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Chapter 5. The Dutch Were Bourgeois:
Profit More in Request than Honor

What made such talk conceivable was the "rise" of the bourgeoisie in northwestern Europe. The rise was more than numbers: it was a rise in prestige. The rise happened, in the Netherlands especially, and the Netherlands was the model for the rest.
We [Dutch] are essentially unheroic. Our character lacks the wildness and fierceness that we usually associate with Spain from Cervantes to Calderòn, with the France of the Three Musketeers and the England of Cavaliers and Roundheads. . . . A state formed by prosperous burgers living in fairly large cities and by fairly satisfied farmers and peasants is not the soil in which flourishes what goes by the name of heroism. . . . Whether we fly high or low, we Dutchmen are all bourgeois — lawyer and poet, baron and laborer alike.
Johan Huizinga
"The Spirit of the Netherlands" 1935, , pp. 110-112.

Franklin the American is the leading instance of the new European bourgeois of the 18th century, and Smith the Scot is the leading theorist of his virtues and vices. But it is not entirely true, as I just claimed, that the bourgeoisie is innocent of utopianism. There is a bourgeois utopianism of Liberty, too. The utopianism of Reason is the other, non-libertarian half of the Enlightenment project, and certainly has a lot to answer for. But the American bourgeoisie — the phrase is redundant — believes in a utopia of free individual effort. The land of opportunity. Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. "The rise of the Dutch Republic," declared a great American historian of it in 1856, John Lothrop Motley, "must ever be regarded as one of the leading events of modern times." It seems a strange assertion now, but was once a standby of whig history. It viewed the Dutch Revolt, the Glorious Revolution, and the American War of Independence as one story of liberty emergent. And it viewed the French Revolution with alarm, as Going Too Far.

"The maintenance of the right by the little provinces of Holland and Zealand in the sixteenth, by Holland and English united in [1689] in the seventeenth, and by the United States of America in the eighteenth, forms but a single chapter in the great volume of human fate." Motley's is an improving not a totalizing vision, commending a conservative and bourgeois set of revolutions, at any rate viewed by an American patriot in 1856: "`To maintain,' not to overthrow," Motley declared, in distinguishing his Dutch and American revolutionaries from the wild French, "was the device of the Washington of the sixteenth century," William of Orange. The national model for bourgeois Europe was cast long before Smith and Franklin, in the Netherlands. Motley's whiggism has been out of fashion for a long time. But he was not mistaken to see a modern dream of liberty in Holland, and to recommend it warmly to "lovers of human progress, the believers in the capacity of nations for self-government and self-improvement, and the admirers of disinterested human genius and virtue."

It is more in the Golden Age of the seventeenth century, though, than in Motley's heroic age leading to it that Holland showed the bourgeois virtues. "Holland is a country where . . . profit [is] more in request than honor" was how in 1673 Sir William Temple concluded Chapter Five of his Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands. The Scots and the Americans by 1776 had become bourgeois, all right, but they were not the first among the northwestern Europeans and their spawn. The Dutch gave up aristocratic or peasant self-images a century before the English and Scots did, and two centuries before the French. What made the Smith/Franklin project of ethics in commerce conceivable was the rise of the middle class around the North Sea, merchant communities hurrying about their busy-ness with ships packed with herring, lumber, wheat. The league of Hansa towns from Bergen to Novgorod never took national form. The English learned the sailor trade from the Dutch, as in avast, skipper, schooner, lighter, yacht, yawl, sloop, tackle, hoy, cruise, boom, jib, bow, bowsprit, luff, reef, belay, hoist, gangway, pump, buoy, dock, freight, smuggle, and keelhaul. The "German Ocean" became a new Mediterranean, a watery forum of the Germanic speakers — of the English, Scots, Norse, Danish, Low German, Frisian, Flemish, and above all the Dutch — who in the end showed the world how to be bourgeois.

The Northern, literate Protestant nations on the North Sea were cradles of democracy, too, at least of a highly limited "democracy" among the full citizens of the towns, and here too Holland led. The Dutch Republic was an insult to the monarchies surrounding it, more so even than the older and inimitable islands of non-monarchy in Switzerland, Venice, and Genoa. The Republic's federal form (in which each province had a veto in the generality and each city in the seven provinces) was an inspiration later to the Americans. Though it was nothing like a full-franchise democracy of the modern type — the big property owners, as in the early American republic, were firmly in charge — it was always a contrast in theory to the divine right of kings being articulated just then by Philip and Charles and Louis.

