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Rotterdam 1500-1700

Between 1500 and 1700, science and religion went through fundamental changes. In this period the Dutch were a rather tolerant people. Innovating philosophers such as René Descartes (1596–1650) and Benedictus de Spinoza (1632–1677) were allowed to live and work freely in the Netherlands as long as they did not openly give offence. They managed to wield considerable influence.

Rotterdam, too, was a center of enlightened thinkers offering considerable freedom of religion. Morality superseded ideology. Culture and commerce went hand in hand: Thinkers and traders aimed at boosting both profit and knowledge. A fine example is the collaboration between the philosopher Pierre Bayle and the booktrader Reinier Leers.

Around 1700, Rotterdam was one of the largest “book cities” in the Low Countries. Between 1680 and 1709 Leers printed many scholarly editions. They earned him a good living. He also was a fellow of one of several intellectual societies in town. One such society met in “The Lantern”, the home of the English merchant and quaker Benjamin Furly. Furly had taken up residence in Rotterdam precisely for its climate of free thought.

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Hugo Grotius (1583–1645)

There exists a list of the brightest people living between 1450 and 1850. Erasmus and Spinoza are high on the list, but Hugo Grotius is the brightest Dutchman. He was a versatile intellectual: poet, historian, latinist, lawyer, theologian, politician, governor, and diplomat. His masterpiece is a book on the law of war and peace (De iure belli ac pacis). From 1613 to 1618 he was counsel for the city of Rotterdam. His entire life Grotius was a soldier for peace, both in politics and within the Church. Like Erasmus, Grotius hated discord. In 1619 he was imprisoned in Loevestein Castle. Appropriately, he managed to escaped in a book chest.

In Grotius’s day there were no phones, let alone e-mail. A paper letter constituted the best means of communication. Over 7,000 of Grotius’s letters have been preserved. They show us how he excelled in many things while at the same time being complacent, stubborn, and self-righteous. His letters also teach us a lot about politics, scholarship, and the Church in the age of Grotius.

Pierre Bayle (1647–1706)

Pierre Bayle was known as “the philosopher of Rotterdam”. An exile from France, he championed atheists and muslims when they were widely considered a threat to society. He argued for freedom of religion because in matters of faith certainty cannot be had. Bayle finds that beliefs should be judged on their danger for public order, not on their truth. Societies can prosper even when consisting of factions with opposite beliefs. Uniquely, he finds that an atheist can be as good and decent a person as a Christian. Bayle argues that we should try to put ourselves in the shoes of someone with beliefs that are alien to us. Look at yourself through someone else’s eyes! An educating as well as a pleasing experience, he says.

From 1681 Bayle taught at the Illustrious School in Rotterdam. He became famous with his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697), an encyclopedia of subjects that interested him, almost a self-portrait. In France the book was alleged to undermine decency, politics, and faith, and so it was banned at once. Of course this ban merely increased its success.