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  • A Small-Scale Culture: Dutch Eighteenth-Century Periodicals and the Paradoxes of Decline
  • Gert-Jan Johannes (bio)

“My compatriots! Why dissemble? We are no longer what we have been!” This was how the author Rhijnvis Feith diagnosed Dutch culture in 1790. The golden age of the Dutch seaborne empire was definitely over, and not only in a political and economic sense. The brilliant seventeenth century had been Rembrandt’s as well, an age in which Dutch arts and sciences flourished and gained international prestige. In 1790 nothing of this seemed to be left. According to critics such as Feith, Holland had become the backward little brother of its European neighbors. 1

Whatever happened to Dutch science and high culture? Rhijnvis Feith and many of his contemporaries tried to explain this “decline” mostly by ascribing it to moral and mental causes. With French as a Trojan horse the national customs and traditional morals had been undermined and eradicated. The Dutch had become “Frenchified,” sleepy, soft and decadent. If a revival were possible, it ought to be above all a moral one: a return to the time-honored middle class morality of the Dutch nation. Until recently, this “sleepiness-thesis” used to turn up in historiography as well. We still encounter publications depicting the eighteenth-century Dutchman as someone whose daytime job of counting his shares in the slave-trade was followed by nightly visits to a brothel, after which he laid his head to rest on his money-bags—though not without first having praised the Lord for not being a sinner as other men were. Paying serious attention to science and art would scarcely have fit into this daily routine.

Today, however, the sleepiness-thesis has lost appeal, just like a wide range of more or less mystical ideas about some innate lack of culture of the Dutch. The rainy and misty climate was thought to have rendered the inhabitants of the Netherlands unfit for the higher forms of science and the loftier manifestations of art. That theories like this keep cropping up is amazing, certainly if we assume that it didn’t rain any less in the seventeenth century than it did in the eighteenth. Something similar can be said of an explanation based on the fact that Holland is a small country. From a purely statistical point of view this would indeed diminish the chance of finding any truly great artists and scientists. But Holland was no bigger in the seventeenth century. Moreover, historians nowadays are less inclined to measure a nation’s culture by the odd person of genius.

Therefore, political and economic explanations become increasingly popular today. Experts on political and economic history point out that seventeenth-century Holland owed [End Page 122] its economic and political power to a set of external circumstances that had little to do with its mental outlook. The conditions that enabled the country to rise to a level of power far beyond what might be expected for its size and population were coincidental. When these conditions changed and other nations began to realize their own potential, Holland was more or less reduced to its “natural” level. Together with the decline of economic and political power, Holland’s outstanding position in science and culture, art and literature was lost as well. But there is a difficulty here. A remarkable number of historians—including those who would rather not be called orthodox marxists—routinely assume a direct link between political and economic factors on the one hand and scientific and cultural achievements on the other. They tend to overlook this simple objection: to write a good poem or philosophical treatise one can basically do without a stock market, a powerful fleet, or industrialization.

In this article I will argue for an approach that offers the development of the Dutch cultural infrastructure as an explanation for the relative unimportance of eighteenth-century Dutch culture as compared to that of the seventeenth century. Holland was a small country indeed. But it was not the statistical absence of brilliant individuals that determined the specific character of Dutch enlightenment culture. As I see it, the “decline” of Dutch culture during the eighteenth century was primarily caused...

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