And, yes, Protestant. The priesthood of all believers (and behind it the individualism of the Abrahamic religions generally) was central to the growth of the bizarre notion that a plowman has in right as much to say on public matters as a prince. At the Putney debates of the New Model Army in 1647 Colonel Rainsborough declared, "I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under." He was a Puritan colonel [check DNB]. Such shocking, leveling views did not prevail against the position more usual until the 19th century — that. as General Ireton replied to Rainsborough, "no person has a right to this [voice] that has not a permanent fixed interest [namely, land] in this kingdom." But the position was taken, a specter haunting European politics for two centuries and more. Charles I, two years after Putney, asserted the counter-position succinctly, before the headman's block: "A subject and a sovereign are clean different things." [CHECK SOURCE]

The Protestants, imagining early Church history as their model, had already challenged the monarchy of popes and bishops. When priests were literally rulers, when cardinals marshaled armies and abbots and bishops collected a fifth of the rents in England, religion was politics. It was a small step in logic, if not in practice, to the citizenship of all believers. Arthur Herman notes that the Presbyterian Kirk in Scotland was from the time of John Knox "the single most democratic system of church government in Europe." Herman may not be remembering that in the same 1560s and 1570s the Dutch were creating the same sort of church government, by contrast to the less radical Lutherans and Anglicans elsewhere around the German Ocean: no bishops; pastors chosen by the lay elders, viz., from the Greek, "presbyters." The northern Dutch like the northern Britons cast off their bishops in the 16th century, but then took the further step of casting off their monarch too. "Religion, in fact,," observed Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1940, "was also an aspect of politics — the outward symbol, the shibboleth, by which parties were known . . . Religion was not merely a set of personal beliefs about the economy of Heaven, but the outward sign of a social and political theory." What seems to us absurd excess in Archbishop Laud or Oliver Cromwell, he argues, is no more or less absurd than would be invading Poland in the name of Lebensraum or defending South Vietnam in the name of anti-Communism or invading Iraq in the name of suppressing world terrorism.

The shores of the German Ocean seemed in, say, 98 C.E. an unlikely place for town life and the bourgeois virtues to flourish. Tacitus at least thought so. The storms through which a skipper sailed were rougher and were rough more of the year than the Mediterranean of a navicularius. Tacitus claimed that the Germani used cattle rather than gold and silver as money, "whether as a sign of divine favor or of divine wrath, I cannot say"(he was criticizing civilized greed). "The peoples of Germany never live in cities and will not even have their houses adjoin one another." And he claimed it was precisely those whom Dutch people later looked on as their ancestors, the Batavians, who were the first among the Germani in martial virtue (virtute praecipui). The modern Dutch therefore dote on Tacitus.

The modern master of Dutch history, Johan Huizinga, believed that Holland's prosperity came not from this warlike spirit of the Batavians of old, or in early modern times from the Protestant ethic or the spirit of capitalism, but from medieval liberties — an accidental free trade consequent on the worthless character of its mud flats (before the techniques of water management were invented), and the resulting competition among free cities. In the late 16th century the course of the Dutch Revolt stripped away the nobility and clergy; many aristocratic families simply died out, and without a king could not be refreshed. What was left to rule was the haute bourgeoisie, very grand in such a compacted, urbanized place at the mouth of two of Europe's larger rivers, but not aristocrats literally or in the public eye. It is another instance of the importance of marginality in theorizing the liberal evolutions of the 17th and 18th century. North Holland was far from the courts of Burgundy or even of Brussels that attempted to rule it (and very far indeed in miles and in spirit from its nominal ruler from 1555 to 1648, Madrid), and city-by-city was quite able to govern itself. It lay behind, or rather above, the Great Rivers, as the Dutch call them, protected the same way the German army of occupation was protected in 1944 by a bridge too far. The mud flats became rich cities without, so to speak, anybody noticing, and by the time Philip II and the Duke of Alva and others sprang to attention it was too late.

The South, however, was still the place of great cities. In 1500 three out of the (merely) four cities in Europe larger than present-day Cedar Rapids, Iowa (viz., 100,000) were Mediterranean ports, two of them Italian: Venice and Naples, with Istanbul. Of the twelve in 1600 half were still Italian (Palermo and Messina, for instance, had become giants of honorable city life). Yet it is indicative of stirrings in the North that Antwerp in the mid 16th century temporarily and London by 1600 and Amsterdam by 1650 permanently broke into the over-100,000 ranks.

