Politics in Particular: From Primo Levi to Freedom and Being in the Works of Hannah Arendt and Baruch Spinoza

Gregory Feldman
School for International Studies, SFU


Introduction: Levi and the Other Side of Camp Life

            I would like to start with neither Hannah Arendt nor Baruch Spinoza, but instead with Primo Levi, specifically his well-known book Se questo è un uomo? [If this is a man?], released in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz. I do not to trivialize this profound work by saying that it is simply the best ethnography that this anthropologist has ever read. Ethnography is a mode of research and writing that captures not the local per se, but rather the particular: that which appears, and can only appear, through historically contingent events. Levi obtains such phenomenal descriptive insight into what made Auschwitz tick not because he understood racism and bureaucratic management, but because he grasped how the plurality of ordinary people— capable of making choices and of initiating actions—integrated those features of modern society into their daily lives.

            For this reason, his account of Auschwitz stands out not for its presentation of the grotesque, but rather of the humanly possible. And, it is here, where I find Levi most remarkable. Yes, reading Survival in Auschwitz, we learn how ordinary people organize and operate an entire Holocaust as if it were no more than a day’s work. But the experience for Levi seemed to make him just as aware of the human power of creation, not just destruction; of the power of natality, not just fatality; and the prospects of birth, not just the finality of death. Why do I insist on this point when the book is entirely focused on his imprisonment in a bureaucratic machine of death?

            Almost entirely, because in a strange proximity to Auschwitz, Levi provides a subtle example of a sovereign act of political constitution, an act that evoked the full appearance of the particular people who undertook it, people whose appearance had been completely destroyed while they were invisible inmates. This example was not located in the camp’s shadowy black market, where inmates, guards, and outsiders traded in precious commodities against regulations. The act of sovereign foundation is much more than a stealthy act of resistance and survival. Rather, Levi’s example chronicles a foundational act of creation that is just as important as his chronicle of total destruction and, I fear, far less understood. I wish to use this example as a segue to a general understanding of politics in particular through a comparison of the works of Arendt and Spinoza.

“the first day of creation”

            Levi’s1 narration of his last ten days at Auschwitz—between the evacuation of the German forces on January 18, 1945, and the arrival of the Soviet forces on January 27—provides an invaluable example of politics in particular, which appears almost instantly after the worst ever violence of state abstraction had finally ceased. Levi swings us from one extreme example to another. The SS evacuated all inmates from Auschwitz ahead of the Soviet advance, except those who were consigned to the camp’s infirmary. The Krankenbau, or Ka-Be as they called it, held eight hundred inmates (Häftlinge) placed into rooms according to their illness. Levi was sent there for having contracted diphtheria or typhoid and shared a room there with ten others. Lacking the SS-imposed order of camp life, the remaining infirmed inmates, crippled with disease, hunger, filth, and fatigue, now had to survive in a new order that they themselves had to create. Levi described those ten days as “outside both world and time,”2 in contrast to the previous twelve months since his arrival at Auschwitz and his later return to “normal” life. These men now resided in a moment of space and time that lacked sovereign authority of any kind, including the rational management of mass technocratic society. So, what happened?

            Of the eleven inmates in Levi’s room, only he and two Frenchmen, Arthur and Charles, had the strength to venture outside their barrack. Soviet bombardments began on the first night. Some of the evacuated huts caught fire, forcing inmates in adjacent barracks to flee into the cold. Many of them appeared at Levi’s hut, threatening and begging to be let in. The inmates inside decided against it to prevent further degradation of the meager resources. The next morning, Levi, Charles, and Arthur left the room in search of scraps of food and other useful materials that might be lying about the camp. Just one day after the evacuation, Auschwitz had begun to decompose: no water, no electricity, broken-down buildings, iron sheets dangling from rooftops, and ashes from the fires drifting in the air. Rooms forbidden to the inmates on January 17 had been ransacked by the morning of the nineteenth. From the kitchen, they secured only two sacks of potatoes, but they found a cast-iron stove in usable condition. Levi transported it back to their room in a wheelbarrow, which proved an enormous undertaking given his frail condition. With wood, coal, and embers from the burnt huts, they were able to light the stove and boil the potatoes in water melted from snow. Levi observed: “something seemed to relax in everyone.”3

            One of the roommates, named Towarowski (a twenty-three-year-old Franco-Pole), suggested that each of the roommates offer Levi, Charles, and Arthur a slice of bread for the work they had done. Levi notes that such a gesture would have been “inconceivable” on the previous day and that this change of ethics signified the death of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The law of the camp had been, “Eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbour.”4 He added that this law “left no room for gratitude.”5 (Note that Hobbes’s savage state of nature appears inside the dark heart of the state-Leviathan, not outside of it, if we accept the tenet that the camp crystallizes modernity’s modus operandi.) However, a stronger message than simple gratitude appears in Levi’s telling of this particular event: “It really meant that the Lager [camp] was dead.”6 This gesture, he relays, marks the beginnings of their transformation from “Häftlinge to men again.”7

