Books are constantly in dialogue with each other in the Embassy of the Free MindMarch 23, 2017
Translation from an article in the Dutch Speakers Academy 2017 magazine.
BIBLIOTHECA PHILOSOPHICA HERMETICA
Books are constantly in dialogue with each other in the Embassy of the Free Mind
The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, The Ritman Library for short, was once described by the Dutch man of letters and political scientist Aad Nuis (†2007) as a house of living books. The collection, which will become digitally accessible in the near future, consists of some 25,000 works, which together make up a treasure house of the human mind. After a thorough renovation, the library, publishing house and research centre will re-open to the public in the House with the Heads. In the Embassy of the Free Mind, all available knowledge is set to become accessible to all.
Text: Jacques Geluk
“When he was a member of our advisory board, Aad Nuis once said that no book stands alone here, but that all books are constantly in dialogue with each other. It says something about the special nature of this collection, in which man and his ability to reflect upon himself, the world, God (or whatever notion you wish to attach to it), life and the origin of life play a central role”, says director Esther Ritman, daughter of founder Joost Ritman, in the House with the Heads on Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht. “My father and the council of Amsterdam shared the conviction that this building, until recently the domicile of the Bureau for Monuments and Archaeology, must remain part of the public domain. The history of the house is furthermore connected with the body of thought represented in the library. My father was given the opportunity to buy the House with the Heads. In August 2016, he donated it to The Worldheart Foundation together with the library. This foundation owes its name to a memorable saying by my father that Amsterdam is a city that embraces the whole world.”
“Here we will provide space for the Embassy of the Free Mind, where our collection will be housed once we have completed a comprehensive restoration that may take 18 months. While we renovate the foundation, the building will be recessed by a metre. Because it is a listed building, we will carefully remove all elements that don’t originally belong. Next we will start refurbishing, and only when this is completed will we house the collection, which is now partly stored in the Stedelijk Museum. Its core collection of 5,000 works is currently being digitized. We are planning an information centre in the hall during the building activities.” Here, visitors and others who are interested will be able to learn about the history of this landmark building. The House with the Heads was built in 1622 for the hosiery merchant and art connoisseur Nicolaas Sohier. The building derives its name from the sculpted heads of the gods Apollo, Ceres, Mercury, Minerva, Bacchus and Diana placed at the front. They were added by the house’s second owner, Louis de Geer. As a ‘mercator sapiens’ he devoted a considerable part of his business income to philanthropy. Esther explains that the De Geer family protected writers and thinkers who came to Amsterdam. “They invited the Moravian theologian, philosopher, reformer and pansophist Comenius, made him welcome in their home for a while and saw to it that his work was printed on Egelantiersgracht. Later Comenius also lived there. At the time, Louis de Geer already owned a library containing some 5,000 books, about as big as our present core collection. You might say that these books will come home when we move into the building.”
Dan Brown supports digitization
It is Esther’s passion to make the research library not only physically accessible to all, but also to bring it as close as possible to people all over the world. “The ‘Hermetically Open’ project is aimed at sharing in the digital domain everything we do in our library, publishing house and the accompanying research institute, with everyone who finds us and follows us.” The digitization of the core collection, including alchemical and magical manuscripts and works by Böhme and Spinoza, is now underway, neatly coinciding with the renovation of the House with the Heads. In addition to a contribution by the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds, bestseller author Dan Brown (‘Da Vinci Code’, ‘Angels & Demons’) has made this project possible with a donation of 300,000 euro. “He visited the library – since July 2016 an accredited museum – to do research for his novels and learnt that we were planning to digitize our core collection. As he walked out the door he said he would make sure it could happen. I was flabbergasted.”
Gnosis, the third component
Esther Ritman has now been working for the library for over thirty years. “My father started collecting Hermetic books at an early age, based on his interest in wisdom traditions. In 1984, when he had collected some 10,000 books, he decided to make his collection available to the public in a building on Bloemstraat and found a research institute and publishing house along with it. He also appointed an academic staff. We have now evolved into an internationally acknowledged scholarly library with an internationally oriented research and exhibition programme. He exerted himself to present the gnostic tradition as the third component of European cultural history, in addition to reason and faith. It was also the theme of a 1986 symposium we participated in and it was also a Eureka moment. Afterwards Gilles Quispel, theologian and a nestor of gnosis studies, translated the hermetic works for us, together with Roelof van den Broek, as well as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth.” In May 2016 a volume was published containing all the philosophical source texts of the Hermetica (originally containing the philosophical, theosophical, astrological, magical and alchemical works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus dating from the second and third centuries CE). “The books of Hermes Trismegistus, now known as the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’, were rediscovered in the Renaissance, and we really want to return to the sources and invite everyone to share in it. That’s our principal focus”, Esther says. “Those sources are not on the shelves, so we have made them accessible through our publishing house. With our exploration of the European dimensions of hermetic thought we have considerably widened the scope of research, together with universities, libraries and researchers. In 1993 our own research resulted in an exhibition on 500 Years of Gnosis, which took place in the Rudomino Library in Moscow. There our collection is regarded as world heritage, although it has not been officially acknowledged as such.”
