Spinoza -- Precursor of George
Oscar B. Johannsen
[Reprinted from the Henry George News, July
The fields, and the whole soil, and if it can be managed, the houses
should be public property, that is, the property of him, who holds the
right of the commonwealth: and let him let them at a yearly rent to
the citizens, whether townsmen or countrymen, and with this exception
let them all be free or exempt from every kind of taxation in time of
So wrote Benedict De Spinoza, "the god-intoxicated man" in
Tractatus Politicus (Political Treatise), the completion of
which was cut short by his untimely death in 1677. "Furthermore,"
he goes on to say, "in the state of nature, there is nothing
which any man can less claim for himself, and make his own, than the
soil, and whatever so adheres to the soil, that he cannot hide it
anywhere, nor carry it wither he pleases. The soil, therefore, and
whatever adheres to it in the way we have mentioned, must be quite
common property of the commonwealth. "
As Tractatus Politicus is not well known, it may come as a
surprise to many to know that Spinoza anticipated Henry George by some
two hundred years. At the same time, it is satisfying to realize that
Spinoza -- the philosopher's philosopher -- recognized that the earth
is common property which should be leased to the citizenry at an
True, he made the error of including improvements, such as houses, as
common property, but considering the fact that this was written in the
17th century, when the "dismal science" was in its infancy,
it would be a hardy soul, indeed, who could take him to task for that
While the fact that this intellectual giant is on the side of the
angels (Georgist style) is not proof of the truth of George's thesis,
nevertheless Spinoza's advocacy cannot be lightly dismissed.
One of the paradoxes which now and again play hob with the well
ordered beliefs of people is that Spinoza owes his present popularity
not to scientists or philosophers but to poets. Though, in the main,
his works were cast in the abstract form of geometric propositions,
sufficient to frighten away all hut the intellectually tough,
surprisingly he met his greatest appeal in the great poets and
dreamers as Goethe, Coleridge, Shelley and George Elliott. Largely, as
the result of their sponsorship Spinoza emerged from the obscurity
into which he had fallen after his death. It may well he that he
appealed to these great imaginative minds because his works, in one
sense, partake of the poetic. His thoughts, just as poets, are
compressed into few lines, with the ruthless elimination of all
superfluous material, and yet they soar to heights to which only poets
dare aspire. That, together with the fact that his calm appraisal of
man has within it the divine contemplation, undoubtedly struck a chord
in the hearts of these poets. Unknown to most people is the fad that
this chord reverberates over and over again in the works of these
poets in one form or another, with Spinoza the intellectual parent.
Spinoza was not just a philosopher. Like George, he was a devoted
fighter for freedom. But he had to work in the restricted atmosphere
of old world conditions. Thus, the gems and nuggets of his
contributions often lie buried in his writings, open to all to see but
the true meaning of which is only understood by the intellectually
alert. Certainly, in his Political Treatise it is what he says the
state cannot do which constitutes his contributions to thought, not
what he says the state can do. In the period of absolutism in which he
lived, the restrictions which he advocated were important because in
many cases they represented daring limitations on accepted powers of
What is, of course, of particular interest to Georgists is that
Spinoza recognized clearly that a landed gentry is inimical to a free
society. That he considered it important to make land common property
is evident by his assertion: "There is another accession to the
cause of peace and concord, which is also of great weight: I mean,
that no citizen can have immovable property. "
Immovable property referred primarily to land. To get a true measure
of how important this must have been to him one must realize that the
attainment of peace was one of the principal aims of his life. And
peace to him did not mean merdy the absence of war. Rather, it meant
conditions under which men would have the opportunity to develop their
potentialities to the highest degree possible.
One interesting point is that he proposed leasing the land as a means
of making monarchy work. He was trying to circumscribe the power of a
monarch and create a constitutional monarchy, something virtually
unheard of in his day. Historically, this was actuated by his fear
that the House of Orange would overthrow the Republic which ruled the
Netherlands in his lifetime. He was preparing for this eventuality. If
the republic was overthrown, the form of monarchy he advocated would
be the least objectionable.
It is debatable if he understood the economic significance of his
proposal. However, there are more roads than one that lead to truth,
and the road he took was the one which emphasized freedom. How to
create individual freedom? Eliminate the landed gentry. How to
eliminate them? Make land the common property of the commonwealth and
lease it to the citizenry. Levy no other taxes, for taxes discourage
initiative and inhibit the individual. He arrives at the same result
that George reached 200 years later though much simpler and without
the economic investigation that George instituted.
In view of the fact that Spinoza is revered by so many, his views on
this important question should he better known. After all, you can't
dismiss Spinoza with a wave of your hand, as many who should know
better so casually dismiss George. You have to prove Spinoza wrong,
and proving him wrong will test the mettle of anyone.
- Writings on Political Philosophy by
Benedict De Spinoza, edited by A. G. A. Balz. Ch. VI, Sec. 12, p.
- lbid. Ch. VII, Sec. 19, p. 137.
- Ibid. Ch. VII, Sec. 8, p. 132.