Spinoza '96

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Spinoza and the First Golden Age

Johan van Benthem

Spinoza flourished in the 16th century, at the peak of Holland's Golden Age. The sciences had their Stevin, Huygens, van Leeuwenhoeck, the arts their Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer. Significantly, the commercial world showed amazing energy and creativity at the same time, and so did the political arena. My personal favourite from this whole age is someone whose regent class was largely responsible for the climate of intellectual toleration which allowed Spinoza to flourish. *Johan de Witt* was the grand pensionary of Holland and the United Provinces. But also: mathematician, lawyer, statesman, and a man of great physical courage. (He was under fire for months when serving out on the North Sea with the fleet at war.) While at the helm of the Dutch State, he also published a book on geometry praised by Newton, and in his studies of national finance, wrote "Waerdije", a little gem of a treatise on probability, statistics and life insurance, which made him one of the recognized founders of statistics in Europe. If you ever visit the picture gallery of the Oslo institute of statistics, you will find De Witt in a place of honour.

I hope that NWO will institute a 'De Witt Award' one day, but I wonder which latter-day Dutchperson would ever be eligible for this kind of achievement. Recently, Bastiaan Willink has identified a second Golden Age, in the first decades of the 20th century, when Holland had its Lorentz, Brouwer, Van 't Hoff in science, its van Gogh and Mondriaan in the arts. He does not treat the concomitant economical upsurge, but I think that Philips, Shell and Unilever demonstrate the same linkage as that in the 16th century. Did politics match in great personalities? No De Witt emerged, although I do think that Abraham Kuypers is an interesting figure, combining politics with cultural and religious vision. Read his Stone lectures, which are certainly an unusual piece of intellectual achievement by present-day political measures.

Modern ministers do not write innovative intellectual treatises. They do not lead the troops out to battle, not even on peace missions. The heroics of Dutch politics are confined to the bed-, bath- and debating rooms of a tiny enclave in Den Haag. But NWO's search for excellence emanates from that same city. Let's work toward a third Golden Age, even if it runs the risk of becoming a search for El Dorado.