Spinoza on Politics and Religion (Part One) by Partially Examined Life


On Benedict de Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), ch. 12-20 and the Tractatus Politicus (1677).

What’s the relationship between ethics and political power? Given that religious factions tend to create strife, what’s the optimal role of the government in mitigating that damage? Is theocracy in any way a good idea?

In ep. 165 we outlined Spinoza’s project in the book and looked closely at how he thinks the funny bits about miracles and prophets should be interpreted. Here we focus on the political upshot: Spinoza remains convinced that religion is needed for morality and civic-mindedness, but wants to avoid religious wars, persecution, and factionalism. What’s essential and inarguable about the Bible (and presumably any other religious text), he thinks, is its command to “love thy neighbor,” and this, to Spinoza, is the full essence of religion, and is what should be advocated and reinforced by the state. On all the other points of belief (Was Jesus resurrected? Should we eat pork?), the state should allow people to believe what they want to and say what they want to.

Does this “essence of religion” really just boil down to acting charitably, which Spinoza sometimes says, meaning it’s altogether irrelevant what you believe or claim to believe? To answer this, we have to get at what he means by acting morally. In The Ethics (our ep. 25, which incidentally you can get with a $1 pledge on http://ift.tt/2s73fZZ), we saw that Spinoza does have a very Aristotelian notion (see ep. 147) of the relation between reason and virtue: To the extent that we are reasonable, we understand what our true good as humans is, which is to be masters of our passions, contemplative and social, and in harmony with our fellows. However, most people aren’t led by reason, and so they need religion to tell them to be moral, and the state to enforce that morality.

The PEL foursome then discusses Spinoza’s famed freedom of speech. Yes, he was ahead of his time and highly influential an allowing for such a thing, but he believed that this freedom has limits. Of course, so do we, but his limits are not the same as ours; he’s okay with disagreeing with the government’s decisions, and in fact wants open debate to result in better government, but when criticism gets strong enough that it’s trying to undermine the government’s legitimacy, then that’s too far. So it would be OK for us to civilly disagree with Trump and advocate for him to lose the next election, but not to repeatedly point out his lying and incompetence in the attempt to somehow get him out of office soon before he gets us nuked or something. A lot of late-night comedians would still be jailed under Spinoza’s version of free speech.
Spinoza picture by Corey Mohler.