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Creating Compliant Subjects

What is permitted by whom?

This post is in relation to the Gender and Domination course in OOPS.

Reading excerpts from Spinzoa’s Theological-Political Treatise, I am reminded of one of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s fundamental anxieties in The Brothers Karamazov, namely, that without the presence of God “everything is permitted.” Perhaps an even more apt quotation would be Dmitri Karamazov’s claim that “Everything is permitted to the intelligent man.” Though Dmitri’s anxiety-producing dialog has inspired a litany of examinations, I am more interested in the critique that claims Dostoevsky (or at least his characters) inverted the order of operations that dictates what is and is not permitted. This critique states that a truly accurate picture of domination and permission is a reversal of Dostoevsky’s dictum, or as Slovaj Žižek quotes Jacques Lacan in “Christianity Against the Sacred,” “If God exists, then everything is permitted.”

This reversal of Dostoevsky’s thesis (rightly or wrongly) holds that the truly pious are permitted to take part in everything that exists. Their world, created by God for their existence, contains no forbidden realms or actions. Even prohibitive scriptures do not enumerate restricted behaviors so much as they delineate the true world of the righteous — to transgress this delineation is to fall from God, removing one from the world of boundless permission. Only the fallen, the vulgar, could inhabit a world that includes both permitted and forbidden acts.

Spinoza, it seems, is grappling with comparable dilemmas. What behaviors are dictated by nature, God, the state? How far do the domains of religion and reason extend? Is everything permitted to the intelligent (i.e., governed by reason) human?

Unlike Dostoevsky and Lacan, Spinoza does not offer a singular proclamation that would coherently organize “everything.” Nature, God, and the state each partake in different modes of domination and repression, and each to different ends. One thing is clear, however: Spinoza’s conception of the state must not allow all behaviors to be permitted. It is the function of a society founded on reason to proscribe laws that delimit the desires of man, desires that are founded not on learned reason but on the sensual and immediate satisfaction (72-73). This legislated society is in direct opposition to what Spinoza calls “the government of nature” (196). Nature governs individuals who exist without the faculty of “true reason,” and for these individuals, the only things prohibited are “what no one desires or no one can do” (197). The natural world knows no restrictions and its power “is the very power of God who has supreme right to [do] all things” (195). It would appear obvious, then, to claim everything is permitted in nature, whereas we are repressed in civil society. But this is not so simple.

Spinoza complicates the distinction between natural government and the government of men: in the interest of retaining a compliant populous, the state must mask the restrictive function of its laws. Spinoza writes, “in any form of state the laws should be so drawn up that people are restrained less by fear than hope of something good which they very much desire” (73). Even if laws may correspond to punitive retribution, they should not announce this punishment. The populous must believe that they are acting on their own desire — therefore, they must believe (falsely) what they desire is permitted. Thus the state maintains an immense power over its subjects as well as their presumed agency: “belie[f], love, hate” that appear to extend from a person’s own subjectivity, own desires, actually manifest “owing to the power of the state alone” (210). As such, the apparent distinction between the natural world and the lawful world begins to blur.

If these are the roles of nature and the state, how does religion affect which behavior is permitted? Spinoza argues that Moses employs the same tactics as the state in his command of the Hebrew people and that the very purpose of religious ceremony is to instill subservience. However, Moses’s leadership must not be confused with true spirituality, as Moses’s Law “related to nothing but the Hebrew state and consequently nothing other than material benefits” (75). Spinoza’s examination of the scriptures, however, relates the true spiritual dimension of prohibition and permission. The Hebrews’ love of their own country compelled an equal hatred of all others, “a hatred which was not only permitted but pious” (223; emphasis added). Hatred is an act of not only piety, but also poverty; restricted mobility and arbitrary limitations on daily life “appeared to be freedom rather than slavery” (224). No matter how restrictive this condition appears to an outsider, for those enveloped within the fold, they are free; their desires are fulfilled, and nothing exists outside of the permitted.

Returning to Dostoevsky’s spiritual anxieties, I believe that Spinoza would also be terrified of a state in which everything is permitted, but Spinoza does not designate God as the sole force of restriction. In Spinoza, both God and the state place restrictions on their peoples. What remains pivotal, however, is that their subjects do not recognize their subjugation. So long as the subjects of a state or of a religion believe themselves to be free, they will remain complicit in their subjugation. In fact, only individuals who are unaware of their encasement could worry that “without God everything is permitted.”

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Aaron Neber

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