- The Dutch Legacy: Radical Thinkers of the 17 th Century and the Enlightenment ed. by Sonja Lavaert and Winfried Schröder
Scholars of the seventeenth century, the Enlightenment, and Benedict de Spinoza will profit from the essays collected in The Dutch Legacy. Considered as a whole, the volume makes at least two significant contributions. First, it puts firmly to rest the still prevalent idea that Spinoza was a fundamentally lonely thinker whose ideas were sui generis, sprung from the mind of a solitary genius living in social, political, and spiritual exile. Despite the fact that Spinoza's correspondence testifies to a rich network of friendships and associates, a romantic image of him persists as, in the words of Yirmiyahu Yovel, "alone in the deepest sense of [End Page 737] the word" (Spinoza and Other Heretics, volume 1, 13). The image of a fundamentally lonely Spinoza appears most insistently in Anglophone literature, which has not benefitted from a translation of Spinoza en zijn kring (Spinoza and his Circle) by Koenraad Oege Meinsma (Dutch 1896, German 1909, French 1983). This volume invites readers to consider in greater depth several figures of Spinoza's circle, including Pieter de la Court, Franciscus van den Enden, Adriaan Koerbagh and Lodewijk Meyer, as well as free thinkers beyond the circle, such as Abraham van Berkel. Reflection upon the themes, problems, and arguments of these progressive Dutch thinkers illustrates that Spinoza was far from intellectually solitary: many of the radical ideas with which he is credited were articulated by others and drawn from a wide range of common sources.
It is rather striking that in one city and in the space of a single decade (1656–1666), all the members of Spinoza's circle would articulate similar, highly controversial ideas that would have a significant impact on European thought to come. The "Amsterdam free thinkers" were all opposed to State enshrined clerical authority and sharply critical of its abuses. Several were engaged in outlining a more rational approach to scripture and religion. They shared an attraction to "materialism" and the natural sciences. They produced social and political criticism, sophisticated Biblical hermeneutics, and naturalistic metaphysics. They drew on a range of sources well beyond the philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza, including also Hobbes and the tradition of libertinage érudit. Far from emerging ex nihilo, even one of Spinoza's signature phrases—"Dieu, c'est à dire la nature"—is found in the libertine writer Lucilio Vanini's De admirandis (Michiel Wielema, 216).
Yet, while we ought to understand Spinoza's philosophy to emerge from a fertile soil, this volume might call attention to his divergence from his intellectual community. Most notably perhaps, each of the authors discussed in the volume advocates what Spinoza calls a "dogmatic" interpretation of scripture, such that reason is the ultimate arbiter of Biblical meaning. Given that he is straining against his comrades, Spinoza's rejection of this approach in the Theological-Political Treatise may be especially significant. In addition, some contributions suggest that his associates adhered closely to Hobbes (Stefano Visentin, 238) and, in some cases, had a rather low estimation of Machiavelli in contrast to Spinoza (Wiep van Bunge, 25). This volume adds richer material for understanding Spinoza's intellectual context and his distinctive views.
Second, while the title of the volume suggests an affinity with Jonathan Israel's project to place seventeenth-century Dutch radical thought at the center of the history of the Enlightenment (and Israel contributes an essay), several contributions challenge or qualify Israel's characterization of this philosophical movement. Whereas Israel typically draws a sharp distinction between the "moderate" and "radical" currents, several contributors align the Dutch free thinkers with English (Hobbes and Thomas Browne) and German Enlightenment (Kant) traditions. More substantially, several essays resist at length Israel's characterization of Dutch radicalism as secular, atheistic, or anti-theological (Frank Mertens, Henri Krop, Sascha Salatowsky). Although the authors discussed all emphasize reason as an antidote to superstition, several essays insist that the progressive Dutch thinkers of...