Summer Reading for All: Spinoza on Freedom of Thought in a Free State
I am re-reading this final chapter of Bento Spinoza’s Tractatus — an important text right now! — in a friend’s house where I found it in a lovely little French edition published by Cahiers de l’Herne, & decided to post an english translation below. Enjoy!
If it were as easy to rule the thoughts as to command the tongue, princes would always reign securely, and there would be no such thing as government by force. For every one would then live according to the views of governors, and by their decision alone would conclude as to what was good or bad, true or false, just or unjust. But this is impossible, as has been already shown (Chap. XVII.), inasmuch as no man can yield his mind and understanding absolutely to another; for no one can transfer, nor can he be forced to transfer, to another his natural right or faculty of reasoning freely, and of judging in certain cases. Hence it is that that authority which is exerted over the mind is characterized as tyrannical; and that the ruler oppresses his subjects, and seems to usurp their rights, who attempts to prescribe what shall be received as true or rejected as false, and what ideas shall arouse feelings of devotion towards God in the mind; for these are the natural and inalienable rights of all. I confess, indeed, that the judgment may be preoccupied in so many and such incredible ways, that although it cannot be said to be directly under the authority of another, still it shall depend so entirely on his will as almost to appear to belong to him. But, with all that craft has yet been able to accomplish in this direction, things have never come to such a pass that men have not felt themselves their own masters in respect of judgment and emotion, and that there was not even as great diversity of opinions as of tastes in the world. Moses himself, who secured the confidence of his nation in so remarkable a manner, and by no craft or guile, but by the divine power that was in him, although believed to be more than mortal and to speak and to act under the inspiration of Deity, nevertheless could not always escape the suspicious and sinister interpretations of the multitude. Much less could the rulers who came after Moses avoid suspicion; and if it could in any way or under any circumstances be conceived possible that rulers should escape suspicion, it were certainly in a monarchy; in a democracy it is clearly impossible, the reason for which I presume must be obvious to all.
Although, then, the ruling powers are held to have a right to everything, and to be the interpreters of law and religion, this can never prevent men from having their own views on things in general, and from being influenced by this or that opinion or emotion. It is true, indeed, that governments may rightfully hold all who do not judge or feel with them as enemies; but at present we are not discussing rights, we are speaking of what is useful only; for I allow that princes often rule of right most violently, and send citizens to death for very trifling causes; but all will deny that such things can be done whilst any respect is had to sound reason. Inasmuch, indeed, as such things cannot be done without great peril to the state, we may also deny that rulers have any right to do such deeds, and, consequently, any absolute right whatever; for we have shown that the rights of ruling powers are determined by their capacity to enforce obedience.
If, therefore, no one can give up his title to judge and to think as he lists, but every one by a supreme law of nature is master of his own thoughts, it follows that an attempt can never be made without the most disastrous consequences to the commonwealth, to make all men, though possessed by nature of the most various and even opposite sentiments, to utter no word, save upon the prescription of their governors; for not even the most cautious and cultivated, to say nothing of the many, will at all times be able to hold their tongue. It is, indeed, one of the commonest weaknesses of men that even where silence is most necessary they communicate their views and opinions to others. That regimen were therefore of the most stringent description where all liberty of speech and public discussion are denied; as that, on the contrary, were moderate where such freedom is conceded to all. Nevertheless, as it is impossible to deny that the majesty of authority may be assailed by words as well as deeds, and liberty of speech cannot be altogether denied to subjects, it would be most objectionable were such liberty granted without any restriction. It therefore becomes necessary that we should inquire in how far liberty of speech can and ought to be conceded, consistently with the peace of the commonwealth and the rights of rulers; and I have already said in the beginning of my sixteenth chapter that this inquiry formed a principal feature in my undertaking.
