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July 2015

Freethought and Freedom: Spinoza on Freedom of Religion and Speech

Smith continues his discussion of Spinoza by explaining how he defended freedom of religion and speech.

From a libertarian perspective there is good news and bad news about the political theory of Spinoza. The good news, which I shall discuss in this essay, is his magnificent defense of freedom of religion and speech, and how he based his defense on a theory of inalienable rights. The bad news, which I shall discuss in my next essay, is Spinoza’s quasi-Hobbesian theory of rights and government in which the “right” to do x means nothing more than the power, or ability, to do x. The sovereign, for Spinoza as for Hobbes, has the right to do whatever he has the power to do. The sovereign’s obligation to respect the liberty of his subjects is solely a matter of self-interest; to mistreat subjects is bound to generate resentment and possibly seditious tendencies, and those sentiments, in turn, will render the sovereign’s authority less secure than it would otherwise be.  Moreover, despite Spinoza’s apparent defense of absolute freedom of speech, he specified certain exceptions which are bound to annoy modern libertarians. But as I said, I shall delay relating the details of this bad news until next week’s essay. 

Defenses of religious toleration had been published before Spinoza entered the fray in 1670 with A Theological-Political Treatise, but his treatment stands out in at least two respects.

First, Spinoza reduced authentic religion to overt conduct—specifically to acts of justice and charity—and he regarded the beliefs and motives that prompt such conduct as irrelevant to a political society. So long as you respect the rights of others, it doesn’t matter why you do—so the state, which should concern itself only with external actions, should have no concern with your beliefs, whether rational or irrational, moral or immoral, orthodox or heretical. Thus Spinoza admitted no exceptions to his principle of religious freedom. Unlike many earlier defenders of toleration, he did not exclude atheists, Jews, Catholics, and the like.

Second, Spinoza grounded freedom of religion in the broader principle of freedom of speech. Every person, whether religious or no, has the inalienable right to express his beliefs (with some exceptions, to be discussed later). He wrote:

The most tyrannical governments are those which make crimes of opinions, for everyone has an inalienable right over his thoughts—nay, such a state of things leads to the rule of popular passion….To avoid such evils in a state, there is no safer way than to make piety and religion to consist in acts only—that is, in the practice of justice and charity, leaving everyone’s judgments in other respects free.

Spinoza’s mention of inalienable rights is highly significant; indeed, this is the foundation of his argument for freedom of conscience. For Spinoza as for classical liberals generally, an inalienable right is a right that is inextricably linked to man’s reason and moral agency. Thus, since we literally cannot transfer our power of judgment and choice to another person, including a sovereign, we cannot transfer or otherwise abdicate our inalienable rights, even if we wish to do so. Even a slave must decide whether to obey his master or suffer the consequences; this power of decision-making is inherent in human nature and inseparable from it. The political upshot of this theory is that since inalienable rights can never be transferred, even with the agent’s consent, no sovereign can rightfully claim dominion over those rights. (See my previous discussion of inalienable rights here.) Spinoza put it thusly:

[No] man’s mind can possibly lie wholly at the disposition of another, for no one can willingly transfer his natural right of free reason and judgment, or be compelled so to do. For this reason government which attempts to control minds is accounted tyrannical, and it is considered an abuse of sovereignty and a usurpation of the rights of subjects, to seek to prescribe what shall be accepted as true, or rejected as false, or what opinions should actuate men in their worship of God. All these questions fall within a man’s natural right, which he cannot abdicate even with his own consent.

When a sovereign attempts to control the beliefs of his subjects, he attempts, in effect, to do what cannot possibly be done, something that lies outside his power. When a person transfers certain rights to a sovereign with the hope of establishing a just system of law, he “justly cedes the right of free action, though not of free reason.” From this premise Spinoza moved, somewhat tenuously, to the right of free speech. It is virtually impossible for people to keep silent about their core beliefs. “Since, therefore, no one can abdicate his freedom of judgment and feeling; since every man is by indefeasible natural right the master of his own thoughts, it follows that men thinking in diverse and contradictory fashions, cannot, without disastrous results, be compelled to speak only according to the dictates of the supreme power.”

