Dutch enlightenment

Read in NRC handelsblad of 9 August 2015:


Early August this year, some thousand historians gathered in Rotterdam for the 14nth ISECS conference on ‘The Long Eighteenth Century’ (1650-1815). A long report of the conference proceedings I read in the science supplement of NRC Handelsblad, written by Dirk Vlasblom. Fascinating stuff. It was about how capitalism and freedom were being invented and promoted, and how they were to be seen as ‘natural’, thus building trust among traders in order to foster trade. “Capitalism is also a product of imagination,” professor Inger Leemans from the Free University Amsterdam stressed in his lecture on ‘The Nature of the Economy’. Vlasblom: “A wide variety of concepts is needed in order to let the capitalist system look ‘natural’, to build trust amongst merchants in the economic process and to serve them with a compelling self image.” An enormous engraving of the exchange building of Amsterdam (1693), made by Casparus Commelin, accompanies the newspaper article (picture). The exchange was the first building in the world where bond shares were being traded, a true ‘beehive’ according to the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel.

The Dutch Republic was a special case. It was a unique confederation of city-states in a sea of mighty kingdoms, led by multicultural Amsterdam. Till 1720 the decentralized urban republic was an intellectual space where radical new thoughts could be published, exchanged and freely discussed. It ended, when conservative powers started dominating the Low Countries. The balance of power was no longer favoring Amsterdam, but the countryside. The urban population started shrinking, immigration was no longer possible, an intellectual braindrain was being felt, nationalism marked a narrowing space of thought, centralisation of power became the new political trend. The proclamation of the Dutch kingdom in 1815 was the outcome of this conservative, anti-intellectual and anti-urban national trend. The closing lecture of professor Wijnand Mijnhardt from Utrecht University (‘The Swansong of the Dutch Enlightenment’) I found reveiling, utterly relevant too. In what times are we living?



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