Spinoza returns home to Amsterdam

By our news staff

Amsterdam is finally honouring one its most famous sons with a monument. But over 300 years after his death, the Jewish philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) is still causing controversy and his monument is not going down well with everybody.

On the 24th of November, the philosopher’s birthday, Amsterdam will at last have its long overdue monument to Spinoza. The site for the monument is the Zwanenburgwal, where the philosopher was born. While a special committee was still contemplating the shape such a monument should take, another group of citizens, united in the Spinoza monument foundation, decided they could not wait any longer and took matters into their own hands.

Within six months the foundation had a design, funding and a location permit from the city which was extremely helpful. Amsterdam mayor, Job Cohen, will unveil the monument, assisted by the city’s culture alderman Carolien Gehrels. Both Cohen and Gehrels are declared aficionados of Spinoza and support the foundation’s aim to make the philosopher as emblematic of Amsterdam as Erasmus is of Rotterdam. The monument is to be a gift to the city.

Spinoza’s coat

Artist Nicolas Dings’ monument consists of a statue of the philosopher and a granite representation of an icosaeder- a globe comprised of twenty identical triangles- which symbolises Spinoza’s idea of the universe as a model shaped by human intellect. The local council requested a figurative representation with a good likeness to Spinoza’s head as used to be seen on the old thousand-guilder banknotes. The side of the pedestal will bear his name and his famous motto: “The purpose of the state is freedom”.

Spinoza’s coat is decorated with sparrows, parakeets and roses. “The parakeets are exotic pets that have been let loose and are now colonizing the trees of Amsterdam whereas the Dutch sparrow is barely surviving,”says Dings who thinks the birds are symbols of Amsterdam as a migrant city. The current bout of xenophobia sparked by the latest influx of immigrants has put Spinoza, who laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment, back in the spotlight. Moreover, Spinoza’s Portuguese-Jewish roots could be said to make him an immigrant too.

More monuments

A special committee is still working on a non-figurative concept for a second monument to the philosopher. It is opposed to Ding’s realistic version.

And there was a suggestion that Amsterdam could have swapped its monument to the 19th century statesman Johan Thorbecke with the monument to Spinoza in The Hague. Spinoza died in the political capital which has no monument to the statesman, who designed the Dutch constitution. But the idea was rejected out of hand by the The Hague city council. “Spinoza was banned from Amsterdam…The Hague is where he finished his life’s work, the Ethics, after all, ” a spokesman for the city council said.

Radical ideas

Next year Amsterdam is staging an event around the philosopher’s life and work. His ideas on complete religious tolerance and freedom of speech are more relevant than ever now that the fear of Islamic fanaticism and terrorism are putting these values under pressure.

Spinoza’s ideas, however, were too radical for the Amsterdam Sephardic community, which banned him from the city. According to Spinoza, God has no plan or free will. God is in nature, the bible was made by people, he said. In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) he wrote: “Amsterdam, by its much-admired growth, prospers from all that freedom can give. For here all people of all creeds live together in peace”.

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