            When the outside temperature began to drop as nightfall approached, other inmates crowded around the door wanting access to the warm stove. Charles, among the healthiest of those remaining in the camp, blocked their entry with his body in the doorframe. Levi and his roommates did not fear contact per se with other ill individuals. Moreover, the thought that they could go to a room with less contagious diseases did not occur to them. Rather, they were satisfied with what they had achieved in their own barrack. Sheer survival does not appear to have been Levi’s, and presumably Arthur’s and Charles’s, only motivation. Levi explains, “the stove, our creation, was here, and spread a wonderful warmth; I had my bed here; and by now a tie united us, the eleven patients of the Infektionsabteilung.”8 He describes how he and Arthur smoked cigarettes made of herbs from the kitchen and spoke of things both past and future. Living “outside both world and time,”9 Levi explains that “we felt at peace with ourselves and with the world.”10 This peace, however, was not one of resignation, the tranquility one feels when giving up the fight against some future inevitability. Rather, in Levi’s words, “we were broken by tiredness, but seemed to have finally accomplished something useful—perhaps like God after the first day of creation.”11 They found peace through action and their mutual actualization. They had no other choice; they would likely have perished if they had reverted to the old law of the camp: “Eat your own bread and, if you can, that of your neighbor.”12

            We should not naïvely read Levi’s story through the familiar narrative of determined individuals persevering against staggering odds. The individual loses this fight far more often than not. His own physical survival, as Levi made clear, had mostly to do with luck. The operative lesson is neither that people will summon up the will to endure a journey through hell nor that they find “inner peace” through sharing. Rather, the difference between Häftlinge and a full person is that the latter comes to life, a qualified political life, when they are partners in constituting the world they inhabit. Created in the ashes of Auschwitz, their world was neither a utopic Garden of Eden nor free from outside events. They made the ethically questionable decision to deny warmth, food, and resources to others. Yet in deciding, as a group of equals, how they should plot their course, they transformed themselves from atomized souls known only as numbers tattooed on their forearms into men (i.e. human beings) or those who organized themselves so that they could be human. To be sure, their achievement was not utopian but surprisingly mundane. Their sovereign act of foundation, their being, and their freedom all superimpose on each other as they move time in a new direction.

            The instant transformation of the rules of the game from an obscene technocracy to an exemplary democracy happened at an unusual and revealing moment. It did not transpire in a sequence of events beginning with a prewar “normal” society, to a totalitarian society, to a concentration camp, and back again to normal society. Rather, it happened at a point when the abstract, rationalized procedures that unite all of those steps into a sequence were missing. These individuals therefore ended their imprisonment, not when the Nazis evacuated, but rather when they appeared before each other as equal, but different, people, thereby establishing a public space of speech and action between them.


            It seems to me that in Survival in Auschwitz Levi describes the raw conditions of two antithetical possibilities. First, he describes what makes it possible to keep a generic, animalized body alive right at the point of death, but destroy the particular person (life in the camp). Second, he describes the conditions enabling a particular person to come to life while the body is on the verge of biological death (life in the space “between world and time”). Critically, these two counter-posed and extreme examples are not hypotheticals. They actually happened and need to be understood. Indeed, we have well learned what makes a Holocaust possible. Curiously, however, I am not ready to concede the same point about understanding the conditions that enable politics in particular. We don’t really understand what Levi and his colleagues actually did in those ten days that he describes as “outside world and time.” So, Levi goes down in history as the survivor whose insightful portrayal of Auschwitz reaches literary heights. But, his insights reach past Auschwitz itself and illuminate a more foundational view of being human. It may sound naïve to raise the issue in these terms, but Levi took the time to tell us this part of his story, and he was neither naïve nor a mere sentimentalist.

            So, now I want to try to reach a general understanding of Levi’s experience with the political act of sovereign foundation. To be sure, leading scholars of political action in the post-Cold War era—Balibar, Hardt, Negri, and Deleuze—all seek to elaborate a political philosophy premised upon particular speaking subjects rather than abstract and voiceless citizens. They turn to Baruch Spinoza for inspiration, but rarely engage Hannah Arendt. In fact, they often explicitly dismiss her. Conversely, the current Arendtian revival—which also seeks a politics free from the tyranny of abstraction—rarely invites Spinoza into their discussions. With this in mind, I would like to compare some of the key themes in Arendt’s and Spinoza’s work to provide a basis to what Levi so subtly showed us about his ten days after evacuation of Auschwitz. I hope this exercise helps us better understand the political actions that people undertake so that they can be grasped, generalized, and referenced by others wishing to take action in other places and in future times.

