In The Netherlands, it's on some schools possible to get philosophy taught from the fourth to the sixth grade of high school (that's the age group 15-18). I've done this.

I discovered that Spinoza's doctrine is scarcely taught in our country on secondary schools. Me were given two reasons by two, both not authoritative, sources:

  1. Spinoza is too different. Teaching his ideas would make philosophy a lot harder, on topics as ethics (political philosophy) and metaphysics.
  2. It isn't good for the society to bring young students in contact with Spinoza's doctrine. It would disrupt the society and it therefore is kept out of the examination syllabuses.

I've read chapters of Spinoza's Tractatus Politicus or Political Treatise, and found it to be very compact written and (relatively to for example Plato, Aristotle, Locke or even Kant) extremely hard to decipher what he meant, but when I had deciphered that, it was clear to me what the reasoning was. I therefore tend to disagree with the first given reason.

My questions are:

  • Is Spinoza's Political Treatise relatively easy to understand in comparison with his other works?
  • Could Spinoza's ideas really be found that disrupting? (I found not.)
  • What could be other reasons for not teaching Spinoza, that I missed?
  • 1
    Anecdotally, we had Spinoza in secondary school in France. I don’t know whether that was part of the curriculum though. Apr 22, 2013 at 10:46

5 Answers 5


The (Dutch) Association of Philosophy Teachers in Secondary Education (as it is now called) was apparently instrumental in getting philosophy into secondary education in 1997.

The association appears to issue a magazine for its members. Guess: What is it called? (Mouse-over for special effects.)


Incidentally, in 2007 there has been a bit of a row in the Netherlands about Spinoza not being part of the central exams, not even when there was a 3-year theme Reason and religion. A letter from the then-responsible minister (and, incidentally, winner of the 1999 Spinoza Prize) gives some context.

From what I read in that letter, Spinoza is part of the school exams (at least in 2007). And given the reactions at the time, I believe it inconceivable that it wouldn't be so today.

In conclusion, I question your claim,

I discovered that Spinoza's doctrine is scarcely taught in our country on secondary schools.


The Canon of Dutch History was designed to provide an overview of "what everyone ought to know, at the very least, about the history and culture of the Netherlands", as well as providing a framework for the teaching of History in Dutch schools.

Spinoza is topic number 22 out of 50.

  • My claim was only based on my personal experiences and a talk with some guy in a train, so it might be wrong in most cases indeed. However, a subject being part of the school exams does not mean it is getting taught in schools. It should be, but not all schools do. Disclaimer: it seems to be managed very well on my school.
    – user2953
    Apr 22, 2013 at 19:25
  • Plasterk: "Maar juist in het perspectief van waar Spinoza voor stond en wat hem in zijn tijd daardoor overkwam, mag u van mij niet verwachten wat u mij vraagt." (looking at Spinoza's doctrine and what that caused him during his life, you cannot expect from me what you request.) - this looks like the 2nd possible reason I gave, doesn't it?
    – user2953
    Apr 22, 2013 at 19:27
  • @Keelan No, it doesn't. To me, but I know nothing, it seems that Plasterk didn't want to force his opinion onto a committee, that presumably was presumed independent. Does that make sense?
    – user3164
    Apr 22, 2013 at 19:34
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    Ah, now that I re-read, I see that Plasterk says the opposite: he does not want to force Spinoza into the exams, that would look like the government wants to promote his doctrine. Thanks, this has been really helpful!
    – user2953
    Apr 22, 2013 at 19:35
  • 2
    @Keelan Glad to be of help. Next time you hear something from some guy on a train, please let us know! :)
    – user3164
    Apr 22, 2013 at 19:44

I don't see any reason not to teach Spinoza at school - so long as it pitched at the right level, done sensitively and placed in context within the history of Western Philsophy. One shouldn't be expected to read his Ethics at school. But I see no harm for example looking at commentaries at certain extracts. After all when studying Physics at school in the UK, one studies Newtons Laws but no-one is expected to read Newtons Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

It might be worth pointing out, that given that Wittgenstein is taken as a significant precursor of the Analytic tradition, that he named the Tractatus in homage to Spinoza; and one might think little of this mere fact of tribute, if one were not to think what trace of Spinoza is there in Wittgenstein; I noted, for example a certain sentence there which occurs in Spinoza; something on the logical relationship between facts, and that of ideas.


