Thuistezien 172 — 09.02.2021

Mogens Lærke
Who is Spinoza’s ‘best citizen’?

In this video we see Mogens Lærke delving into the manner in which Spinoza describes the notion of freedom and also the misinterpretations of it. Furthermore, what implications does his notion of freedom have on the best way to organise society and politics? Philosopher Mogens Lærke in the past has researched Spinoza’s political philosophy and its connections to Leibniz, specifically looking at the different theoretical understandings within Spinoza scholarship. Lærke starts off with asking about the aim of the state. The end of the whole social order seems to be to live securely and conveniently. Yet, this involves an element of security and freedom at the same time, which hints at contradiction. In our modern society there are regular clashes and debates on which of the two should be maintained; they seem incommensurable. Nevertheless, according to Spinoza’s theory they go hand in hand. For him, the state’s role is to enable the mind and the body to perform its functions safely. This includes the ability to use freedom freely and for the state and citizens not to clash in hatred, anger or deception. The latter, not to clash, is an aspect of the former, to use freedom freely. Security is a component of the conception of freedom, where the absence of hatred, anger or deception is a logical incorporation of reason.

What is particular about Spinoza’s freedom is that it is a freedom to philosophize, not to be confused with a permission to say what we think. When we utilize our freedom to philosophize we naturally regulate our passions, to ensure that the public sphere can offer good government and reason to flourish. Contrary to liberalist interpretations, Spinoza does not propose that the public sphere should be deregulated and left to its own devices. Rather, the role of the state should actually be so as to ensure that the public sphere operates in a way where those who are within it move with freedom. Therefore, ‘speaking freely’ is not an individual civil right necessarily. The freedom to philosophize is not located in the domain of public legislation; it is not a power we can choose to use, but it is always enshrined as a metaphysical principle of the relation between body and mind. Lærke emphasizes that the freedom to philosophize, when utilized fully, takes the form of ‘brotherly advice’ and that teaching and giving advice is an inalienable natural right. It is not an individual practice, but a collective one that contributes to the public sphere. This sphere would in turn have rules that govern the purpose of private people to realize their own personal freedom.

Now what does this mean for the political power of the state? The true interest of the state would then converge with that of the public sphere. It is in the self-interest of the sovereign to consult its citizens, and this would necessarily require that they are free, meaning in the possession of the capacity to think freely, free of judgment, prejudice or superstition. So the state should establish such conditions that would prevent them to act on ignorant inclinations, and accommodate and stimulate the mode of ‘brotherly advice’ where one is fully in possession of their own judgment. Hence, restrictions should not be placed on freedom (of philosophizing), rather on where there is no freedom (of philosophizing). A subtle difference, but of the highest magnitude.

Mogens Lærke is a Senior Researcher at the CNRS in France, and currently affiliated at the Maison Française d’Oxford (MFO) and at the research center IHRIM à the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. A specialist of early modern philosophy, Spinoza and Leibniz in particular, he has published widely examining the tensions between reason, religion and politics and censorship in the early modern period.

This lecture was part of the symposium ‘Spinoza & the Arts: Passionate Reason’ that took place on 4 + 5 October 2019 at West Den Haag / Image: Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693). Regents of the Amsterdam Surgeons' Guild. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Text: Yael Keijzer