Arendt and Spinoza: A five-step comparison

1) Metaphysicsofbeing

            Arendt: Arendt spends little time elaborating metaphysical assumptions. More accurately, as one who pronounced herself a theorist rather than a philosopher, it is off-target to even try to explain her understanding of politics as based in metaphysics at all. Her position remained throughout her career that the political world cannot be anchored in a realm above, or apriori to actual lived experience. To be sure, she scoured the Western canon of political philosophy but found it lacking an articulation of politics that did not require some kind of transcendental principle. Although finding crucial insights in thinkers as different as Socrates (not Plato), Aristotle, Augustine, and Kant, she concluded that:

What is remarkable among all great thinkers is the difference in rank between their political philosophies and the rest of their works—even in Plato. Their politics never reaches the same depth. This lack of depth is nothing but a failure to sense the depths in which politics is anchored.13

As to a political philosophy’s proper anchor, she does not reach for the transcendental but rather the here and now. Articulated with touching modesty in her posthumously published book the Life of the Mind, Arendt writes this:

Whatever can see wants to be seen, whatever can hear calls out to be heard, whatever can touch presents itself to be touched.14

It will follow from here that politics, as a necessary condition of being, transpires through mutual recognition of particular persons, inherently living partial, subjective lives, and on the level of the surface. There is not even a hint of some common human inner core or upon some transcendental plane.

            Spinoza: Reading Ethics, Spinoza does not begin with the particular actor but rather the configuration of substance and extension itself. The statement is found in Proposition 16 of Part I of Ethics, which is the basis of Chapters 1-5 of Political Treatise:

From the necessity of the divine nature there must follow infinite things in infinite ways (modis), (that is, everything than can come within the scope of infinite intellect).15

This proposition lets Spinoza account for the dazzling variety of things, encounters, and contradictions that we subjectively experience in the world, while simultaneously maintaining his allegiance to a god that is eternally consistent and omnipresent in worldly substance itself. (From here, Negri will base his political philosophy on Spinoza’s idea of the unity of substance and the plurality of its modes.)16 He adds Corollary 1 to Proposition 16: “Hence it follows that God is the efficient cause of all things that can come within the scope of the infinite intellect.”17 In brief, Spinoza equates God and Nature and then concludes Part I by arguing that Nature has “no fixed goal and that all final causes are but figments of the human imagination.”18 Here Spinoza rejects any transcendental foundation to political space and imagines an imminent God seemingly without destination or purpose (or at least as far as we can conceive). Both he and Arendt begin their understanding of politics on the surface.

2) Thinking and reason

            Thinking and reason are central to the question of political action in plural world, because we grasp our particularity as beings through our mindful reflections.

            Spinoza: Under “Definitions” in Part II, Spinoza19 explains that an active mind is a mind that forms adequate conceptions as opposed to perceptions. Our mind is active when it strives and realizes conceptions of Nature, which come to the mind in the form of adequate ideas unveiled through our powers of reason. Perceptions, in contrast, do not involve a critical assessment and so the mind passively receives its object through inadequate ideas. With conceptions, we are poised to grasp the true causes of the world around us, and so better premise our human relations, our politics. Indeed, in Proposition 7,20 he argues that the order and conception of ideas is the same as the order and conception of things.

            From here, Spinoza articulates his view of freedom, which sounds off-key to modern liberal ears:

Men are deceived in thinking themselves free, a belief that consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. Therefore the idea of their freedom is simply the ignorance of the cause of their actions. As to their saying that human actions depend on the will, these are mere words without a corresponding idea.21

The issue of freedom arises in his discussion on the Mind because if all truth is logically derivative, and if the ethical life is only achieved when one’s thinking is adequate to these truths, then freedom has nothing to do with the volitions of actors themselves. Hence, in propositions 44, 48, and 49 there is “no free will.” Will is only the faculty of affirming or denying ideas. The will and the intellect are the same thing for Spinoza. Freedom for Spinoza is achieved by recognizing logical necessity rather than the contingencies of speculative thought. In other words, freedom is a function of the “if-then” statements of geometry, not of the “what if” statements of wonder and speculation. Mind, extension, nature, and God all become superimposed or isomorphic.

