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How the Dutch Created Europe’s First Free-Speech Zone More than 400 years Ago

· 8 min read
How the Dutch Created Europe’s First Free-Speech Zone More than 400 years Ago
Iconoclasts in a Church (1630, Dirk van Delen), depicting the organized destruction of Catholic images in Dutch churches during the late 16th century. 

On a Continent embroiled in religious turmoil and persecution, tolerance and free speech found few patches of fertile soil in Western Europe at the dawn of the 17th century. The first such patch was the flat and windswept Low Countries on the North Sea coast. During the so-called Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, the Dutch Republic developed a cosmopolitan culture with a comparatively high degree of tolerance and free speech, which contributed to making the Dutch Republic an early modern epicenter of art, learning, publishing, philosophy, and science.

The Dutch Republic was born when the predominantly Protestant northern provinces of the Low Countries launched a series of revolts against the Catholic Spanish Habsburg Empire and finally declared their independence in 1581. After decades of inquisition and relentless persecution, when both heretical books and humans were burned by the Spanish, freedom of conscience was a cornerstone of the Dutch rebellion. And so, the Union of Utrecht of 1579, the birth certificate and informal constitution of the Dutch Republic, guaranteed “that each person shall remain free in his religion and that no one shall be investigated or persecuted because of his religion.” Over the following centuries, the republic became a safe haven for persecuted churches and exiled freethinkers like René Descartes, Pierre Bayle, and John Locke, and established itself as the printing house of Western Europe.

Between 1600 and 1800, no one read or printed more than the Dutch. An estimated 259 books and pamphlets were consumed per thousand inhabitants annually during the second half of the 17th century. The French consumed only 70 books per thousand inhabitants in the same period. But this was not just a nation of readers—as the seeds of the Enlightenment spread across Europe, Dutch printers proved both industrious and daring. Their handiwork spread the latest advances in philosophy and science across the Continent, further connecting the neural circuitry of Europe’s collective brain.

Dutch printing served more than just the nation’s elites. Amsterdam became the “newspaper hub of early modern Europe” in the early 17th century, when weekly newspapers or corantos became an addiction for many Dutchmen. This allowed the Dutch to cultivate an egalitarian public sphere or, in the words of Dutch historians Willem Frijhoff and Marijke Spies, “a culture of all-pervasive and unremitting debate in which all segments of society took part.”

Of course, not everyone welcomed this development. Corantos were initially regarded as the 17th-century version of social media; and, gripped by elite panic, many wealthier citizens were suspicious of these and other information streams that catered to the common people with little oversight. A prominent member of Amsterdam’s upper class scoffed that newspapers had “become so used to lying that they report less than the truth.”

Part of the reason for the Dutch Republic’s tolerance was its decentralized nature, with strong local and provincial institutions and a weak political center. The republic’s origins in the revolt against the Spanish Habsburgs left the Dutch naturally wary of centralized authority and fiercely protective of local autonomy. Coordinated attempts at censorship were difficult, since writers and printers could skip state and city lines for more tolerant ones if things got too hot. Moreover, local authorities frequently refused to enforce censorship if they thought it too restrictive or hurtful to trade. Urbanization, foreign trade, and openness to foreigners also contributed to a tolerant cosmopolitan culture with an emphasis on the exchange of ideas in cities like Amsterdam.

Yet, the famous Dutch tolerance and the freedom of thought and speech that it allowed was based more on pragmatism and necessity than principle. The Dutch Republic was not a secular state with strict separation between religion and politics. The established Reformed Church enjoyed a privileged position, and religious tolerance ebbed and flowed. Minorities like Lutherans, Mennonites, Socinians, and Jews endured various levels of restrictions, while Catholicism was banned in all seven provinces (although the ban was not enforced with the same level of severity everywhere). Yet there were those who literally meant “no one” when they said that no one should be persecuted for their religious ideas.

The most radical early Dutch champion of tolerance and open debate was the writer, playwright, and classicist Dirck Coornhert, who was a firm believer in religious freedom for both Catholics and the alphabet soup of Protestant sects.

In 1582, one year after the formal establishment of the Dutch Republic, Coornhert published his Synod on the Freedom of Conscience. It consists of a fictional debate between leading historical theologians as well as made-up characters that give voice to Coornhert’s own views. In Synod, Coornhert argued that persecution was both anti-Christian and a danger to peace and stability, and that religious differences should be debated openly, with no secular or religious authorities enforcing doctrines of correct belief. If the goal was “to be left alone by any heretic,” he reasoned, “then with God’s word, not with the executioner’s sword … kill not the heretic but the heresy in him.”

He also made a case against the prohibition of books by letting his alter ego, the “Remonstrant of Leiden,” proclaim: “Freedom has always consisted chiefly in the fact that someone is allowed freely to speak his mind. It has been only the mark of tyranny that one was not allowed to speak his thoughts freely. Therefore it is truly tyrannical to … forbid good books in order to squelch the truth.”

