Historical story

The admiration for Spinoza

Spinoza has received a lot of attention in recent years. He is therefore not just a philosopher:he is seen as paving the way for secular, Western society. The Dutch canon describes him as follows:'He initiated a liberal interpretation of the Bible, spoke out in favor of democracy and pointed out the great importance of freedom of expression.' The question is whether this portrait is not too time-bound. In the nineteenth century, Spinoza was seen quite differently:as an eminently spiritual thinker.

In 2008, on the advice of the Oostrom Committee, the Balkenende cabinet included Spinoza as the only philosopher in the canon of the Netherlands. With its fifty 'windows', this canon would provide an overview of 'what everyone should know about our history and culture'. This public recognition of Spinoza's exceptional importance is nothing special. Jan and Annie Romein, for example, already gave him a place of honor in their Descendants of our civilization (1938-1940).

The conviction that Spinoza is a great Dutchman has a long tradition, starting at the end of the eighteenth century. For example, Spinoza is prominently present in Life description of some distinguished most Dutch men and women (1775) by Simon Stijl and Johannes Stinstra and A.M. Cérisiers Scene of the general histories of the United Netherlands (1787).

What is surprising and new is that the Spinoza of the canon is seen as a political and secular thinker. The accompanying booklet states about Spinoza's first major work Tractatus theologico-politicus:'Here he initiated a liberal interpretation of the Bible, spoke out in favor of democracy and pointed out the great importance of freedom of expression.'

British historian Jonathan Israel had a major influence on this new image. In three recent books he traces the history of the radical enlightenment, which spread the ideals of tolerance, freedom, equality, democracy and rationality across Europe and ultimately, after 1945, led to the emergence of our egalitarian society and non-religious culture. .

Warrior against religious fanaticism

The catalyst of this global development would be Spinoza's rationalistic and extremely consistent philosophy. With a small circle of supporters in the Republic, he radically undermined the power of tradition, the hierarchical social order and religion.

It fits Israel's image of Spinoza that in September 2006 Ayaan Hirsi Ali visited the Spinoza House in Rijnsburg a day before her departure (or rather flight) to America, under great media interest. The message of this visit was clear:a fighter against religious fanaticism pays tribute to the great Dutch champion of free thinking and freedom of expression.

In 2008, the municipality of Amsterdam enabled a foundation of friends to erect a statue of the philosopher near his birthplace and the town hall. The caption below the statue reads:"The goal of the state is freedom." The capital thus took revenge for its lukewarmness in the commemoration of Spinoza a century and a half earlier.

'Made a small country great'

On 21 February 1877 the death of Spinoza in 1677 was commemorated with great interest in the presence of Prince Alexander in The Hague. The meeting was convened by a committee with the aim of erecting a statue in The Hague near the philosopher's death house. In the circular for the acquisition of funds, Spinoza was compared with celebrities such as Erasmus, De Ruyter, Willem van Oranje and Rembrandt:they all 'made a small country great in their own field'.

The Netherlands could not stay behind with Germany, which Kant honored with an image for its wisdom, for Spinoza 'taught contemporary and descendants to know the material and moral nature of man'. The historian E.H. In his cultural history De Lage Landen 1780-1940 (1976), Kossmann considers this aim to honor the philosopher with a statue an expression of the desire of progressive liberalism to convey to the immature and illiterate masses the message of a glorious past, in which the emancipation of spirit and people had already begun.

The report of the meeting on the opening page of the Algemeen Handelsblad therefore contrasts the hatred and contempt that people had for him and his ideas before the nineteenth century against the appreciation and respect with which he was treated in 1877. “What progress!” exclaims the writer. The act of erecting a statue expresses "the uplifting consciousness that a nation which honors its great men honors itself."

Society as Church

The initiative for the honorary committee came from Johannes van Vloten (1818-1883). This minister's son went to study theology in Leiden, completely in line with the family tradition. However, he came into contact with Biblical criticism, as it had flourished in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century. In addition, he became influenced by the left-wing ideas of philosopher Georg Hegel and came into contact with Spinoza through the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher.

After his dissertation on a New Testament subject, Van Vloten publishes in De Gids of 1848 'the negative conclusion of his theological-philosophical studies' and the necessary 'dissolution' of theology in philosophy, man and physics.

He believed that in the nineteenth century the expiration date of both the language of the Christian religion with words like "God", "miracle" and "resurrection" as all other myths has expired. They belonged to a stage of human development that was past. The religious and ecclesiastical era, in which man could afford such representations, had finally come to an end and science prevents man from using such representations any longer.

