Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview
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10

RADICALISM AND THE PEOPLE:
THE BROTHERS KOERBAGH

i. The Theologian Philosopher, Johannes Koerbagh (1634–1672)

Van den Enden's chief contribution to the formation of radical thought and the Amsterdam 'atheistic' circle was undoubtedly his impassioned and revolutionary summons to 'enlighten' the common people, instilling the lessons of philosophy by novel, carefully devised methods of popular education. The tragic story of the brothers Koerbagh vividly illustrates the appeal of this new impulse and even more the strength of governmental and ecclesiastical reaction against it. Their trial may well have been the very first example in Europe of official suppression of the philosophical 'enlightenment' of the people, as distinct from traditional suppression of theological heterodoxy, blasphemy, and so forth, and, as such, was the first act of a drama soon to reverberate across all Europe.

Adriaen Koerbagh (1632–69), born in the same year as Spinoza, and his younger brother, Johannes, were sons of a ceramics manufacturer, originally from Bergen-opZoom, who settled, married, and prospered in Amsterdam. Their father died young in 1644, leaving his family in circumstances of sufficient affluence to free them in adulthood from the need to work for their bread. In these comfortable circumstances, both youths had the opportunity to study in depth and explore the world philosophically. Enrolling first in the philosophy faculty at Utrecht in 1653, they read the standard philosophical literature of the day and doubtless witnessed something of the strife raging in the university over Cartesianism. Accustomed to the scholarly life—in all, Johannes spent more than ten years at university and his brother nine—both transferred to Leiden in 1656, Adriaen switching first to medicine and then law, and Johannes to theology.1 The brothers probably first became acquainted with the circle around Van den Enden and Spinoza, including Lodewijk Meyer, Johannes Bouwmeester, and Abraham van Berckel2 (1639–89), who were then all studying at Leiden, in the late 1650s. On completing his theological studies in 1660, Johannes passed his candidate's

1 Vandenbossche, 'Adriaan Koerbagh', 1–3; Meinsma, Spinoza, 213; Klever, Mannen rond Spinoza, 87.

2 Abraham van Berckel (or Berkel) (1639–89), originally from Leiden, was a doctor of medicine and the
translator of the Dutch edition of Hobbes' Leviathan published at Amsterdam in 1667. A precocious youth,
and a forceful personality with a quick wit, he enrolled in the university at Leiden at the age of 15 in 1654,
later becoming particularly close to Adriaen Koerbagh. Although his identity in his Hobbes edition is

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