The chairperson of the Dutch parliament has some books standing on her desk, an old Wikipedia article informed me. Three books that symbolize – well, something. An importance, a specific guidance, a reminder of the standards we set ourselves? The million-dollar-question is of course: which books are these?
- The Bible – No surprise there, right, moral guidance is still often considered to be a religious matter, and the Bible is the book that the majority of Dutch people turn to.
- The Qur’an – Probably a bit more surprising, especially for some extremist groups that think that Islam is the source of all evil.
- Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus – Wait, which book? Right, a book written by an excommunicated Jew that is perhaps the most important Dutch, but also a largely unknown philosopher.
The presence of the Qur’an was contested, in 2014, and all books seem now to have disappeared to make place for some technical reason. But the fact that symbolism has lost, and pragmatism has won, doesn’t change the basic interesting fact that Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus still has an important role to play in our political present.
The freedom to philosophise…
In his motto, the statement on the front page of the book, Spinoza writes (translation Gebhardt, 1925):
Tractatus Theologico-Politicus contains a number of dissertations wherein it is shown that freedom to philosophise 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 the freedom.
It is not surprising that under the statue of Spinoza in Amsterdam, it is the word for ‘freedom’ that stands out (‘vrijheid’ in Dutch). But this is not a simple freedom, not simply a right. Freedom is much more a duty than a right. This has to do with the role freedom plays in the development of reason. Freedom leads to the responsibility to use reason. It is a freedom from oppressive powers in order to be able to follow that which is authentically one’s self – a self that is defined through being perfect if only it is not led astray. The emotions can take control and interfere with the working of reason, whereas true passion can show us what is right. For if the reasonable man is passionate about something, we know his objective is right because he works towards obtaining it (instead of thinking that we want something because it is right!) Reason is only possible if we are not gripped by superstition, by fear or by a religion that places dogma at its center.
Superstition & today
Spinoza’s preface is about 8,5 pages long, but if only everyone in religious classes would have to read these, things might be different. In his preface Spinoza makes a strong case for the link between the two subjects that are art of the title and which he addresses in this book: theology and politics. Both can mistakenly use fear and superstition in order to gain power. The desire for power has entered and thereby corrupted both religion and politics.
“I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith. Matters have long since come to such a pass, that one can only pronounce a man Christian, Turk, Jew, or Heathen, by his general appearance and attire, by his frequenting this or that place of worship, or employing the phraseology of a particular sect as for manner of life, it is in all eases the same. Inquiry into the cause of this anomaly leads me unhesitatingly to ascribe it to the fact, that the minis tries of the Church are regarded by the masses merely as dignities, her offices as posts of emolument in short, popular religion may be summed up as respect for ecclesiastics. The spread of this misconception inflamed every worthless fellow with an intense desire to enter holy orders, and thus the love of diffusing God’s religion degenerated into sordid avarice and ambition. Every church became a theatre, where orators, instead of church teachers, harangued, caring not to instruct the people, but striving to attract admiration, to bring opponents to public scorn, and to preach only novelties and paradoxes, such as would tickle the ears of their congregation.” ~ Spinoza
Superstition is what keeps us from using reason, is what we come to through fear. The examples of fear that Spinoza uses are perhaps not very contemporary, but the mechanism behind this is still very much alive. Our present ‘fear of terrorism’, the rising xenophobia and the fear of the empowered woman – all instances that are used by politicians, religion and science to focus our attention in a specific direction. And fear is a powerful mechanism, it makes us listen to people who acknowledge this fear as something real, and who give us slogans to counter our fear, easy fixes that neglect the need for comprehensive reason.
It is fear that limits our freedom. And I’m looking forward to reading more by Spinoza to see how he places our moral and rational being at the center of what we need to counteract these movements. A welcome approach, especially in this crazy election in the United States of America, where fear is used and misused on both sides.
Photo Credit Spinoza statue in Amsterdam: John Kannenberg Flickr via Compfight cc. Photo Credit: Clemcal Flickr via Compfight cc.