Which makes one contrast between the cultures of the Mediterranean and of the German Ocean look strange. Germanic law codes of early times allow cash compensation for dishonor. (At least for free men. The national laws we have are about free men, using the words "free" and "man" exactly, and therefore were about aristocrats and other high-status men relative to a dishonor-able if majority class of slaves and women.) An eye for eye is always possible and honorable in the German laws, but so is thus-and-such quantity of silver for the eye. Tacitus says that minor crimes are punished by a fine in cattle or horses (in keeping with his claim that they knew not the use of money); the major and capital crimes he instances are not mere assault (on that eye, for example) but cowardice or treason: "even homicide can be atoned for by a fixed number of cattle or sheep," and therefore "feuds do no continue for ever unreconciled." Notice that Tacitus (probably himself of Gaulish origin) is startled by this. The prudent answer to a crime, you see, is to demand wergelt, dissolving blood feuds in the solvent of cash. The hero Gunnar in Njal's Saga does so, as did every honorable Icelander in those days.

By contrast in the South from Homer to El Cid to The Godfather honor is absolute. What is strange is that the implacable Southerners had long lived by a monetized and commercial Mediterranean, heirs to a classical civilization based since the early first millennium on seagoing trade. The savages of the Northern forests were making delicate calculations of monetary equivalences in a less commercial society. True, the honorable-that is, the aristocratic-part of the civilization of the classical Mediterranean had always been suspicious of getting money. By contrast the Icelandic sagas (written well after their events, I've noted, and admittedly therefore anachronistic) are about men unashamedly at the margin between commerce and piracy. Arriving at a new coast they had to decide whether to steal what they wanted or to trade for it. Great hoards of Byzantine coins are found in Norse settlements on the North Sea, evidence that the piratical and commercial ventures of the Vikings were not narrow in scope [Sawyer]. But all this merely enlarges the paradox, that the apparently advanced part of the Western world had from the beginning to the present a more primitive code of honor-or at any rate a less bourgeois one.

* * * * *

The tiny United Provinces of the Lowlands contained in the early 17th century one-and-a-half million people, as against about six million in Britain and over eighteen million in France: there were more people in Paris and London, each {what am I saying here? Contradicts}, than in the whole of the Dutch Republic. Yet more Dutch people (360,000 or so) lived in towns of over 10,000 than did English people, in a much larger population. Was such a town-ridden place as the Netherlands less ethical?

Not in its declarations: remember the Stadhuis of Amsterdam and its moralizing ornaments. R. H. Fuchs notes that Golden Age painting was infused with ethics. During the 16th century (the first age of printing) and later the Calvinist and bourgeois Netherlanders eagerly bought "emblems" — paintings and especially etchings illustrating ethical proverbs. Fuchs shows an example from 1624 of a mother wiping her baby's bottom: Dit lijf, wat ist, als stanck en mist? "This life, what is it, but stench and shit?" "Mist" for modern "mest," i.e. manure. Such stuff is especially prevalent early in the 17th century, it would seem, when Dutch painting had not yet (as Svtelana Alpers has argued vigorously, against such "iconological" readings) separated itself from written texts.

A painting such as Bosschaert's Vase of Flowers looks to a modern eye merely a bouquet that an Impressionist, say, might paint from life-until under instruction one notices (as the bourgeois buyer in 1620 would have noticed without instruction, since behind his canal house he cultivated his own garden) that the various flowers bloom at different times of year, and therefore are collectively impossible. For every thing there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die, saith the Preacher. "That in principle," writes Fuchs, "is the meaning of every [Dutch] still-life painted in the seventeenth or the first part of the eighteenth century." Fuchs' view (and the view of many other students of the matter, such as E. de Jongh, whose work is seminal) is not uncontested. Eric Sluijter, for example, joins Alpers in skepticism. He notes a 1637 poem by the Dutch politician and popular poet Jacob Cats (1577-1660) which portrays painters as profit-making and practical; and analyzes in detail one of the few contemporary reflections on the matter, in 1642 by one Philips Angel lecturing to the painters of Leiden. The conclusion Sluijter draws is that "it is difficult to find anything in texts on the art of painting from this period that would indicate that didacticism was an important aim." The argument of the skeptics is that secret meanings, if no contemporary saw them, might in fact not be there. The purpose of paintings would not be, as the iconological critics think, tot lering en vermaak, "to teach and delight," reflected in museum guidebooks nowadays — this from the humanism tracing to classical rhetoric and Cicero, two of the offices of rhetoric being docere et delectare; and the other movere, to move to political or ethical action. At least it would not be ethical teaching, delighting, moving: perhaps, as Alpers argues, it was essentially scientific, showing people how to see.

But even Alpers and Sluijter would not deny that a still-life of a loaded table with the conch, book, half-peeled lemon, half-used candle, vase lying on its side, and (in the more explicit versions) a skull signifying all the works that are done under the sun, such as Steenwijck's painting of c. 1640, entitled simply Vanitas, was a known genre, to be read like a proverb. Pieter Clauszoon's [?]still life of 1625/30 in the Art Institute of Chicago is filled with symbols of Holland's overseas trade — olives, linens, sugar, lemons — to the same end. All is vanity and vexation of spirit.