            In Proposition 40, Scholium 2,22 Spinoza sees true ideas as in two ways: 1) by adequately reasoning our way to them from the properties of things; and 2) through intuition, by which he means mathematical logic itself, logic in the abstract which is free from any contingency.23 We know have found a true idea when it withstands the force of reason, because our minds are extensions of God’s substance, that is, made as God intended them to be made.24,25

            Arendt: Arendt’s views on thinking begin with Immanuel Kant. She develops his Critique of Judgment (and aesthetic taste), which she described as the political philosophy he meant to write.26, 27 The significance of her interpretation is that she saw in Critique of Judgment an understanding of the political that did not rely on apriori universal truths and logical necessity. As such, it suggests an entirely subjective politics based on particular persons bound by their own lived experiences.

            Through Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Arendt examines two of the mind’s faculties: the faculty of cognition and the faculty of thinking. The faculty of cognition is basically the same as Spinoza’s reason, particularly intuitive reason discussed above. It seeks logical certainty, which can only be achieved in mathematical and geometric relationships, even about things already given to the senses. On its own cognition is divorced from the empirical world, insofar as it understands the world without considering the object’s subjective standpoint. Hence, when we act upon cognition we seek to impose order upon the world by aligning it with apriori abstract logics. It achieves its most violent possibilities in the form of ideology.

            The faculty of thinking is much different (and I see no close equivalent in Spinoza). Thinking is the two-in-one dialogue with the self, which we undertake in order to reach agreement with ourselves. The greatest curse in life is to have to live with a self with whom we do not agree. I don’t commit murder because I don’t want to live with a murderer. We are stimulated to think because we encounter a plurality of perspectives every day among people with whom we must live. That worldly experience prompts us to ask ourselves if we are living with them in such a way that I can also live with myself. When we think, then, we are enlarging our mentality, as Arendt takes the phrase from Kant, as we stand in the shoes of others. In that thought dialogue, we are asking ourselves if and how we should adjust our stance in the world, based on our assessments of other peoples’ standpoints, so that we can maintain agreement with ourselves. If you accept Arendt’s original premise—that which can hear calls out to be heard— then thinking is inevitable, because in wanting to be heard as an equal, we must also hear others as equals. This bond is the basis of a political space based on particular speaking subjects rather than abstract citizens. Hence, thinking seeks to ethically orient the thinker among the plurality of persons so a common world can be jointly constructed without first insisting on homogeneity.

3) Emotions: dealing with passions that which seems to disrupt human relations

            Spinoza: Part III of the Ethics, I find to be exceptionally powerful, and as important as Proposition 16 in Part I as the basis of his thinking on politics, if Spinoza had started with it. Spinoza explains that everything struggles to preserve itself, an endeavor he terms conatus (roughly meaning “striving toward”). In Proposition 6, conatus involves a struggle to live one’s life according to one’s own emotional disposition or temperament, or, in a word, nature.28 As articulated in Part I, Proposition 29 Scholium, Nature, however, has two dimensions: one as a process of becoming (natura naturans) and the other as the essence of the object (natura naturata).29 Conatus is both existence and essence and the struggle to become and the struggle to be. Spinoza sees passions as obstacles to our capacity to adjust ourselves to our conatus, so Part III examines a breathtakingly wide range of human emotion––all of which he derives from pleasure, pain, and desire—so as to demonstrate how our conatus remains obscure from ourselves. Clear and distinct ideas about our emotional disposition orient us to our conatus, which is derivative of God’s own essence, which is the essence of nature itself. Much of Part III also explains how love and hatred arise and take hold between people.

            Given, the variety of emotional dispositions present by nature, Spinoza refrains from seeking a transcendent good, because Nature is not good or bad. It is imminent. He says simply in the scholium to Proposition 9:

It is clear from the above considerations that we do not endeavor, will, seek after or desire because we judge a thing to be good. On the contrary, we judge a thing to be good because we endeavor, will, seek after and desire it.30

“Good,” therefore, refers to a person’s essence, which, again, is derivative of an infinite nature itself. Similarly, there is no transcendent notion of “right”; right is simply what a person can do in the world, because we act according to our nature. Spinoza reckons that we should not worry that differences between peoples’ conatus implies contradictions and imperfections in Nature (i.e. in God). Instead, he asks us to accept that from our partial perspective, we cannot see that larger consistency and perfection. Instead, we learn to appreciate its existence indirectly, through the discovery of our own conatus. Furthermore, people feel pleasant feelings towards others with whom they hold things in common. This “love” (for Spinoza) must inevitably occur because we —our individual conati—derive from the same infinite God-Nature. This conclusion gives hope that the plurality of people can live in peace and security.

