Spinoza’s Garden

Of course, Deleuze famously rediscovered the work of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza who was born in Amsterdam and lived here for the earlier part of his adult life, before relocating to The Hague. There is a Spinoza monument located nearby Rembrandtplein, which I’ve visited. Apparently there are countless Spinoza societies, as well as many streets named after this vetted philosopher. In his book Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, Deleuze contemplates the Spinozian question of why people desire their own enslavement? And further, what part religion plays in ideologically promoting this denial of freedom? Deleuze tells us that Spinoza advocates a joyful affirmative life as a means of protest against a reductive transcendentalism. As such, Spinoza held a vision of the world, in which human beings are liberated from religion. He was ex-communicated from Judaism for holding such beliefs. His ethics offers a refreshing materialist view of being, which celebrates the body and its conscious union with the natural world, as an antidote to cynicism, which I identify with (especially through a Deleuzian lens). 

Spinoza purports that ‘the true city offers citizens the love of freedom instead of the hope of rewards or even the security of possessions; for ‘it is slaves, not free men, who are given rewards for virtue” (Deleuze and Deleuze cites Spinoza, 1988, p. 26). Could Amsterdam be that true city that advocates freedom for its citizens? Amsterdamers are free to worship or not worship as they please. Many men and women choose to work a four-day week. There is a stronger sense of balance in the familial structure with the work load and childcare shared relatively equally between partners. Also, Holland has a rather evolved attitude towards fostering social enterprises. According to the annual study of the most inspiring organisations in the Netherlands, social enterprises are now outperforming traditional companies. In these forward thinking business’s positive social impact is more valued than profit margins. The glamorous supermarket chain Marqt is a social enterprise. There is undeniably an entrepreneurial drive present here that can perhaps be traced back to the seventeenth century, in which this city experienced its Golden Age. (At that time trade, industry, the arts and science all flourished). And yet, post-Brexit with the influx of expats and businesses moving into Amsterdam, it seems as though something else may be possible here too, like a move towards post-capitalist egalitarianism, sustainability and a more balanced way of life. But, perhaps I’m being as delightfully naive as Deleuze finds Spinoza. 

Thinking on Spinoza brings me back to De Hortus, where I read a quote by Oliver Sacks displayed in the window of one of the glasshouses, in which Sacks mentions Spinoza. It said:

When I was older, and first visited Amsterdam, I discovered the beautiful little triangle Hortus Botanicus there – it was very old, and still had a medieval air, an echo of the herb gardens, the monastery gardens, from which botanical gardens had sprung. There was a conservatory which was particularly rich in cycads, including one ancient, gnarled specimen, contorted with age (or perhaps from its confinement in a pot and a small space), which was (also) said to be the oldest potted plant in the world. It was called the Spinoza cycad (though I have no idea whether Spinoza ever saw it), and it had been potted, if the information was reliable, near the middle of the seventeenth century; it vied, in this way, with the ancient cycad at Kew (taken from Island of the Colorblind).

Perhaps, Amsterdam in its entirety is Spinoza’s garden. This rhizome city is like a large floating urban garden of waterways, in which the possibility of new pathways of thought may flourish. Maybe its central post is De Hortus. All of those exotic species of plants taken from the new world and brought back under the rubric of medicinal enquiry. Of course, the large variety of plant species at De Hortus were cultivated initially for the purpose of finding a cure for the plague. Similarly, I wonder if Amsterdam offers medicinal cure for people? A cure for our modern psychiatric plague proliferate through our ceaseless capitalist desires, which we perform daily. We must collectively try to learn to change our desires! Perhaps, if we were to plant a rhizome in our brains, a subversive weed, we might bring about a revolution from within and liberate ourselves from those old desires.