Spinoza's Treatise on Freedom, and the Temptation of Order

Painting of Spinoza.
Written by: 
September 14, 2023

[ Fritz Guy In Memoriam (1930-2023) ]

Dutch-Jewish philosopher Benedict de Spinoza's “Theologico-Political Treatise” is one of the most important texts in the formation of European freedom culture, not only from the political but also the religious point of view. Published in 1670, it remains a paradigm, even for the Adventist church. No secular or religious institution is ever above the difficult balance between freedom and identity, self-determination and belonging, and creativity and loyalty. As Isaiah Berlin describes and admonishes in his "Four Essays on Liberty,"[1] we are all called to articulate and defend a healthy tension between being "free of" and being "free for." Freedom involves liberation from physical or ideological shackles that impede our flourishing. But freedom also demands to be safeguarded from dispersion and destruction. Spinoza's life experience, as well as his experience as an author, are instructive in this regard.

The first half of the 17th century was deeply marked by the threat of losing freedom through the long, bloody, Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Ironically, this war was fought in the name of freedom—a partial and unilateral freedom exclusive to one's core group. However, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia attempted to state that freedom is only truly defensible if it is for everyone, not only for those who belong to a particular group or tribe. True freedom is threatened not only by bullying, despotism, and arbitrariness but paradoxically also by one-sided, excessively militant, and myopic forms of freedom. This is what Spinoza had in mind because he recognized the intolerant, warlike spirit that was then still widespread in Europe. It could not be stopped merely by a formal armistice like the Peace of Westphalia. There was a need for a cultural battle supporting this broad understanding of freedom. In fact, in the second half of the 17th century, this struggle to overcome intolerance would find three major interpreters of this freedom in Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), Benedict de Spinoza (“Theologico-Political Treatise,” 1670), and John Locke (“Second Treatise of Government,” 1690).

Spinoza is important for two reasons with respect to this new concept of universal freedom.

First, because he reminds us that the freedom guaranteed by contract both between citizens and between citizens and sovereigns cannot be sacrificed in the name of any chosen sovereign’s power. This was still acceptable in Hobbes’ writing, but Spinoza declares that the state itself is to be judged not only for providing security but also for the freedom it guarantees to its citizens. The state, instead of being a guarantor of freedom, could well turn into a denier of that freedom if its prerogatives are not limited.

State law limits individual power without nullifying natural law. In fact, the only difference between a state of nature and the human-cooperative state is that, in the latter, there is a guarantee of security, originating in the subjects’ choice of subordination to the common law. But this does not imply an absence of individual faculty of judgment. State action is limited by the citizen’s reasoned submission to the law. Indeed, it must be emphasized that—unlike Thomas Hobbes' absolutism—Spinoza conceives of the state as, first and foremost, guaranteeing the freedom of citizens, with particular attention to freedom of expression and criticism. Consequently, a tyrannical state would have less chance of survival than one that pursues these principles of utility. Of the twenty chapters in the "Theologico-Political Treatise," the last five consider the role of the state in safeguarding the rights of individual citizens. Thus, Spinoza elaborates a political theory different from Hobbes that is amplified in Locke's writings.

Second, because this political freedom would have short legs if it was not also accompanied by religious freedom—not just in the sense of being free to join a church, but in being free from churches and in churches. Freedom cannot be present only in the state and its institutions. It must also be present in its churches, articulated especially in the freedom to interpret the foundational texts. Spinoza is, in many ways, the forerunner of biblical criticism. Churches—unfortunately, of all denominations—tend to confiscate meanings and defend partial readings of the Bible, presenting them as comprehensive and final. An incorrect reading of the Bible need not necessarily be a false reading. It may be that the reading is only one-sided and ends up anomalous and distorted. The only way, then, to try and read the Bible well is to make our readings sober, humble, and partial. This is what Spinoza tries to do.

