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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 535-557

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Tolerance as a Virtue in Spinoza's Ethics 1

Michael A. Rosenthal

There is widespread agreement that tolerance is a mainstay of modern liberalism. There is less agreement about what justifies it. As a starting point I want to offer the definition of toleration as "the refusal, where one has the power to do so, to prohibit or seriously interfere with conduct that one finds objectionable." 2 If we include the expression of ideas through speech or other media as part of "conduct" then this will serve us adequately. It captures the central tension between disapproving some conduct and yet allowing it to continue that we find in the etymology of the word itself, which comes from the Latin tolerare, which means to bear or endure. This tension, however, produces a variety of conceptual puzzles and difficulties that bear on the justification and maintenance of the practice itself. Some of the problems are meta-ethical and arise from questions about the status of normativity itself. For example, one common justification of tolerance is based on skepticism about the good. If there is no objective idea of the good then enforcement of some subjective concept of it would be unjustified. There are a variety of problems with this view but one bears directly on toleration itself. If we transform disapproval of others into indifference then toleration seems to have lost its meaning. Another set of problems arises if we accept some concept of the good as the basis for disapproval. One central problem of this kind, the so-called "paradox of toleration," can be stated as follows: "[N]ormally we count toleration as a [End Page 535] virtue in individuals and a duty in societies. However, where toleration is based on moral disapproval it implies that the thing tolerated is wrong and ought not to exist. The question which then arises is why. . . it should be thought good to tolerate." 3 In what follows I want to examine some of the arguments of a thinker who is often cited by historians of liberalism as an important advocate of toleration in the early modern period but whose arguments are now only infrequently discussed. His arguments are still valuable because they address both meta-ethical questions about the status of normative judgments and the justification of tolerance itself.

In 1670 Spinoza completed and anonymously published the Theological-Political Treatise (TTP). The overarching purpose of the TTP was to argue for a specific kind toleration as a state policy. As Spinoza writes in the Preface, "those who hold supreme authority . . . retain this right [to decide what is just and what is unjust] best, and can preserve their authority safely, only if everyone is allowed to think what he will, and to say what he thinks" (Preface, 32; III/12). 4 Toward this end the TTP provides the foundation for Spinoza's political theory. The structure of the argument for toleration in the TTP is straightforward. It consists of three elements. First, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, Spinoza argues that belief cannot be compelled. Second, he thinks that we have a natural right to think whatever we like and that this right cannot in principle be transferred to anyone else, such as the sovereign. Third, he claims that given the first two points (and perhaps this argument stands independently of them as well, though they certainly buttress it), any attempt to compel belief only results in political instability and so runs counter to the fundamental goal of sovereign authority, which is to maintain stability for the sake of its citizens' flourishing. In addition, there is an auxiliary, but crucial, theological argument in which Spinoza claims that, because the truths of religion are practical and not speculative, the state must remain indifferent to those beliefs (such as which doctrine leads to salvation) that do not impinge on its mundane interests.

But for Spinoza an argument for toleration must do more than give philosophical reasons. It must also attack the sources...


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