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Why Spinoza’s Ideas On Human Freedom And Reason Still Matter

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Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The greatest contribution of Baruch  Spinoza, one of the most prominent Western philosophers, is considered to be his Doctrine of Substance. Substance, according to him is, “that which is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e., the conception of which does not need the conception of another thing in order to its formation”. Or in other words, the substance is one without a second, which is eternal and infinite.

Exploring its resemblance with the Advaita Vedanta of Indian philosophy would make it a little more appealing to us. Sankara has described Brahmana on similar lines. Efforts to describe substance are futile, and therefore Spinoza said: “Every determination is a negation.” Similarly, Brahman from the highest (transcendental) point of view cannot be described by qualities which relate to the ego or the world.

Spinoza laid the fundamentals of his philosophy in God, or the supreme substance, who is considered as the sole conserving cause of the universe and is infinite with an eternal intellect. And, therefore, when he talks about Human Freedom, a reflection can be seen. According to his doctrine of Human Freedom, a man is said to be free when he acts according to the law of reason- “Man acts absolutely according to the laws of his own nature when he lives under the guidance of reason…” Also, the reason is the essence of mind.

The metaphysical aspect of it is ‘Amor intellectualis dei’ or the Intellectual Love of God as the state of supreme freedom. This draws criticisms and may not be acceptable for many. But, listening closely to the rationalist he is, “The man who lives according to reason will, therefore, strive to rise above pity and vain regrets. He will help his neighbour, but he will do it from reason, not from impulse. He will consider nothing worthy of hatred, mockery or contempt…” Also, he adds that due to the virtue of our reason, we do things that are good for all and by keeping aside the hullabaloo demands of our emotions. In short, the reason Spinoza talks about gives us a call for a moral obligation to do things that serves as good for all.

The relevance of Spinoza’s reason is undeniable in today’s world. With the rising unrest in the world and especially in our country, there is a need for reflection in the Lockean sense—mind becoming aware of its own actions.

For this article, I would like to draw from one particular aspect of it. India takes pride in having the longest written Constitution and the largest democracy in the world. The Fundamental Rights in Part III of the Constitution is one of the greatest proofs for that. But, with freedom comes responsibility.

The Fundamental Duties were added to our Constitution in 1976 in the aftermath of the Emergency. It is contained in Part IV A of the Indian Constitution under Article 51 A. The article lists 11 fundamental duties for the citizens. H.R. Gokhale, the then law minister, reasoned, “In post-independent India, particularly on the eve of emergency in June 1975, a section of the people showed no anxiety to fulfill their fundamental obligations of respecting the established legal order… the provisions of chapter on Fundamental Duties would have a sobering effect on these restless spirits…” Also, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi believed that it’d make people ‘conscious of their duties equally as they are conscious of their rights’.

The Fundamental Duties are non-justiciable. There isn’t any provision in the Constitution for its direct enforcement by courts. Though the parliament may enforce them by law enforce, a legal sanction against their violation is non-existent. This is often criticized as failing the very purpose of the Fundamental Duties.

Have these intentions won the test of time? Have the Fundamental Duties instilled in people the moral obligation it ought to? Time and again, we have seen how these duties are being overlooked, mostly due to ignorance.

The Fundamental Duties “To promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional diversities” and “To protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers, and wild-life and to have compassion for living creatures” are constantly forgotten and such instances are increasing on a daily basis. Disregard has replaced harmony. Spirit of common brotherhood has been washed away. Even with increased efforts from civil society in inducing actions towards them, say, the recent global climate strike for climate change, demands for equality at multiple levels, there is equally or maybe more powerful violations of them.

This is where we can contextualise the importance of Spinoza’s reason. If we are driven by the Spinoza’s Reason in our attitude and approach towards the Fundamental Duties, situations would be a lot more desirable. Then the absence of sanctions could be justified. But, as stated above, the situations of our country force us to ask ourselves if we are driven by this kind of reason at all. The need for this kind of reflection is long overdue. And we cannot afford further delay considering our country’s aspirations for its economy and being an international player. We need to be responsible citizens and ‘humans’ after all.

And we can hope that this process would help us find solutions to the most important question—how can we regain reason within our country?

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  1. Vipul Dixit

    beautiful! Its refreshing to read Spinoza and Shankar in tandem, once again. Thanks

    1. Mishal Mathews

      Thank you! And yes, reading Spinoza and Sankara in tandem is great!

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