Natural right: notes on the thought of Spinoza

Key Concept

From Diderot's Encyclopaedie

Note: readers should first study the key concept Power (potentia) before proceeding.

When students (res)trained in law approach Spinoza’s theory of natural right (ius naturale) they face precisely the formidable terminological barrier which Spinoza endeavours to teach us how to break through.  It is the same barrier which the student of mathematics encounters when reading Euclid’s Elements, a work that directly inspired Spinoza’s method.  In both cases the language and method, respectively jurisprudence and geometry, constitute tools by which we construct a machine capable of participating1 in the world intellect.  The tools are not themselves the things to be conceived.

Thus while several legal and political historians have endeavoured to shoehorn Spinoza into the history of natural right theories as an eccentric Hobbist who ‘said what Hobbes should have said if he had been consistent’, this both denies the breadth of Spinoza’s reading, which includes a great interest in Grotius and the De la Court brothers (he knew the latter personally), and simply takes Spinoza’s choice of words at face value.  On this view, when Spinoza settles on the final form of his theory in his unfinished Tractatus politicus (c.1676) one might be beguiled by the impression that this theory of natural right serves only as an appendix to Spinoza’s astonishing metaphysics, that is, as an obsolete outgrowth that at best causes discomfort and is better removed.

Such an impression is the objective expression of a diminished power of acting.

Here is the relevant definition from the Tractatus politicus Ch.II[4]:

By the right of Nature, then, I understand the laws or rules of Nature in accordance with which all things come to be, that is, the very power of Nature.  So the natural right of Nature as a whole, and consequently the natural right of every individual, is coextensive with its power [potentia].  Consequently, whatever each man does from the laws of his own nature, he does by the sovereign right of Nature, and he has as much right over Nature as his power extends [quantum potentia valet].

This, or its equivalent in the Ethics, tends to be quoted in the literature and then followed by a panegyric to wild abandon and anarchic license, presumably by people who have known neither.  Yet very much as with Alfred North Whitehead, the abandonment of mathematical method in a later prose work should be taken as absolute; rather the method continues to inform the conceptual underpinnings.  Accordingly, we maintain that what we have here is an extremely concise definition of natural right which brings in Spinoza’s entire metaphysics and which constitutes a complete statement about being.  This theory of natural right is not peripheral, but central to Spinozism.

In our research we have established that the definition of natural right may be broken down into its components as follows:

(A)   Natural right =

  1. finite and/or infinite power
  2. extended along a line


(B)   the transition (if any) of a certain proportion of:

  1. motion to
  2. rest
[i.e. the power of operating]

of some machine defined by its willing of its:

  1. common nature, and
  2. particular nature,
[i.e. the power of existing]

to the extent that this produces some actual, quantitative effect.

This is a complete statement about being within Spinoza’s system because it indeed contains within it every category of being as part of an integrated whole. More correctly, I think it is appropriate to say that the definition of natural right integrates within itself the genera of the Spinozan metaphysics. The categories would be substance-attribute-mode, which have been posited as initial tools of thought but which to a certain extent we must move beyond so that we may grasp the “series of fixed and eternal things” (cf. Spinoza’s Tractatus de Intellectus emendatione).  Let us undertake a broad overview of these components.

Firstly, the difference between finite and infinite power has been discussed in the Key Concepts article on potentia and we simply reiterate that this is properly a tripartite structure, in which infinite power is divided into its indefinite durational and eternal aspects.

Secondly, to understand the difference between the power of existing and of operating (potentia operandi, which may be suggestively translated as power of working), we must relate the definition to its physical and causal inspirations.  This does not mean that power and so right is equivocal, as Hobbes held.  Whereas Hobbes classically determines that right means different things depending on whether we ascribe right to an existent (all humans have rights) and to acts (this act is (by) right), the apparent division in Spinoza is one of degree differentiated by a transition: existence (by right) is simply activity (by right) taken to the limit, at which point it turns upon itself and presents what Spinoza calls ‘the Highest Right of Nature’ – right is said of every thing in the same way.

Now, when we speak of existence, everything is constantly determined to existence in some way (certo modo).  Here we are speaking of some body B as an effect of the great causal series.  When we are asking about its natural right in this respect, we must engage with B’s complete definition, such that we assess its continued genesis.  What is it to generate B?  If B is to be considered as a machine, then we are first looking for the conditions that generate its static order of immutability =0.  In Spinozist terms, what causes it to maintain a constant global proportion of motion and rest as it endures.  The second thing we are looking for are the conditions which determine the certain mode of existing.  A thing is not unless it exists in act, and so we must determine what a thing’s current motion and rest is which it is endeavouring to maintain (even if relatively speaking the machine appears to stand still).

It is vitally important to distinguish the motions involved in constituting B’s existence in some way from the motions that B itself brings about.  This is the critical division between Ethics Part III (existence), and Ethics Part IV (bonded work) and Ethics Part V (free work), and it is most easily understood as the difference between B as effect (existing) and B as also cause (working).  In the potentia article we called this causal power ‘essential’ and insofar as it constitutes our active consciousness, we term it our essential consciousness.  If God or Nature’s power is to be properly considered as immanent, then the creative power must also be immanent to each thing as cause, and further, as we will show, each thing endeavours in a simulacrum of God or Nature to act indefinitely.  We have shown in our research that this endeavour relates to a second dynamic order of immutability and that it is the creative desire to determine transitions in the universe towards some equality =0.