Of course, Spinoza understood that “freedom may be crushed” to the point where people “do not dare to utter a whisper, save at the bidding of their ruler,” but he noted that even this degree of tyranny cannot prevent people from thinking for themselves. So what will happen if a ruler exercises this amount of power? Simply that “men would daily be thinking one thing and saying another”—a practice that will weave deceit and hypocrisy into the social fabric, thereby permitting “the avaricious, the flatterers, and other numskulls” to rise to the top. The truly creative and worthwhile members in such a society will not subordinate their opinions to the arbitrary decrees of a tyrant, so they will become martyrs to freedom who will “raise feelings of pity and revenge” in the general population, after which plots to overthrow the tyrant will surely emerge. As a ruler becomes more tyrannical his hold on power will become less secure. In the final analysis a ruler with “sound judgment” will not attempt to extend his power beyond reasonable limits. A ruler who limits his power to external behavior while leaving thoughts and speech unmolested will find little to fear from seditious plots.

[S]uch seditions only spring up, when law enters the domain of speculative thought, and opinions are put on trial and condemned on the same footing as crimes, while those who defend and follow them are sacrificed, not to public safety, but to their opponents’ hatred and cruelty. If deeds only could be made the grounds of criminal charges, and words were always allowed to pass free, such seditions would be divested of every semblance of justification, and would be separated from mere controversies by a hard and fast line.

But what of the common argument that freedom of belief and speech may sometimes result in pernicious social consequences? Spinoza did not deny this possibility; he simply considered it irrelevant, pointing out that the beneficial consequences of freedom far outweigh its potential harm. He also claimed that any attempt to suppress personal vices is likely to make those vices worse, not better.

[W]e cannot doubt that the best government will allow freedom of philosophical speculation no less than of religious belief. I confess that from such freedom inconveniences may sometimes arise, but what question was ever settled so wisely that no abuses could possibly spring therefrom? He who seeks to regulate everything by law, is more likely to arouse vices than to reform them. It is best to grant what cannot be abolished, even though it be in itself harmful. How many evils spring from luxury, envy, avarice, drunkenness, and the like, yet these are tolerated—vices as they are—because they cannot be prevented by legal enactments. How much more then should free thought be granted, seeing that it is in itself a virtue and that it cannot be crushed! [S]uch freedom is absolutely necessary for progress in science and the liberal arts; for no man follows such pursuits to advantage unless his judgment be entirely free and unhampered.

Holland in Spinoza’s day was famous for its high degree of religious freedom, and he was understandably proud of his native country. Near the beginning of his Treatise, Spinoza recommended the Dutch model as an example that would eliminate much of the religious discord and strife found in other countries.

Now, seeing that we have the rare happiness of living in a republic, where everyone’s judgment is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things dear and precious, I have believed that I should be undertaking no ungrateful or unprofitable task, in demonstrating that not only can such freedom be granted without prejudice to the public peace, but also, that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish nor the public peace be secure.

Much later in the Treatise, Spinoza discussed Amsterdam and the many benefits, including economic benefits, it had accrued from respecting the religious freedom of everyone.

The city of Amsterdam reaps the fruit of this [religious] freedom in its own great prosperity and in the admiration of all other people. For in this most flourishing state, and most splendid city, men of every nation and religion live together in the greatest harmony, and ask no questions before trusting their goods to a fellow-citizen, save whether he be rich or poor, and whether he generally acts honestly, or the reverse. His religion and sect is considered of no importance: for it has no effect before the judges in gaining or losing a cause, and there is no sect so despised that its followers, provided that they harm no one, pay every man his due, and live uprightly, are deprived of the protection of the magisterial authority.

Spinoza was not the only writer to note the connection between religious freedom and commercial prosperity. A similar observation was also made by Voltaire as a result of the years he spent in England. In Philosophical Letters (1733), Voltaire pointed out how commercial freedom and the self-interested desire for profit will tend to trump religious prejudice.  

Enter the London stock exchange, that place more respectable than many a court. You will see the deputies of all nations gathered there for the service of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian deal with each other as if they were of the same religion, and give the name of infidel only to those who go bankrupt; there the Presbyterian trusts the Anabaptist, and the Anglican accepts the Quaker’s promise. On leaving these peaceful and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others go to drink; this one goes to have himself baptized in the name of the Father, through the Son, to the Holy Ghost; that one has his son’s foreskin cut off and Hebrew words mumbled over the child which he does not understand; others go to their church to await the inspiration of God, their hats on their heads, and all are content.

On several occasions in previous essays I have called attention to the fundamental role that freedom of conscience played in the evolution of classical liberalism—a focus that is brilliantly illustrated in the writings of Spinoza, that much maligned “atheist.” Part of this emphasis obviously grew from the ferocious and bloody religious conflicts that plagued post-Reformation Europe. But more was involved. Theoretically speaking, freedom of conscience was the sun around which other freedoms, including economic freedom, revolved. As classical liberals saw the matter, freedom of conscience extends far beyond religion. Without freedom of conscience no other freedoms are possible.

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