Compared to the craze about their most famous 17th century painter, Rembrandt, the Dutch treat their most famous 17th century philosopher, Spinoza, with heavy neglect. Just recently an African professor narrated me how strange it was to him to try to find the house where Spinoza lived in Rijnsburg, stepping from the bus and seeing no signs. And how strange it was to him as well to notice that the house itself didn’t provide much information about his life and work. He is not alone. Many of those visiting the Netherlands from all over the world try to find traces of the famous philosopher, and find not more than a few crumbs. Crumbs that would not even have been there but for the hard work of a few dedicated volunteers…
Today I had a meeting with one of the volunteers involved in trying to do something about this, by writing texts to be provided in the one room in Spinoza’s last house in the Hague, which can be visited two hours a week. Wim Goris has done his own research into several aspects of Spinoza’s life, such as his food, his means of transport, and also of his death – to wit, his burial. We were having a coffee in the building next to the little elevated grassfield in the center of the Hague, where Spinoza’s remains are supposed to have been scattered with many others. Wim explained that the café used to be the house of the warden of the New Church where Spinoza had been buried by his friends in a rental grave of 12 guilders. And naturally, we were contemplating the little amount of interest there had been up till now on the precise facts of his burial and what had happened to his bones.
That there had been a grave was not even known to me before. I had visited the monument on the burial area several times, but had never thought much about Spinoza’s bones, as I had this vague idea that they were scattered and never had a clear location. Of course I had my photo taken there as many others will have too. But I had – I confess – thought more of how to use it on social media than of the remains of the thinker with whose work I had communicated on a daily basis for almost nine years, when I did my PhD research in the 1990s.
But now, over coffee, we spoke of why his philosophy still appeals to so many readers, even if it has so often been misinterpreted even by serious scholars. It must be because he reflected on life as it is. On its finitude and the sense of eternity that we can even have amidst all change and perishing. On the connectedness of human life to all other life, our bodily, emotive, thinking and spiritual constitution – he tried to think it all together in an age that tried to split it all up. That must be one of the reasons why there is so much interest in his work in places like Japan, and in most African countries – places where practices of life as connected and interconnected have been preserved amidst the inevitable disconnecting forces of modernization.
Duting that conversation I suddenly wanted to know, for the first time, where the bones are, like one can in the case of a Christian saint for whose remains a golden box is placed in a cathedral, or at least a stone vault. I noted by myself that it is not stupid to want to connect to the actual remains of someone whose life has added greatly to human understanding. It helps to be aware, in the moment, in the body one is in now, of the meaning he created, or channeled in his life.
Drinking our coffees, we had to comfort ourselves with the realization that his remains were at least somewhere in that little grass field outside the café. They will have been returned into the cycle of life to such an extent, after three hundred plus years, that he will be there just somehow, in the place, in the air maybe even.