We ignoramuses in art history are liable to view "realism" as a simple matter of whether the people in the picture appear to have "real" bodies (though rendered on a flat canvas with paint: hmm), or instead have half-bodies of fishes or horses, or wings attached for flying about ('fantasy"); or whether you can make out actual objects (again admittedly on that flatness) apparently from this world, or not ("abstraction"). Fuchs observes on the contrary that what he calls "metaphorical realism" was the usual mode of early Golden Age painting-showing (barely) possible figures or scenery which nonetheless insist on referring to another realm, especially a proverbial realm, always with ethical purpose. (The same is true of much of French and British realism of the early-to-mid 19th century, such as Ford Maddox Brown's "Work" [1852-63; in two versions] or in France what Gustave Courbet called "real allegories," which Richard Brettell notes put aside the Academic conventions of mythology in favor of apparently contemporary scenes but are nonetheless "ripe with pictorial, moral, religious, and political significance." ) The Dutch pioneers of metaphorical realism, or "real" allegories, would depict merry scenes of disordered home life, such as Steen's painting of c. 1663 "In Luxury Beware" (itself a proverbial expression: In weelde siet toe), with ethical purpose. Such a scene became proverbial in Dutch, a "Jan-Steen household" now meaning a household out of control. "In Luxury Beware" is littered with realistic metaphors. Even an untrained eye can spot them: while the mother-in-charge sleeps, a monkey stops the clock, a child smokes a pipe, a dog is feasting on a pie, a half-peeled lemon and a pot on its side signal thevanitas of human life, a woman in the middle of the picture looking brazenly out at us holds her full wine glass at the crotch of a man being scolded by a Quaker and a nun, and a pig has stolen the spigot of a wine barrel (another literal proverb, Fuchs explains, for letting a household get out of control).

The Golden Age of Holland, in other words, if thoroughly bourgeois, was ethically haunted. (Similar art is produced under similar social conditions, I just noted, during the much later triumph of the bourgeoisie in England and especially in France.) Even in Holland the age was still one of faith (after all, in the rest of Europe, and recently in the Netherlands itself, the varied Christians carried out crusades against one another). The transcendent therefore keeps bursting into Dutch art. One thinks of parallels in 17th-century English poetry, especially from priests like John Donne and George Herbert or Puritans like John Milton. And again it seems to come to a climax of earnestness around the middle of the 17th century, with a urbane reaction to follow, in Dryden, for example, and in late Golden Age Dutch painters. Poetry and painting in the age of faith was not just entertainment (delectare); it had work to do (docere et movere), justifying God's ways to man, to be sure, but also as Trevor-Roper observed Doing Politics (regere). A. T. van Deursen instances Cats, who began as a poet of emblem engravings and who "wanted to instruct his readers through moral lessons. . . . Those who desired something more erotically tinted would have to learn Italian" — or buy a painting. Nothing means in the early-17th century notion merely what it seems; every thing in the poem or painting points a moral.

A century later the keys to this system of early-17th-century moralizing symbols in both poetry and painting had been mislaid. Romantic critics had no idea what Milton was on about, since they had set aside the religious attitudes that animate his poetry. The two pillars that van Deursen spoke about, Christianity and pagan literature, had been pushed apart by early Enlightened and then Romantic Samsons, and the ethical building had collapsed. Even so spiritual a reader as Blake gets Milton wrong. And in looking at painting even the Dutch critics of the late 18th century had misplaced the emblematic keys to their own national art (admitting that Alpers and Sluijter think there was no key to be lost in the first place). Foreigners had no chance at all. Gerard Terborch had painted around 1654-55 a scene in a brothel in which a young man bids with a coin for a woman (whose back is to the viewer) dressed in lovingly rendered satin. The procuress goes about her business; and the table shows a vanitas arrangement. The scene was conventional — Vermeer did one, for example; two if you include Officer and Laughing Girl around 1657 in a different arrangement, similar to a painting of 1625 by van Honthorst named explicitly The Procuress (in which a lute is offered: luit in Dutch, Fuchs explains, can mean either the musical instrument or a vagina). Yet by 1809 [Elective Affinity] Goethe was interpreting the Terborch painting as a scene of a father [i.e. the john] admonishing his daughter [i.e. the whore] while the mother [i.e. the procuress] averts her eyes modestly. Goethe is not to be blamed: an 18th-century engraver had retitled the work "Paternal Admonition, " and appears to have deleted the coin from the client's hand.

