After suffering through years of neglect, the political philosophy of Baruch Spinoza has drawn a large amount of scholarly attention in the last several decades. While much of this new literature has been of high quality, it has almost uniformly neglected to focus attention on the strain of pragmatic consequentialism that runs throughout Spinoza’s political thought. This paper corrects this deficiency in the literature by beginning its interpretation of Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise and Political Treatise with a broad portrait of his intellectual influences and background before examining his naturalistic metaphysical theory and conception of human nature as they are presented in the Ethics. By doing so, the pragmatic consequentialism prevalent in Spinoza’s politics is revealed and Spinoza is redefined as a philosopher whose actual political thought is quite distinct from its depiction in much of the recent literature as a principles-based championing of liberal democracy.
Hometown: Hermitage, Tenn.
Major: History and Philosophy
Thesis Title: Spinoza’s Political Philosophy: An Unrecognized Consequentialism
Advisor: Dr. Bill Meyer, professor of philosophy
Although his interest in philosophy is relatively recent, W. Austin Newsom ’09 has been a “history buff” for as long as he can remember.
When the time came to select a Senior Study topic, Newsom’s thoughts immediately turned to 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
From his first exposure to Spinoza’s metaphysics in a sophomore philosophy class, Newsom said that he felt that the philosopher was a thinker ahead of his time because he stressed intellectual independence and followed his arguments to their logical conclusions.
After discovering Spinoza also completed work in political philosophy (Newsom’s area of specialization) the recent MC graduate sought more writings on the topic.
“I was pleased to discover that these writings still had some degree of relevance and, more importantly, the academic work on them was limited enough in quantity to allow me to cover most of it,” explained Newsom.
Maryville College Professor of Philosophy Dr. Bill Meyer, who also served as Newsom’s Senior Study advisor, thought his advisee’s idea to study Spinoza’s political philosophy was excellent.
“Spinoza is well known for his elaborate metaphysical theory about Reality-God-Nature all being one and the same, but his views as a political philosopher are not well known,” Meyer commented.
In his 79-page study, Newsom analyzed several of Spinoza’s works, Theologico-Political Treatise, Political Treatise and Ethics, focusing on the philosopher’s intellectual influences, background, naturalistic metaphysical theory and conception of human nature.
“By doing so, the pragmatic consequentialism prevalent in Spinoza’s politics is revealed and [he] is redefined as a philosopher whose actual political thought is quite distinct from its depiction in much of the recent literature as a principles-based championing of liberal democracy,” Newsom concluded in his study.
(Pragmatic consequentialism refers to the practical point of view that the morality of human actions is determined by their consequences.)
Newsom suggested that Spinoza was more concerned with the judicious distribution and use of power in society than in natural rights or liberty.
“By meticulously designing a democratic structure of governance that would be ideal in its doling out of power and force, Spinoza felt that he could ensure the stability and prosperity of a society,” continued Newsom.
The most challenging part of his Senior Study was finding an unexplored angle on Spinoza’s political philosophy. Since he was a double major (history and philosophy), his study had to combine the two disciplines, which also proved to be challenging.
But Newsom tackled those challenges under the tutelage of Meyer.
“It would be impossible to list all the ways that Dr. Meyer guided my unwieldy ship of a thesis into the harbor of its finished form,” Newsom commented. He specifically pointed out Meyer’s patience and guidance about what not to do.
He also gave credit to Dr. Doug Sofer, assistant professor of history, who acted as Newsom’s secondary advisor.
Meyer was so impressed with Newsom’s study that he recommended it for the College’s permanent library collection.
“His research was very thorough, and his writing was clear, detailed and well reasoned. Most of all, he offered new and persuasive ideas about how to interpret Spinoza’s political philosophy,” Meyer explained. “It was an outstanding thesis worthy of being publicly presented�either at a conference or in print or both.”
Meyer also said that Newsom grew as a young scholar.
“He was able to read Spinoza’s political writings, critique them and offer his own reasoned assessment of Spinoza’s political ideas and how they relate to his larger philosophy.”
Since graduating summa cum laude from the College in May, Newsom has been working various private sector jobs and pursuing his hobbies. He is exploring employment with some public policy organizations. Law school may even be in the near future.