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Spinoza: Freedom, the most precious thing

Spinoza: Freedom, the most precious thing

by Esther Ritman

The philosophy of Benedictus de Spinoza is more relevant than ever. In his own time and in the centuries to follow, his ideas were regarded and reviled as poisonous, but in our present secularised world Spinozism is mainly viewed as a positive phenomenon. Scholarly works and articles on the Dutch freethinker are being published worldwide every year. At a celebration of the 375th anniversary of Spinoza’s birth, Wiep van Bunge, chairman of the Vereniging Het Spinozahuis, a society with over 1,250 members, spoke of a veritable renaissance of ‘Dutch Spinozism’ having taken place since the 1970s. Thanks to the educational canon introduced in the Netherlands in 2006-2007,1 Spinoza is brought to the attention of school children, now that his life and work are taught as an inseparable part of our national history. Spinoza was rightly selected as one of the three icons of Amsterdam World Book Capital in 2008.

As a library intimately connected with Amsterdam and holding a representative selection of the works of The Netherlands’ foremost philosopher, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica welcomed Amsterdam World Book Capital as an opportunity to organize a Spinoza day and an exhibition on the theme of Libertas philosophandi. Spinoza as a guide to a free world , in collaboration with the Vereniging Het Spinozahuis and many other Dutch institutions and experts. Together with the present volume, containing essays by Spinoza scholars and the catalogue of the exhibition, we thus hope to make a positive contribution to one of the objectives of Amsterdam World Book Capital, to ‘initiate and stimulate the debate on freedom of expression.’

In the Netherlands in the early 21st century, we still enjoy, to speak with Spinoza, ‘the rare good fortune’ of living in a country which honours the principles of freedom of the press, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. That rare fortune appears to be an enduring effect of the much celebrated spirit of freedom ruling the Dutch Republicin the 17th century, to many still the ideal blueprint of a society. Yet what were the limits to that renowned freedom in the 17th century, or even today? Has the message of Spinoza, this rebellious forerunner of the Enlightenment, been properly understood? Is the peace which he hoped to achieve by propagating freedom of thought already within our reach? Is the world already governed by a body of wise men, a College of Light, as advocated by the Czech theosopher and reformer Jan Amos Comenius, who lived in Amsterdam in the years 1656-1672? The College envisaged by Comenius would ‘create a bond between scholars worldwide, to make sure that all that has been revealed by God, or will still be revealed in the furtherance of light and truth, will become available to all men, not neglecting or ignoring any corner of the earth, nation, culture or class of people’.2

Our present age is unfortunately far from having achieved this ideal and still remains under the yoke of ignorance of God, according to Hermes Trismegistus the greatest ill among men. Reading the work of Spinoza today, we cannot help but admiring the way he rejects the false concept of God and hands us the tools to come to an individual understanding of the ways of God, nature and the origin of the human mind, based on the principle that the human mind by nature possesses ‘sound knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God’.3 The allegation of atheism levelled against Spinoza is completely at odds with his conviction that all which is, exists in God and cannot exist or be understood outside of God,4 that knowledge of God is the highest good and that it is the highest virtue of the mind to know God.5

In his Tractatus theologico-politicus, Spinoza argued that the revealed word of God is not comprised in a number of books, but consists of the single understanding of the divine spirit. The natural light of reason is a greater aid towards such an understanding than for instance the Bible:6

However, if you are convinced that God speaks more clearly and effectually through Holy Scripture than through the natural understanding, which He also has bestowed upon us, and with His divine wisdom keeps continually stable and uncorrupted, you have valid reasons for making your understanding bow before the opinions which you attribute to Holy Scripture; I myself could adopt no different course.