From the foundations of the commonwealth, as already explained, it follows most obviously that its purpose is not dominion, nor the coercion of men by fear, nor that they should act at the arbitrary bidding of others; on the contrary, it is that every one may be free from fear, that he may live securely, in so far as this is possible, that is to say, that he may possess in the best sense his natural right to existence, and to the fruits of his industry. It is not, I say, the end of the state from rational beings to make men brute beasts or automatons; on the contrary, its end is that mind and body may unimpeded perform their functions, that every one may enjoy the free use of his reason, and that hatred, anger, deceit, and strife should cease from among its members. The end and aim of the state, in fact, is Liberty. To establish a policied state or commonwealth, however, we have seen that this one condition was indispensable, viz. that the right and authority to pass laws should belong to all its denizens in common, to a limited number of these, or to one of them only. For since the opinions of free men are sufficiently various, and each commonly enough thinks that he alone knows best, as it is impossible that all should think alike on any subject and speak as it were with one mouth, it would be impossible for them to live together in peace, unless each gave up the right of action according to the decision of his individual mind. The right of action on his own judgment then ceases, but the right of action only, not the right of reasoning and judging. The rights of the government having perforce to be respected, however, no one may do aught in the way of action against its decrees; but every one may think and judge, and consequently also declare his views, provided he but express himself simply and conformably to reason, without passion, spite, or insinuation, nor go cunningly about to make his own especial views prevail against the general opinion. If any one, for example, can show that a certain law is repugnant to good sense, and declares that it ought therefore to be abrogated, and at the same time submits his views to the government (whose exclusive privilege it is to make and to abrogate laws), and meantime does nothing in contravention of the law in question, that man, I say, deserves well of the republic, and is a good citizen; but otherwise, if his purpose were to proclaim the magistracy guilty of injustice, and to render the government odious to the people, or were he seditiously to seek the abrogation of a law against the will of the ruling power, such a one is to be accounted a disturber of the public peace and a rebel. We see, then, in what way any one with every regard to the right and authority of the government, in other words, to the peace of the commonwealth, may speak and make known his views; viz. if he leaves the determination touching things to be done in the hands of the ruling powers, and takes no step himself against their decrees, although he may even have to act in opposition to what he believes to be right, and to do what he sees clearly ought not to be done. So much, however, he may do without trenching on propriety; and so much indeed he may occasionally have to submit to if he would prove himself a true subject and peace able citizen. For we have already shown, as justice depends entirely on the decisions, of the higher powers, so no one can be just and pious who does not live in accordance with their commands. That piety, however, is greatest which is exerted in securing the peace and prosperity of the republic, for these could not be regarded were every one to think of living by the rule of his own arbitrary pleasure; and so is it criminal in a subject, on his own mere motion, to do aught against the decree of the supreme power whose subject he is, inasmuch as the ruin of the state must necessarily ensue were every one to allow himself such licence. And what is more, he really does nothing against the dictates of reason who acts in conformity with the decrees of the supreme authority in the state: for reason persuading, he has already ceded to his rulers his right of living agreeably to his own judgment. Now all this can be confirmed by an appeal to experience. In the councils of the greater as well as of the less estates of a realm it seldom happens that any resolution is ever taken by the unanimous consent of the members, yet is everything held to be done by common consent, of those therefore who vote against as well as of those who vote for the resolution. But I return to my subject.
We have seen from the constitution of the state how every one may, within the limits of reason, use his right of private judgment without detriment to the rights of the ruling powers. On the same grounds, viz. the foundations of the state, we may readily determine what opinions are seditious. They are such as in their mere enunciation go to annul the compact whereby each man cedes his right of acting on his own arbitrary views. For example, should any one maintain that the supreme state power did not exist independently and of its own right, that promises were never to be kept, that it behoved every one to live as he listed without regard to others, and the like, which the afore-mentioned contract directly repudiates, that man is a seditious person, not so much on account of his views and opinions as on account of the actions which such views and opinions involve, viz. because in the fact that he thinks as he does, he either expressly or tacitly breaks faith with the supreme authority. It is for this reason that other mental states which do not involve any breach of the political contract, such as anger, revenge, &c, are not seditious. Such passions, indeed, only come into play in corrupt states, where reason is perverted, and where superstition and ambition have acquired such an ascendency that they have more influence among the people than the government. I would not, however, deny that there are yet other opinions which, whilst they seem merely to regard the true or the false, are nevertheless propounded and spread abroad with an evil intention. But these have already been discussed in Chapter XV., where we have shown that reason nevertheless remains free. And, again, if we consider that faith to the state, like faith to God, can be known from works only — from neighbourly charity, &c. — we shall not have any reason to doubt but that the best republic concedes the same rights to philosophy, as we have shown conceded to the faith of its members. I confess, indeed, that several inconveniences arise from such liberty; but what was ever so wisely ordered that no inconvenience could thence ensue? He who would fix and determine everything by law would inflame rather than correct the vices of the world. What cannot be prevented must be endured, although thereby evil often accrues. For how many are the ills that follow from luxury, envy, avarice, drunkenness, and the like? but these, though vices, are suffered, because they cannot be prevented by legal enactments. But freedom of opinion, which is a positive virtue, and which cannot be controlled, ought much rather to be encouraged. And when we see that no inconvenience can arise from such freedom as will not immediately be met by the authority of the magistrate (as I shall soon show), and that it is essentially necessary to progress in the arts and sciences, which are only successfully cultivated where the mind is free and unfettered, I think enough has been said to show the paramount importance of freedom of thought and freedom of opinion in every well-ordered commonwealth.
