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Today a colleague tweeted this Spinoza quote from the Political Treatise:

“Those who take an oath by law will avoid perjury more if they swear by the welfare & freedom of the state instead of by God.”

It made me aware of why Spinoza’s habit of putting things in a conditional manner has always appealed to me so much. To my knowledge he is one of the few philosophers who does this so consistently. And not in order to be vague, but to be precise. Spinoza understood from experience what it was to live under repressive regimes – and he saw two main vehicles for oppression: religion and politics. The main insight from his TPT was that humanity cannot free itself (its mind, its heart) without adressing both institutions – in their entanglement. Both play on our animality – our sensitivity to danger – by promising safety. Politics promises safety of the body, religion safety of the soul. And either one of them may use the other’s reach over our vulnerabilities to intensify their own claim. This happens all the time: when states urge us to trust a certain religion over another – because the ‘strange’ religion threatens our safety. Or the other way round: when religions urge their believers to trust a certain state power – for it safeguards them from instability and chaos.

The entanglement between the two institutions may also lead to an imagined conflict between them. We see it in so-called ‘religious’ attempts to end state power (think IS) or in political movements that try to end the power of religion (all forms of strict secularism). Both movements are confused, for they fail to see that the boundaries between politics and religion are porous. Both overlap. They both play into our natural fear of bad things that might happen, and appeal to our natural hope that this can be solved. To free oneself, therefore, Spinoza held we should address religion and politics in their entanglement and mutual dependency. They can not be separated, but can work together in more and less destructive ways. Their connectedness would be most beneficial to a good life, Spinoza concluded, when religion – albeit in a purified form – would inform politics, and not the other way round. A good life he defined as a life in friendship with others, with freedom of mind and peace of heart. To attain this one should not have religions do political things (then politics would inform religion), but political power play should rather let itself be inspired by religious things, trying to promote justice and charity. This was at least the (contested) upshot of the interpretation I gave in my 1996 PhD thesis on the TPT.

The citation I read on twitter underlines the above. Spinoza was convinced that it was easier to keep true to one’s pledge of allegiance to freedom and welfare, than to one we make to God. God is just too much above human fallibility, one could say, as He is one and ultimately just. Freedom and welfare of the state is a relative thing, and we can more easily remain true to it. My reading of Spinoza was contested as it followed a long period of Hegelian and Marxist interpretations of his work (and combinations of them) – which all aimed to reconstruct it to be progressivist, and teleological. This led to a Spinoza who claims the telos of mankind’s efforts to be absolute freedom of religious oppression – embodied in true philosophy – the mental realization that frees us from irrational fetters.

Such interpretations however overlook how Spinoza did things with words: how he made any philosophical judgements conditional. In his Ethics he mostly uses the formula: ‘in so far as…’. Here, in the PT, he allows himself to be rethorical – without losing precision. Perjury is our condition, he says indirectly. We cannot be completely true to our better nature, to freedom, to friendship – we will always fail if we aim to be ‘good’. To make our failing as minute as possible, Spinoza warns us, we better aim not too high. Freedom and welfare of the state is very important, looking up to them can keep us from doing too bad things – trying to emulate God, however, is so far removed a goal that it will automatically make us fail – and fall into desparation as a consequence.

Being truly religious then, for Spinoza, meant to claim as little as possible about God. It would better show itself in living in accordance with the two main virtues: charity (love of one’s neighbor) and justice (treating others fairly). When we practice those, we do the utmost. Aiming higher is moral pride. However, despite the humility in his philosophy, he was a believer in the modern state, as being the best guardian of the good, free, and peaceful life. A then new political form he helped to carve out philosophically. Living in the 21st century the belief in the state as the guardian of shared and equally distributed wellbeing has tarnished, to say the least. The inescapable awareness we now have of the infinite potentialities of state violence and repression make Spinoza appear not morally humble enough. The modern state tramples justice and charity with ease, even while making its citizens believe they are righteous and good. But where can we find a hold, if we better not even pledge an oath on the freedom and welfare of the state? Where can we look to anchor morality?

