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3.11.21 Free Thinkers

The Pleiades
The Pleiades, from Galileo’s The Starry Messenger (1610)

In the centuries after the Renaissance, Latin became more and more narrow in its compass, remaining a literary medium for scholars, poets, scientists and diplomats, but in decreasing numbers. As readers of this blog will know, this Latin should be distinguished from the living language, which centuries ago had shifted into a series of thriving vernaculars. In this twilight period of Latin-as-Latin, the seventeenth century holds a special place, as a time when old orthodoxies were being dismantled and the last Latin masterpieces were being composed by names that are still famous today. Above you can see a picture from the first edition of The Starry Messenger of Galileo Galilei, in which the Pisan scientist shared his observations of the night sky, the lunar surface, and the moons of Jupiter, glimpsed through a piece of new and exciting technology: the telescope. By this period, Latin no longer enjoyed a monopoly in the book trade, and to reach a wide audience the vernacular was increasingly the way to go. Galileo is famous as a stylist in the Italian language, and it was his Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems, published in Italian in 1632, that provoked the Vatican. In this work Galileo shared his increasing conviction that Copernicus was right in his belief about a heliocentric universe; he was summoned to Rome in 1633 and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642. His Dialogue, through written in Italian, adopts the literary form of Plato and Cicero, and combines beautiful writing with cutting-edge science. Here is one of his speakers, at the end of the first day’s conversation, in lines which have inspired the linguist Noam Chomsky.

But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding the means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of time and place! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page …

In the same year that Galileo published his Dialogue, Bento Spinoza was born in Amsterdam. Expelled from his Jewish community as a young man for what were considered dangerously atheistic beliefs, Spinoza made his living as a lens grinder (opticus insignis, ‘an outstanding optician’, his friend Leibniz called him), and also kept a sketchbook. He learnt Latin in his twenties at the school of a man called Francis Van den Enden, an ex-Jesuit later executed in Paris for his alleged involvement in a plot against Louis XIV; Van den Enden directed his pupils in the plays of Terence, put on for the citizens of Amsterdam, in the years 1657 and 1658, with Spinoza in the cast. This education stayed with the young philosopher, and throughout his works scholars have traced quotations from Ovid, Tacitus, and especially Terence. In his Theological-Political Treatise of 1670, Spinoza argued for a rationalist and historical understanding of the Bible (kick-starting modern biblical criticism in the process) and a democratic idea of the state in which far-reaching tolerance and freedom of expression were the orders of the day.

It very clearly follows from the fundamental principles of the state which I explained above that its ultimate purpose is not to dominate or control people by fear or subject them to the authority of another. On the contrary, its aim is to free everyone from fear so that they may live in security as far as possible, that is, so that they may retain, to the highest possible degree, their natural right to live and act without harm to themselves or to others. It is not, I contend, the purpose of the state to turn people from rational beings into beasts or automata, but rather to allow their minds and bodies to develop in their own ways in security and enjoy the free use of reason, and not to participate in conflicts based on hatred, anger, or deceit or in malicious disputes with each other. Therefore, the true purpose of the state is in fact freedom.

In the last years of his life, amidst an increasingly deteriorating political situation in Amsterdam, Spinoza was quietly working on his Ethics, a five-book treatise on how to live, composed as a series of propositions and proofs in the manner of Euclid. While the form may have been traditional, the content was anything but, as the Ethics argues that our human minds and human bodies are integral parts of the same whole, not separate and distinct (as René Descartes had held), and that God and Nature are, controversially and mysteriously, the same thing.

Latin has been very often throughout its life a language of centralized and domineering authority, from the decrees of Roman emperors to the bulls of the Papacy. But Galileo and Spinoza show us a language of free, creative, and progressive thinking. In certain ways the two men are quite different characters (what does philosophy have to do with measuring anything? Galileo once said), but they shared a willingness to be puzzled, a belief in the power of human understanding, and a certain bravery in having the courage of their convictions. For Galileo, Spinoza, and indeed for Spinoza’s teacher Van den Enden, there was nothing fusty about Latin: it was razor-sharp.

Further Reading

  • Galileo, G. 1967. Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, trans. S. Drake, 2nd edition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press). The quoted above is from this edition.
  • Spinoza, B. 1997. Ethics, and Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, trans. A. Boyle, rev. G. H. R. Parkinson (London: Dent).
  • Spinoza, B. 2007. Theological-Political Treatise, ed. J Israel, trans. M. Silverthorne and J. Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). The quotation above is from this edition.
  • Klever, W.N.A. 1996. ‘Spinoza’s life and works’, in D. Garrett (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press), pp. 13–60.