Lecture series: Of Spinoza’s ideals on natural rights and political society

Philosopher’s emphasis on toleration of religious beliefs strikes a chord with Pakistan.

Waqas Naeem July 28, 2013
“There should be no interference in the belief system and everyone should be free to choose the foundation of their creed,”says Ashfaq Saleem Mirza. ILLUSTRATION: FAIZAAN DAWOOD

ISLAMABAD: For Pakistani society, which is suffering from regular, violent episodes of religious intolerance, there might be lessons to learn from 17th century philosophy.

The School of Modern History and Philosophy’s seventh lecture focused on European philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s ideas about natural rights and political society. But one of those 17th century ideas that struck a chord with Pakistan’s modern-day reality was Spinoza’s emphasis on toleration of religious beliefs.

Ashfaq Saleem Mirza, an intellectual and writer who conducts the school’s sessions and delivers its lectures, told an attentive audience on Saturday that Spinoza opposed religious prejudices and wars.

But despite his beef with theology and his critique of religion, Spinoza eventually opted for tolerance.

“There should be no interference in the belief system and everyone should be free to choose the foundation of their creed,” Mirza said, conveying the philosopher’s thoughts. The message is simple — do not pass judgments on someone else’s beliefs, he added.

“Countries such as Pakistan and India are still struggling with religious freedom issues,” he said.

The School of Modern History and Philosophy’s lecture series, which is conducted fortnightly at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung office in Islamabad, is an informal gathering of around two dozen philosophy and history enthusiasts from the capital.

Each lecture focuses on a theme but the participants often raise questions about wide-ranging philosophical issues. The discussions, interspersed with anecdotes from past and present, often go off on tangents and touch upon broader topics.

On Saturday, as Mirza talked about natural law — a law that is determined by nature and therefore universal — the discussion moved on to the history of power.

Mirza said that in history, power has always prevailed. He said pro-peace liberals might consider war an evil and the struggle to gain power a base instinct that must be suppressed.

But it is a reality, he added, and history has proved that in the natural state power and its fulfillments win through, which is somewhat reminiscent of the concept of “survival of the fittest” in evolutionary theory.

Coming back to the topic, Mirza said Spinoza considered humans to be an integral part of nature. But he also thought that the desire of self-preservation steered most events in the life of humans, who are conditioned to pursue their own advantages.

Because of this pursuit of self-interest, Spinoza believed that a political society was necessary and justified in terms of rational or enlightened self-interest. The social contract according to Spinoza rests on enlightened self-interest, Mirza said.

Individuals hand over their natural rights — except perhaps the right to pleasure — to a sovereign power which in turn gets the right of imposing command. As for the sovereign power, Spinoza mentioned monarchy, aristocracy and democracy as the three forms of government.

But he preferred the commonwealth, founded and guided by reason — a commonwealth could be a democratic republic — as the “most powerful and independent” form, Mirza said.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2013.

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