The two monuments for Baruch de Spinoza in Amsterdam are poles apart: a massive statue by Nicolas Dings near city hall and an interactive wood construction by artist Thomas Hirshhorn in Bijlmer [a multicultural suburb]. Everyman’s a Spinozist these days.

Spinoza even found himself flung into the fray about immigration and the multicultural society after the fallout from 9/11 and the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. With two cardinal concepts centre-stage: tolerance and freedom of expression. In the course of this controversy, some said the overtolerance extended to Muslims was jeopardising freedom of expression. The left retorted that neoconservatives were exploiting the principle of freedom of thought to undermine tolerance, a fundamental value of democratic society. It was a dialogue of the deaf and not exactly a rekindling of Spinoza’s ideas.

And yet Spinoza (1632–1677) has seen a striking renascence of late. Last year British polymath George Steiner recounted how he had looked in vain for monuments to Spinoza in Holland. No-one could tell him where to go. He was utterly appalled at the Dutch indifference to their greatest philosopher. Macedonian writer Goce Smilevski was similarly shocked. The young people he asked about Spinoza replied, “Never heard of the guy.” Smilevski’s advice: invest in philosophy classes at Dutch schools!

These rebukes are no longer entirely justified. Nicolas Dings’ Spinoza monument was inaugurated in November 2008, Spinoza House has been restored, colloquia are popping up all over the country. And since May the City of Amsterdam has been holding an arts festival called “My name is Spinoza” (go to:

English historian Jonathan Israel, moreover, has given the philosopher a hefty boost. In two excellent studies he has pointed up Spinoza’s seminal importance as a precursor of what he calls “radical Enlightenment”. Freedom of thought comes first in our culture, and that is something our Muslim immigrants, too, need to be convinced of and accept if we are to preserve the freedom our society currently enjoys, Israel argues passionately.

According to his compatriot John Gray, a popular maverick political philosopher, the way Jonathan Israel applies Spinozism to contemporary society is utterly subjective and he has no right to involve Spinoza there. Gray deplores what he calls “market fundamentalism” and the dogmatic arrogance of neoconservatives. Israel’s political plea, says Gray, smacks of a theoretical attempt to protect Western values that are considered superior to others.

Be that as it may, everyone is claiming a piece of Spinoza. But would Spinoza himself have approved? There is, at any rate, something sad about seeing a philosopher’s thought indiscriminately invoked left, right and centre. Especially if the philosopher in question advocates giving one’s thoughts free rein to roam wheresoever they will. Dogmatism ill befits the free thinker.

On the other hand, the “My name is Spinoza” festival’s artistic ode to the philosopher is more faithful to the spirit of Spinozism, witness the exhibition at Mediamatic Bank in Amsterdam. At this squatlike venue, everyone is invited to grab a piece of chalk and scribble away ad lib at the blackboards under questions like “Which ideas are so dangerous they’d be better off not being made public?” One response reads “Mine.” This spontaneous approach to Spinoza is a gust of fresh air amid the oppressive dead-end disputations about our cultural “identity” and our “national mores and values”.