What inspired me to ask these questions? It were reflections ignited by the announcement of one of my students, last week, that she wants to write her thesis on evil. During the first discussion we had on her chosen theme I started to wonder why philosophers’ writing on evil had always somehow irritated me. And the Spinoza quote made me understand: speaking of evil creates a fog. It is a conjuring act. It aims to exorcize the bad things we inevitably experience in this life, as well as the bad things we do to others. Using the word ‘evil’ helps us to abstract from real life, and to rise to a metaphysical realm where things promise to be clear and well-defined. Thus we conjure ourselves away from nature’s forces – which play through us, sensitive creatures, when we feel fear and hope. We hope to lose our fear, to be absolutely safe, which inevitable means we will have to bend reality – for safety is not here in this world (not even in the religious beliefs we can have in this world). Bending reality, we will inevitably harm what is in our way.

Perhaps we should loose the concept of ‘evil’, and realize that we just do bad things, as well as good things. Perhaps philosophy cannot even meaningfully define them – as it failed badly at earlier attempts. Wouldn’t we be more true to Spinoza’s caution by abstaining from swearing oaths at all? And would we, in our present times, not better give up belief in the state as the natural guardian of peace and welfare?

Perhaps we should not swear anymore. Nor speak of evil. But attempt to do the right thing on the most inconsiderable playing field. The field without flags. Without honor. Without deaths of honor over flags. In order to be ready for such a post-idealistic politics we should overcome just one thing: the fear of fear. And its denial. Fear is real. As well as bad things. Let’s not clothe them in the solemn, metaphysical concept of evil. It makes us too easily forget those who are hurt by them. The ones that we should mourn, as well as the ones we should – now – try to protect. Only by accepting that the bad things are always already happening, and that we are inevitably involved in them, can we avoid the false consciousness we create when condemning certain acts as ‘evil’. And avoid perjury a little more.

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Freedom. It is the opening word of the last chapter of Assata Shakur’s autobiography. To learn something about the life of this former member of the Black Panther movement, one could start with one of two things: read the most lengthy wikipedia article I’ve ever read (the one about her), or read her own book. This will have a very different outcome. The writers of the article have gone out of their way to avoid taking sides on the facts of the life of this ‘controversial’ woman, now sixty-six, called a ‘most wanted terrorist’ by the FBI, and a political refugee by her sympathizers. Her own book provides a quite different read. My most important impression of it was: if she did not have a ghostwriter, she is an outstanding writer – telling her life in a manner that one wants to read on and on. I did so after I started, wanting to learn more on this period in history, and finished it in just a few days. Admiring how she found the right words to describe happy childhood days at the beach restaurant of her grandparents as well as her mood during her nearly two years of solitary confinement.

I will not discuss the events that led to her imprisonment in 1973, nor her later escape and asylum in Cuba. It has all been discussed extensively in other places by persons who are in a better position to have an opinion on this. What caught my attention though in reading was this one thing – her account of freedom. As a word it features there where she talks about the ending of her life in prison – as an experience it summarizes the entire book. She has described her life as a continuing search for freedom – not only politically, but also and perhaps more importantly, emotionally and spiritually. She describes those lessons of her educators, most importantly her grandparents, that learned her to have inner freedom over against others, a thing which is also called dignity. Later she mentions how revolutionaries from another party taught her to stop smoking weed, to be free for ‘the real high’ – that of facing your life and trying to change what is wrong. And how she gained more spiritual strength – also a form of freedom – over against the hardships of prison after a friend made her accept an islamic way of living.

Freedom would have been the subject for my subsidiary thesis when I was studying, but it never got written as I sped up finishing my studies when they threatened to drag on too long. Some years ago it featured in a research plan, with the working title ‘Freedom, Identity and Responsibility’, which I tried to get funding for, in vain. It has been a postponed subject for very long now. What interested me especially philosophically was freedom of the imagination as a possibility condition for moral agency – giving a person the chance to find an identity (‘this is who I am, these are the values I stand for’), and to experience responsibility (only when one can imagine consequences one can see that one’s choice makes a difference). I have read widely on the subject through the years, ranging from works in critical theory to those of phenomenologists and pragmatists, so why did I not yet find the focus to write my own study of it? I think because one thing was never clear to me – how to understand the changing face of the concept of freedom in so many different contexts and discourses. Politically it is used by conservatives as well as by revolutionaries. And then it is used in spiritual and moral discourses, in therapeutical discourses, in the discourse of the law.