Believe superfluous

Van Vloten left the church and in a brochure he writes:'My church is society, and my religion finds its exercise in life itself; none of my religious needs that cannot be satisfied there.” In principle, according to him, the Church had lost its right to exist the moment Spinoza philosophically derived the moral principles of Socrates and Jesus Christ. Since him, faith has become superfluous and man can live on his own strength, that is, without assuming a supernatural reality.

To disseminate the Spinozist world view, Van Vloten founded a cultural magazine:De Levensbode. On the title page was a Latin quote from Spinoza's second major work, the Ethics:'Philosophy is a reflection on life, not the pursuit of death.' After 1881 the title of the magazine became De humanist. The reason for this change of name is that the 'loving and sensible person' has now taken the place of Kristen. The 1882 e year of the last, the 301 e of the Dutch liberation from the Roman and Spanish yoke, is therefore the first of the now opening Human Ages.'

Vie de Jesus

At the beginning of 1875, Van Vloten set up a committee of six people. After the circulation of the circular, support committees were set up all over the country and abroad to raise funds. In October 1225 had been received from Great Britain and 965 from Sweden. Rotterdam came over with ƒ 665, The Hague with ƒ 460 and Amsterdam with a meager 240. This last amount aroused Van Vloten's indignation at so much indolence. He therefore chose The Hague as the location for the statue.

In 1877 insufficient money had been raised to recruit an artist. Yet they did not want to let the centenary pass unnoticed. The French philosopher Ernest Renan was therefore asked to give a festive speech. The text was printed by Martinus Nijhoff and the proceeds were donated to the statue. Renan comes from a devout Catholic family and was destined for the priesthood. But as with Van Vloten, the idealistic philosophy of Hegel and Kant and German Biblical criticism destroyed the faith of his childhood. In 1863 his Vie de Jésus, . appeared that a year later in Dutch under the title Wie was Jesus was translated.

In this French version of David Friedrich Strauss' earlier Das Leben Jesu (1835) Renan expresses his belief in a coming religion of mankind:the universe was not the product of a creative transcendent God, but was ruled by an all-determining internal principle in Nature. With Hegel, he believed that humanity will be able to realize the idea of ​​humanity, that is, a morality of human love based on reason. Renan speaks of 'religion', because the individual man voluntarily binds himself to the almighty Nature. This "eternal" religion must be distinguished from historical religions such as Christianity and Judaism, for they are based on prejudice and dogma. Renan was fired as a professor because of this book, which made him a hero of European freethinkers.

Love to God

Renan projected the belief in such a reasonable religion onto Spinoza in his speech. He sees in him a man who in his day had the highest sense of the divine. When a passerby sees the statue, he will think, "It is here that God is most deeply known." Renan calls Spinoza a seer. He is a forerunner of liberal theology, having shown that "Christianity could preserve all its splendor without the supernatural."

Spinoza cannot be called an Atheist, because "the recipe that this so-called prince des athées gave to find happiness was the love of God." The reporter for the Algemeen Handelsblad noted:"Spinoza's freethinking was rooted in a religious sense that is eternal and unmistakable." According to Renan, the loss of faith in the Christian God has left deep wounds, but "the ideal does not waver. God abides in our lives." Spinoza is a promising example of this. The ceremony concluded with the presentation to the Hague aldermen of the most famous portrait of Spinoza by Van Vloten, which he had owned since the 1940s. It was placed in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, where it is still located today.

In contrast to Van Vloten, who even wanted to delete the word God from the Ethics as an unnecessary concession by Spinoza to his contemporaries, Renan continued to use the word God. Although some audience members, according to the report in De Nederlandsche Spectator, were outraged by this, Van Vloten was not. In De Levensbode he summarized the speech in no less than eleven pages – the original speech had thirty pages. Both harbored the same image of Spinoza as a prophet of a new idealistic religion and as a seer of a humanity that has overcome ecclesiastical divisions. At the final unveiling of the statue in 1880, Van Vloten spoke under the title 'Spinoza, the glad messenger of mature humanity'.

Despite all the differences in the picture, it appears that Spinoza is a truly canonical thinker. For centuries his person and his thinking have been able to make people enthusiastic about a philosophy that focuses on human reason, but at the same time is based on the painful realization that we are just a speck of dust in an infinite cosmos.