Coornhert did not promote absolute free speech. In the same book, another of his alter egos takes care to exclude from protection “notorious books … that incite to sedition.” But he was still far ahead of his time. And his controversial ideas put him on a collision course with the Reformed Church, which had him condemned, censored, and forced into several exiles. His books were the first to be banned in the Dutch Golden Age.

Freedom of the press was not constitutionally protected. The Dutch historian Ingrid Weekhout has compiled a list of 263 publications banned in the Dutch Republic between 1583 and 1700 for crossing various red lines. Few religious dissenters put the practice of Dutch tolerance to the test like the Socinians (followers of Italian-born theologian Faustus Socinus), whose rejection of the Trinity and the divine nature of Christ united orthodox and moderate Calvinists in horrified revulsion. In 1653, the Reformed Church successfully convinced the States of Holland to issue a law against the “sickness” of Socinianism, banning the creed’s books and private religious meetings. The law also became a flexible tool in countering other pernicious theological and philosophical works in the decades to come.

Deciding where to draw the line was not always easy. The mathematician and natural philosopher René Descartes took refuge in the Dutch Republic in 1628, driven out of France as a heretic because of his trademark skeptical method, known as “Cartesian doubt,” and his rejection of the now dominant Aristotelian scientific model in favor of a more mechanistic one. Ironically, many theologians accused Cartesianism of undermining Scripture, much like medieval theologians had viewed Aristotelianism as heretical before adopting it as orthodoxy. But Descartes’s ideas were too radical even for some influential Dutch thinkers, and Cartesian philosophy was banned from the Universities of Utrecht and Leiden in the 1640s.

Yet, just like the unsuccessful attempts to banish Aristotle at medieval universities, the bans against Cartesianism did little to halt the spread of these new ideas among scholars. In the 1660s, a small group of radical thinkers were ready to take mainstream Cartesianism to the next level. The intellectual leader of this small circle of trailblazing freethinkers was a Jew of Portuguese descent who had already been excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community for his “abominable heresies and monstrous deeds.” His name was Baruch Spinoza.

In the 1660s, Spinoza began producing manuscripts that were difficult to square with revealed religion. He chose not to publish them, explaining his reasons for self-censorship in a private letter from 1662: “I fear, of course, that the theologians of our time may be offended and with their usual hatred attack me.” And it turned out that Spinoza had good reason to be afraid. The first sign of danger appeared in 1666, when several provinces banned a book by Lodewijk Meyer—a member of Spinoza’s circle—for contending that revealed theology was useless and the Scriptures were full of contradictions.

Adriaan Koerbagh, another member of Spinoza’s circle, fared much worse when he published his controversial Flowerbed in 1668, which denied divine revelation, attacking the Reformed Church and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Unlike Meyer, Koerbagh was reckless enough to publish the book under his own name and in Dutch. The Reformed consistory in Amsterdam convinced the authorities to ban and seize all copies. Koerbagh went into hiding but was tracked down and sentenced to 10 years in prison on the basis of the 1653 anti-Socinian law. He only lasted a few months before he died a broken man.

Historian Jonathan Israel suggests that the fate of Koerbagh may have strongly influenced Spinoza’s famous Theological-Political Treatise, published in 1670, a counterattack against religious fanaticism. It certainly makes sense that Spinoza would seek to disarm the theological intolerance of the Reformed Church that had instigated the suppression of his friends and driven him to self-censor. He did so by cleverly undermining the authority of Scripture and revealed religion, which he thought bred superstition, hatred, and persecution. He also promoted Libertas Philosophandi (“the freedom to philosophize”) and free speech as necessary preconditions for peace, prosperity, and progress. He famously argued that “in a free state everyone is at liberty to think as he pleases, and to say what he thinks.” Any regime that violated this “natural right” was “tyrannical.” Spinoza also made the very modern distinction between actions and speech. Only the former were subject to government control.

In fact, many of Spinoza’s ideas remain strikingly relevant today. To Spinoza, “the end and aim of the state, in fact, is Liberty.” Centuries before the current debate regarding the tensions between free speech and tolerance in diverse societies, he asserted that freedom of expression is indispensable for peaceful coexistence between members of different faiths and backgrounds. He held up as an example 17th-century Amsterdam “where the fruits of this liberty of thought and opinion are seen in its wonderful increase and testified to by the admiration of every people. In this most flourishing republic and noble city, men of every nation, and creed, and sect live together in the utmost harmony.”

He contrasted this happy state of affairs with the attempts by Reformed hard-liners to impose strict limits on freedom of religion and thought of dissenters, which, according to Spinoza, did not “arise from the anxious study of truth” but rather “from the lust of dominion.”

Excerpted, with permission, from Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, by Jacob Mchangama. Published by Basic Books. Copyright © 2022 by Jacob Mchangama.

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