When we study history, it isn’t difficult to see repeating patterns. Not that events or eras actually recur, but–humans being what we are–contending impulses and beliefs about the proper way to construct a society often create situations that look familiar. Sometimes, eerily so.
The other day, I was reading an essay on Spinoza, and I was struck by the following paragraphs:
Much of Spinoza’s philosophy was composed in response to the precarious political situation of the Dutch Republic in the mid-17th century. In the late 1660s, the period of ‘True Freedom’ – with the liberal and laissez-faire regents dominating city and provincial governments – was under threat by the conservative ‘Orangist’ faction (so-called because its partisans favoured a return of centralised power to the Prince of Orange) and its ecclesiastic allies. Spinoza was afraid that the principles of toleration and secularity enshrined in the founding compact of the United Provinces of the Netherlands were being eroded in the name of religious conformity and political and social orthodoxy. In 1668, his friend and fellow radical Adriaan Koerbagh was convicted of blasphemy and subversion. He died in his cell the next year. In response, Spinoza composed his ‘scandalous’ Theological-Political Treatise, published to great alarm in 1670.
Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance. At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear.
The ability of our own era’s “Prince of Orange” to capture the GOP nomination is evidence that the assault on Enlightenment values is alive and well these many centuries after Spinoza.
Whether enough of us are willing to “boldly defend” those ideals–which lie at the very heart of America’s constitutional system–remains to be seen.