The unity of everything
“The sources must speak for themselves, it’s the key to understanding the unity of everything. It’s what our discipline is based on”, Esther continues. “The hermetic wisdom can be characterized as a basically religious-philosophical current within western thought. It’s not a religion or an organized creed, but a centuries-old way of contemplating the unity of everything. To take a collecting area like alchemy, it’s about people practising alchemy as much as about the process taking place in their ‘inner laboratory’. It can be compared to transforming lead into gold. He who comes to know himself, will also come to know the All. This has been judged heretical and arrogant , however, especiallty when the All also includes God. Alchemy, which is grounded in the Hermetica, shows that the composition of the human body has many correspondences with that of the earth and is based on the assumption that man is a mirror of the cosmos and consequently of God. In the Latin version of the Asclepius (the only hermetic work to have circulated widely in the West in the Middle Ages) God places man in the middle of creation. Man’s twofoldedness – the ability to comprehend God with his mind, and at the same time the circumstance of him being positioned firmly on the ground to take care of the creation of which he is a part – is a literal translation of a hermetic text dating from the beginning of our era. This awareness of a shared responsibility for creation is a common theme in all the books in our collection.”
The heart of the embassy
Many free spirits who are persecuted for their ideas and books personally entertain a sincere wish to be able to make a contribution within the framework of their faith or within the reality of the moment. They experience a passionate curiosity about life itself, seek answers to existential questions and issues of meaning, and they will not be pinned down. Instead, they break barriers. They have done so for centuries and are still doing it now. Esther: “As Comenius already said: if we are afraid to look at reality in this way, the problems we are now confronting will come back, and they will be worse. He issued a strong warning. That’s the whole point. The library is at the heart of the Embassy of the Free Mind that we wish to establish here. The books, in which the authors and all the minds behind them speak out, are the primary focus and they speak for themselves. We invite the people who visit the museum or are interested in our programmes not only to absorb that knowledge, but also to share their own knowledge and experiences. We hope that the fire and passion that motivates so many people, scientists, artists, academics or police officers fighting random violence, will cause people to stop and think. It would be wonderful when a dynamic process can be created and sustained here that carries the same DNA as that of the free minds in our collection, and that this will lead to a self-sustaining movement”, Esther says enthusiastically.
Balance of opposites
Because all, sometimes even contradictory, ideas and currents from the hermetic books are constantly in dialogue with each other, a sort of balance is achieved. “In the entrance hall we want to hang ‘Rivers of Life’, an almost encyclopaedic chart made by the British army officer James Forlong, who encountered in India the ancient roots of wisdom traditions and faiths. He produced a survey of some 12,000 years of human history and evolution of human thought, beginning with nature religions, theism, then all world religions and wisdom currents. The chart stops at 1900, so there’s room for development. In The Ritman Library we confine ourselves to the traditions of the past 2,000 years within Europe, but the chart is a way of indicating that we stand on the shoulders of every person who has been committed to the same questions and has found answers. Perhaps the Embassy will become a sort of alchemical laboratory for the mind, so that people entering into a dialogue will seize upon differences as an opportunity to establish a connection with something other people are still unaware of. The Embassy of the Free Mind, however, will not be a forum for political debate. Its primary focus is on mankind.”
‘Divine wisdom, divine nature’
At present The Ritman Library is not open to the public, though it makes its presence felt in many places in Europe. The anniversary exhibition ‘Divine Nature – Divine Wisdom. The Message of the Rosicrucian Manifestoes in the Visual Language of the Seventeenth Century’, which started on a round trip in 2014, has already toured Germany, Switzerland, Amsterdam, London, and Kraków in Poland. The exhibition opened in Budapest in Hungary in February 2017 and will continue to Dornach in Switzerland in May. “The visual language that can be associated with the Rosicrucians, whose manifestoes reveal the belief that divine wisdom will find its way to humankind, is stunning. The Rosicrucians themselves also owned considerable libraries”, she says, pointing at an engraving of Daniel Mögling in the book which has been published to accompany the exhibition. It is a beautiful hermetic depiction of the twofoldedness of man: his visible, human nature and his invisible, divine nature. “Man is a microcosm. That, according to Mögling, is God’s gift to humanity and it is the highest a person can achieve in this world.”
Esther Ritman is director and librarian of The Ritman Library in Amsterdam and involved in the many exhibition projects, the PR and the strategic development of the library’s research and public roles. She is deeply committed to making the institute a part of the public domain. In addition she chairs The Worldheart Foundation.