Spinoza and the crazy centuries

Holland is hidden behind the dykes but also behind a language barrier. Few people in the world understand Dutch. Thus the nitty-gritty of my protest against the censorship is unaccessible to those who might consider to join the boycott. Economist Willem Buiter is Dutch by origin, the UK vice-premier Nick Clegg is half Dutch and might translate for the BBC, and also Financial Times economist Martin Wolf appears to be half Dutch. Of course EU president Herman van Rompuy is Belgian and speaks Dutch. Perhaps there are more of such connections that may help negotiate the language barrier.

German journalist Eric Bonse writes sharp reports on the EU, the crisis, and the role of Germany. He put an earlier text of mine on his blog Lost in Europe – and kept the English so that nothing was Lost in Translation.

People in Europe who could read and write historically used mostly Latin, from say 300 BC to 1700 AD. Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 may well be the last major work in Latin. The period 1700 – 2000 may well be called the ‘crazy centuries’ where everyone started to use his native language, with the thus crazy idea that it would contribute to communication, and that the English could understand Dutch, and the Dutch Russian, and the Russian French, …

These last 300 years are only 15% of the 2000 years before, so there is a strong case to prefer Latin above English as the universal European language. Would it not be a suggestion to teach the own language, English and Latin at school again ? My Latin from gymnasium is quite rusty for lack of practice. If used generally again, we could read Cicero in his native language – except for the crooked point that the Romans for a long while used Greek as their language of culture …

History before 1700 AD looks foreign to us partly because of the language barrier. If we take down that barrier than it will be less strange, in particular in the humanities. But these are strange ages anyway, without computer and mobile phone and whatever. Possibly it isn’t worth the effort to jumpstart Latin again.

Latin was also used in Holland till 1700. Spinoza (1632-1677) used Latin. There are English translations but I haven’t read them yet. I tend to read about a historical author before I try the original, since the commentaries help to identify the important bits (but beware of prejudices). For example, I only read parts of the Discourse on the Method by Descartes (1596-1650) when I needed proper references for my book Conquest of the Plane. Hopefully I have time to look deeper into ethics so that I must look into the original Spinoza. He has this neat idea: If you list all properties of God then you end up with Nature. This would provide the evolutionary transformation of the Priest into the Scientist, discussed before.

The period 1700 – 2000 may also be seen as the crazy centuries because of the rejection of Spinoza, as his fan Jonathan Israel is fond of explaining. Currently Israel is professor at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study with unreliable Robbert Dijkgraaf as the new director. The Spinoza house in Holland has been restored and it will be re-opened on March 24 by … Dijkgraaf. It remains a small world.

Dijkgraaf in this speech in 1999 calls Spinoza one of the great Dutchmen of his age – which speech is in Dutch and thus lost to most of the world. In a column that I cannot retrace on the internet, Dijkgraaf reports that he discussed Spinoza’s Ethica with his son, and concluded that the “one matter” theory was nonsensical physics. I don’t know whether Dijkgraaf then considers Spinoza still to be Great. I tend to regard Spinoza as a philosopher and not as a physicist, though his reduction of issues to Nature would imply a dependence upon physics. It remains dubious however to say that philosophers should shut up till physicists have sorted out the mess. My bet, overall, is that Dijkgraaf’s view on Spinoza is unreliable as well. Once I find the time to pick up ethics and Spinoza I can find out for certain.

Holland wouldn’t be Holland if even the alreay quite small Spinoza house wouldn’t be even too small. Economist and philosopher Wim Klever is a great writer on Spinoza. He discovered that some main themes in Spinoza had been discussed by his teacher Franciscus van den Enden. Part of the work by Klever is in Dutch and thus inaccessible to the rest of the world. Stan Verdult favourably reviews one of Klever’s books – all in Dutch. Unfortunately, the board of the Spinoza house seems to consist of a clique of philosophers who have developed some dislike of Klever, and here is his open letter of protest. I have read a number of books by Klever and none of the other authors, so I am biased in favour of him. Likely it will be foreigners who have to make sure that all of his work is translated into English. Why do users of small languages fall in their trap ?

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