Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Spinoza's Vision of Freedom

In a recent, op-ed article in The New York Times, Steven Nadler, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, writes about the enduring importance of  Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch thinker. 

"He was an eloquent proponent of a secular, democratic society, and was the strongest advocate for freedom and tolerance in the early modern period. The ultimate goal of his “Theological-Political Treatise” — published anonymously to great alarm in 1670, when it was called by one of its many critics “a book forged in hell by the devil himself”— is enshrined both in the book’s subtitle and in the argument of its final chapter: to show that the “freedom of philosophizing” not only can be granted “without detriment to public peace, to piety, and to the right of the sovereign, but also that it must be granted if these are to be preserved.”

Nadler then continues about Spinoza's views on freedom of expression:

"Spinoza has a number of compelling arguments for the freedom of expression. One is based both on the natural right (.....) of citizens to speak as they desire, as well as on the apparent fact that (.....) it would be self-defeating for a government to try to restrain that freedom.................... Spinoza also argues for freedom of expression on utilitarian grounds — that it is necessary for the discovery of truth, economic progress and the growth of creativity."

Then Nadler connects those views to the legal controversy of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in 2010 that criminalized certain kinds of expression:

"(It) upheld a federal law which makes it a crime to provide support for a foreign group designated by the State Department as a “terrorist organization,” even if the “help” one provides involves only peaceful and legal advice, including speech encouraging that organization to adopt nonviolent means for resolving conflicts and educating it in the means to do so"

Nadler ends by underscoring the value of Spinoza's theories that "unfettered freedom of expression  is in the state's own best interest." A lesson which should be taken to heart not just in the U.S., but anywhere else where Baruch Spinoza's views on freedom of expression have not reached government's officials

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