Spinoza on Freedom, Toleration & Charlie Hebdo

Finding Support For liberal democratic values in one of history’s most eloquent & forceful defender of freedom of expression

By Professor Steven Nadler (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

January 7, 2016          Picture: Elvin/Flickr

This article is part of The Critique’s Great War Series Part II: Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech & Religious Violence Exclusive.

Every right-thinking person is horrified by the murder of the journalists and artists at “Charlie Hebdo.” We are shocked by the brutality of such an uncivilized act, an assassination that, despite the alleged motives of the killers, no legitimate religious or political principle could possibly condone [See Kelsay on why the killings are not justified on a conventional reading of the Koran]. But beyond our shared emotional reaction to this tragedy, our sadness and outrage at the violence inflicted on human beings who did no more than write words and draw pictures, we need to find a philosophical response to the events—one that, when our sorrow has waned, can strengthen our resolve to be strong in the face of the stress that all such assaults bring upon a free and open society. We require some principled support for the idea that a healthy and truly tolerant society need not police its words and pictures—indeed, that institutional or self-imposed censorship of ideas and images, in the name of “toleration”, does in fact lead, ultimately, to intolerance and the end of freedom.

There is in the history of philosophy no more forceful or eloquent defender of a secular, democratic, and tolerant society than the seventeenth-century Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza. In his “scandalous” Theological-Political Treatise of 1670, he argued explicitly, and with great relevance both for his time and ours, that the well-being, stability, and security of any polity is not only consistent with the freedom of thought and expression, but in fact is dependent upon it. As the book’s subtitle proclaims, Spinoza’s aim is 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.”

By ‘freedom to philosophize’, what Spinoza means is “everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks” (Theological-Political Treatise [TTP], Chapter 20, p. 229[1]), uninhibited by either secular or ecclesiastic authorities. No one is to be penalized by the state for the expression of philosophical ideas, whether in speech, in writing or in art; nor might such a censorial power be allowed to any religious authority or its self-appointed representatives, even if what is being expressed is deemed offensive by others. Spinoza does allow some exceptions to this freedom, as we shall see, which is somewhat troubling. Nonetheless, he goes further in the defense of the freedom of thought and expression than anyone else in the period.

The motivation for Spinoza’s Treatise was the growing power and influence of religious authorities in the Dutch Republic in the 1660s. The conservative and intolerant elements within the Dutch Reformed Church were pressing for ever more restrictive policies in domestic affairs and a more confrontational approach to international relations. Above all, the Reformed predikanten were seeking to expand their influence over both state policies and the private lives of citizens. Spinoza rightly feared that this threatened the policy of “true freedom” in the Republic and was inconsistent with the liberal traditions of Europe’s youngest and most cosmopolitan nation.

To begin with, there is the question of the toleration of beliefs. Spinoza argues that all individuals are to be absolutely free and unimpeded in this regard, both in fact and by right:

“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” (TTP, 222).

Indeed, any effort on the government’s part to rule over the beliefs and opinions of citizens can only backfire, as it will ultimately serve to undermine its own authority. In a passage that strikes the reader as both obviously right and extraordinarily bold for its time, Spinoza writes that:

“a government that attempts to control men’s minds is regarded as tyrannical, and a sovereign is thought to wrong his subjects and infringe their right when he seeks to prescribe for every man what he should accept as true and reject as false, and what are the beliefs that will inspire him with devotion to God. All these are matters belonging to individual right, which no man can surrender even if he should so wish”. (TTT, 222)

A sovereign is certainly free to try and limit what people think, but the result of such a foolhardy policy would be only to create resentment and opposition to its rule. “It is true that sovereigns can by their right treat as enemies all who do not absolutely agree with them on all matters, but the point at issue is not what is their right, but what is to their interest” (TTP, 223). The freedom of opinion is, for Spinoza, an “inalienable right”.

