The New York Times

February 5, 2012, 5:30 pm

Spinoza’s Vision of Freedom, and Ours

The Stone

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch thinker, may be among the more enigmatic (and mythologized) philosophers in Western thought, but he also remains one of the most relevant, to his time and to ours. He was an eloquent proponent of a secular, democratic society, and was the strongest advocate for freedom and tolerance in the early modern period. The ultimate goal of his “Theological-Political Treatise” — published anonymously to great alarm in 1670, when it was called by one of its many critics “a book forged in hell by the devil himself”— is enshrined both in the book’s subtitle and in the argument of its final chapter: to show that the “freedom of philosophizing” not only can be granted “without detriment to public peace, to piety, and to the right of the sovereign, but also that it must be granted if these are to be preserved.”

Spinoza was incited to write the “Treatise” when he recognized that the Dutch Republic, and his own province of Holland in particular, was wavering from its uncommonly liberal and relatively tolerant traditions. He feared that with the rising political influence in the 1660s of the more orthodox and narrow-minded elements in the Dutch Reformed Church, and the willingness of civil authorities to placate the preachers by acting against works they deemed “irreligious,” “licentious” and “subversive,” the nearly two decades-long period of the “True Freedom” was coming to an end. The “Treatise” is both a personally angry book — a friend of Spinoza’s, the author of a radical treatise, had recently been thrown in prison, where he soon died — and a very public plea to the Dutch republic not to betray the political, legal and religious principles that made its flourishing possible.

In this work, Spinoza approaches the issue of individual liberty from several perspectives. To begin with, there is the question of belief, and especially the state’s tolerance of the beliefs of its citizens. Spinoza argues that all individuals are to be absolutely free and unimpeded in their beliefs, by right and in fact. “It is impossible for the mind to be completely under another’s control; for no one is able to transfer to another his natural right or faculty to reason freely and to form his own judgment on any matters whatsoever, nor can he be compelled to do so.”

free speechLeif Parsons

For this reason, any effort on the government’s part to rule over the beliefs and opinions of citizens is bound to fail, and will ultimately serve to undermine its own authority. A sovereign is certainly free to try and limit what people think, but the result of such a policy, Spinoza predicts, would be only to create resentment and opposition to its rule.

It can be argued that the state’s tolerance of individual belief is not a difficult issue. As Spinoza points out, it is “impossible” for a person’s mind to be under another’s control, and this is a necessary reality that any government must accept. The more difficult case, the true test of a regime’s commitment to toleration, concerns the liberty of citizens to express those beliefs, either in speech or in writing. And here Spinoza goes further than anyone else of his time: “Utter failure,” he says, “will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions … The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.”

Spinoza has a number of compelling arguments for the freedom of expression. One is based both on the natural right (or natural power) of citizens to speak as they desire, as well as on the apparent fact that (as in the case of belief per se) it would be self-defeating for a government to try to restrain that freedom. No matter what laws are enacted against speech and other means of expression, citizens will continue to say what they believe (because they can), only now they will do so in secret. The result of the suppression of freedom is, once again, resentment and a weakening of the bonds that unite subjects to their government. In Spinoza’s view, intolerant laws lead ultimately to anger, revenge and sedition. The attempt to enforce them is a “great danger to the state.” (This would certainly have been the lesson gleaned from recent history, as the Dutch revolt originated in the repressive measures that the Spanish crown imposed on its northern territories in the 16th century.)

Spinoza also argues for freedom of expression on utilitarian grounds — that it is necessary for the discovery of truth, economic progress and the growth of creativity. Without an open marketplace of ideas, science, philosophy and other disciplines are stifled in their development, to the technological, fiscal and even aesthetic detriment of society. As Spinoza puts it, “this freedom [of expressing one’s ideas] is of the first importance in fostering the sciences and the arts, for it is only those whose judgment is free and unbiased who can attain success in these fields.”

Spinoza’s extraordinary views on freedom have never been more relevant. In 2010, for example, the United States Supreme Court declared constitutional a law that, among other things, criminalized certain kinds of speech. The speech in question need not be extremely and imminently threatening to anyone or pose “a clear and present danger” (to use Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ phrase). It may involve no incitement to action or violence whatsoever; indeed, it can be an exhortation to non-violence. In a troubling 6-3 decision, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the Court, acceding to most of the arguments presented by President Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, upheld a federal law which makes it a crime to provide support for a foreign group designated by the State Department as a “terrorist organization,” even if the “help” one provides involves only peaceful and legal advice, including speech encouraging that organization to adopt nonviolent means for resolving conflicts and educating it in the means to do so. [1] (The United States, of course, is not alone among Western nations in restricting freedom of expression. Just this week, France — fresh from outlawing the wearing of veils by Muslim women, and in a mirror image of Turkey’s criminalizing the public affirmation of the Armenian genocide — made it illegal to deny, in print or public speech, officially recognized genocides.)

