatise, Spinoza cannily draws on natural law philosophy in the tradition of Hugo Grotius, equating Divine Law with the Law of Nature, implying that the Bible is unnecessary for historical narrative (59-61). 

Spinoza asks the question: Do we need a theological imaginary in politics?  He admits (rather like Machiavelli, another proto-liberal thinker) that theology is often used for political purposes, especially despotism.  Therefore, religion does have some power.  Nevertheless, and precisely because of this power, Spinoza prioritizes a version of Reason over Revelation.  This move actually protects his own theological views (which scholars still argue about) from public scrutiny but also increased the public outrage of his sentiments at the time. 

Spinoza preserves religion, in a way, by separating it from philosophy and claiming the freedom to philosophize.  Spinoza says people are motivated by their passions.  They are ready to believe anything out of superstition.  Religion thus arises, for him, out of fear.  But it need not only be fear-based.  Instead, it can also be a motivating force for hope. 

It is human nature, according to Spinoza, to have passions.  Passions in and of themselves are not evil.  He therefore aims his book at an audience of philosophers in order to teach them how to communicate with unreasonable people, because superstition both makes people vulnerable to servitude and also leads to religious conflict.  He draws on Grotius’s Law of War and Peace and a need for natural rights beyond religion.  He thus does not reject religion but claims philosophy to be superior to it in human affairs. 

Scripture may teach obedience, but it is inferior to philosophy.  The fact that even Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan,responding to Spinoza said he “durst not speak so boldly,” means that, despite Cavanaugh’s argument concerning a “secularized” religious violence, one’s religious views affected his or her life in especially tangible ways during the period.  While this may seem historically obvious, it is important to bear in mind while considering later, dogmatically-secularist views of religion in liberal-democratic society.

Spinoza’s push away from scripture solved an issue deeply debated throughout the late 15th and 16th centuries.  The so-called “discovery” of the “new world” made conventional histories of the world, largely based on the Bible in Christian Europe.  The Valladolid debates are one famous example.  The “discovery” of humans in the faraway region led to creative theorizing about how they fit into God’s creation and even claims that they were not human at all.

Anthony Pagden’s The Fall of Natural Man gives a detailed account of Thomist readings of Aristotle and a shift toward faculty psychology during the 16th century.  He also covers the Valladolid controversy between Juan Gilnés de Sepúlveda and Bartholomé de Las Casas, who followed Francisco de Vitoria’s thought.  What emerges from Pagden’s careful analysis is how, in deciding that Indians were indeed human, the eurochristians had internalized a faculty psychology that moved Aristotle’s descriptions of the “natural” slave mentality of the “barbarian” in his Politics to the “childlike” mentality of those “uncivilized” men deemed rationally “capable” of “natural religion” but in need of Christian domination for their “salvation.” 

Thus, the conqueror mentality eurochristians brought to their placement of Indigenous peoples of the “new world” in a “state of nature” was not only one of mere violent and subjugating force.  It was carefully refined through the tradition of eurochristianity that channeled that violence to serve its own ends.  As Pagden writes,

The effect of Vitoria’s arguments was to render the natural slave theory unacceptable while still retaining the original framework of Aristotle’s psychology.  The suggestion that the Indian was a child was not a novel one.  It echoed the unreflective opinions of countless colonists and missionaries who had come face to face with real Indians . . . By couching his argument in terms of Aristotle’s bipartite psychology he had explained just what it had meant to be a child, and by doing so he had opened the way to an historical and evolutionary account of the Amerindian world…(106)

As Pagden notes, this “evolutionary” view would change again during the Romantic period, after Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf developed theories of “minimal morality” and Adam Smith had developed his “four stages” of development that would come to inform approaches the “world religions” and nineteenth-century anthropology.  That universalized view, which attempted through historicism to place all human development into “stages” could then be superimposed onto various peoples and regions of the world “scientifically.”  This reinforces why I think returning to Spinoza in particular is useful. 

Spinoza takes his critique beyond scripture alone by also addressing the subject of miracles (Theological-Political Treatise 86-87). According to Spinoza, miracles give no knowledge of God.  If we believe in them, then God is arbitrary and unknowing in that he must intrude in and correct his own creation.  Miracles are thus contradictory to the laws of nature because we can know nothing of them. 