But say that this freedom could be so held under, and men so oppressed that they dared not even to whisper anything but what was permitted or prescribed by rulers, still things could never be brought to such a pass but that subjects would have their own thoughts; and then it would necessarily follow that men would daily think otherwise, and speak otherwise than as they said they thought, whereby faith in the commonwealth, which is so indispensable, would be destroyed, and hateful perfidy and sycophancy encouraged; whence cunning and subterfuge, and corruption of all the amiable and social affections. But far from its being possible that men should ever be brought only to speak within certain prescribed limits, it has still happened that the more anxiously freedom of speech has been denied the more resolutely have mankind striven against the restraint, — not flatterers and sycophants indeed, and the other impotent spirits of the world, the chief seasoning in whose lives it is to dwell in the shadow of the great, to possess titles and distinctions, to have money in their purse, and a full belly, but those whom a liberal education and integrity of life have made more free. Now men in general are so constituted that they bear nothing more impatiently than to see opinions which they hold for true regarded as crimes, and all that moves them to piety towards God and charity towards man accounted as wickedness; whence it comes that laws are detested, and whatever can be adventured against authority is held to be not base and reprehensible, but brave and praiseworthy, a state on the back of which soon follow sedition, and riot, and revolution. Human nature being so constituted, then, it follows that laws against opinion bear not upon the worthless but the virtuous, and seem contrived not to restrain the evil-disposed, but rather to irritate the honest and estimable. Such laws therefore cannot be defended or enforced without great peril to the general peace. And then they are absolutely useless; for they who think the opinions sound which are condemned by the law will not be able to obey it; and they, on the contrary, who reject these opinions as fake look on the laws which condemn them as privileges, and make so much of them that the government of the country, even though they wished at a later period to rescind them, find themselves unable to do so. To these considerations must be added those which, in Chapter XVIII. § 2, we have derived from the Jewish history. Lastly, schisms in the church, and controversies between its doctors, are mostly referrible to this source, schisms which each party in turn that was uppermost would have had put down by legal enactment; and men have never contended with such acrimony, never yielded to such fell passion, and perpetrated such cold-blooded deeds of cruelty, as when they have succeeded in making governments their partisans in matters of faith and doctrine, and, with the approval of the insensate multitude, have triumphed over their opponents. This is amply shown by reiterated experience, and reason also declares that it must be so. Laws which decree what every one must believe, and forbid utterance against this or that opinion, have too often been enacted to confirm or enlarge the power of those who dared not suffer free inquiry to be made, and have by a perversion of authority turned the superstition of the mob into violence against opponents. But surely it would be more reasonable to take measures to restrain the rage and fury of the multitude, than to make laws which can only be broken by those who love virtue and the arts and sciences, and which bring the commonwealth into such straits as intelligent persons cannot endure. For what greater evil can be conceived to befall a state than that honourable men, men of the most virtuous lives, because they think peculiarly on certain matters of speculation, and know not how to dissemble, should be driven into exile if they would escape worse treatment, — the dungeon, or perchance the stake! What, I say, can be more execrable than that men, for no crime or wickedness, but because they are of liberal mind, .should be regarded as criminals, and that the scaffold, the terror of the evil-doer, should be made the stage for the display of fortitude and resignation on the part of suffering virtue, to the infinite scandal of all law and authority! Such men know themselves sincere, have no fear of death like felons, and will suffer any extremity of punishment rather than debase themselves by disguising or gainsaying their opinions; their minds are never racked by remorse for any baseness or wickedness done; on the contrary, they still feel themselves honest men, nor do they think it grief to die for a good and glorious cause. And what is the example given in the death of such men, whose cause the careless and unscrupulous ignore, the despot hates, and the good and great admire? None that the truly noble will not seek to emulate and commend.
