Baruch “Bento” aka Bendictus de Spinoza was born this day in 1632, quite possibly on the site now occupied by the Moses and Aaron church in Amsterdam. There are biographies of the guy scattered all around the internet and among libraries across the globe, so forget all that. Instead, I want to share one particular anecdote that is particularly timely and utterly relatable – at least to me.
It’s timely in that it talks about republics versus monarchies and the public’s struggle to decide between one or the other. And it’s relatable because it shows how Spinoza — a man who championed being rational and tamping down one’s passions — was still utterly capable of losing control when he encountered something that outraged him to the core of his being.
It’s one of the things that makes me love the guy.
2020 is bad, but is it a rampjaar?
To really understand Spinoza, it helps to understand the times and place he lived in. Namely, the Dutch Republic of the 17th Century, sometimes (and controversially, and again) known as the Dutch Golden Age. During this time, the Dutch were organized into a republic, which was a rarity at the time when monarchies were the norm. Remember, the U.S. Revolution was still a century away. Specifically, the Netherlands was a confederacy of states of which Holland was the largest, richest and most influential. Holland, by the way, is where Amsterdam is located and where Spinoza lived.
Now, a lengthy side note that will become very important later: just because the Netherlands had become a republic does not mean that every Dutch heart had given up on the monarchy. For whatever reason (and truly, it escapes my reason), there is something in human nature that fawns over titles and crowns and kings and queens, and it is as true now as it was then. So even though the Dutch Republic was doing remarkably well — had fended off the world’s greatest military power of the time and emerge as the globe’s mercantile powerhouse — that just wasn’t enough for some. They still longed for royalty and remained loyal to the House of Orange, the hereditary royal house of the Dutch.
It was also an unstable time, as far as international relations went. The Netherlands had been fighting for independence from Spain between 1568-1648. No sooner had that ended than a series of Anglo-Dutch wars began in 1652. It didn’t go particularly great for the Dutch and it ended in a treaty that included an Act of Seclusion, an agreement that the infant Prince William III, nor any member of the House of Orange, could become the Stadtholder, or leader of Holland.
That year, the Dutch got mixed up in yet another war, but this time the British were fighting alongside the French against the Dutch. It went terribly for the Dutch. The French swamped Dutch defenses and sent the population into a panic. An assassin tried to kill De Witt on June 21, and on Aug. 4, he resigned. But that wasn’t enough to placate a public that increasingly wanted him gone and a monarch put in his place.
That Act of Seclusion was followed up in 1667 with the Perpetual Edict, which got rid of the office of stadtholder in the province of Holland. The idea here was to keep the Netherlands a republic — or at least, to keep Prince William and the House of Orange from controlling it.
This Act of Seclusion and Perpetual edict were fine by Johan De Witt, the up-and-coming politician from Holland who led the Dutch Republic starting from the early 1650s until … well … I’ll get to that. De Witt was a diehard republican opposed to the idea of monarchy. And under his leadership, the Netherlands was flourishing. Until the rampjaar, the year of disaster, 1672.
The ultimate barbarity
In the summer of 1672, Johan De Witt’s brother, Cornelis, accompanied Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruyter on battle against the English forces, but illness forced him to return home. Both de Witt brothers were hated by the Orangist faction, loyalists to the monarchists. They accused Cornelis of being a spy against the Dutch without basis, and had him arrested and tortured. When he refused to confess, he was banished out of the country.
His brother, Johan, distressed to see his brother flee their homeland, rushed to help his brother pack and leave. It was Aug. 20, 1672, a moment the mob had been waiting for. With both brothers in the same place at the same time, they attacked. Not only were the de Witt brothers shot, they were hung on display on the streets of The Hague. Not only were they hung on display, they were mutilated. Not only were they mutilated, parts of their bodies were taken as souvenirs. Not only were parts of their bodies taken as souvenirs, some of their organs were cooked and eaten. And not only did all of this actually happen, but there has always been suspicion that the lynch mob was actually coordinated by none other than Prince William III of the House of Orange, who would emerge as the Stadtholder of Holland, and later, the King of England.
Remember how there was a ban on the House of Orange being a Stadtholder, and then a ban on the office of Stadtholder at all? So much for all that.
It’s easy to look back at that event that bloody and say you would have no part in it. But the fact was, the murders had many hands. Many people who yearned for a return to the monarchy and saw it as a refuge from a messy time when a nation’s fortune seemed to be on the decline. The Dutch position as the pre-eminent trading power in the world was in doubt, and there had been a decades-long culture war at home between hardline Calvanists and more reform-minded collegiants and remonstrants. Many were attracted to the notion that putting one strong man in charge would tamp down these conflicts and, well, make the Netherlands great again.
But one guy who swam against that current? Bento Spinoza.
Modern democracy’s founding father
I know that here in America, we made a big deal about our “founding fathers.” They go by names like Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton. Almost to a one, they all owned human beings or profited off the sale of people (yes, even Hamilton) while writing big words about the sanctity of freedom. And when it came time for them to sit down and codify a form of government, they made damn sure to write out women and to keep people who were enslaved in their chains.