By default, Spinoza defines knowledge as “rational.”  The Bible, then, is a human artifact full of textual disruption.  The Bible is ink and text and the sacred can only come from the ways we use and read it (165).  Therefore, anything can become sacred and idols must be demystified.  In fact, Spinoza turns Protestant affectation to situate themselves founding a “New Jerusalem” on its head by claiming that Protestants treat the Bible as an idol.  For Spinoza, the “real” text of God is the human mind “inscribed on our hearts” (163).

This opens up three issues for Spinoza: 1) The issue of historical development, 2) The question of the ultimate relation between Reason and Religion, and 3) The question of political theology.  In terms of historical development, Spinoza says that decay and corruption of texts respond to actual historical conditions that produce specific situations in history.  For example, take the Hebrew commonwealth was destroyed in the Old Testament.  Spinoza admits there was a covenant with God that is no longer valid and that moreover, no one can now enter into a covenant with God (209, 211, 224).

Reason, justice, and charity arise creating a supra-temporal notion of philosophy against the laws of common history, the narrative of the prophets.  The historical register remains important because it contextualizes events so that truths can be explained to people who are not philosophers, including politicians.  Thus “rights” arise out of a “state of nature” and into politics.   For Spinoza, natural right is not determined by sound reason, but rather by power and desire (195). 

Rationality, then, transfers natural rights to a sovereign (compare to Hobbes and fear here), yet we do not necessarily “decide” to reason.  We are already reasoning, and from that we decide to transfer the natural right to the sovereign.  Echoing Aristotle’s call for the study of rhetoric, Spinoza says that if people were always reasonable and charitable, they would always be keeping a “true” faith, but this is not likely to occur since people are often unreasonable.  That is why there are states and governments (199). 

In Spinoza’s view,

…the fundamentals of the democratic republic are made sufficiently clear, this being the state I choose to discuss first, because it seems to me the most natural and to be that which approaches most closely to the freedom nature bestows on every person.  In a democracy no one transfers their natural right to another in such a way that they are not thereafter consulted but rather to the majority of the whole society of which they are a part.  In this way all remain equal as they had been previously, in a state of nature. (202) 

It is important to note that Spinoza is not, like Hobbes, setting up a Leviathan or a structure of power as a body.  In Spinoza, people are not bound to keep covenants that are not beneficial to them.  A right is power, not a duty.  The subject and the sovereign begin to crossover in that Spinoza defines the best subject as the one who recognizes the continuance of his own power in the interest of the community. 

This sounds a bit like the subject becomes the sovereign or that the sovereign disseminates into the subject.  Indeed, this aspect of emergent liberalism that has no clear sovereign decider is what later rightwing thinkers such as Carl Schmitt criticized as the downfall of liberal society.  But for Spinoza, religion (and scripture) occupies a role in maintaining obedience for those who are not philosophers.  It is an obedience to justice and charity – though not necessarily Christian charity. 

Spinoza believes religion will create moral individuals who demonstrate this morality through actions in the public sphere.  Individuals come to understand their self-interests in relating to others.  Thus, religion has not just a place, but an important place in liberal society for Spinoza. But what does this say about obedience to a sovereign?  What about law? Is there a place for conscience in Spinoza?  If I am free only in my own mind but cannot act against the state, then does his logic preserve tyranny by outlawing revolution and change? 

These questions lead us to what Spinoza means by Political Theology.  First, in Spinoza the sovereign maintains final say as the sole interpreter of scripture.  This is counterintuitive to later liberal values.  It also begs the question: How is such a situation with a state any different from religion?  Is theology necessary for the state? 

Spinoza’s answer, as interpreted by Leo Strauss, is that the necessity of dramatization through history is the acting out of theology – and insofar as theology is not always rational, the drama moves us toward the rational when our own rationality is insufficient.  While associated with neoconservative thought, Strauss here resonates remarkably well with neoliberal thought.  The resonance of later conceptions of an “invisible hand” and Christian-inflected notions of Providence are palpable.  I will not trace them here but merely note in passing that this is another possibly fruitful rationale for returning to Spinoza in discussions of political theology.

If we do follow Strauss’s reading for the time being, we can see what Spinoza might mean if he had participated in the discussion Immanuel Kant and his friends were dealing with about a century later: What is Enlightenment?  Enlightenment would be the gradual move from religious superstition to rationality evidenced in philosophy. 

