September 20, 2012

Anonymous said: Could you comment on the de Witt painting?

This is mainly about Spinoza for me, and the fact that he was something like the first person I know of willing to die for the abstract concept of a free society.

So, back in the middle of the 1600’s the area we now call the Netherlands was less a nation than a loose confederation of former principalities and bishoprics. Their motion out of a medieval political system where power was vested in one strongman had started with the founding of the Dutch Republic in 1581. But by the 1650’s what we would call their trend towards liberalization had stalled. The spirit of a democratic republic was being rapidly consumed by the old monarchical tendencies in the aftermath of several wars. Into this steps a lawyer called Johan de Witt.

de Witt was a guy we’d have no trouble recognizing today. Virtually everyone who runs for bigdicked office in the US is Johan De Witt: lawyer, irreligious, from the merchant class and full of that somewhat toxic mixture of civic mindedness and powerlust. He was also a very decent mathematician. Anyway, de Witt and his brother Cornelis saw the opening to reform the ailing Dutch Republic so that its merchant class would never again be called on to pay for some king’s war. This they did by building the first society that was explicitly conceived as free, as opposed one whose freedom was backed-into (like Florence or the Caliphate of Córdoba ~300 and ~600 years earlier). Think of the de Witt brothers as all the Massachusetts founding fathers with like a teaspoon of Saul Alinsky. They even helped write a handbook outlining how to found a radically open society where the biggest motive power would be capitalism. So not Saul Alinsky as we know & love him, but his nearest 17th century equivalent. 


Before everything fell apart, Johan de Witt managed to befriend an ex-Jew called Benedict Spinoza. de Witt probably took political advice from Spinoza & read some of his unpublishable manuscripts about the coterminous being of God and Nature. de Witt arranged for a small pension to be given Spinoza, who had been living hand to mouth grinding lenses in a garret (BdS eventually died from chronic inhalation of glass dust). All in all, Spinoza realized exactly what the de Witt’s were trying to bring about: the kind of society in which someone like himself wouldn’t have to worry about being murdered for publishing things he considered to be true. And all this by definition, enshrined as the reason for the society in the first place. Human existence had very nearly gotten there several times before, but sadly this wasn’t to be the exception.

The monarchical tendency in the Dutch Republic eventually got the upper hand. France and England both invaded in the Spring of 1672, making their way deep into its interior. Cornelis de Witt was accused of treason by the monarchist faction and thrown into prison at the Hague, where he was extensively tortured but would not confess. A forged letter from Cornelis was then sent to Johan, begging Johan to come and release him. At the same time, the brothers’ political rivals arranged for several Calvinist preachers to give rabble rousing sermons on Sunday, August 20th 1672. The mob raised by these sermons converged on the prison where Cornelis was being held, just as Johan had arrived to free his brother. Both brothers were dragged from the prison and taken to a nearby scaffold where they were stripped naked and hung by their feet. They were then beaten, stabbed and shot to death. After they had been murdered their bodies were cut open, the organs removed, their fingers, toes, penises and testicles cut off, and all the pieces auctioned off to the crowd. Some of their organs were cooked at the base of the scaffold and the cooked pieces then resold to be eaten by the mob. Their hearts were bought by a local silversmith who displayed them dried in his shop for several years afterwards.


Spinoza was in the crowd and saw the entire assassination, or as much as he could stand. Though BdS was famously cold-blooded, he went home to his rented room and wrote ULTIMI BARBARORUM on a large piece of paper (English doesn’t have a real vocative case of address, so you have to translate it as ‘You [cocksuckers] are the most savage barbarians of all!’). Spinoza intended to march back to the scaffold that evening and nail it above the bodies of the de Witt brothers, knowing full well he’d be hung next to them the following morning. His landlord locked him in his room when Spinoza told him where he was going.

Four years later Leibniz visits Spinoza and happens to see the piece of paper on the wall of BdS’s room. Leibniz asks about it, and gets the story of all this. We only have the story because Leibniz wrote it up in letter that he never sent, which was then discovered by accident in 1855, shuffled into unrelated manuscripts.

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  1. lazenby posted this