Spinoza was right: Free inquiry means piety and peace



By Richard Mather/Israel News Online 

The political outlook of Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) is much like that of Thomas Hobbes, writes Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo in the Addison County Independent.

“This is not surprising, for he schooled himself in Hobbes’ writings and appropriated most of his ideas from them. Yet on one theme in particular, he far exceeded Hobbes — the topic of free inquiry into the nature of things, or as Spinoza described it, the freedom to philosophize and to publish one’s thoughts and discoveries,” says Nuovo.

Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (published in 1670) makes the claim that this freedom not only does no harm to domestic tranquility and religion, but that the peace and piety of a society depends entirely on it, Nuovo says.

Nuovo points out that Spinoza fastened upon this claim while reading Hobbes. In chapter 12 of his major text Leviathan, Hobbes explains the origin of religion. Hobbes observes that humans are curious creatures and are inquisitive about the causes of things, especially those things that are potentially beneficial or harmful.

From painful experiences we know that these causes often occur without our knowledge, much less our bidding.

“Ours, then, is an anxious and perpetual curiosity, motivated by fear of what may come, by fear of the unknown. In this anxious state of mind we imagine causes, powerful unnatural forces, which we personalize, hoping that by offering them homage we might gain their favor and insure ourselves against misfortune. Thus arise, in the human imagination, the panoply of Gods, demons, invisible spirits, who are taken to be our guardians or destroyers,” writes Nuovo.

Sadly, there are those who exploit our anxieties by inventing magical rites, religious cults and assorted superstitions.

Nuovo continues, “But, Hobbes remarks, there is another kind of human curiosity, which is disinterested and impartial; it is a purely intellectual desire to know and that leads the mind to conclude that there is a first cause of existence that is eternal and infinite, and a supreme power of nature that is omnipotent and inexhaustible.”

This search is impartial and fearless. And it results in the conclusion that there is a single and ultimate power of nature, which is the source of everything, and which we call God.

“This is a purely intellectual notion of God, unaccompanied by neither fear nor hope, but seasoned by pure wonder,” says Nuovo.

Nuovo believes that Spinoza pored over Hobbes’ Leviathan, and did so because he was led there by the central belief of his own monist philosophy, which is that God and Nature (Deus, sive Natura) are one and the same, and that God is the ultimate and rational principle of everything, whose ways can explained. And in the light of this discovery, we learn that the world was not created for the sake of human beings.

Nuovo continues, “The search after truth is an act of pure piety. We honor truth, we respect it, not because it is something we can own, like riches or power that we can use to our advantage, but because truth has no owner. It offers no advantages to anyone. Truth offers only itself, and it is the ultimate judge of all our reasoning and judgments concerning it.”

Truth is clear and transparent. It is enlightening, the very opposite of mystery. It is also joyful.

“Moreover, a society founded on the principle that free rational enquiry shall not be abridged will be free of internal conflict. It will not be plagued by internal conflicts between zealous advocates of rival orthodoxies, whether religious or secular, or by the machinations of predatory demagogues, because every claim to truth will be subject to rational scrutiny, to a calm and dispassionate enquiry by everyone everywhere,” Nuovo says.

According to Spinoza, the commitment to free inquiry manifests itself in our right to change our minds whenever we discover that our beliefs are in error. And in so doing, we will have discovered for ourselves that truth is something to be honored.

“This is the surest means to peace and piety,” concludes Nuovo. “I believe Spinoza had it right.”

To read Victor Nuovo’s article on Spinoza and Hobbes visit here