How many is a multitude? seventeenth century reflections on the social contract

Early modern philosophers used the term ‘multitude’ to describe the unruly masses, a populace that needed to be governed by the monarchy or state, or some combination of the two. In an England wracked by civil war and religious strife, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a conservative philosopher, decided that the problem with the multitude was its disunity, the fact that it was divided against itself. For Hobbes and a continuing tradition of political philosophers, the question is how to transform the multitude into a cohesive political unit. In Hobbes’ vision of the social contract, the multitude becomes a unified people.

England in the 1640s was stricken by factionalism and war. Hobbes, a monarchist, fled to France, where he wrote his masterwork, Leviathan (1651), outlining his theory of the state. Hobbes offers a legislative solution to the problem of the multitude. He argues that the members of the multitude must forge a ‘social contract’ with the sovereign for the sake of security, prosperity, and civil order. The sovereign guarantees security for the members of the multitude, so that they may go about their business as they may. The members of the multitude, meanwhile, must give up certain ‘natural rights’ to the sovereign, firstly the right to take life – a right which we possessed in the so-called ‘state of nature’, but which we must give up in order to enter society.

This is how a multitude becomes a people. Unified under a sovereign with a monopoly on violence, the masses concede that security is better than war and hand in their weapons. The sovereign is thereafter a universal strongman with the task of looking after each individual’s rights and well being. Hobbes’ theory of the state and ‘civil society’ is embedded today in our legal institutions. Signing away our right to do as we please, we, the members of the multitude, have become organized if less-than-unified peoples. If you study liberal political theory, you have inherited a tradition that begins with Hobbes and centers on the unifying power of the social contract.

But the social contract never took place. It does not exist. Why do we think in this way, when we know that the idea is false?

The seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) rejected Hobbes’ theory of the state. In his final work, the Political Treatise, Spinoza outlines a theory of the state that doesn’t require us to posit a social contract. No such contract had been signed in the Mennonite and Anabaptist communities that Spinoza admired, yet the members of these communities were more than happy to make sacrifices and collaborate for the common good.

The problem with Hobbes’ theory, Spinoza decided, was that Hobbes had misrepresented the nature of the multitude.

What if the multitude were not a fractious, unruly force that needed to be domesticated by law, but a collective entity that emerged in the process of collaboration and struggle – an entity geared towards common empowerment and mutual reward? Working-up this intuition, Spinoza developed a new theory of the multitude as a collective agent. Spinoza’s multitude is a complex entity comprised of the actions of numerous agents who, through unity of aspiration, forge a ‘common mind’ and sense of advantage. Combining their powers, members of a multitude forge a unity-in-disunity, a provisional consensus sustained through fraternity and goodwill.

The consensus that is created by a multitude does not require sanctioning by a sovereign. It is a living material consensus, which can withdrawn by the multitude at any time, thus holding open the possibility of insurrection against the unjust state. Spinoza argues that in democratic states, the sovereign will be bound by the will of the multitude, ‘which is led, as it were, by one mind’. He cautions that ‘[t]his unity of mind can only be achieved if the commonwealth pursues the interest of all’. No doubt part of the reason why we have such divided societies today is because states no longer pursue the interests of all. Our societies are full of struggling individuals. It is only at protest rallies that we see multitudes.

Spinoza’s multitude is different from a society or people. A multitude is a living event. A multitude can be as intimate as a group of friends or as sprawling as a transnational movement. It takes shape when a group of people grasp that together they could be more than just a team or network, but a collective power. Individuals gravitate towards the collaborative activity as a source of empowerment, and they participate for the hit or experience.

This, Spinoza argues, is how societies are born. It is an intrinsic law of social networks in the offline and online worlds.


  1. Toby Simmons says:

    Fascinating. A joy to read. Great blog all-round, by the way.
    Let me know what you think of mine . . .
    Keep on posting!

  2. Thanks Toby. I checked out your blog – excellent coffee! I’ll drop by for more.

  3. Nice post Tim… can you track the multitude concept further in time. Antonio Negri also used the term more recently. [Tibi]

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