Reading that book, Assata, I was reminded that freedom is not just about having rights, although they are of course of great importance. The freedom that Assata according to her book seemed to have found goes beyond that – one feels its presence in her descriptions of the joys of human relations – with her friends and family. Freedom is being free, being able to be oneself, to speak one’s mind without anxiety, or be silent in peace with others. This reminded me of the work of this other woman that was drawn to the revolutionary life, philosopher Simone Weil – in her work she criticized the focus in moral philosophy on rights, and argued that true humanity can only be found when we learn these two things: real attention to others, and awareness of our obligations to them. Rights of course cannot give you anything when the corresponding obligations are not respected. But more so, when all your rights are recognized, the most important thing might still be missing, according to Weil: attention. On that account freedom (to be oneself) can only be enjoyed in the space that is created by real relationships. I wonder if that aspect of the revolutionary spirit has been recognized enough. It is not primarily interested in alternative systems and regulations, but in something beyond them. It must feel constrained therefore in any system.

I discussed the autobiography of Assata Shakur (1947- ), simply called Assata, which was published in 1987 by Zed Books.

Simone Weil lived from 1909 untill 1943. Her writings were mostly only published after she died. I read L’enracinement (translated as The Need for Roots) and La personne et le sacré (of which I think no separate edition exists in English).

There is justified grief, and anger, among many U.S. citizens, about the way in which the recent Zimmerman case has been handled. Although I am not American, and no expert in the law, I would like to add to the perception of what is going on here by trying some philosophical reflection. As I understand it, the problematic aspect of the stand-your-ground law, which aquitted George Zimmerman, who shot 17 year old Trayvon Martin when he walked home at night, is that it blurrs to an unbearable extent the line between defense and attack. I will not go into the question of racist motives in U.S. courts, or in the general public – one can simply acknowledge that they are there, and it should make one sad and angry. But, suppose that both actors in that drama had the same skin colour, only one was very paranoia about defending himself and people’s property – and he could legally carry a gun. And could suppose that when he used it against a person which he thought was threatening the law would protect him… in other words, I would like to try to show what this law as such expresses about being human in our time.

Originally, as I understand it, the stand-your-ground law was designed to exonerate persons who defended their property, their home, their own safe place to live, to intruders (for my Dutch readers, we are having a discussion to alter the law in this direction in recent years, think ‘Teeven’). But what does it say about being a person – in relation to property, that one would rather kill another human being than try to run first and call the police? It happened that I was reading just now in the early writings of Marx, where he discusses the ideas of Hegel on the state and property. Where a certain class of property-owners, land owners in the case discussed, are allowed special political representation, as in the House of Lords in England, this is not in the interest of individual property-owners, Marx notices, but in the interest of property itself. This has to do with ancient European customs related to succession. It provides, Marx notices, a possibility to buy rights for ‘younger sons’, who do not inherit the land of their fathers (along with the race question, I will also leave out the feminist question here).

Marx criticizes Hegels idea that property is something one can dispose of (‘meines Eigentums kann ich mich entäussern’), since it would be mine only because I can do with it what I want, and is as such external to my personality. To Hegel property is not substantial to a person, as are his free will, his morality and religion – those would make up a persons self-awareness. Marx points to the fact that certain historical social arrangements (and their legal articulations) make property undisposable (‘unveräusserlich’). Although he speaks of the special political representation mentioned above, I would suggest one reads his words as applicable to discussions as the one excited by the stand-your-ground law: ‘Property is becoming a good one cannot dispose of, a substantial destination, which makes up the very person, the general essence of self awareness […], personality as such, its general freedom of will, morality, religion.’