That trust and confidence should prevail then, and not dissimulation and compliance, and that the supreme power may rule in the most beneficial manner for all, nor ever feel compelled to yield to seditious clamour, liberty of opinion must of necessity be conceded, and men so governed that though they notoriously think differently from one another, they may still live, together in peace and amity. Nor can it be doubted that such a manner of governing is the best, inasmuch as it is most in accordance with the nature of man. In a democracy (which approaches nearest to the natural state) we have shown that all engage to act under a common arrangement, though not to reason or to judge on any common ground; and it is because all men cannot think alike that they have agreed to abide by the decision of a majority of voices, that what the majority resolves on should have the force of law for all, the minority meanwhile reserving to themselves the right at some future time to propose the repeal of the law. Where men have less liberty conceded them, there the natural state is more departed from, and there Consequently must the government be more stringent. Now I could quote many examples to show that no inconvenience is likely to arise from this liberty which will not be met and provided for by the authority of the government, and that men, though of opposite opinions, may live at peace with one another. I shall select the city of Amsterdam as sufficient for my purpose, where the fruits of this liberty of thought and opinion are seen in its wonderful increase, and testified to by the admiration of every people. In this most flourishing republic and noble city, men of every nation, and creed, and sect live together in the utmost harmony, and, in their transactions with one another, the only questions asked are whether the parties be rich or poor, and whether they are wont to act with good faith or not; there is never a question of religion or creed, for in presence of the judge these have no part in the proceedings, and neither justify nor condemn a man; and here there is no sect, however odious and despised, whose ministers, provided they do injury to none, but give every one his due and live respectably, do not find countenance and protection from the magistrate. In contrast with this, when in former times the religious controversies of the Remonstrants and Counter-remonstrants were taken up by the politicians and nobility of the provinces, the issue after much discord was a schism, and it was then discovered from many instances that laws made in behalf of religion, and with a view to abate controversy, rather aggravated than appeased the strife, and became the cause of licence and misdeeds, rather than of order and good conduct. Moreover, schism does not always arise from the anxious study of truth — the wellspring of humanity and gentleness — but often from the lust of dominion. And from this it is as clear as the sun at noonday that they are rather to be regarded as schismatics who condemn the writings of opponents, and unfairly instigate the unlettered vulgar against their authors, than the writers themselves, who mostly address the learned only, and make no appeal save to reason and calm reflection. They therefore are the true disturbers of the state who in a free commonwealth refuse that liberty of opinion which cannot be repressed.
In the preceding pages it has, I hope, been shown,
1. That it is impossible to take from men the liberty of saying what they think.
2. That this liberty may be conceded to every one, the rights and privileges of the supreme power remaining unaffected, and used by every one, the same supreme power being duly respected, if care be only taken to run into no licence, to force nothing in the shape of law upon the state, and to do nought against acknowledged laws.
3. That every one may enjoy this liberty, the peace of the republic being held sacred, and that no inconvenience can arise from it, which cannot easily be met and obviated.
4. That this same liberty may be enjoyed by every one with all respect to piety and religion.
5. That laws made in regard to speculative matters are useless.
6. That liberty of thought and speech is not only consistent with the peace of the state, with the authority of its government, and the maintenance of its religious institutions, but must even be conceded for the safety and preservation of these. For wherever an attempt is made to take this liberty away, and the opinions of disputants, not their minds, which alone can sin, are summoned to judgment, there examples are sure to be made of the best and noblest; which are then regarded as martyrdoms, and irritate the nation and move them to pity, if not to revenge, rather than to fear. Peaceful arts and mutual trust thenceforth disappear, flatterers and hypocrites find encouragement, and dogmatism, because concessions have been made to it, and rulers have been arrayed as partizans, by and by ventures to arrogate authority to itself, and does not blush to boast that its professors are the elect of God and the immediate interpreters of his divine decree’s, whilst the supreme civil power, as merely human, should be held bound to yield to that which is divine; in other words, to them and their decisions — all which things every one knows are altogether incompatible with the peace and prosperity of a well-ordered state.
Wherefore, in this place and again, as already in Chapter XVIII., we conclude that there is nothing safer for the common weal than that piety and religion should be wholly comprehended in the practice of charity and justice, and that the authority of the ruling power in the state, both as regards sacred and lay affairs, should be restricted to actions; for the rest, that liberty of thinking as they list, and of saying what they think, should be conceded to all without restriction.
And now I have completed what I had proposed to myself in this Treatise. I have only to add that I have set down nothing which I have not most carefully considered, and submitted to the chief authorities of my native country; but if aught that I have said contravenes the law, or seems opposed to the common good, I would have it impugned and set right, knowing, as full well I do, that I am a man and liable to err; but I have taken great, pains not to err; and especially have I been anxious that all I have written should be found in keeping with the laws of my country, with piety, and good manners.
- There can be little doubt but Spinoza, whilst speaking generally in this fine passage, has the case of the advocate Olden Barneveldt particularly in his eye, Barneveldt having been judicially murdered in 1632, for his patriotic independence, by Maurice, Prince of Orange. — Ed.