While this might seem on the surface to exemplify a “self-congratulatory” narrative of liber-secularists, the superimposition of a linear eschatology toward Enlightenment on the order of Immanuel Kant’s notion of “perpetual peace” is perhaps overdetermined if applied to Spinoza.  It is indicative of “Straussian” – or in the terms of literary theory, “new critical” / “Great Books” – readings to dehistoricize the material (and ideological) conditions in which a text was produced.  One might even argue that new critics attempted to read from within a “state of exception,” treating a text as if it exists in a “state of nature.” 

I do not think the Straussian reading fits with what Spinoza himself indicated with respect to scripture.  Instead, it is nostalgic for miracles and exceptions, and Carl Schmitt famously said the state of exception was analogous to the miracle in theology.  Thus, my reading of Spinoza in order to counter recent discussions of political theology concerning the state of exception.  But I have yet to draw out how that connects to the “state of nature” in western political thought.

In the eurochristian imaginary, the state of exception is not so much a “return” to a “state of nature” but an eschatological apocalyptic fantasy with roots in both eurochristian culture and the Enlightenment nation-state’s narrative of historical rupture.  If we recall William Cavanaugh’s argument from part 1, nation-state ideology characterizes religious violence as being illegitimate even as “dying for one’s country” is deemed an acceptable form of sacrifice.  The question of political theology asks us what legitimates the founding of the nation-state, especially since Carl Schmitt saw such legitimation in the “secularized theological” concept of sovereignty. 

Rather than an Enlightenment-oriented and eschatological view of the “state of nature,” I suggest that Spinoza’s pre-Enlightenment characterizations resist a secular-progressivist notion of historical unfolding or the “invisible hand.”  In other words, Spinoza’s conception of democracy is that it rationally comes closest to a “state of nature,” rather than removing us from a state of nature toward the poetic construction of the “civilized” or “Enlightened” subject.  But Western thinkers have too often put him into the procession of liberalism that tacitly carries with it a kind of erasure.

The politics implied by Spinoza’s notion of democracy are more communitarian and egalitarian, yet Spinoza undeniably relied on some notion of the state to negotiate the authoritative interpretation of scripture against superstitious accounts.

This is not to characterize Spinoza as euhemerist.  He was not.  For him, there was once a time of miracles but those times are over.  The mitigation of religious violence necessitated a body that could officially determine the stupidity of superstition. But his account of the persistence of stupidity reads to me as more static than later progressivist or Enlightenment thinkers may wish it.

In more recent discussions of the state of exception, much discussion of the concept has been derived from the influence of German legal theorist, Carl Schmitt, whose 1922 Political Theology (1922) and The Concept of the Political (1927) have both been especially discussed in the United States in recent years.  In fact, in The Myth of Religious Violence, Cavanaugh claims: “The myth of religious violence also provides secular social orders with a stock character, the religious fanatic, to serve as enemy.  Carl Schmitt may be right – not descriptively but normatively – to point out that the friend-enemy distinction is essential to the creation of the modern state” (6).

I will deal with both of Schmitt’s books in what is to follow by critiquing the current discussion of the state of exception.  But first, a reminder: I said earlier that the aim of this essay is to show that an historical reading of religious violence along with Cavanaugh’s claims to the myth of religious violence reveals that the state of nature and the state of exception are themselves apocalyptic concepts invoked to legitimate state violence

For Spinoza, if there is anything like a state of exception, then it exists within ourselves and acts something like what Freud later called the Death Drive, as something to be overcome as with our passions or desires.  There is nothing good about the state of exception then, because it nullifies the democracy that Spinoza sees as closest to “nature.”  As we shall see in Part 3 of this series, Carl Schmitt’s view is somewhat different than Spinoza’s, which may of course seem obvious but is nevertheless worth parsing to elucidate my argument.


Roger Green is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens (2019) and the recent dissertation Ayahuasca in the Wake of the Doctrine of Discovery (2020).  He has collaborated musically with Anne Waldman on Untethered I (Fast Speaking Music 2017).  He is also contributor to an edited collection by Miguel A. De La Torre, The Colonial Compromise: The Threat of the Gospel to Indigenous Worldview (2021), which celebrates Tink Tinker’s career and teaching.  He’s currently co-authoring a book with Tink Tinker on eurochristian worldview.

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