Some reflections on the Freedom of Expression. Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treaty

A few years ago, I read with interest the Theological Political Treatise of Benito/Baruch Espinosa. I will write Espinosa instead of the Latinised version Spinoza. He was a Jew of Spanish origin whose family was forced to leave Spain, then Portugal in the 15th and 16th Centuries, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. His family resettled in Amsterdam.


Espinosa indicates in the introduction of the Treatise that its purpose is to justify freedom of opinion, what we call today the freedom of expression. I read in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

The ostensive aim of the Theological-Political Treatise (…) is to show that the freedom to philosophize can not only be granted without injury to piety and the peace of the Commonwealth, but that the peace of the Commonwealth and Piety are endangered by the suppression of this freedom». But Spinoza’s ultimate intention is reveal the truth about Scripture and religion, and thereby to undercut the political power exercised in modern [17th Century] states by religious authorities.

It may be a slightly progressive interpretation, but accurate all in all: most of the book is dedicated to a philological study of the Scriptures, specially the Old Testament.

The more I progressed reading the book, the more I was sceptical that Espinosa could justify this right, because it obviously brings division to a society, weakening its endurance against the foreign enemies and therefore its preservation which is the main aim of a political society. He manages to do it somehow, even if in his unfinished Political Treatise he is not so enthusiastic -say liberal- about this right.

Of course, it is not possible from a materialistic point of view -which is also Espinosa’s– to propose that a finite being could have absolute rights. Notwithstanding how this is usually disguised in political philosophy, the absolute natural rights of the individual can only be founded as an endowment by God. From Espinosa’s materialist point of view, it is only possible to justify this right showing that the consequences of removing it are worst than the consequences of granting it. I have to say that I am always suspicious of iusnaturalistic reasoning. I cannot conceive a rational, secular, civil discussion on policies when the wildcard of individual absolute rights is part of the game.

Fourteen out of the twenty chapters of the Treatise are dedicated to examine the Bible. Being a Pantheist -we may also simply say an atheist-, Espinosa refutes in his Theological Political Treatise many of the claims of the Jewish scriptures (chapters I to X). Chapter XI is dedicated to the New Testament, but not the Gospels. Living in a Christian society, Espinosa, very prudently, prefers to deal mostly with the Apostles and only indirectly with the message of Christ. Of course, the exercise of freedom of expression is NOT an absolute right, it should be subject to the considerations of political prudence, the virtue that should guide our praxis, any praxis. A war -or a Fitna- should only be started when we are certain enough to win it.

Chapters XII and XIII conclude the analysis of the Scriptures. Their titles are meaningful and summarise their content. Chapter XII, “Of the true Original of the Divine Law, and wherefore Scripture is called Sacred, and the Word of God. How that, in so far as it contains the Word of God, it has come down to us uncorrupted”. This chapter has the following paragraph:

We can thus easily see how God can be said to be the Author of the Bible: it is because of the true religion therein contained, and not because He wished to communicate to men a certain number of books. We can also learn from hence the reason for the division into {Christian and Hebrew Bibles}. It was made because the prophets who preached religion before Christ, preached it as a national law in virtue of the covenant entered into under Moses; while the Apostles who came after Christ, preached it to all men as a universal religion solely in virtue of Christ’s Passion: the cause for the division is not that the two parts are different in doctrine, nor that they were written as originals of the covenant, nor, lastly, that the catholic religion (which is in entire harmony with our nature) was new except in relation to those who had not known it: «it was in the world,» as John the Evangelist says, «and the world knew it not.»

That is, when all theological and ceremonial aspects are removed, Christianity is Judaism for the gentiles, and both are just moral teachings, or, better said, are doctrines that teach respect for the civil authority and charity towards the fellow citizens. This is the message in Chapter XIII. On the basis of this, Espinosa can separate Faith and Reason, Theology and Philosophy, Church and State (Chapters XIV and XV): be law-abiding and charitable and then practice any religious ceremonies you prefer.

After reducing religion to internalised justice enforcement (Napoleon is quoted to have said that a priest could spare him ten police agents) and charity, and after having separated Church and State, Espinosa starts the political part of the Theological-Political Treatise, which concludes in Chapter XX, with tittle “That in a Free State every man may Think what he Likes, and Say what he Thinks”.

The essence of Espinosa’s reasoning is as follows: The mind is not subject to State authority. Our thoughts are indeed of our own; Descartes said that they are our only absolute property. We may be disowned of our bodies as slaves, but our thoughts will still be of our own (even if we are forced to conceal them). Therefore, opinion should neither be subject to State authority.

I do not think that this statement follows logically from the first. In any case, this is not important, because the arguments by Espinosa are consequentialist, and do not follow the logic of a scholastic speculation. Moreover, he is not speaking about an absolute right, but on the maximum feasible liberty of opinion:

Still we cannot deny that authority may be as much injured by words as by actions; hence, although the freedom we are discussing cannot be entirely denied to subjects, its unlimited concession would be most baneful; we must, therefore, now inquire, how far such freedom can and ought to be conceded without danger to the peace of the state, or the power of the rulers; and this, as I said at the beginning of Chapter XVI, is my principal object.

Following this prudent approach, Espinosa shows that the consequences of suppressing this right are worst than the evil they pretend to prevent. This is the essence of tolerance (which was never a virtue): accepting the evil we cannot suppress:

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 (…) not to mention that such 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.

Espinosa is not making a grandiloquent speech out of the “human right” to freedom of expression; he is just shown that taking into account that out tongue cannot be fully refrained it is better not to punish opinions. He writes:

it is imperative that freedom of judgment should be granted, so that men may live together in harmony, however diverse, or even openly contradictory their opinions may be. We cannot doubt that such is the best system of government and open to the fewest objections, since it is the one most in harmony with human nature.

Fair enough. Let me mention two additional quotations from this chapter:

The city of Amsterdam reaps the fruit of this 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.

It is astonishing that this was written in the 17th Century, when Europe was suffering the last war of religion of its history. It is even more astonishing that Muslim immigration has put an end to this situation in 21st Century. The last victim of civil political strife in the Netherlands had been Jan de Witt in 1672 up until the killing of Theo van Gogh in 2004. Yes, religion wars have returned to Europe brought along by a political doctrine that Espinosa would consider the harshest, literally:

a government would be most harsh which deprived the individual of his freedom of saying and teaching what he thought; and would be moderate if such freedom were granted.

Espinosa was aware of that. I return now to the Preface of his book to finish this article:

… a system which has been brought to great perfection by the Turks [he means putting religion above controversy], for they consider even controversy impious, and so clog men’s minds with dogmatic formulas, that they leave no room for sound reason, not even enough to doubt with.

It is curious that Espinosa does not mention Spain, the country his family had to flee, but the Turks, where many sephardic Jews moved. By the Turks, Espinosa means Islam; the same Islam which is now not only knocking again at the Gates of Vienna, but has already put a foot inside the house.

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