These are harsh words, and to my view they describe without mercy the situation of present society. They apply not just to Florida, but also to Bangladesh (to remember those workers who died in the collapsing factory where they were slaving), to the Netherlands, to anywhere. Marx continues: ‘property is not any more ‘because I can do with it what I want’, but my will is ‘because of my property’. My will does not posess, but is posessed.’ Modern humanity has accepted to let itself be defined by property, as something which one cannot dispose of, and traded it for the disposability of human beings, not only those considered a threat to it, but also those who as workers without rights have to keep the stream of goods to be posessed flowing. In the process we have traded in something essential, I think.

Karl Marx lived from 1818-1883. I translated freely from Die Frühschriften (the early works), in the edition of Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1971. The passages cited are on page 120.

One cannot talk about ‘morality’, I answered to a Master-student yesterday, without supposing the possibility of free action. She is interested in studying dissociation, identity, and moral responsibility, and  while we discussed those concepts and their relations, I was led to the articulation of a thought on the difficulty of  freedom in modern society which (as it often goes) surprised me although I was the one who put it into words. This phenomenon makes one wonder who is the owner of thoughts. But yesterday we pondered the owner of acts: one cannot suppose the possibility of acting without assuming there to be someone who acts, who can be held responsible, and who thus, somehow, has to be judged to be free to choose an action.

This argumentation would have satisfied Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant: the idea of freedom, he claimed, is enough for a human being to realize his freedom. That is a nice thought, my student and me went on, but what if in fact my freedom is disturbed? I think I am free, but I am the victim of a psychotic illusion, or of blind ambition. What if I am subjected to a temporal dissociative experience, losing my purpose while trying to adapt to the complex interactions and emotions at, say, a party? Or, what if one is influenced unknowingly by some kind of voodoo-practice?

We mused about these different possibilities, and moved on to the question of the difference between traditional and modern societies. The modern person deems himself free in comparison to those unenlightened enough to reckon with the possibility of magic and voodoo, and with the influence in their lives of ancestors and gods. Those people, he thinks, are not free, as they have to visit their spiritual advisors and healers regularly, uncertain whether they are subject to evil inflicted upon them magically, or whether they neglected their duties towards the ancestors. How can freedom, responsibilty, and thus morality, play a significant role in societies where such thought is dominant?

And then I heard myself saying: ‘see it like this: we, moderns, have freed ourselves perhaps from the bonds of traditional society, which thrives on the fears of acting independently and which has stability and conformity as its main goals. But while freeing us from the fears of novelty, we enslaved ourselves to progress.’ Everything we do needs to be ‘rational’, that is, add to progress – to better health, to a better future for my children, to a better relationship with my loved one; to efficiency in my work, to higher quality, to lower cost, to better competiveness… so are we free? Fear of the gods, or of the evil eye, has been replaced by the fear of redundancy – if my acts do not contribute to progress, they are superfluous, and so am I…

When, after that conversation, I went on to ponder how the ideology of constant change and progress (common to communist as well as capitalist thought) makes morality within its parameters very difficult, while it threatens our actual freedom, I remembered Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher from the hippie age who recently gained new interest. Marcuse tried to tackle this problem. The crowbar of his theory lies in the acknowledgment that one cannot be free unless one allows oneself to value the present society against possible alternatives. To do this, one has to presuppose a judgment like: ‘human life is worth living, or rather can be and ought to be made worth living.’ If we dare not critically value society from such a critical viewpoint, we pass our potential for freedom by. And if we do that, I add, the Kantian ‘idea of freedom’ will be void of meaning, and ethical theorizing will have no real subject. Ergo: no thought of moral responsibility, of freedom, makes sense without criticism of society as it is.

Herbert Marcuse lived from 1898-1979. I cited from his One Dimensiononal Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].

Immanuel Kant lived from 1724-1804. His foundation of morality in the idea of freedom is to be found in his Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (dritter Abschnitt) – published for the first time in 1785 (and has had numerous editions and translations since then).