Spinoza began writing Tractatus around 1655, describing the work as a treatise on the meaning of the Scriptures, and intended to preemptively defend his work, Ethics, which he had already begun. Tractatus is, at its core, a detailed critique of Spinoza’s religion of birth, as well as all organized religions. He was particularly insistent on separating philosophy from theology – his purpose was as much to defend himself against accusations of atheism levelled against him by theologians as it was to expose their same prejudices and defend his freedom as a philosopher.
The response to Tractatus was as one might imagine. Professors and clergymen alike were infuriated by the work, particularly in Germany. The Dutch were more moderate in their response to the book, and though there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding it, it stemmed almost solely from the Church Council of Amsterdam. The Council was incensed by Tractatus, particularly as it positioned itself not as a work of theology but of politics squarely in support of Jan de Witt and the Republican States-Rights party in opposition to the Reformed Church, which was at the forefront of Dutch politics at the time.
Tractatus was published anonymously : even the printer and place of publication were falsified. Its alleged provenance was subject to speculation. Although shortly after its printing it was deemed obvious that it was printed in Amsterdam and not Hamburg, the identity of the printer remained a mystery. Some thought it might be Christoffel Conradus or a number of other well-known printing industry figures acting separately or in concert, as it was not uncommon in Holland at the time to have a printer work on behalf of a publisher, who would then oversee its distribution.
We know, of course, that it was in fact Jan Rieuwertsz who printed Tractatus. But what produced the climate in which Rieuwertsz and Spinoza felt the need to eliminate authorship entirely and obfuscate the identity and location of the printer? Holland had a reputation for freedom of expression, so why were they so careful to hide their part in the work? There were, as with anything, a number of reasons.
Rieuwertsz had been targeted for printing radical works by the Orthodox Dutch theologians who would harass both the authors and publishers of Spinozan thought. They would use both theological and political arguments to demonstrate the damage done to not only society but man himself by these books, in order exert pressure on civil authorities to suppress these books. Though the Dutch Reformed Church never became the country’s official religious institution (as compared to, for example, the Anglican Church), it did hold a privileged status as a dominant church between 1571 and 1795, when the Dutch Republic was dismantled. This allowed it to enjoy a close relationship with the Dutch government — one that it was not afraid to leverage when it felt necessary to do so.
Spinoza’s already controversial reputation also did not help. Before his writings began to appear, he had already been banned from the Jewish community by the rabbis, who had placed him under excommunication, proclaiming his teachings and his practices to be heretical. Given that Tractatus explicitly counters the idea of the Jewish people as those chosen by God and rejected the Torah as valid to the contemporary Jewish people, it is hardly surprising that the local rabbinate would denounce the writings. However, it was not only his denouncement of Judaism that drew suspicion and impacted his reputation. In Amsterdam, he was linked with suspicious religious and political circles and was also accused of being a Rosicrucian. Although his first book was published under his name, and Rieuwertsz was indicated as printer, the book itself was not controversial – although it addressed Cartesian thought, it was less incendiary than other contemporary works on Descartes, and touched little on Spinoza’s own thoughts. It did not, however, contribute positively to his reputation.
In addition to this, there were factors that were entirely out of Spinoza’s control. Two other books had been recently published in Amsterdam with their authors, printers, and places of printing either hidden or blatantly fabricated. One work, written by Spinoza’s good friend, Ludwig Meyer, and also published by Rieuwertsz, listed the made-up place name Eleutheropolis (“Free City”). The other, by Pieter van den Hove, was similarly published in Alethopolis (“City of Truth”) although there is no indication it was printed by Rieuwertsz. Unfortunately, rumours spread that Spinoza had written one or both books, and although he privately assured his closest friends that den Hove was the latter’s actual author, neither man could publicly contradict such innuendo.
Rieuwertsz, of course, had his own motivations for obscuring his involvement with printing Spinoza’s controversial work. His printing shop was already being monitored by the Church Council of Amsterdam in the midst of the Bibliotheca Fratum Polonorum, a collection of Socininian writings printed just a couple of years earlier that had drawn the attention of the Dutch orthodoxy as well.
It is hardly shocking, then, that by 1673 Tractatus had been condemned by the clergy of the Dutch Reformed Church of Dordrecht. A year later, it had been banned entirely.