Thirdly, the laws of B’s nature describe the common notions we develop about how B transforms incoming determinations into expressions of B’s own nature.  An instructive Stoic example available to Spinoza would by the cylinder of Chrysippos, which when impelled whilst lying will roll.  Nothing in the impulsion need have a ‘rolling’ property to give to the cylinder; the impulsion is converted into a rolling motion that expresses the cylindrical nature of the thing’s existence.  This is a key condition of Spinoza’s natural right theory which many overlook in their ascription of ‘anarchic licence’: if A is some simple impulsion and B is a cylinder, it is by B’s natural right that it rolls, not by A’s, for A does not satisfy the criterion of acting by its natural laws (it is an indistinct impulsion).  Conversely, if our rolling cylinder picks up some dirt particles C on its way, this dirt is not only impelled by the converted power of B, but is constrained (lit. coäctus) to roll and express the laws and so act by the sovereign right of B.  The mechanical examples Spinoza could provide are many, including the action of the lever around a fulcrum, or, inversely, the determination (coäction) to rotate that a fixed sling imparts to a stone. It is important to distinguish within “the laws of nature” between the common natures of things which are known through their encounters, and their particular natures, which finesse the common notions we form about things.  The reader is referred to Spinoza’s Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy.

Fourthly, we use the phrase “extended along a line” to translate quantum potentia valet in order bring out the full geometrical force of Spinoza’s implication, at the expense of its metaphysical generality: the verb valere leads among other things to the German word Gewalt (violent power) which in its relation to Macht (dominion, authoritative power) informs German philosophy from Kant through Benjamin.  Our reason for emphasising the geometrical meaning of the phrase is again because we have established in our research that Spinoza deploys a novel aspect of Descartes’ kinematics which had utterly confused his contemporaries (and indeed Leibniz).  This is a Cartesian determination of the quantum of extended right by reference to the motion a thing makes along a line; literally the work done in modern parlance. It operates to integrate a degree of power by relating it to some comparative reference criterion (principally the time of work).  I need not emphasise the critical importance of this nexus between Spinoza’s natural right theory, theories of work, and the consequent role of labour power in legal theory, though to be precise this connection is mediated by the role played by any putative will (see e.g. Marx’s definition of labour power).

Finally, to bring the components of natural right together we must learn to distinguish (A) between the power a thing possesses and the work it actually does, and (B) the types of power a thing possesses and expresses.  As to (A) both a child and an army in unison can each lift 1lb 1 foot, and they de facto have the natural right to do it, but anyone who concludes from this that both have equal power in every circumstance will be considered by the practical individual frankly as a fool.  Spinoza’s theory of natural right is jurisprudence for the practical person: it does not advise the worker to admonish her tools for failing to bring about the future, but itself provides conceptual tools for constructing that future. Metaphysically, the phrase made famous by Deleuze – we do not yet know what a body can do – means that the current instances of extension of B’s natural right do not exhaust it’s formal essence.  And this becomes more so the case as B increases its power of acting by availing itself of the tools of Nature and of the mind (concepts), of which the imperium is a leading example.

This leads us to (B). As we saw in the Potentia article, the finite world of existing and working is now augmented by an infinite, inalienable intervening power to which Spinoza’s Ethics attempts to lead our minds. What seems to be a theory of natural right which amounts to a quantitative reckoning of work done as fait accompli is in fact subtended by this additional power which is revealed by working through the Ethics. The description of this power as inalienable is my own coinage. The reason I chose this legally loaded term was that indeed Spinoza’s concept describes a power of working in the mind which is inexhaustible: whereas finite activity inherently involves the input and output of power from other finite things (unlike Hobbes’ conatus, nothing is spontaneous), this infinite activity, once tapped into by characteristic relations amongst modes, pours its power into the world without ever losing itself or diminishing in any way. Furthermore, the route of its action in thought is what I term homologous i.e. any route may be taken by infinite thought to its goal – they are all equal in terms of potentia. While Spinoza decries the occult qualities of some of his Renaissance predecessors, he was known to be interested in the alchemical work of Helvetius, and there is something of a parallel between this idea of calling forth an infinite power of working and the natural magic of Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. The key idea, however, is that the unpromising concept of natural right is tightly drafted by Spinoza, and in its deepest corners we may find its real power and meaning for politics and law.

We will explore these matters in our Key Concepts article on the Imperium.


Stephen Connelly’s thesis: Spinoza’s Theory of Natural Right:  a doctrine of power and the legal order, and its mechanistic foundations will be defended at the University of London this July.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Spinoza uses the term ‘participate’ when speaking of eternity, but there is a definite trend in his work away from his early transcendent thinking to the immanence of the Ethics, and so ‘participate’ must be construed in the light of a commitment to immanence.
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  1 comment for “Natural right: notes on the thought of Spinoza

  1. Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)
    12 December 2014 at 7:12 pm

    I hope you still check this account. I am trying to find information on what a Spinozist jurisprudence would look like (i.e., if Spinoza’s ethics were the prevailing ethical framework of a society, what would the legal mandates look like?). I am writing my dissertation on the political implications of epigenetics, for which Spinoza’s general framework is an amazing fit, but I am having difficulty picturing and characterizing how this framework would translate into a practical legal system. I am trying to construct a brief glimpse of a Spinozist jurisprudence in contrast with the conventional jurisprudence which is premised upon an atomistic self as the ethical and legal focus. I have come across a substantial literature on Spinoza and environmental ethics, but haven’t yet found any translations of this ethic into practical legalities.

    Any ideas or references you might have would be greatly appreciated.



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