            Arendt: Arendt does not see the political space held together on the basis of mutually pleasant feelings between people. Love is an entirely private experience for Arendt that has no place in public light, by which she means political space.31 Instead, people join together in political action based on common interest, which generates respect or admiration. We discover our common interests through our faculties of thinking, where we represent the “other” in our mind so as to give that person a fair hearing.

4) Being and political space

            Spinoza: In Part IV, then, Spinoza reasons that men only differ on the basis of their passive emotions.32 (This allows him to maintain his key tenet of the unity of substance and the plurality of its modes.) For him, this means they differ only to the extent that they fail to adequately understand their nature-conatus. As people “love” the virtue that they experience in themselves, they likewise wish it in others as people with whom they share the world.33, 34 In this way they overcome their particular differences as they discover what they naturally share in common and, not just our pleasure but also our power.35 Spinoza reasons in the Scholium to Proposition 18: “if two individuals of completely the same nature are combined, they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one singly.”36 And he continues in the next paragraph:

Men, I repeat, can wish for nothing more excellent for preserving their own being than that they should all be in such harmony in all respects that their minds and bodies should compose, as it were, one mind and one body, and that all together should endeavor as best they can to preserve their own being...37

Solidarity. Yet, this solidarity leads to a conclusion that is difficult to accept as a basis for a liberatory political philosophy. He writes:

For insofar as we understand, we can desire nothing but that which must be, nor, in any absolute sense, can we find contentment in anything but truth. And in so far as we rightly understand these matters, the endeavor of the better part of us is in harmony with the order of the whole of nature.38

Recall that realizing one’s conatus involves a paring away of inadequate ideas. It does not ask us to act in the world as such, but rather to adjust to a world, through mere understanding, that we cannot control any more than we can control the nature of things.

            Differences that obstruct solidarity can also be overcome through “love.” For Spinoza, love is a more powerful emotion than hate and so we are inclined to pursue it. If we learn to love those whom we hate, we will have a stronger bond with them. Spinoza is confident that we will be loved in return because those whom we love, who do not love us first, will be impressed by the fact that we love them without them having ever pleased us.39

            Arendt: For Arendt “being” involves not just thinking, as discussed, but rather joint action to constitute political space with others that still allows us to live in agreement with ourselves. Power is multiplied as more people jointly constitute public space as particular individuals. In isolation, people are fundamentally powerless according to Arendt. Yes, they can act, but they cannot be because being requires the presence of others to confirm your existence. Each of us, then, confirms the existence of each other’s being in action and in speech as we create a tradition (a history) by which we remember our particular deeds: our individual being, our political empowerment, and political space are all inherently tied together in a sensus communitas (community of sense or a space of appearance). There is no need for either Spinoza’s God-Nature or a transcendental precept.40

5) Freedom and politics

            Spinoza: Moving from Ethics to the Political Treatise, the reader—or at least this reader —is struck by how little the text lifts off the page. Ethics is striking and refreshing for its fearlessness and keen reason. The Political Treatise really seems to be a minor extension of the argument in Ethics.

            With a nod to Ethics—Part I, proposition 16—Political Treatise invokes a less flexible view of Nature, which is the premise of everything for Spinoza. Instead of a dynamic nature offering infinite possibilities, Chapter 2, paragraph 8 of Political Treatise, speaks more strictly of an “order and coherence of Nature as a whole.”41 This characterization, of course, implies his stance on freedom. One paragraph earlier, Spinoza reasons that “a man can be called free only insofar as he has the power to exist and to act according to the laws of human nature,”42 which again is derivative of Nature-God itself. This power, this essence, this nature, this conatus is only grasped through reason, especially intuitive reason, itself. Reason “imposes” the necessity of action, a logical necessity, that is.

            Foreshadowed in Ethics, in paragraphs 15-17 of the Political Treatise,43 Spinoza argues that the Commonwealth forms when people who have realized their common nature combine to strengthen themselves.44 Furthermore, security and peace are the purpose of civil order.45 I find this purpose to be a tremendous let down as he leaves no room to see that purpose as something more impressive: such as the virtue of the particular citizen, to draw from Aristotle and even more from Homer. Freedom is recapitulated in Chapter 2, again moving only slightly beyond Ethics. It only has to do with sound reason, the only way in which we exercise free will:

Yet the more free we conceived man to be, the more we were compelled to maintain that he must necessarily preserve himself and be of sound mind, as will readily be granted by everyone who does not confuse freedom with contingency.46

            In keeping with this, already in Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza explains that God has inscribed divine law in us and it is the job of “universal ethics what the means are ... and how the foundations of the best state ... follow from it.”47 The remaining chapters detail how government should be technically institutionalized either as a monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, which is his preference. Yet again these chapters fall easily in line with early modern liberal political philosophy, which we are still trying to overcome, and somehow do not align well with either Ethics or, in particular, chapter 20 of Theological-Political Treatise (2007). I find that chapter to be Spinoza’s most radical political statement and one, which neither he nor his contemporary advocates fully exploit.