{On the other hand, Goethe is something of a mine of Romantic misreadings. He misunderstood Milton's Satan as a Romantic hero, and Hamlet as one, too.}

The painters as much as the critics forgot, too. Fuchs shows the metaphoric realism of the Golden Age giving way in the mid-19th century to a pictorial realism, that is, a realism not of the soul but of the eye or of the mechanized eye, the camera, prefigured in the camera obscura that we have now discovering played a role in painting from the Renaissance on. The subjects just happen to be in the frame of the picture, as in Gustave Caillebotte's masterpiece in the Art Institute of Chicago (1877): the bourgeois walkers at a rainy Paris intersection in the newly built quarters are glimpsed just that moment, which will in an instant dissolve meaninglessly into another moment. A different level of reality is not breaking in from above — though one might argue that impressions such as this carried their own vanitas message. Ethical transcendent is rejected at last in the Industrial Age, as it was embraced in the early Golden Age.

* * * * *

Yes, but surely the Dutch of the Golden Age did not actually carry out their painted and poemed project of the Virtues? Surely the bourgeoisie then as now were mere hypocrites, the villains of a Molière play; or, worse, of a late-Dickens novel; or, still worse, of an e. e. cummings poem, n'est ce pas?

No, it appears not.

"Charity," for example, "seems to be very national among them," as Temple wrote at the time. The historian Charles Wilson claimed that "it is doubtful if England or any other country [at least until the late 18th century] could rival the scores of almshouses for old men and women, the orphanages, hospitals and schools maintained by private endowments from the pockets of the Dutch regents class." The fact is indisputable. But its interpretation has made recent historians uneasy. Their problem is that like everyone else nowadays the historians are not comfortable with a rhetoric of virtues. An act of love or justice is every time to be reinterpreted as, somehow, prudence. Anne McCants, for example, begins her fine book on Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam (1997) with a discussion of how hard it is to believe in altruistic motives from these hard bourgeois and bourgeoises. A compassionate motivation for transfers from the wealthy to the poor is said to be "unlikely" and "can be neither modeled nor rationally explained." Altruistic explanations are "not to be lightly dismissed as implausible." But then she in fact dismissed them, on the light grounds of a scientific method misapprehended — altruism, she says, holds "little predictive power." "After a long tradition of seeing European charity largely as a manifestation of Christian values," McCants is relieved to report, "scholars have begun to assert the importance of self-interest." Her own interpretation of the Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage is that it was "charity for the middling," a species of insurance against the risks of capitalism. The bourgeois said to themselves: There but for the grace of God go our own orphaned bourgeois children; let us therefore create an institution against that eventuality. As Hobbes put it in reducing all motives to self-interest, "Pity is imagination of fiction of future calamity to ourselves, proceeding from the sense of another man's calamity." {search and cite: is it in an essay, "On Human Nature"?] McCants makes a case for her Hobbesian interpretation. But the point is that the case does not have to crowd out Christian and civic humanist virtues, not 100 percent.

The unease of modern historians in the presence of virtues shows in six of the pages the leading historian of the Dutch Republic writing in English, Jonathan Israel, devotes in his massive book, The Dutch Republic (1995), to the Golden-Age poor law, "the elaborate system of civic poor relief and charitable institutions [s]o exceptional in European terms." The assignment of its own poor to each confession, including the Jews (and even eventually in the 18th century the Catholics), foreshadows the so-called "pillarization" (verzuiling) of Dutch politics, sovereignty in ones own domain, reinvented by Abraham Kuyper in the late 19th century. "But," Israel claims, "charity and compassion . . . were not the sole motives." And then he lists all the prudential reasons for taking care of the poor. His first seems the least plausible — that "the work potential of orphans" was worth marshalling. Oakum picking could scarcely pay for even the first bowl of porridge, even in Dickens. He turns to civic pride among towns and social prestige inside a town to be got from running a "caring, responsible, and well-ordered" set of institutions. Certainly the innumerable commissioned paintings of this or that charitable board argue that the pride and prestige was worth getting. But it is hard to see how such rewards to vanity can be distinguished from the virtue of charity itself, at any rate if we are to confine our historical science to "predictive power." If caring is not highly valued by the society then doing it in well-ordered institutions will not earn social prestige. "At bottom," though — and now we approach the prudential bottom line — the alleged act of charity were "rather effective instruments of social control," to support the deserving poor (that is, our own Dutch Reform in Rotterdam, say). It amounted to paying off the poor to behave. Paul Langford makes a similar assertion about the later flowering of charity in England: the hospitals and foundling homes of the 18th century were "built on a foundation of bourgeois sentiment mixed with solid self-interest. " Ah-hah. Caught again being Prudent. The Dutch and English bourgeoisie were not really charitable at all, you see. They were simply canny. The rascals.

