This, then, is the end for which I strive, to attain to such a character myself, and to endeavor that many should attain to it with me. (2) In other words, it is part of my happiness to lend a helping hand, that many others may understand even as I do, so that their understanding and desire may entirely agree with my own. (3) In order to bring this about, it is necessary to understand as much of nature as will enable us to attain to the aforesaid character, and also to form a social order such as is most conducive to the attainment of this character by the greatest number with the least difficulty and danger.--Spinoza, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. (Translated by Translated by R. H. M. Elwes)
Yesterday, Beth Lord discussed the quoted passage from the unfinished Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (TIE) in a terrific paper on Spinoza in London. My present remarks are orthogonal to her purposes and are intended as a homage to her lecture. As Lord noted, at the start of the TIE, Spinoza here calls attention to an important political orientation within his larger project of TIE.+ In one sense this is, of course, no surprise because the very first few sentences of TIE are set in opposition to the vanity and emptiness/futility of communal life [communi vita...vana et futilia esse] and against the pursuit of wealth and recognition [honore ac divitiis]. The latter are rejected, in part, because they are uncertain. One wonders if Spinoza would endorse such worldly pursuits if one could guarantee the outcome.*
As an aside, while one should not read too much into this -- Spinoza is echoing here classical tropes about the unpredictability of the wheel of fortune -- it seems that he is sensitive to the fact that market outcomes involve a level of chance. (I say markets because of the context in Amsterdam and the family business.)
Spinoza makes a striking claim about the ordinary pursuit of wealth and fame/recognition: "the more we acquire, the greater is our delight" (quo plus utriusque possidetur, eo magis augetur laetitia) For Spinoza, wealth and fame both involve increasing (marginal) subjective utility, at least in ordinary life. By contrast, sensuous pleasure -- Spinoza is adamant on the contrast -- involve diminished marginal subjective utility in ordinary life.** Of course, I am putting this in anachronistic terms. (I am not suggesting that Spinoza anticipates the marginalist revolution or is working with indifference curves.) In addition, according to Spinoza (and here he anticipates Smith and De Grouchy) if we fail to acquire wealth and fame, when we wish for it, we feel such lack more intensely.
Either way, for Spinoza a true good is neither risky nor unsteady in its possession. It's also something that does not diminish in quantity or value if others share in it (this very much echoes Seneca). In fact, Spinoza is explicit that his pleasure increases if others share in true goods with him. This means that individually, he is properly incentivized to be philanthropic in his orientation ("it is part of my happiness to lend a helping hand" to others). The political task is to ensure that (a) institutions of society are so organized that individual pleasures are conducive to the public, true good, and (b) that this is attainable by the the greatest number with (c) the least amount of cost and risk ("deinde formare talem societatem, qualis est desideranda, ut quamplurimi quam facillime, et secure eo pervenian").
On (a): it is important that these individual pleasures are themselves of a kind with the true good. (Mandeville saw this relationship was not necessary; but his conception of what the public good is, is radically different from Spinoza here--for Spinoza's public choice anticipations see here.) On (b): Spinoza here democratizes Seneca style Stoicism. (I am not claiming he is the first to do so--after all, Christian Stoicism has a pre-history to Spinoza as I learned from Christopher Brooke's book [recall].) And in so doing he is edging toward a form of utilitarianism of the sort familiar from eighteenth century thinkers like Hutcheson, Beccaria, and Helvétius. On (c): I don't think Spinoza means that in one's institutional design of the social order one can trade off number and costs/risk; rather, I think he means that given the same number of people that can share in the true good, a cheaper and less riskier social order is preferable over one that is costly and riskier. This is the kind of reasoning that leads to a welfare state. In the context of TIE, the last sentence is clearly speculative (he never returns to the social order in it)--but it is informed by Spinoza's emphasis in his political works on the political importance of reducing and redirecting daily fears.
Obviously, there are important differences between Spinoza and the eighteenth century figures just mentioned; and I certainly do not intend to suggest that Spinoza anticipates a Benthamite calculus. For the Dutch Republic's anticipation of such matters one ought to turn to the De la Court brothers and the uses of probability&utility theory by Hudde, Huygens, and De Witt leading up to Bernoulli. But it's also striking that (again not unlike Pascal) in the context of the rejection of the ordinary market place morality, Spinoza develops the kind of moves that will become familiar in a slightly different register.
+Lewis Feuer also called attention to the passage, but connects it with Collegiant context, especially Balling's thought.
* In context Spinoza is also introducing a kind of reasoning we tend to associate with Pascal's wager. While one can't fully rule out informal circulation of Pascal's reasoning, there is good reason to think Spinoza did so independently from Pascal, even though by the time TIE was published it would not have been seen to be original. Spinoza writes, "should be leaving a good, uncertain by reason of its own nature, as may be gathered from what has been said, for the sake of a good not uncertain in its nature (for I sought for a fixed good), but only in the possibility of its attainment." There is a clear structural similarity with Pascal's reasoning. Some other time I'll develop this more.
**I have used the clunky terminology, to signal that Spinoza clearly think the ordinary view is mistaken and that there is a perspective from which one can assign objective utilities to "true good[s]" for those (ahh) prepared to experience it/them (even if these goods have no intrinsic valence absent human experience).