And when it came time to write down their big ideas, the view adopted by America’s founding fathers — by way of philosopher John Locke — was this: rights are derived by your creator, by God. It’s a small step from there to argue that if God created you a slave, or a woman, or a Native, or any other group with less power, then by God, you were meant to have less power. Power was in the hands of white men, where it rightfully belonged. Pardon my cynicism, but we are still living with the consequences today.
But a hundred years before that, Spinoza was busy being a visionary for democracy. And unlike American democracy, which envisioned that people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” he came to a different conclusion. While people are all equal in that we are all of the same substance, we are unequal in that some of us have more power than others. But Spinoza determined that it should be the role of government to grant civil rights and protection, which in turn provide the safety and security that enable people — even weaker people — to maximize their potential and abilities. Rights come from the government; not god.
Since rights come from the government, that is, from people themselves, there must be no such thing as a god-sanctioned monarchy. For Spinoza, monarchy was a distasteful relic of the past. The future belonged to the republic. And he say so quite strongly:
For patricians will always think those the best, who are rich, or related to themselves in blood, or allied by friendship. And, indeed, if such were the nature of patricians, that they were free from all passion, and guided by mere zeal for the public welfare in choosing their patrician colleagues, no dominion could be compared with aristocracy. But experience itself teaches us only too well, that things pass in quite a contrary manner, above all, in oligarchies, where the will of the patricians, from the absence of rivals, is most free from the law. For there the patricians intentionally keep away the best men from the council, and seek for themselves such colleagues in it, as hang upon their words, so that in such a dominion things are in a much more unhappy condition, because the choice of patricians depends entirely upon the arbitrary will of a few.
– Tractatus Politicus, “Of Democracy”
Is it just me, or does that passage remind you of anyone?
Desperate times And desperate measures
On Aug. 20, 1672 — the day the De Witt brothers were murdered, desecrated and cannibalized, Spinoza was also a resident of The Hague. He likely heard the blood-curdling cries of the crowd from the third-floor window of his apartment, located less than half a mile from the scene of the crime. I can only imagine how it tortured Spinoza, who was not only an ardent supporter of democracy, but of De Witt himself.
Now, Spinoza was a man of reason, but reason has its limits. He was beside himself. And as news of the utter depravity unfolding downtown reached him, he hit the limit of his self-control. The story is perhaps best related by the philosopher Gottfried Willhelm Liebniz, who personally met with Spinoza:
According to Leibniz, Spinoza, ‘said to me that on the day of the massacre of the De Witts’—who, as will be only too familiar, in August 1672 were lynched in The Hague by a furious mob, panicking after the French had invaded the Republic — ‘he wanted to go out at night and post a placcard near the site of the massacre, reading ultimi barbarorum. But his host locked the house to keep him from going out, for he would be exposed to being torn to pieces
Liebniz, as related by Steven Nadler in “Spinoza”
Now, I love this story for so, so many reasons:
- I love that Spinoza was so dedicated to the idea of a republic — an idea still virtually untried of at that time, that he was willing to risk his life to defend it.
- I am delighted at the thought of a man who argued so stridently for controlling one’s emotions and passions completely losing control, so much so that his landlord had to hold him back for fear of losing out on next month’s rent!
- I really, really love the idea of walking right up to the scene of such ugliness and calling it what it was, an ultimate barbarity.
Man of the Hour
It’s #3 on that list that particularly strikes a chord with me lately. Well, today in particular. Because today, I took a midday nap and woke up feeling relaxed, and it hit me that I hadn’t felt that way in … weeks? Months? And there is one reason why: Our election is finally over. Michigan’s Board of Canvassers confirmed the fact that 154,000 more people voted for Biden does, in fact, mean that Biden won the presidential election in our state. And as a result of a similar action in Pennsylvania, Trump is on the way out.
Just a few days ago, it didn’t seem that certain as all. Republicans in my state — people who I personally know, people whose offices were on the same floor as mine, people who I watched give grand speeches about the sanctity of the Constitution and the right to vote — were proposing to trash all 5-plus million votes cast in our state and to set up Trump as a dictator, or his family as some sort of de facto monarchy.
Just as alarming, there were — and still are — tens of millions of people in this nation who remain fully on board in with this plan. They don’t wear orange this time. They wear red.
I had flirted with the idea of writing up some 99 complaints against the Republican Party and tacking them to the door of the Michigan Republican Party, a la Martin Luther, but it was my long-suffering wife who held me back. And good thing she did, for sake of my employment.
But in that moment, I was one with Spinoza, one with every person who has ever cried out against the barbarity of a government that seeks power for nothing but the sake of having power. It’s good company to keep. And that company requires us to do more than to make grand gestures inside our homes. It requires us to keep fighting, even when the times are good, until a day someday comes when the world we live in lives up to the ideal in our heart.
Here’s to you, birthday boy. Thank you for the inspiration.