Such arguments would not persuade, I think, unless one were determined to find anyway a profane rather than a sacred cause for every, single act of charity. 100 percent. When the argument is made, it is it usually unsupported by reasoning and evidence. McCants does offer reasoning and evidence for her cynical view, but that is what makes her book unusual. The lack of argument in even such excellent scholarship indicates that the cynicism is being brought into the history from the outside. No one, even such gifted historians as Israel and Langford and McCants, explains exactly how "social control" or "self-interest" was supposed to result from giving large sums of money to the poor. A hermeneutics of suspicion is made to suffice. But it doesn't compute. The question arises why other nations did not have the same generous system of charity — that is, if it was such an effective instrument of social control, or was so very self-interested.

The acts of love, justice, and, yes, prudence were in any case astonishingly widespread in the Netherlands, and became so a century later in England and Scotland. Israel ends his discussion by implying that in 1616 fullytwenty percent of the population of Amsterdam was "in receipt of charity," either from the town itself or from religion- or guild-based foundations. The figure does not mean that the poor got all their income from charity, of course, merely that one fifth of the people in the city received something, perhaps a supplement. Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude, who are better at dealing with statistics than Israel, put the figure lower, but still high: "In Amsterdam as many as 10 to 12 percent of all households received at least temporary support during the winter months." It is high by any standard short of thoroughgoing modern socialism. "It is the steadiness of charitable expenditure . . . that distinguishes Dutch practice from other countries, where most financing . . . was triggered by emergency conditions." It was by then an old habit in the little cities of the Low Countries. Geoffrey Parker notes that by the 1540s in Flanders one seventh of the population of Ghent was in receipt of poor relief, one fifth at Ypres, one quarter at Bruges. Prudential explanations of such loving justice seem tough-minded only if one thinks of prudence as tough, always, and love as soft, always, and one for some reason wants always to be seen as tough. But the charity was evidently no small matter. It was bizarre in the European context, hard to see as prudence.

Nor was the exceptional Dutch virtue of tolerance, dating from the late 16th century and full-blown in the theories of Grotius, Uyttenbogaert, Fijne, and especially Episcopius in the 1610s and 1620s a matter entirely of prudence. As I said the Dutch stopped in the 1590s actually burning heretics and witches. The last burning of a Dutch witch was 1595, in Utrecht, an amusement that much of the rest of Europe — and Massachusetts, where Quakers, too, where burned on Boston Common — would not abandon for another century. In the fevered 1620s hundreds of German witches were burnt every year [GET PRIMARY SOURCE FOR THIS]. In Scotland one Thomas Aikenhead, an Edinburgh student, was tried and hanged for blasphemy on January 8, 1697, aged 19, for denying the divinity of Christ — alleged by one witness, and part of a youthful pattern of bold talk. The event was the last hurrah of what Arthur Herman calls the ayatollahs of the Scottish Kirk. After that they were on the defensive, though able to block university appointments, say, and keep skeptics like David Hume quiet.

By contrast the 13th article of the Treaty of Utrecht had stipulated 120 years before Aikenhead's execution that "Everyone must remain free in his religion," though of course observing suitable privacy, since religion was till a matter of state, "and no one should be molested or questioned on the subject of divine worship." In 1579 it was a startling assertion, and could not be expected to be literally followed — and was not. But by international standards the Dutch were astonishingly tolerant. The obvious test case was Judaism — though Catholicism, as the religion of the Spanish or the sometimes-enemy French, was often treated with even more hostility in Holland. That same Grotius, who was no 21st-century liberal, advised against liberal treatment of the Jews across the Dutch Republic. But the States General in 1619 decided against his advice that each Dutch town individually should decide for itself how to treat them, and forbad Jews to be forced to wear special clothing. True, it was not until 1657 that the Dutch Jews became subjects of the Republic. But by comparison with their liabilities in Germany or England, not to speak of Spain and Portugal, the Dutch Jews were exceptionally free: no locking up in ghettos at night, for example; no expulsions and appropriations. In 1616 Rabbi Uziel (late of Fez in Morocco) remarked that the Jews "live peaceably in Amsterdam," and "each may follow his own belief, but may not openly show that he is of a different faith from the inhabitants of the city." It is the melting-pot formula of not being allowed to wear special clothing, of the sort that in 2003 secular France affirmed in respect of shawls for Moslem women.

Since the 1960s, and after a long period of conformity to the Dutch Reformed Church, tolerance is witnessing a second golden age in the Netherlands. Outside the train station in Hilversum, the center for Dutch radio and TV, stands a square block of stone representing praying hands, with the word carved on its sides in Dutch, Russian, Spanish, and English. Tolerance, verdraagzaamheid (from dragen, "bear," in the way that "toleration" is from Latin tollere). It is the central word in the civic religion of modern Holland in the way that "equality" is in the civic religion of the United States or "liberty" in the civic religion of the United Kingdom. That is, it does not always happen, but is much admired and much talked of.

