The Spinozist

writing by Paul Mendrik

We haven't really lost our freedom, we underpin it.

June 1, 2020

In an effort to "flatten the curve" of the contamination from the SARS-CoV-2 (Coronavirus) pandemic, many countries are restricting the movement of their citizens. It is commonly accepted that this effort consists in sacrificing one's freedom for the common good. However, instead of considering these restrictions as measures that deprive us of our freedom, can we consider these restrictions as conditions required for its execution? This is the main issue covered by a Spinozist reading of the current crisis.

In The Ethics, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) develops a theory of freedom according to which to be free consists in living "ex ductu rationis", under "the direction of reason". This authentic freedom is not to be confused with free will or impulse.

For Spinoza, we are free not to the extent that we pursue whatever we desire, but rather to the extent that our conduct is instructed by reason.

It is when reason directs us, thinks Spinoza, that we act according to our own nature whereas, if we let ourselves be guided by all our thoughtless impulses, we become the toys of external causes, tossed about on an ocean of passionate waves. The ideal case, Spinoza believes, would be for our rational force to prevail in each of us over the force of external causes which cause us to drift from left to right.

Let us now return to the current case of the pandemic. It is in our interest not to participate in the collapse of our health systems, because the possibility to be able to heal the body is undoubtedly a good. Furthermore, the state directing us to confine ourselves in order to cope with the pandemic and support our hospitals also seems to be rational. So a fundamental philosophical question emerges: embracing Spinoza, can we force man from being free?

You could say that all of Spinoza's political theory rests on a positive answer to this question. Frequently, a decree of reason will be required to achieve a cooperative and collaborative effort. No one can build a hospital alone, for example. More generally however, as individuals we would be deprived of associations conducive to development if we did not cultivate at the same time the civil and interpersonal common good that supports it. In other words, freedom, that is to say life ex ductu rationis, needs to be guaranteed, including the beneficial social relationships that it encourages.

However, it is not for nothing that all societies rely on a judicial system. Often men are ignorant and driven by passion rather than reason, as Spinoza recognizes. From this point of view, to establish restraint mechanisms, such as restrictions on movement or commercial activity, is perfectly understandable, even desirable. No doubt, laws can be more or less justifiable with reason. Spinoza's political work also testifies to the belief that one must remain vigilant in the face of tyrannical excesses which threaten any political order; nevertheless, there is no doubt for Spinoza that in the absence of any law understood as an external constraint, man would be miserablebecause he would be deprived of the possibility of being free, that is to say to execute the decrees of reason. Similarly, the evidence that we can force man to be free is that we already do so.

The restrictions applied to safeguard the proper functioning of our hospitals also attest to this. The Spinozist reading of the current situation is certainly salutary since it reminds us that for the moment we have not really lost our freedom; on the contrary, we assist it.