About The Author
Baruch Spinoza, better known as Benedictus de Spinoza, was a Jewish-Dutch philosopher of the Enlightenment who espoused Cartesian beliefs and put forth ideas of pantheism, determinism, intellectual and religious freedom, as well as being a notable critic of the authenticity of the Hebrew bible. Born in Amsterdam on November 24, 1632, Benedito de Espinosa was the second son of Miguel Spinoza, born of his second wife, Ana Débora, who died when Spinoza was only six. Ethnically a Sephardic Jew from Portugal, his family settled in Amsterdam following the Portuguese Inquisition in 1535, which forced the conversions and expulsions of the Portuguese Jews of the Iberian Peninsula. He was well-educated, attending the Keter Torah yeshiva under Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira and Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, and spoke Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, Dutch, and Latin. At 17 his studies ended when his older brother died, and he took on his role in the family importing business. A short few years later, in 1654, his father passed away as well. At this point, he and his younger brother took over the business, but found it was steeped in debt. Spinoza filed a civil suit in order to separate himself, and his mother’s estate, from his father’s business and debt, relinquishing the company – and its accompanying trouble – into the control of his younger brother. It was then that he turned his attention to philosophy.
In 1656, Amsterdam’s Talmud Torah congregation issued an exceptionally harsh ban against Spinoza, although the reason for the excommunication is not made explicit, besides indicating that he was practicing and teaching terrible heresies. One need only look to his later publications to guess what he might have been saying that would lead to such harsh sanctions. The strong reactions of the Jewish community towards Spinoza carried on through the duration of his life, at least partially motivated by fear that, having found somewhere relatively safe, too much attention might once again draw government intervention. He had distanced himself from the synagogue, abandoned services, was vocally hostile, and had brought a case against his sister in a civil court in order to renounce his father’s heritage. He defended himself in an Apology that has not survived, but may have included parts of it in his later Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.
Of interest, despite the fact that he had been effectively been excommunicated, he did not convert to Christianity. Though he continued to operate under the Latinized version of his given name, continued to work closely with the Collegiant community through which he had most likely encountered the printer who would later put forth the majority of his works, and was ultimately buried in a Christian graveyard, he never converted.
After his excommunication, Spinoza was exiled from Amsterdam at the behest of both the rabbis and the Calvinist clergy. His exile lasted a very short time, and he returned to Amsterdam very shortly thereafter to teach privately and work as a lens grinder. He did however, leave Amsterdam again in 1660 for the city of Rijnsburg where the Collegiants were operating. It was here that he began writing Ethics. In 1663 he returned to Amsterdam in order to see his work on Descartes published: this was his only work printed while he lived on which he stakes an authorial claim. He then moved to Voorburg.
In Voorburg, he continued work on Ethics, wrote Tractatus, and corresponded with both Christiaan Huygens and Johannes Hudde in order to make major advances in lens grinding. He then moved to the Hague, where he was supported by both Jan de Witt and Simon de Vries’ brother. It was here that he finally completed Ethics and wrote some scientific essays, as well as an unfinished Hebrew grammar and Dutch translation of the bible.
Spinoza died on February 21 1677. Though his cause of death is not confirmed, the glass dust he would have inhaled as a result of his lens grinding might possibly have contributed to it.
Spinoza was the author of multiple works ; all but Tractatus, and a critical work on Descartes, appeared after Spinoza’s death in the Opera Posthuma arranged by Rieuwertsz.
The JPL’s Copy
Our copy of Tractatus was printed in 1670, part of the very first print run of this work, and thus is in Latin. It is 20.5 centimetres tall, 16 centimetres wide, and 2 centimetres high. This copy has been rebound, most likely in the 1800s, probably in Britain. The front and back boards are covered with a cream, black, blue and red marbled paper, and the corners and spine have been redone in a glossy brown leather. The leather has been shaped over the spine to cover the twine binding it with an eye towards aesthetics, and at the top of the spine the leather has been dyed red and gold paint is used to fill in the stripes at the top and bottom of the coloured square. “Tract: Theolog.” is inscribed in gold paint in this compartment. The leather at the spine is cracking along the joints, and shows damage along the bottom.
Upon opening the work, we can see that the end pages and the first blank leaf are new, but pre-date the shift from cloth to pulp paper. Chain lines running horizontally and a watermark along the spine are visible. The original leaves have horizontal chain lines as well, though they are narrower than the leaves from the rebinding. A watermark is faintly visible as well, though impossible to make out. It, too, runs along the center of the spine. The newer leaves are beginning to show discoloring along the top, but less so than the next leaf, which is the title page of the work. The title page is quite interesting. Most of what one expects to find on a title page is present: the title, a subtitle, an ornament used frequently by the printer, a place and date of printing, as well as what is, ostensibly, the printer’s name – Henricum Künraht. There is a glaring omission, however, and that is the author’s name.