For Spinoza, by contrast, there is to be no criminalization of ideas in the well-ordered state. Libertas philosophandi, the freedom of philosophizing, must be upheld for the sake of a healthy, secure and peaceful commonwealth and material and intellectual progress.

Now Spinoza does not support absolute freedom of speech. He explicitly states that the expression of “seditious” ideas is not to be tolerated by the sovereign. There is to be no protection for speech that advocates the overthrow of the government, disobedience to its laws or harm to fellow citizens. The people are free to argue for the repeal of laws that they find unreasonable and oppressive, but they must do so peacefully and through rational argument; and if their argument fails to persuade the sovereign to change the law, then that must be the end of the matter. What they may not do is “stir up popular hatred against [the sovereign or his representatives].”

Absolutists about the freedom of speech will be troubled by these caveats on Spinoza’s part, and rightly so. After all, who is to decide what kind of speech counts as seditious? May not the government declare to be seditious simply those views with which it disagrees or that it finds contrary to its policies? Spinoza, presumably to allay such concerns, does offer a definition of “seditious political beliefs” as those that “immediately have the effect of annulling the covenant whereby everyone has surrendered his right to act just as he thinks fit” (my emphasis). The salient feature of such opinions is “the action that is implicit therein”— that is, they are more or less verbal incitements to act against the government and thus they are directly contrary to the tacit social contract of citizenship.

What is important is that Spinoza draws the line, albeit a somewhat hazy one, between ideas and action. The government, he insists, has every right to outlaw certain kinds of actions. As the party responsible for the public welfare, the sovereign must have absolute and exclusive power to monitor and legislatively control what people may or may not do. But Spinoza explicitly does not include ideas, even the expression of ideas, under the category of “action.” As individuals emerged from a state of nature to become citizens through the social contract, “it was only the right to act as he thought fit that each man surrendered, and not his right to reason and judge.”

In the penultimate paragraph of the “Treatise,” Spinoza insists that “the state can pursue no safer course than to regard piety and religion as consisting solely in the exercise of charity and just dealing, and that the right of the sovereign, both in religious and secular spheres, should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks.” There is no reason to think that Spinoza believed that this remarkable and unprecedented principle of toleration and liberty was to be qualified according to who was speaking, the ideas being expressed (with the noted exception of explicit calls for sedition), or the audience being addressed.

I cited the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project not to make a constitutional point — I leave it to legal scholars to determine whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision represents a betrayal of our country’s highest ideals — but rather to underscore the continuing value of Spinoza’s philosophical one.

Well before John Stuart Mill, Spinoza had the acuity to recognize that the unfettered freedom of expression is in the state’s own best interest. In this post-9/11 world, there is a temptation to believe that “homeland security” is better secured by the suppression of certain liberties than their free exercise. This includes a tendency by justices to interpret existing laws in restrictive ways and efforts by lawmakers to create new limitations, as well as a willingness among the populace, “for the sake of peace and security,” to acquiesce in this. We seem ready not only to engage in a higher degree of self-censorship, but also to accept a loosening of legal protections against prior restraint (whether in print publications or the dissemination of information via the Internet), unwarranted surveillance, unreasonable search and seizure, and other intrusive measures. [2] Spinoza, long ago, recognized the danger in such thinking, both for individuals and for the polity at large. He saw that there was no need to make a trade-off between political and social well-being and the freedom of expression; on the contrary, the former depends on the latter.


[1] Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, No. 08-1498; see “Court Affirms Ban on Aiding Groups Tied to Terror,” The New York Times, June 21, 2010. The briefs and other documents for this case are available online at Scotusblog.

[2] The Supreme Court’s decision on January 23, in which it ruled unanimously that police violate the Fourth Amendment when they place a G.P.S. tracking device on a suspect’s car without a warrant, serves less as an indication of reversing the trend than as an exception that proves the rule.

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His new book, “A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age,” was just published by Princeton University Press.

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