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January 28, 2007
From Rembrandt to Spinoza, the Golden Age of the Netherlands casts its long shadow into the 21st century. Candle light flickered and the sand in the timer flowed silently but he barely noticed, he was so engrossed in his reading. With his left hand he held unto the globe while all around him in the darkness others slept deeply. The work of these candle-light-scientists continues to be honoured today. Indeed their century, the 17th century is now recognised as one that was crowded with genius.
Damasio chose a reproduction of this painting by Dutch artist and Rembrandt (1606–1669) student from 1627 to 1628, Gerrit Dou (1613 – 1675) entitled Astronomer by Candlelight (c.1665) for the cover of his splendid, insightful book in which he combines his own research as head of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center with the writings of Spinoza, a contemporary of Rembrandt.
Among the renowned Dutch artists, scientists and merchants who were part of the Golden Age in Holland were the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1677), Nicolaes Tulp (1593–1674) Doctor, Magistrate, and Mayor of Amsterdam, wrote a book on diseases and human & animal anatomy,Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) laid the foundations for international law, René Descartes French philosopher lived in Leiden from 1628 till 1649 and Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), a famous mathematician, physicist and astronomer. See wikipedia.
In Chapter 6, “A Visit to Spinoza,” Damasio revisited the historical period which he calls a century of genius in which Spinoza’s life unfolded. He noted that it was in the Netherlands in the 17th century that the makings of contemporary justice through such enlightened minds as that of Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) who introduced modern concepts of international law (1625). It was also during this period that modern capitalism emerged in the Netherlands (2003:231).
While he lived in the most tolerant country of the 17th century Spinoza’s iconoclastic ideas regarding truth claims and legitimization of truth were too radical even for Holland.
Spinoza was born into a prosperous family of Sephardic Jewish merchants who had fled Portugal during the Inquisition shortly before Spinoza was born. Their acquired wealth from trade in sugar, spices, dried fruit and Brazilian wood was Spinoza’s inheritance. But he valued his intellectual independence more than money and learned to live frugally even refusing professorial positions so as not to have his time or thinking compromised. He never owned his own home preferring to occupy only a bedroom and study. In that bedroom was the one object upon which Spinoza fixated. This was the four-poster, canopied and curtained bed where he was conceived, birthed and in which he finally died. It is called a ledikant and contrasted sharply with the armoire or cupboard bed that was more common in Amsterdam homes of the 17th century (to be continued p.229). Other than that he only needed paper, ink, glass, tobacco and money for room and board. He reminds me in some ways of our contemporary Russian mathematician Perelman who learned to live on $100 a month to devote himself solely to the elevated apolitical study of pure mathematics.
Please note that permission for use of this image on this blog under the Creative Commons is pending.
List of those labeled as a 17th century genius:
Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) laid the foundations for international law. Publications mentioned 1604, 1605, 1632.
Nicolaes Tulp (1593–1674) Doctor, Magistrate, and Mayor of Amsterdam, wrote a book on diseases and human & animal anatomy.
Selected bibliography and webliography
Damasio, Antonio. 2003. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. New York: Harcourt.
Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. A Social History Timeline Related to Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza (2003).
Grotius, Hugo. 1604-5. 1950. De Jure Praedae (Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty) Original Publishing: 1868 (actually written in the end of 1604 and the beginning of 1605); English Translation: Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950.
Grotius, Hugo. 1623  True Religion Explained and Defended against the Archenemies Thereof in the Times (The Truth of the Christian Religion) Original Publishing: 1632; English Translation: New York: DaCapo, 1971.
Grotius, Hugo. 1625.  Prolegomena to the Law of War and Peace. Original publishing: 1625 English Translation: Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1975.
Uzgalis, Bill. 1997-2003. “Hugo Grotius“. in “Great Voyages: the History of Western Philosophy from 1492-1776”. firstname.lastname@example.org. Oregon.
Grotius, Hugo. 1625.  De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace) Original Publishing: 1625; English Translation: Cambridge: John W. Parker, 1853.
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