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Spinoza’s arguments for intellectual freedom Lange, Michael


In this essay I shall give a critical account of Spinoza's arguments for intellectual freedom as they occur in chapter twenty of the TRACTATUS THEOLOGICO-POLITICUS. His arguments exhibit certain ambiguities issuing from his appeal to the rational and prudent on the one hand and to several practical implications following from presumed facts about human nature on the other. These ambiguities will be discussed. This discussion will lead to Spinoza's doctrine of natural right upon which he constructs his political philosophy. One: THE HISTORICAL SETTING Here I shall give a brief outline of the political climate of Spinoza's time. My purpose is to show that Spinoza's ideas were at once advanced for his age while intended at the same time to solve some of the pressing problems he observed. Not until after his death were the civil liberties Spinoza considered important adopted as basic premises of government. Two: SPINOZAfS NOTION OF INALIENABLE NATURAL RIGHT AND HIS DOCTRINE OF NATURAL RIGHT This section is concerned with the question of whether Spinoza's idea ©f an inalienable natural right conforms with his general doctrine of natural right. I shall argue that it does not and that it probably has a more solid foundation in Spinoza's ethical rather than in his political theory. Three: SUPPRESSION IS LITERALLY INEFFECTIVE In this section I present and discuss Spinoza's proposition that suppression of thought and speech is literally ineffective because it is impossible to deprive men of the freedom to say what they think. I shall base my argument against Spinoza on the premise that there is nothing inherent in human nature which leads us to conclude that suppression is ineffective. I shall also try to Illustrate that his notion of an inalienable natural right to freedom of thought may be a viable political tool in the creation of a political and moral climate within a body politic encouraging the general acceptance ©f freedom of thought on principle. Finally I shall argue that Spinoza has to move away from considerations of human nature and deal with the rational and prudent when proposing that certain speech-acts may rightfully be restrained. Four: SUPPRESSION HAS UNDESIRABLE EFFECTS Here Spinoza describes some of the ill effects of suppression. These effects, he argues, will be felt by the oppressed as well as by the government. He says that suppression is a two-sided evil. On the one hand the suppressed will cause trouble for the government, on the other, those who enjoy the advantages, such as they are, of a suppressive government will become involved in internal power struggles and these in turn may lead to national unrest. Thus Spinoza concludes that the government cannot secure any advantage by resorting to suppression. It follows that only two factors may cause a government to resort to suppression as a means of maintaining control; one, ignorance of human nature and two, an inherent weakness in the government rendering it unable to confront rationally a powerful lobby of dissenters. Five: LEGITIMATE RESTAINTS OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH Recognizing that some speech-acts may reasonably be considered detrimental to the state, Spinoza feels that freedom of speech cannot be granted fully. He discusses which speech-acts and beliefs he considers to be detrimental to the state and how to deal with them. I shall argue that Spinoza is too vague on this subject and that in the light of his discussion here and the power-right relation of the sovereign, it is not always possible for him to determine when a speech-act is detrimental to society and when it is not. I shall argue that, consequently, his division between social and antisocial is not made sufficiently clear but remains rather a matter of contention.

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