            In paragraph 5 of chapter 5, he explains in generic terms that the best state is one where men live their lives in harmony:

I am speaking of human life, which characterised not just by the circulation of the blood and other features common to all animals, but especially by reason, the true virtue and the life of the mind.48

            Arendt: But, it is Arendt who more clearly distinguishes human from animal. From part III of Human Condition (1958), we can argue that animals, like the human laborer, remain trapped in circular time only able to tend repetitively to their metabolic needs. Humans, as the political animal, can go one step further and experience rectilinear time by inaugurating new directions in history through the political act of foundation and renewal (Augustine). Political being requires the ability to start a new chain of events, contingent upon the particular people who initiate them. The pre-requisite of such action is thinking and judgment, whereby we recognize our particularity and then present it publicly in the form of our opinion. (Thinking, not reason, separates humans from animals). Therefore, for Arendt, freedom requires both the stability of such a public space and the possibility for recreating it anew when the time comes. In no uncertain terms, for Arendt, freedom means my right to participate in government or it means nothing at all.49


            Let’s conclude by returning to the question of particularity and politics as being. For Spinoza, “being” primarily requires us using adequate reason to allow our particular conatus to come into its own. The process will have the individual adjusting him/herself to the larger configuration of nature to which we are all connected. And, ultimately, the endgame of politics is nothing more than peace and security: that is, survival, but not freedom, or, at least, not freedom to act on the basis of a particular perspective. Since all can reason the same, then our particular thoughts don’t particularly matter.50 It seems that these are to be shed for the sake of reaching agreement, not with ourselves per se, but rather with nature. Though he successfully evades the problem of transcendental authority, Spinoza, and his contemporary advocates, do not successfully reconcile the universality of mathematical reason and the partiality of the particular speaking subject. Thus, we don’t get a clear picture of what politics in particular looks like, or rather, I suspect, an accurate explanation of it when it does happen. I would say the same for Hardt and Negri and even Balibar, even though they rightly seek to elaborate a general picture of it. Again, contemporary Spinoza-ists place great stock in proposition 16 of part I of Ethics in which the unity of substance is directly aligned with the plurality of it modes. Indeed, Hardt and Negri, and Negri on his own, see the multitude conjoining the force of their collective labor power to create a global commons on its own terms. They see this proposition as the basis for an imminent, democratic politics: just because it is there, ipso facto, it is the unified voice of the plurality of people. It is the reason of the people in particular that leads to the unity of the whole. This unity, as Negri and others see it, is not based on transcendental premises because it emanates from the particular location in which the people stand. This is the force of the “multitude” in action beginning with reason and ending in action.

            However, Spinoza does not escape the problematic effects of the transcendental, and neither do his contemporary advocates, because he does not effectively explain how differences are settled from within the plurality that acts as a commons—in fairness, Spinoza does try to address this issue in Ethics but he is limited by the seventeenth century’s obsessions with pure reason. Hardt and Negri do not take on this issue, at least in their Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth trilogy. Spinoza does not distinguish between cognition and thinking. For him, thought is reason, and reason is clearly cognition. By reducing the particular individual’s being as a function of cognition, one arrives at the hegemony of thought, and ultimately ideology, even if this effect arises from the multitude rather than descends upon it from a transcendental plane. We don’t need interlocutors to ultimately decide our ethical stance because ethics, well, should come to each person reasonably enough.

            For Arendt, both can be avoided because the premise action derives from the agreements reached by particular but equal actors. There is no need to begin with an imminent unity of substance. Others confirm our particular existence through our appearance in speech and action. The agreements that we reach in what Arendt refers to as the “space of appearance,” or sensus communitas becomes simultaneously the basis of political space and the condition of being a particular human.51 There is no apriori given for Arendt, because being can only materialize in the space between people who mutually recognize each other as equal, thinking and judging actors. Here, history can only proceed through contingency and our freedom only emerges in that lived, and yes, “imminent” course of action. Levi and Arendt seem to be in alignment. Levi revealed his attunement to politics in particular when he wondered if the joy he and his colleagues experienced around the stove of their sovereign world resembled how God felt on the first day of creation. Both acts were “miracles,” that is, they signified a qualitatively new event that could only emerge, not in a chain of logical necessity, but rather in a web of contingent events.52 Hence, as Augustine wrote, humans were not created in time, but rather time began with the unprecedented event of human creation. From this point, Arendt grasped that being human is actualized in the inauguration of new events, a feat that requires the particularity of perspective and assumes historical contingency. Levi and his colleagues lived for ten days between the evacuation of Auschwitz and the arrival of Soviet forces, an interlude that was “outside both world and time.”


Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1978. The Life of the Mind. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Arendt, Hannah.1992. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Ed. Ronald Beiner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 2006. On Revolution. London: Penguin Books.

Gangle, Rocco. 2013. Foreword to Antonio Negri’s Spinoza for Our Time: Politics and Postmodernity. Trans. by William McCuaig. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2008.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2004. Multitude. New York: Penguin Books.

Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. Trans. Stuart Woolf. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Originally published as Se questo è un uomo (1958).

Spinoza, Baruch. 1992. Ethics. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Spinoza, Baruch. 2000. Political Treatise. Trans. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Spinoza, Baruch. 2007. Theological-Political Treatise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


1 Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) 156-173. Trans. Stuart Woolf. Originally published as Se questo è un uomo in 1958.
2 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 156.
3 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 159.
4 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 160.
5 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 160.
6 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 160.
7 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 160.
8 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 160.
9 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 156.
10 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 161.
11 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 161.
12 Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 160.
13 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 2006) 93.
14 Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1978) 29.
15 Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992) 43. Proposition 16 of Part I. Trans. Samuel Shirley.
16 See Gangle’s Foreword, Antonio Negri, Spinoza for Our Time: Politics and Postmodernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) xi. Translated by William McCuaig.
17 Spinoza, Ethics, Corollary 1 to Proposition 16.
18 Spinoza, Ethics, Part 1, Appendix.
19 Spinoza, Ethics, 63, “Definitions” in Part II.
20 Spinoza, Ethics, 66, Proposition 7.
21 Spinoza, Ethics, 86, Proposition 35, Scholium.
22 Spinoza, Ethics, 90, Proposition 40, Scholium 2.
23 Spinoza (Ethics, 1992: 88-91) distinguishes between true and false ideas in propositions 40 and 41. False ideas are derived 1) through our confused and fragmentary encounter with objects; 2) from representations (symbols) of things that people acquire uncritically.
24 Likewise, in Theological-Political Treatise (ch. 5, paragraphs 14-15), Spinoza argues that to communicate divine law one only relies on the prophets to the extent that they communicate it accordingly to the particular experience of a particular nation, whereas it could also deduced by anyone who reasons properly regardless of their particular experience. Hence, Spinoza subordinates, or at least equates, the particularities of lived experience to innate reason. He even implies in paragraph 18 that people who are too moved by experience are not capable of making judgments about their history.
25 Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) chapter 5, paragraphs 14-15.
26 The importance of the judgment of taste for Arendt’s argument is that taste is particular to the individual arguing for its beauty and aesthetics. Furthermore, taste is not a sense that people hold in common, unlike sight and hearing. We experience it alone and immediately, then must present our view of it to others. Arendt uses this aspect of taste as a model to understand the faculties of thinking (as distinct from cognition) and of judgment and then politics among the plurality of actual people in the world. Curiously, Spinoza clearly nods in this direction in Theological-Political Treatise (chap 20, para 2): “Yet however much skillful methods may accomplish in this respect [i.e. of keeping people under authority], these have never succeeded in altogether suppressing men’s awareness that they have a good of sense of their own and that their minds differ no less than do their palates.” In paragraph 7, Spinoza looks even more directly to what Arendt’s sensus communitas or space of appearance: “But people’s free judgments are very diverse and everyone thinks they know everything themselves, and it can never happen that everyone will think exactly alike and speak with one voice. It would have been impossible therefore for people to live in peace, unless each one gave up his right to act according to his own decision alone. Each one therefore surrendered his right to act according to his own resolution, but not his right to think and judge for himself. Thus no one can act against the sovereign’s decision without prejudicing his authority, but they can think and judge and consequently also speak without any restriction, provided they merely speak or teach by way of reason alone...” In other words, people can try to persuade the sovereign to do things differently, which sits well with Arendt’s space of appearance. However, Spinoza consistently contrasts reason against belief, rather than against thinking as the two-in-one dialogue of the self, and he ultimately clings to the argument that the will to act ethically derives as a logical necessity from mathematical reason (i.e. cognition). Hence, he effectively diminishes the importance of particularity and plurality as a basis of politics, and only sees it as a stepping stone that people take to reach common security through universal reason. Otherwise, chapter 20 of Theological-Political Treatise is the most contemporary, inspiring, and politically progressive part of Spinoza’s oeuvre as it emphasizes particularity and stresses the struggle to be in political society (conatus). Negri and Hardt and Negri never find their way past these limits as they cling too closely to Spinoza’s argumentation.
