Society, Individualism; Continent: Europe, North America

Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto

  • Not a travel guide, but not packing this book for your trip to this exceptional city would be a mistake

  • 357 pages (318 pages excluding Notes and Index but including the short and worthy Postscript)

This book is definitely a love letter to the author’s adopted city of Amsterdam. As long as you understand that the author has a point of view about the place, then you’re ready to enjoy the fruit of his excellent research. Shorto has done his homework and builds his image of Amsterdam with a collection of vignettes that tie to famous residents like Rembrandt to the city’s cultural values. Which cities informed Western culture and values over the centuries? Paris, London, Rome and Florence, certainly. Would you have thought of Amsterdam? This author makes sure you’ll never leave Amsterdam off your list of the Western world’s great influential centers of culture and learning.

Subtitle: “Liberal’ with the Lowercase “l”

An important point for American readers to understand about this book is that the term “liberal” as it appears in the title does not have the same connotation it does in American politics. Here, the term refers to a focus on individual opportunities and happiness. Liberalism, as Shorto wishes to discuss it, fueled the Enlightenment, making this definition of the word a key theme for the book.

According to the author, Amsterdam birthed its philosophy of liberalism in the 14th century. At that time, monarchy enjoyed rule by divine right throughout Europe of the High Middle Ages (and early Renaissance in parts of Italy). The church, too, shared in the power and privilege. In Amsterdam, however, elected officials could come from the emerging middle class just as easily as from the aristocracy. They could also be booted from office if unpopular or found to be abusing their role. The Dutch embraced this style of government after the Spanish monarchy (in the Eighty Years War) and the church (in the form of the Spanish Inquisition) decimated their population and ruined their economy.

Vignettes of the Greats

I stand by my initial description of this book as a love letter to Amsterdam as a whole, but Shorto makes his case for Amsterdam’s best qualities with stories of the people who lived there. He argues that many of these people could not have been who they were without the crucible – economic, artistic or intellectual – of what was a unique society through most of European history.

Consider, for example, the role of art in much of Europe: patrons paid for the creation of a piece with the theme of their choosing. Artists, then, even sought-after masters, were regarded as craftsmen. When Rembrandt crashed into the Dutch art scene, he too had patrons. Among them, a well-known physician who commissioned his painting of the anatomy lesson he conducted in Amsterdam. However, Rembrandt’s brilliance came from the introspective quality of his works. He painted many self-portraits – not the sort of thing the rich guy up the canal is going to commission – because he was exploring a sense of self that he could not have examined so thoroughly in another art market. Shorto argues that he could not have had this robust sense of self anywhere else because the notion of individualism was a more well-developed idea in the salons and coffee shops of Amsterdam than in anywhere else in the world.

This remarkable city tolerated people from all regions and walks of life, making it a refuge first for Sephardic Jews, then French Huguenots, and then pretty much anyone else who wanted to practice their religion (or not). Influential philosopher Spinoza, a Jewish man who was excommunicated for his ideas about religion, was able to publish in Amsterdam because the small presses in this city happily printed ideas other cultures would have considered too inflammatory. Shorto uses Spinoza’s story to make his point about intellectual tolerance in his adopted city. He says that much of the philosophy behind Europe’s Enlightenment – from Spinoza to Decartes to Locke – had the coffee shops and presses of Amsterdam as its cradle.

Luckily for the reader, the author knows when enough is enough about a particular philosopher. Shorto has plainly read many (and very likely all) of the major works of the philosophers he describes. However, he doesn’t let this area of interest hijack the book as a whole. He tells us enough about each individual to bring home the significance of Amsterdam’s culture to that person’s life’s work, but then he moves on before the reader’s eyes can glaze over regarding a particular subject.

Amsterdam: Bigger Than It Looks

English philosopher John Locke brought his ideas to the Dutch press when the English political scene was too dangerous for him. Many of Locke’s ideas that appealed to Thomas Jefferson came from Lockian pamphlets printed during the philosopher’s time in Amsterdam. Shorto’s point about Locke’s views crossing to the American colonies goes to a larger theme in this book, too. That is, the major port city of Amsterdam, hub of trade and travel, shaped much of the the modern world.

Of course, if one is going to write about Amsterdam’s history and culture, then omitting the local policies toward prostitution and the drug trade would put a very large elephant in the room. Shorto does talk about the local attitude of regulating or collectively looking the other way from what is nominally illegal. Prostitutes are unionized, and pot can only be purchased and smoked in certain kinds of establishments. I can’t help but think of the city’s legal gray areas when I hear in the news about Denver’s marijuana vendors being careful to file their federal taxes with the IRS. How much will Amsterdam’s successes and failures in regulating (or not regulating) this industry inform the decisions we Americans have ahead of us? I think probably a great deal, even if we ultimately make some different choices.

Image: Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson”, downloaded from

2 thoughts on “Society, Individualism; Continent: Europe, North America

  1. Just started reading this posting. But, before I forget, the first sentence, first paragraph has a problem (word “a” out of place?).

  2. Well-written, as usual. I didn’t know that Locke worked out of Amsterdam that much. I became a bit of a fan in college.

    Wow! I noticed that you are apparently up to roughly sixty postings. That is quite an accomplishment.

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