Benedict de Spinoza on the natural right every person has to think and speak on any subject they choose (1670)

Benedict de Spinoza

The Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) argued that “in a free state every man may think what he likes, and say what he thinks” (1670):

(N)o man’s mind can possibly lie wholly at the disposition of another, for no one can willingly transfer his natural right of free reason and judgment, or be compelled so to do. For this reason government which attempts to control minds is accounted tyrannical, and it is considered an abuse of sovereignty and a usurpation of the rights of subjects, to seek to prescribe what shall be accepted as true, or rejected as false, or what opinions should actuate men in their worship of God. All these questions fall within a man’s natural right, which he cannot abdicate even with his own consent.

Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish-Dutch lens grinder by trade as well as a rationalist philosopher who made important contributions to the early Enlightenment. The chapter title of his major work on politics sums up his view very neatly: “in a free state every man may think what he likes, and say what he thinks.” He called this “the supreme right of free thinking” which he regarded as one of the few “unalienable rights” that humans had because all people had within themselves “the natural light of reason” which could be used to think, judge, and express one’s ideas to others (even “thinking in diverse and contradictory fashions”), and no other person, whether a political tyrant or not, could stop this inner process from taking place. They could impede it and punish it, but they couldn’t stop it. Any government which attempted to control the minds of its people was a tyrannical one which usurped their rights and abused its sovereign powers.