27 Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) 9, 19. Ed. Ronald Beiner.
28 Spinoza, Ethics, 108, Proposition 6.
29 Spinoza, Ethics, 51-52, Part I, Proposition 29 Scholium.
30 Spinoza, Ethics, 109, Scholium to Proposition 9.
31 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) 242.
32 Spinoza, Ethics, 170-172, Part IV, Propositions 33 and 35.
33 Likewise, Theological-Political Treatise (ch. 4, para. 4), Spinoza argues that the highest happiness arises in a person with they recognize the cause for the objects around them, which leads to an intellectual knowledge of God. Here, Spinoza is elevating the vita contempletiva over the vita activa, to put it in Arendt’s terms. Indeed, the difference between thought and action in Spinoza and his advocates will remain less than compelling.
34 Spinoza, Ethics, 173-174, Proposition 37, proof 2.
35 Spinoza, Ethics, 174, Proposition 37, Scholium 2.
36 Spinoza, Ethics, 164, Scholium to Proposition 18.
37 Spinoza, Ethics, 164.
38 Spinoza, Ethics, 200, Part IV, Appendix, no. 32.
39 Spinoza, Ethics, 129, Part III Proposition 43.
40 On conflict: Spinoza: Part V offers strategies to deal with the pain of living in an unjust world. Most fundamentally, he explains that since passive emotions result from unclear ideas about their nature, we can gain “control” over emotional pain by grasping its true cause. So, once we realize an adequate idea about something painful, we experience pleasure in our understanding of it. This leads Spinoza to boldly conclude that God is the cause of pain but insofar as we understand God, we still feel pleasure (Proposition 18 corollary). This position is a logical consequence of his metaphysics in which God is equated with nature and nature is beyond the full comprehension of “man.” Arendt: Arendt sees two remedies for moving past the evil in the world and the pain it causes. First, forgiveness, she argues in the Human Condition, is offered for the sake of the one who did the deed. While it is the forgiver’s prerogative to forgive, and perhaps s/he chooses not to, forgiveness sets things anew and so that a new beginning can be found to how we share the earth with each other. But, she is not naïve about forgiveness, which is a personal matter not a political one. Just as important, people must exercise persuasion and judgment to deal with matters they have not confronted before, again, the “new”. These matters cannot be resolved by appeal to traditional practices or codes of conducts. These require new judgments, which cannot be derived by reason, but only by thinking. Reason always begins with an abstract, unquestionable premise: “nature” for Spinoza. For Arendt, we must first think through the different perspectives on the matter, that is, enlarging our mentality by considering others’ subjective viewpoints. Then, we make an informed judgment, and try to persuade others of its merit.
41 Baruch Spinoza, Political Treatise (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000) 41, chapter 2, paragraph 8. Trans. Samuel Shirley.
42 Spinoza, Political Treatise, 40.
43 Spinoza, Political Treatise, 43-45, paragraphs 15-17.
44 Spinoza, who only occasionally invokes the faculty of judgment, does so to note that people will judge the commands of the commonwealth as reasonable if they guarantee their security. However, chapter 4, paragraph, we learn that only the “sovereign” has the right to judge the actions of others. This isn’t so problematic, however, because Spinoza sees that dissenting views should be aired and, if sufficiently persuasive, become the law of the Commonwealth.
45 Spinoza, Political Treatise, 61-62, chapter 5, paragraph 2.
46 Spinoza, Political Treatise, 40, paragraph 7 (drawing from Ethics pt. IV, prop 68, Scholium 1).
47 Spinoza, Ethics, 58-60, chapter 4, paragraph 4.
48 Spinoza, Ethics, 62.
49 Arendt, On Revolution, 210.
50 Likewise, in the Theological-Political Treatise (chap. 16, para 10), Spinoza argues that a slave follows obediently follows command. However, when a person obediently follows command for his own safety, then s/he is not a slave but rather acting according to reason. Again, Spinoza is on tricky ground because he sees reason as an agent of freedom even when it necessarily over-rules particular judgment. We can respond to this argument, by pointing that state security simply makes us reasonable slaves. Moreover, anyone who maintains that a cause is worth risking limb and life is unreasonable, whereas for the actor that risk amounts to the difference between maintaining biological life at the expense of one’s particular being, or insisting that biological life without being is a life of slavery.
51 Arendt discusses “spaces of appearances” in different part of oeuvre, but see in particular The Human Condition and On Revolution. She discusses the sensus communitas in reference to her use of Kant in Life of the Mind and Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy.
52 Spinoza argues that miracles are natural events and must not be seen as ‘new’ (TPT chapter 7, para 22).