Dutch people react uncomfortably to praise for their tolerance — especially for the new sort growing among Catholics after Vatican II and among Protestants after the decline of the Dutch Reformed church. A society heavily influenced by Dutch Reform dominies, as the Netherlands was not long ago, would not be particularly tolerant of gays or marihuana, for example. This the anti-homosexual hysteria in the Netherlands in 1740-42. Michael Zeeman notes that the anti-bourgeois, anti-clerical movement of the 1960s was more successful in the Netherlands than anywhere else. The transformation from a church-going, respectable society, divided into "pillars" by religious group and stratified by class, into the present-day free-wheeling Holland is astonishing. The Dutch reply nowadays with an uncomfortable, "You don't know how intolerant we really are." Progressive Dutch people nowadays move directly to embarrassments — for riches, for slavery, for imperialism, for the handing over of the Dutch Jews, for capitalism, for Srebencia, for their countrymen's embarrassing reaction to immigrants. "We're not really so tolerant," they repeat. To which foreigners now and in the 17th century reply that the Dutch do not know how really intolerant the competition is. In the 17th century most visitors were appalled, not delighted, by religious toleration in the United Provinces. The notion one king/one religion was still lively, and still seemed worth a few dead heretics — one third of the population of Germany, 1618-1648, for example. Israel notes that foreigners then as now tended to judge the Dutch character by the metropolises of Amsterdam and Rotterdam rather than by the lesser and less liberal places. But even with that bias the Dutch were exceptionally tolerant by 17th-century European standards, as they were exceptionally charitable.

Again one can try to give a wholly prudential explanation: let us say, of the events immediately following August 23, 1632, when Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange, took the southern and Catholic city of Maastricht from the Spaniards, and yet permitted there for a time the continued free exercise of the Catholic religion. The poet Vondel of Amsterdam, the Dutch Shakespeare, his family expelled when he was a child from Antwerp for being Anabaptists, was by 1632 not yet a Catholic convert but very active in support of Grotius and other forward thinkers in favor of toleration. He wrote a poem for the occasion praising the Prince's triumph and tolerance-in contrast to the dagger of the Italian Duke of Parma in Philip II's service a half century before drinking the "tasty burgers' blood" of the same city.

One can argue in the easy and cynical way that some of the tolerance came from mere prudence in political games, especially those played by the House of Orange. It is a cliché of 16th and 17th century European history that religion was used by state-building monarchs, as when Cardinal Richelieu arranged on behalf of a Catholic French monarchy for secret and then public subsidies to the Swedish Lutheran armies fighting the Catholic Habsburgs in the Thirty Years War. Dutch politics was dominated for a century by the question whether or not the Netherlands should become a Christian city on a hill as the Calvinists wished and as they had achieved in Geneva, in early Massachusetts, and under kings in Scotland. The Dutch stadhouders, in effect the elected presidents of particular provinces, drawn usually and then exclusively from the House of Orange, sometimes joined with the upper bourgeoisie, the "regents," to counterbalance orthodox opinion railing against tolerating the "libertines [as the orthodox called liberals], Arminians, atheists, and concealed Jesuits." Yet at other times the Orange stadhouders supported Calvinist orthodoxy. It depended on political convenience, one could say. Religion was politics. Soon after the triumph at Maastricht, for example, Frederik Hendrik found it convenient to abandon his liberal friends and take up again with Calvinists. Prudence. Maastricht was worth a mass. And Amsterdam was worth suppressing a mass.

And you could say that businesspeople need in prudence to be tolerant, at least superficially, if they earn their living from dealing with foreigners. William of Orange had noted in 1578 that it was desirable to go easy on Calvinists "because we [Dutch] are necessarily hosts to merchants . . . of neighboring realms who adhere to this religion." By the 17th century the city of Amsterdam alone had many more ships than Venice did; by 1670 about 40 percentage of the tonnage of European ships was Dutch; and even nowadays a third of the long-distance trucking in Europe is in Dutch hands. The liberal pamphleteer Pieter de la Court (of the illiberal town of Leiden), Israel recounts, urged in 1669 "the need to tolerate Catholicism and attract more immigrants of diverse religions . . . to nourish trade and industry." Similar appeals to prudence had been made by the pioneering liberal pamphleteers of the 1620s.