Still, the toleration of belief is easy because it is necessary. Even Thomas Hobbes, that defender of royal absolutism, saw that citizens cannot be forced to believe anything. 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 in the seventeenth century.

“Utter failure 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”. (TTP, 223)

Spinoza’s argument for freedom of expression is based both on the right (or power) of citizens to speak as they desire, as well as on the fact that (as in the case of belief per se) it would be self-defeating for a sovereign 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.

“It is far beyond the bounds of possibility that all men can be made to speak to order. On the contrary, the greater the effort to deprive them of freedom of speech, the more obstinately do they resist” (TTP, 226).

The result of the suppression of freedom is, once again, resentment and a weakening of the bonds that unite subjects to sovereign. 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.”

Spinoza also argues for freedom of expression on utilitarian grounds. It is necessary for progress in the discovery of truth and the spread of creativity. Without an open marketplace of ideas, science, philosophy and other disciplines are stifled in their development, to the technological, economic and even aesthetic detriment of society. In this respect, Spinoza’s defense of liberty foreshadows the one that John Stuart Mill would offer two centuries later in his essay On Liberty. 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” (TTP, 226).

Without freedom of thought and expression, the search for truth, and the material and spiritual progress that depend on it, are hamstrung.

For Spinoza, then, there is to be no criminalization of ideas in the well-ordered state:

“The most tyrannical government will be the one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks” (TTP, 223).

Libertas philosophandi, the freedom of philosophizing, must be upheld for the sake of a healthy, secure and peaceful commonwealth and material and intellectual flourishing.

“What greater misfortune can be imagined for a state than that honorable men should be exiled as miscreants because their opinions are at variance with authority and they cannot disguise the fact? What can be more calamitous than that men should be regarded as enemies and put to death, not for any crime or misdeed, but for being of independent mind?” (TTP, 227).

Of course, Spinoza, who himself experienced censorship from religious authority as a young man when he was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community for his philosophical and religious views, also saw that the threat to freedom of expression comes not only from the government but from dogmatic factional organizations and private quarters as well. Ecclesiastic authorities of various persuasions and rogue sectarian groups will strive to stifle the expression of ideas they deem offensive and inconsistent with their political, religious and moral beliefs, not to mention those that believe pose a challenge to their power and prerogatives. They will attempt, either directly or through manipulating the secular authorities, to suppress oral or written expression of unorthodox or offensive opinions. The state, then, must not only refrain from censorship of its own, but must go out of its way to guard against intellectual and artistic repression of any kind and protect the freedom of expression among its citizens.“The purpose of the state is, in reality, freedom” (TTP, 223), Spinoza says, and thus among the sovereign’s functions must be safeguarding its citizenry from all attempts, subtle or violent, to prescribe what, in the realm of ideas, can and cannot be said, written, or drawn.

Spinoza’s views on liberty go beyond what was envisioned by another early modern philosopher renowned for his defense of toleration: John Locke. Locke was primarily interested in the toleration within a society of a variety of religious ideas, so that individuals may enjoy the uninhibited personal communion with God in which religion consists. In his “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, written in 1685, Locke argued that no religious group, nor even the state, has the right to persecute those who belong to other sects. Membership in a community of believers is voluntary, and thus no church may use force (or engage the power of the state) to further its narrow sectarian aims. Different forms of worship and theological dissent are to be allowed, even encouraged, in the commonwealth.

Like Spinoza, Locke also makes his case for toleration with utilitarian considerations. Such freedom, insofar as it fosters the search after truth, brings great benefits for society, and not just intellectual ones. Locke was clearly impressed by the economic fruits of toleration that he saw in the Dutch Republic, where he was residing when he wrote the Letter. However, Locke makes one significant exception to the general policy of openness for religious and secular ideas: there is to be no toleration of atheism and other forms of irreligion. Since atheists do not believe in God, he insisted, they have no foundation for morality, and thus they cannot be trusted not to act in ways that are harmful to their fellow citizens.

“Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God . . . promises, covenants, and oaths, which are bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.”[2]

Locke’s refusal to grant the same freedom to atheists that he provides for believers is therefore made on political and ethical rather than religious grounds. And apparently it is not only freedom of expression that is being denied to them, but freedom of belief, since their mere presence in the state is supposed to be a threat to its moral welfare. This would seem to represent an inconsistency in his thought and a striking failure of toleration, one that is absent from Spinoza’s account.

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]” (TTP, 224).

Absolutists about the freedom of expression will be troubled by these caveats on Spinoza’s part, and rightly so. After all, who is to decide what kind of speech count as seditious? May not the sovereign 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” (TTP, 225). 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 sovereign and thus they are directly contrary to the tacit social contract of citizenship. (“Other beliefs”, he says, “in which there is no implication of actions such as the breaking of the covenant, the exaction of revenge, the indulgence of anger and so forth, are not seditious” [TTP, 225].)

What is important is that Spinoza draws the line between ideas and action. The government has every right to outlaw certain kinds of actions. Given its responsibility for the public welfare—for the peace, security and well-being of the polity—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 published 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. So while to act against the sovereign’s decree is definitely an infringement of his [the sovereign’s] right, this is not the case with thinking, judging, and consequently with speaking, too” (TTP, 224).

Spinoza is certainly conscious of, and willing to allow for, some potentially unpleasant consequences entailed by the broad respect for civil liberties. There will be public disputes, even factionalism, as citizens express their opposing views on political, social, moral and religious questions. This is, however, what comes with a healthy democratic and tolerant society. As he concedes, “what cannot be prohibited must necessarily be allowed, even if harm often ensues” (TTP, 225). The proper state will be very much like Spinoza’s Amsterdam, which, while not truly democratic, he greatly admires for the freedom it allows its denizens and the flourishing such toleration has brought the city:

“Take the city of Amsterdam, which enjoys the fruits of this freedom, to its own considerable prosperity and the admiration of the world. In this flourishing state, a city of the highest renown, men of every race and sect live in complete harmony; and before entrusting their property to some person they will want to know no more than this, whether he is rich or poor and whether he has been honest or dishonest in his dealings. As for religion or sect, that is of no account, because such considerations are regarded as irrelevant in a court of law; and no sect whatsoever is so hated that its adherents—provided that they injure no one, render to each what is his own, and live upright lives—are denied the protection of the civil authorities”. (TTP, 228).

It is surprising to see Spinoza writing this. One of his close friends, Adriaan Koerbagh, had just died in prison, condemned by the city of Amsterdam—in a brutal act of intolerance at the instigation of the Calvinist consistory—for philosophical and religious ideas. So perhaps there is a good deal of bitter irony in Spinoza’s words here. On the other hand, Amsterdam was the most liberal and tolerant city in a republic renowned (and often vilified) in its own time for religious and political toleration; and Spinoza, while aware of the city’s shortcomings, also knew well and appreciated its virtues.

In the penultimate paragraph of the Treatise, Spinoza again distinguishes between ideas and their expression, on the one hand, and actions, on the other hand, and insists that the government’s authority should (if only out of prudence) be restricted to the latter:

“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” (TTP, 229).

There is no reason to think that Spinoza believed that this extraordinary principle of toleration and liberty was to be qualified according to the audience to which one is speaking. And he did not believe that the threat to the freedom of expression came only from the state itself—the state is there to protect against the repressive actions (violent or otherwise) of other organizations and individuals within the society. We can assume, as well, that he did not think that it was only the state that was responsible for protecting the freedom of expression. It is, he would agree, the responsibility of all members of a commonwealth to insure that the freedoms so essential to the flourishing of that society are defended.

Footnotes & References 

[1] Citations are from Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, 2nd edition, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001).

[2] John Locke, “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, The Works of John Locke. A New Edition, corrected, 10 vols. (London: Thomas Tegg, 1823), vol. 6, p. 47.

Stephen Nadler
Stephen Nadler
Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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