Spinoza on the Political Value of Freedom of Religion

History of Philosophy Quarterly 21 (2):167-182 (2004)
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Abstract

The last chapter of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise (TTP) is a brief for freedom of religion. In our enthusiasm for Spinoza's conclusion it is easy to overlook the blatant contradiction between this thesis and the central claim of the immediately preceding chapter that "right over matters of religion is vested entirely in the sovereign." There Spinoza emphasizes the necessity that there be but one sovereign in the state and the threat that autonomous religious authorities would pose to the authority of this sovereign. This last claim is, in turn, bolstered by his analysis of the deficiencies of the Hebrew state in the chapter before, chapter 18, according to which it was the usurpation of political authority by priests that ultimately undermined the state. In other words, in chapters 18 and 19, Spinoza makes the case for the strict political control of religion only to conclude his treatise by arguing, in chapter 20, that the purpose of the state is, in reality, freedom and that that freedom manifests itself, in part, in freedom of religion. How could this latter not pose exactly the sort of threat to the sovereign and the state that leads Spinoza to insist on the sovereign's absolute control of religion? How can Spinoza insist that religion be both free and controlled by the state? This paper aims to answer this question and, in the process, explains a number of troubling features of the Theological-Political Treatise

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Edward Halper
University of Georgia

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