In his text, Spinoza lists out a systematic critique of both Judaism and all organized religion. His writing indicates his belief that true criticism cannot be limited to only considering the consistency of the faithful or other peripheral issues. Instead, one must look critically at the foundational postulates of a religion. Consequently, he examines the Bible as the foundational text of Judaism and Christianity. Spinoza dedicates the first ten chapters of his book to analyzing the problems posed by the interpretation of the Old Testament. In the next five chapters, he considers interpretive issues in the New Testament. Spinoza argues that theology and philosophy must be kept separate, particularly in the reading of scripture. While the purpose of theology is obedience, philosophy aims to understand rational truth. Scripture does not teach philosophy and therefore cannot be adapted to it without having its meaning distorted. Conversely, if reason were subservient to scripture, then the prejudices of an ancient people would warp its understanding.

Spinoza reasons that supposedly supernatural events, like prophecies and miracles, actually have natural explanations. He argues that God acts exclusively according to the laws of nature and rejects the idea that God acts for a particular purpose or telos. For Spinoza, those who believe that God acts for a purpose are delusional and project their hopes and fears onto the workings of nature. He entirely rejects the idea that Moses composed the first five books of the Bible and sets out to prove that Scripture gave no authority to the manipulation of the clergy who sought to stifle dissent through use of force. He claims that the Bible is in some parts imperfect, corrupt, erroneous, and inconsistent with itself and argues that we possess only fragments of it. Unsurprisingly, this caused a great storm at the time.

Spinoza's criticisms of religion are heavy. One can certainly disagree with many of his conclusions, which essentially subordinate scripture to reason. However, it is easy to agree with his identification of the problem of freedom within religion, as well as the problematic ambivalence of religion itself. Indeed, many have gradually adopted his ideas, agreeing that the true "word of God”—or true religion—cannot be limited to the framework of a written, sacred text.

But the paradox between freedom and order does not disappear. It can also be traced in Spinoza himself. Spinoza's 17th century life is, according to Stephen Toulmin[2], one that also marked the victory of order and structure over freedom and creativity. Order, per Spinoza, shifted from the church and scripture to ethics and the cosmos. This shift in Spinoza’s writing is visible in his most famous book, Ethics, published after his death in 1677. This book is great for at least two reasons. First, it tried to overcome the Cartesian dualism that, from the 1600s onward, would condition both medicine and culture. Second, it put the concrete issue of life at the center of philosophical debate. One of the central categories in this perspective was the concept of conatus.

In Spinozian ethics, all human behavior derives from an effort toward self-preservation—or conatus—which constitutes its essence. When referring to the mind, it is called Will and when referring to the body, it is called Appetite (which can be conscious or unconscious). When Appetite is conscious it becomes Cupidity, from which follows Joy. This occurs in the case of Affection, caused by passage from a lesser to a greater perfection, and Sadness, connected instead with the passage from a higher to a lower perfection. Passions, or secondary effects, arise from these primary affections. And from this, Good and Evil also move. These are identified by Spinoza as that which benefits, and that which does not benefit, the conatus of self-preservation.

Self-preservation, the common behavioral law in all living beings, is accomplished by the pursuit of individual usefulnessThus, it is not possible to escape natural determinism, even with regard to personal fulfillment. Nevertheless, Spinoza manages to reconcile freedom and determinism. By virtue of reason, humans can maneuver the effort of self-preservation with clear ideas and conscious acts. And, given that human action is always directed toward what is useful, the choice then is whether to act—instinctively or rationally—according to a conscious effort of self-preservation. In short, Spinozian freedom is placed in a deterministic context.

Adventism—like Europe in the 1600s and the world today—struggles with and oscillates between freedom and dirigisme, as well as regulation and deregulation. No one would deny that Adventism is a religion of freedom. Just think of chapter XVI in The Great Controversy, where Ellen White praises the historical greatness of Roger Williams in defending freedom of conscience, recognizing it as central to any religious or secular process. Or, consider the church’s Department of Religious Liberty, which creates structural and recurring initiatives in favor of freedom around the world.

But, too often, this freedom only favors Adventism and is not matched by the ability to be an individual—or to be an individual in an alternative way without incurring some kind of stigmatization. As in Spinoza’s life or 17th-century Europe, our defense of freedom is unfortunately ambivalent and sometimes ambiguous. Spinoza has the historical merit of reminding us that, without full freedom, any human initiative is destined to fail.

Notes and References:

[1] Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)

[2] Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis. The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Title image by Wikimedia Commons.

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