But rationalize as you will, the Dutch liberal regents and the Dutch owners of ships had of course S-variable reasons, too, for persisting, as likewise their more strictly Calvinist enemies the so-called Counter-Remonstrants had. Both sides were in part spiritually motivated. That people sometimes lie about their motives, or also have prudent reasons for their acts, or are misled, does not mean that all protestations of the sacred are so much hypocrisy. "Religion is a complex thing," wrote Trevor-Roper, "in which many human instincts are sublimated and harmonized" [thus the secularism of the age of anthropology], "and political ambition is only one among these." When the advanced liberal ("libertine") theorist Simon Episcopius wrote in 1627 that only "free minds and hearts . . . are willing to support the common interest," perhaps — startling thought — that is what he actually believed, and for which against his prudential interests he was willing to pledge his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor. In other words, perhaps it is not only his pocketbook but his spirit that was motivating him. Not 100 percent.

This is of course obvious: it would be strange indeed to explain the more than century-long madness of religious politics in the Low Countries after the Beggars' Compromise of the Nobility of 1566 in terms of material interest, certainly not alone, or even predominantly.

But the rhetoric of progressive history writing in the early and mid-20th century always wished to remake S into P, every time, and to see motives of class and economics behind every professed sentiment. It was a reaction to the nationalist tradition of Romantic history writing. Thus Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) or Georges Lefebvre's Quatre-vingt neuf (1939: The Coming of the French Revolution) or Christopher Hill's The English Revolution 1640 (1940). In those times even non-Marxists such as Trevor-Roper wished to slip in right at the outset a quantitative estimate of 100 percent for P. He added to the concession to S just quoted ("political ambition is only one among" the instincts sublimated in religion) an estimate that "in politics it is naturally by far the most potent." Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. You just don't know on page 3.

When the wish to see every behavior as P-motivated makes little scientific sense, as often in the Dutch case, it should not be indulged. The battle over toleration in the Netherlands continued. Israel observes that it was finally resolved in favor of tolerance only around 1700, as it was then too in England, Scotland, France, and Germany. The hypothesis that European religious toleration was merely a reaction to the excesses of the 17th century was expressed explicitly by Herbert Butterfield, for example in his posthumous book, Toleration in Religion and Politics (1980): toleration "came in the end through exhaustion, spiritual as well as material." But as Peter Zagorin points out, "unaccompanied by a genuine belief," which was the product of two centuries of intellectual labor by his heroes Erasmus, More, Sebastian Castellio, Dirck Coornhert, Arminius, Grotius, Escopius, Spinoza, Roger Williams, John Goodwin, Milton, William Walwyn, Locke, and Pierre Bayle, exhaustion would not have mattered. It didn't in France, in which the Edict of Nantes, after all, was revoked.

Zagorin's list of honor is in aid of showing that ideas mattered as much as prudent reaction to disorder. They are the 14 names of the 17th- and 18th-century men to whom he accords chapter sections in his book, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (2003). Six of the 14 were Dutch, and the Frenchman Bayle spent most of his adult life as a professor in Rotterdam. The Netherlands was the European frontier of liberalism. Locke, finally publishing in the late 1680s, was in many respects a culmination of Dutch thinking. He spent five years in exile there, before returning to England with the Dutch stadholder now also the English King William, having absorbed in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Rotterdam the results of the country's liberal thought from Erasmus through Episcopius to Bayle. He stayed two years in Rotterdam with the English Quaker merchant, Benjamin Furly and was friendly with the Arminian theologian Philip van Limborch, both of whom typified the liberal side of opinion in Holland in the 1680s. His very first published writings saw light in the Netherlands in the 1680s; and his famous first essay on toleration (1689), as his pen started to flow in earnest, was first published for van Limborch at Gouda.

Likewise in the United Provinces a wider and older Erasmian Humanism was real, and persistent, and virtuous, to the present day. It was certainly not crudely self-interested in the way that the historical materialists would wish. Charles Wilson praises "the Erasmian strain, the belief in reason and rational argument as a means of moral improvement and a way of life," and quotes Huizinga on those qualities as "truly Dutch." The broad-church attitudes of Erasmus had became a permanent if not always dominant feature of Dutch intellectual life before Protestantism, and survived its excesses. In uncouth Scotland by contrast, Huizinga notes, Calvinism descended in the mid-16th century as a 150-year night of orthodoxy, before the dawn in the early 18th century. In the Dutch controversies of the 17th century "Scottish" was a by-word for unethical and self-destructive intolerance. In its Dutch version Calvinism "was held in check," wrote Wilson, "by the cautious Erasmian obstinacy of the ruling merchant class. Freedom of thought, in a remarkable degree, was preserved. Europe . . . was to owe an incalculable debt to the Erasmian tradition and to the dominant class in the Dutch Republic by whose efforts it was protected." Cynicism about such noble themes in history is not always, not every time, in order. The regents, stadhouders, poets, and intellectuals acted and wrote for self-interested reasons, sometimes, Lord knows. But they acted and wrote for faith, hope, love, temperance, justice, and courage, too. The Lord knows that as well.