Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Nature’s God

Matthew Stewart, in Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, offers an interesting perspective on the religious and philosophical origins of the American revolution. He finds ample evidence of the influence of philosophers like Epicurus, Spinoza and Locke in the writings of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Paine and other intellectuals.

Considerable attention is given in the book to the work of the two revolutionaries who were also outspoken deists, Ethan Allen and Thomas Young. Stewart’s thesis is that deism, which is a kind of "secular natural religion” inspired by the teachings of Epicurus, Spinoza and Locke, has played a critical role in the birth of America.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 5, “Self-Evident Truths,” in which Stewart is describing the influence of Spinoza and Locke on the development of the concept of freedom:
Spinoza captures most of the implications of these forbiddingly abstract and very counterintuitive ideas with a distinction between “active” and “passive” power. When a physical body acts in a manner that can be entirely employed through internal causes, it is active. When its actions are determined by outside forces (which is to say, when its actions are really reactions), it is passive. An active body is “free” in the sense of being determined to act through its own nature, while a passive body is not self-determined… The next step in Spinoza’s argument amounts to applying this same distinction between active and passive to minds as well as bodies. When the mind acts through ideas that adequately explain itself and its place in the world, it is active. When it acts through inadequate ideas, it is passive. Freedom in this sense is obviously not a binary, take-it-or-leave-it thing like the imaginary “free will”; it necessarily comes in degrees—degrees that match the adequacy of our ideas and range of our consciousness. Locke repeats the distinction between “active” and “passive” and then applies it to “actions of both motion and thinking” in language close enough to Spinoza to raise suspicion of direct borrowing.  
From the analysis that Locke and Spinoza share to this point, it follows that the freedom of mind, properly understood, does not consist in the ability to affirm propositions without reason or cause, as the common view supposes. Rather, freedom is just the power of the understanding itself. To be free it is necessary first to know oneself; and to know oneself it is necessary to first know the world. The absence of freedom, conversely, is just the lack of understanding. There is no such thing as an unfree mind according to this view; there are unfree individuals, but what they lack is a mind. In a formula, radical freedom is rational self-determination. Or, to use the phrase that Jefferson inserted into the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the mind is “created… free.”

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