Down with blasphemy and lèse-majesté? Some critical Spinozist marginal comments
In recent debates on the abolition of blasphemy and lèse-majesté, the idea of freedom of speech and expression seems to function as the ultimate criterion in pleas to abolish these regulations. What would free speech champion and philosopher Spinoza say?
Earlier in April the Dutch parliament voted for the abolition of the crime of blasphemy. This week Groen Links member of parliament Liesbeth van Tongeren proposed to do the same with the crime of lèse-majesté, that is: insulting the king. These regulations are more and more considered out of date nowadays. Freedom of speech is increasingly understood as the freedom to say anything you like and express your deepest feelings about anything at all. Nothing else is sacrosanct or ‘holy’ anymore. How should we judge these developments? What can be said philosophically about them?
Spinoza and the freedom of speech
One of the earliest great Dutch champions of free speech and expression was the philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza (Amsterdam 1632 – The Hague 1677). To many current crusaders for free speech, Spinoza is a source of inspiration, a true hero who stood up for free thinking and debate in a society dominated by Protestant Christian religion. It would be interesting to discover what Spinoza really had to say about this freedom of speech, especially with regard to the limits thereof – and thereby realizing why these recently contested legal boundaries are actually very meaningful.
Obedience and the need for religion
In his Tractatus Theologico-politicus (1670), Spinoza sketches the premises on which a democracy are founded and how citizens can be free and at the same time loyal to the state. Obedience to law requires faith. Most people lack enough reason to understand that acting out of respect of the general interest is necessary for a peaceful society. Their imagination is needed to instil reverence for it. Belief in God, as the highest being, is indispensable for achieving this. Spinoza argued that in order to create a democracy, people need to unite themselves into a greater body and transfer their natural rights to defend themselves and to prescribe how to act in society, to society as a whole. Their freedom to act is transformed into obedience to the highest authority in society, represented by the state and the magistrate. This will, however, only succeed when people have spiritually and imaginatively endowed a highest being with ultimate authority from which obedience can be required, and that is God. Letting people allow to degrade, mock and bash God by repealing a law against blasphemy, is like an axe at the root of all authority. No wonder that the next in line of authority – the head of state, is the following victim.
Limits to freedom of speech
Freedom of thought, speech and expression is necessary for a peaceful society, by letting people contribute thoughtfully and constructively to solving the problems of living in a democracy with various and antagonistic beliefs and religions. Spinoza argued that our freedom to judge and express ourselves cannot be transferred to others, so that it was excluded from the social contract in the first place. This is an important freedom, but not an absolute one. The only limit to this freedom is when the majesty of the state is endangered, when people render it odious to the common people and attempt to agitate and rebel against the (head of) state. Abolishing regulations against lèse-majesté would outlaw the head of state and tear him down to the level of any other ordinary man. A great danger to authority as well, would Spinoza conclude – and I tend to concur with him.