The making of Amsterdam: How the Dutch capital gave birth to the Enlightenment

The making of Amsterdam: How the Dutch capital gave birth to the Enlightenment

Oct 26th 2013 |From the print edition

Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. By Russell Shorto.Doubleday; 368 pages; $28.95. Little, Brown; £25. Buy from,

DURING its rise in the 17th century, Amsterdam was an important haven for religious dissidents. It was also the publishing centre for the racy philosophical tracts that were too hot to be printed in France or England. The city’s economic fortunes were born of its embrace of international trade and of financial innovation. And the highly profitable Dutch East India Company was the world’s first joint-stock company, leading in time to the world’s first stock and options markets.In the late 20th century the Dutch capital was famous for its tolerance of marijuana cafés and prostitution. But Amsterdam’s liberal heritage has become a battleground. The murder by an Islamist fanatic of Theo van Gogh, a controversial film-maker, in 2004 sparked clashes over relations with the city’s Muslim minority. City planners have shifted from a socialist vision of liberalism to a yuppified one, rooting out squatters and shrinking the red-light district while courting multinational corporations with favourable tax conditions. Russell Shorto’s “Amsterdam” traces the evolution of the Enlightenment in a city that was one of its birthplaces, and analyses how Amsterdam has been wrestling with its ideas ever since.

Mr Shorto, an American who has lived in the Dutch capital for six years, sprinkles the book with personal anecdotes that illustrate how history suffuses the present. While studying the journal of an Augustinian prior who had fled to the city to escape the religious violence of the Netherlands’ war of independence, the author realises that the diary was written, in 1572, next door to his flat. To illustrate a later episode of religious conflict, he introduces the reader to a Holocaust survivor, a childhood acquaintance of Anne Frank. His account of Amsterdam’s physical growth is just as engrossing. The ring of canals, which visitors nowadays think of as quaint, were a marvel of engineering when they were built in the 1600s, a testament to the city’s status as Europe’s premier trading entrepot.

But Mr Shorto’s main ambition is to show how the liberal idea was born in Amsterdam. He leans here on the recent work of Jonathan Israel, a British-born professor of modern European history at Princeton, whose influential three-volume rethinking of the Enlightenment gives a central place to Amsterdam’s most famous philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. For Mr Israel, Spinoza was the progenitor of the “radical” Enlightenment, those thinkers who refused any accommodation with religion or traditional authority. It is interesting to consider Amsterdam’s current tensions in the light of the struggles Spinoza witnessed between tolerant rationalism and religious nationalism, which ended with the lynching in 1672 of his political heroes, the De Witt brothers, and the end of Holland’s Golden Age.

If the book has a weakness, it is that Mr Shorto often overstates his case. He contends, for example, that England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which a Dutch prince, William of Orange, and his wife peacefully acquired the British throne, should really be seen as a Dutch invasion and conquest of England. This, he thinks, was the main source of English liberalism. In the same vein, he regards the tolerant commercialism of New York City as springing from the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. It is surely too deterministic to think of intellectual influence in this way. In a quieter passage, even Mr Shorto acknowledges that “ideas can’t be pinned down like butterfly wings.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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