To me this strongly recalls a fragment from the fourth treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum, on the mixing bowl or the monad, in which Hermes teaches his disciple Tat:7

The craftsman made the whole cosmos, with reasoned speech, not by hand. (…) Because he is good, it was not for himself alone that he wished to make this offering and to adorn the earth; so that he sent the man below, an adornment of the divine body, mortal life from immortal. And if the cosmos prevailed over living things as something ever-living, the man prevailed even over the cosmos through reason and mind. The man became a spectator of god’s work. He looked at it in astonishment and recognized its maker.

Because we know very little of Spinoza’s early years, it cannot be proven that he was familiar with the Corpus Hermeticum, though it it not implausible given the fact that he was a citizen of Amsterdam, where a Dutch translation of the Corpus Hermeticum was published in 1643. What is certain is that he did not mean to rely upon written authorities only. Rather, it was essential to improve and purify the understanding in order to apprehend things without error, and in the best possible way, he wrote in his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, so that it was apparent to all that he wished to direct science to one end and aim, to attain to the supreme human perfection. He also wanted it to be understood that our concept of God is not defined by any faith we may adhere to, but that everyone should be able to weigh the foundations of faith in freedom and regard them according to his own convictions:8

In judging whether a person’s faith is pious or not, we should consider only his behaviour, not the theological propositions that he assents to. This approach will enable everyone to obey God with a whole and free heart, with nothing being prized except justice and loving kindness.

In addition to championing individual freedom of thought, Spinoza also considered freedom to be essential for the constitutional state. With his Tractatus theologico-politicus he wanted to argue the need to end two evils, the prevailing prejudices regarding religion, and the prejudices relating to the rights of the authorities. With respect to the latter he advised the rulers, who are the guardians of civil and eccelesiastical law, that they can best retain their power by allowing every individual to think what he likes and to say what he thinks.9 He even went as far as to suggest that a government that attempts to curb the human mind is ultimately a violent one. In his eyes the true purpose of the state is freedom. As he writes:10

Since we have the rare good fortune of living in a republic where everyone has freedom of thought and is permitted to worship God as he sees fit, and in which freedom is valued more than anything else, I thought it would be useful to show not only that this freedom can be allowed without harm to piety and the peace of the republic, but also that if it is abolished the piety and the peace of the republic will go down with it.

The main focus of the thirteen essays collected in this volume is the theme of ‘Libertas philosophandi’. As has been said above, Spinoza defended the freedom to philosophise in his Tractatus theologico-politicus. This latter work is present in the exhibition in a number of editions and translations (nos 39-47) and occupies a central position among the works of Spinoza shown and described by Dr Cis van Heertum in the exhibition and in the catalogue added to this volume.

Following an introductory essay on the limits and delimits of Amsterdam as a haven for freethinkers (Prof. DrPiet Visser), the next four essays are biographical in nature and describe Spinoza in the context of his Jewish background in general and the Ets Haim school, where he received his first education, in particular (Prof. DrSteven Nadlerand Drs Abraham Rosenberg respectively). Spinoza’s Amsterdam circle of friends and their network is discussed next (Dr Frank Mertens), while a survey of the philosophical and other works in Spinoza’s library, based on a surviving inventory drawn up after his death concludes the biographical part of this volume (Dr Henri Krop).

The next part concentrates on Spinoza’s philosophical and political thought, describing the five various philosophical traditions which fed Spinoza (Prof. Dr Wiep van Bunge), and honing in on Spinoza as a ‘philosopher of freedom’ (Prof. Dr Piet Steenbakkers). Spinoza’s idea of God is defined in terms of transcendence (Prof. Dr Herman De Dijn) while the contemporary relevance of Spinoza’s views on religion, democracy and tolerance are discussed in the light of the Tractatus theologico-politicus (Dr Paul Juffermans and Dr Miriam van Reijen).

The third part considers aspects of the reception history of Spinoza’s works, specifically addressing the affinity between the ideas of the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno (DrLeen Spruit), followed by an examination of Spinoza’s alleged atheism in relation to the teachings of Jacob Böhme, kabbalah and magic on the basis of a neglected episode from his youth (Dr Carlos Gilly), to conclude with the story of an artistic rendition of another episode from Spinoza’s life which belongs to fiction, not fact: the trial against the Amsterdam philosopher (Dr Adri K. Offenberg).