The next page begins the preface, and here we see a number of features common to 17th century printing. The gathering of leaves are numbered, although a bit oddly – though they are gatherings of four, the first three leaves are marked, and the fourth is left blank. Conventionally, this would suggest gatherings of 6. Catchwords also appear on the bottom right-hand corner of each page. Each page is also numbered – there are 233 pages, which exclude the index, the preface, and the title page, as well as the blank leaf preceding the title page and its peer after the conclusion – a total of 125 leaves, none of which are missing, and all of which are in shockingly good condition. While most of the pages are discolored, there is no bug damage or any other significant damage – in fact, there are no obvious tears or bends except on the last page of the preface, where a small amount of paper is missing from the outer edge of the leaf.
Of interest is the verso of the final leaf – here is included an “Errata Typographica fic corrigenda” – corrections of the printing. 11 typographical errors are listed. In the margin here we find some of the only marginalia in the work – preceding each line is either the word “corr.,” a dash, or a question mark in pencil. When comparing the corrections at the back to the errors indicated, we find the only other marginalia in the book. “Corr.” indicates that the corrections had already been made, and dashes in pencil counting out the lines to find the supposed error are present on the page. The dash shows that the correction was made by the reader, and when cross-referencing they are easy to find, done in ink rather than pencil. The question mark, it seems, indicates that the reader could not find the error indicates in the errata.
About The Printer
Jan Rieuwertsz (1616/7 – 1687) was born in Amsterdam to a Mennonite peddler, Rieuwert Jansz, and his wife, Hilletie Pieters. He began his career in the field as a bookseller and bookbinder in 1640, when he opened his bookstore Book of Martyrs. In 1649 he married for the first time, to Trijn Jans, who passed away following the birth of Jan’s only recorded child, Jan II in 1652. He remarried in 1653 to Giertie Schut. Shortly after the death of his first wife, Rieuwertsz began printing, and he took little time to earn a reputation as a printer of radical works, including the writings of Descartes, Galenus Abrahamsz and Dirck Camhuysen. He was known to have been involved with the Amsterdam Collegiants, with whom Spinoza was involved between 1660 and 1663. His reputation was quite notorious, and though censorship was lax, he was certainly on the radar of the Dutch religious authorities, and this prompted him to develop strategies in order to call as little attention to himself as possible.
He published under a number of pseudonyms, but the best known is Henricum Künraht, which he started using in 1670 with the publication of Tractatus. Künraht was not an entirely fabricated name, however, but instead that of a German alchemist and Rosicrucian from a century previous. For later Tractatus printings, Rieuwertsz also employed names like Jacobus Paulli, Isaacus Herculis, and Carolus Gratiani. Rieuwertsz also used the Künraht alias for publications other than Spinoza.
Rieuwertsz did not merely settle for using pseudonyms : he also attempted to obfuscate the location of printing, using cities like Hamburg – as in our copy of Tractatus – or the invented Eleutheropolis. Perhaps the most extreme instance of this tendency was Rieuwertsz’s publishing of a volume containing Spinoza’s work and that of the equally controversial Lodewijk Meijer, under a completely unrelated title (Opera Chirurgica Omnia), while ascribing the responsibilities of authorship and publication to utterly falsified names.
Still, even if his modus operandi and the resulting publications often attracted unwelcome attention, Rieuwertsz’s three decades of experience in the printing trade clearly also earned him some esteem from the Amsterdam civil authorities, who named him official city printer between 1675 and 1677.
Rieuwertsz, who was listed as Spinoza’s landlord in 1669, also played other roles in his life. In 1678, he appears to have acted as a guarantor for a loan to Spinoza ; and after Spinoza left Amsterdam, he served as an intermediary between the philosopher and his correspondents. Finally, after Spinoza’s death, Rieuwertsz was given his unpublished manuscripts and letters and issued Opera Posthuma shortly thereafter, which drew new attention to his bookstore, culminating in an investigation by Jan van Neercassel, the head of the Dutch Catholic clergy.
Fittingly, after Rieuwertsz’s passing, his son Jan II in turn used the Künraht pseudonym in his own press business until 1693 – the same year in which he printed a Dutch translation of Tractatus.