Hans Blom

Erasmus University Rotterdam; Universität Potsdam


Conscience, Commerce, and the Dutch discourse on toleration,




Around toleration in the Dutch republic confusion reigns. While ‘Dutch toleration’ has been long recognised by a honourable pedigree of historians, more recently other historians have outright denied that toleration ever existed in a real sense of the word. The factual admission in the Republic of non-Dutch Reformed religions, and/or dissent within the “dominant church” – they argue – was never principled; if it existed at all, it was self-interested, connived at for a fee or winked at to commercial advantage. A long-time hero of toleration like Spinoza is claimed to have opposed the existence of sects, and ridiculed the so-called Amsterdam freedom.

The purpose of this paper is to find out how the seventeenth-century confrontation around the political thought varyingly imputed to Machiavelli can help us structure and criticize the recent revisionism in Dutch toleration studies. There have been essentially two arguments for toleration in the Dutch republic, and both are of Tacitean origins: that of the inadvisability of forcing consciences beyond certain limits, and that of the economic advantages of toleration. Both arguments fall under religio politica in a broad sense, yet the story of these arguments will lead us into a quagmire of Machiavellian ping-pong.

Comparing Lipsius and Coornhert, Trigland and Grotius, Spinoza and Saldenus will help us understand that the actual religious landscape and the related secularising tendencies in the Dutch republic made “toleration” into an essentially contested concept, requiring a multi-dimensional approach to its contextualisation. It hinges on the varied political perspectives and intentions that instrumental usages of religion appear to have. At the end of the day, the polemical use of the label of “Machiavellism” is less important than the political analysis and program that the ideological combatants evince. Yet, for obvious reasons, the political arguments for or against toleration are dressed as obedience to God and/or to the Godly established natural order.