We wish to thank the lenders to the exhibition for generously offering often unique copies of rare printed books, letters to and by Spinoza and works of art: Antiquariaat Spinoza, Ets Haim-Livraria Montezinos, Joods Historisch Museum, Stadsarchief Amsterdam, the University Library of the University of Amsterdam and Adri K. Offenberg, all in Amsterdam; furthermore the Hertzberger Collection, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek in Hannover, the Royal Library and Museum Meermanno in The Hague, Theo van der Werf and the Vereniging Het Spinozahuis in Rijnsburg,  a society incidentally founded in Amsterdam, in 1897. The Vereniging Het Spinozahuis and the Hertzberger Collection were the chief lenders to the exhibition.

Among the unique and rare items we were able to borrow for the exhibition we would like to single out a few: the membership list of Ets Haim, showing the name of the young Spinoza, one of the few surviving documents from his early years (no. 1); Het licht op den kandelaar by Pieter Balling, one of Spinoza’s friends, the unique copy of which is kept in the University Library of Amsterdam (no. 9); Adriaen Koerbagh’s Een ligt schijnende in duystere plaatsen (no. 13), of which only half was printed when the manuscript was confiscated, the two surviving copies of which are preserved in Museum Meermanno; a letter by the Collegiant Simon de Vries (no. 25), a friend of Spinoza, deposited in the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, which sheds light on the early circle of Spinozists in Amsterdam; an eighteenth-century copy of an early work by Spinoza in the Royal Library, the Tractatus de Deo et homine ejusque felicitate in Dutch (no. 48), which was only rediscovered in the nineteenth century; furthermore the rare first edition of Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus, generously lent by the Hertzberger collection (no. 39); the equally rare second translation of this work in Dutch, Een rechtsinnige theologant (no. 45), kindly lent by Theo van der Werf; the first edition of Spinoza’s biography by the Lutheran minister Johannes Colerus in Dutch, one of the loans of the Vereniging Het Spinozahuis (no. 59); the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek, finally, allowed us to show its copy of Elucidarius cabbalisticus with annotations by Leibniz (no. 75).

We are especially grateful to Prof. Dr Wiep van Bunge and Dr Adri K. Offenberg for finding the time to critically read the text of the catalogue and to Drs Theo van der Werf, secretary of the Vereniging Het Spinozahuis, for his advice in mounting the exhibition.

Esther Oosterwijk-Ritman
Director and Librarian


1 De canon van Nederland, 3 parts (The Hague: Ministry of Education, Culture and Sciences, 2006-2007).

2 Jan Amos Comenius, The Way of Light, transl. E.T. Campagnac, Liverpool 1938.

3 De draagbare Spinoza. Samengesteld, ingeleid en vertaald door Henri Krop en Wiep van Bunge, Amsterdam 1997, 2e dr., p. 158.

4 Ethica part 1, proposition 15, on God.

5 Ethica part 4, proposition 28.

6 Letter to Willem van Blijenbergh, 28 January 1665.

7 Hermetica, transl. Brian Copenhaver, Cambridge 1995, p. 15. Gilles Quispel and Roelof van den Broek, who provided a Dutch translation of the Corpus Hermeticum for the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, note in their commentary to this treatise: ‘The first part (1-10) deals with the gift of spirit (nous). In a way which is totally un-Greek, the nous is not presented as something belonging to every man, but as a divine gift offered in addition to the mind (logos). Only then will man be complete and perfect.’

8 Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, transl. R.H.M. Elwes, 16. Treatise on theology and politics, transl. Jonathan Bennett,, p. 7

9 Ibid., p. 7.

10 Ibid., pp. 3-4.


Spinoza als gids voor een vrije wereld – ebook

Libertas philosophandi


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