I have not read Spinoza's 'Political Treatise'. But after reading Spinoza's 'Ethics' I would say his ideas can definitely be found to be disrupting to most societies around the world so I think this could be a reasons why he is not thought in Holland; but it might simply be because people who decide reading material sincerely think he is wrong :)

In 'Ethics' I think Spinoza put forward one of history's strongest case for why determinism/non-free-will is not a bad thing and he honesty and successfully explored how we can learn to live with the consequences of it. It goes something like this:

'People can't help what is inside their minds; they will make decisions based on the options they can see; if you are not happy with their decisions you can't blame them since they couldn't possible be different than they are. If you know this it would even be immoral to blame them for their actions. The moral thing to do is to help them change what is inside their mind i.e educate them (suspicious people would change this word for brainwash them).'

His ethics is all about not blaming people for their actions and instead try to understand and educate them. Not so different from what most people believe today.

I think the problem is that these ideas sound too similar to those of Machiavelli and Nietzsche. This could be one reason why people are not comfortable with spreading Spinoza's works. I think Machiavelli's 'The Prince' and many of Nietzsche's works very much continue Spinoza's line of reasoning and explore the consequences of a society where people need to be 'influenced'/'lead' in the 'right' direction rather than 'take responsibility for their own actions'. Since the consequences of these ideas seem to turn ethics upside down and inside out for many people it is not shocking that a conservative organization such as the public education system would not fight to 'influence' people's minds with Spinoza's ideas. They don't necessarily disagree with the premiss that we should educate people rather than blame them, but since they at the same time want to agree with the premiss that 'people should be held responsible for their actions' they might find it easier to 'teach' people the first premiss with the help of some other resource; one which does not so completely smash the second premiss to pieces.

  • Yeah, the Political Treatise is mostly Ethics applied. Nice points, thanks!
    – user2953
    Apr 22, 2013 at 14:40

I love Spinoza's Ethics. However, I recognize that it might be better not to read it until you are a little bit older. If it were taught to young children, many of them might end up not believing in free will. That could have noticeable psychological effects. According to a recent article,

individuals with strong beliefs in free will have better actual job performance and career attitudes than individuals with low beliefs in free will. Recent studies in social psychology have shown that being exposed to scientific information weakening the belief in free will can lead to negative changes in social behavior, such as cheating (Vohs and Schooler, 2008) and aggressiveness, and reduces prosocial and altruistic behavior (Baumeister et al., 2009). Further, it has been shown that deterministic primes threatening free will lead to reduced autonomous and independent thoughts (Alquist et al., 2012). These results suggest that believing in free will is crucial for motivating people to implement effort and deliberation to overcome automatic thinking and behavior.

This research does not settle the matter definitively. Obviously, some necessitarians are very independent-minded! Maybe the key is to contextualize these philosophies, and to guard against hasty inferences (say, from necessitarianism to nihilism). This research suggests to me that determinism and necessitarianism aren't just cool intellectual toys. They're powerful ideas.

Perhaps Spinoza himself would have recommended caution. Yovel takes him to have this opinion: "Knowing that most common people are incapable of truly rational attitudes, [the philosopher] will not seek to provoke them and shatter their lives in vain" (Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Marrano of Reason, p. 142)


First of all, i totally believe that reading spinoza will not be disrupting for the current society. At least not in the anarchist way, like everyone will begin to behave in his own beliefs without caring about the laws etc. No, if in any case will be disrupting for society, it will be in a way that people who read spinoza will try to change society but in a legal/legitimate way. Anyone who will read the political treatise,i think will end up to the same conclusion

Secondly, it would be really interesting what spinoza would have said if they ask him if it would be proper for young children to study his books.

I think he would say a big, actually a HUGE, YES, and he would also propose to change the way that the whole eduation system works.

And also because it was mentioned that reading spinoza is difficult. I don't know if it would be difficult for a young person to read it, but even if it is, that's why there is a teacher/professor to help him understand it.

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