Spinoza’s Spectacles: Philosophy, Science and Dutch Masters by Joseph Darlington


How the new philosophy of materialism inspired the painters of the seventeenth century Dutch Golden Age. This lecture aims to place the Dutch Golden Age painters in historical perspective by analyzing their work through the scientific and philosophical thinking of their era. In it we will cover:


  1. An overview of the Dutch Masters. Who they were and what they painted.
  2. Spinoza’s concept of Substance and the science that inspired it.
  3. How this philosophy is visible in the Dutch Golden Age style


Part 1: The legacy of the Dutch Masters; Meet the Dutch

Golden Age style is defined by its distinctive colour palette, focus on interior scenes, commerce and stark differences in light and shadow. In art history we might say that it completes the movement from idealism to realism first initiated by Caravaggio. Across the 17th Century these artists develop a visual style suited to the Dutch Golden Age; a time of tolerance, trading, scientific enquiry and relative peace. The Dutch Republic discovered a third way between the Absolutism of the Catholic world and the iconoclasm of the Protestant world.


Baruch Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza

Part 2: Enter Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza is a perfect example of the kind of thinker that trade and toleration could produce. A son of Jewish merchants escaped from the Spanish Inquisition, Spinoza was fluent in the Latin scholastic tradition alongside the rabbinical tradition. His ideas led to his expulsion from the Jewish community and his works being officially banned by the Catholic Church.


But in Amsterdam he was heralded as a genius. His works were printed in huge numbers and he was offered the Chancellorship of the university, which he rejected. Spinoza made spectacles. And not just any spectacles; prescription spectacles with concave lenses.


Spinoza shunned the world of power, prestige and academic acclaim in favour of the artisan skills that had supported him while he wrote his philosophy and would continue to support him after. Reading glasses were invented in 12th century and telescopic lenses were around even earlier. Seneca claimed to have read every book in the Roman Empire by studying the pages through a fishbowl half-filled with water.


However, the ability to measure eyesight and carve lenses dependent upon individual vision was only made possible in the 17th Century. Spinoza was therefore at the cutting edge of science, working with the new optical theories developed by Isaac Newton among others. The new science was not empirical in the modern sense, however. It did not reach its conclusions by observation and experiment. It was Aristotelian, and believed that it was uncovering a grand underlying system once perfectly understood by the Greeks but now forgotten.


Breakthroughs in optics, music, architecture, mathematics, navigation and accounting were reached by debate, reason and systematic thinking. NOT observation. Spinoza, working at his lens-grinder, was deeply immersed in this new thought. The result was a theory of materialism entirely distinct from the Mind/Body dualism underwriting all prior Western thinking.



  • Mind / Body
  • Soul / Matter
  • Celestial / Earthly
  • God / Sin


Spinoza’s Theory of Substance

There is no celestial world. There is only one existence that contains all matter, energy, ideas and actions: this is called the Substance. We are all part of the Substance; individual “modes” of the Substance experiencing itself. The Substance taken as a whole can be referred to as Nature or as God, as these concepts are indistinguishable from each other.


The Substance is self-moving and therefore deterministic. Freedom is left to the Soul, which exists only as a perceiving entity held within each individual. Spinoza argued that the world exists as an immanent embodiment of God/Nature. Our thoughts and feelings are a part of this whole. Our Souls live in us and are tasked with reflecting upon life, learning from it and bringing themselves into harmony with it.


Ethics, the title of his most famous book, are the corrective lens through which we bring our soul into a right perceiving of the world. This theory will seem strange to us, whereas dualism might seem more familiar. This is because Immanuel Kant in the C18th united materialism and dualism in his own categorical philosophy. To compare the physical world with the world of ideas was, for Kant, a category error.


This restored a certain dualism to Western philosophy (God/Sin replaced by Mind/Matter). To the artists and intellectuals in the Dutch Golden Age, however, the material world and the act of observing it are both entirely aligned with God’s presence in the world. Everything is immanent. There is no outside. The world, our perception of it and our resulting ideas are all God/Nature acting upon itself. Simple, right?



Part 3: Style and Substance

Materialism came about in the aftermath of Protestantism. The Protestant reformation involved the widescale destruction of art including the decapitation of statues, burning of books and smashing of stained glass windows.


The image of pure light entering a Church symbolized God communicating directly to humanity, without the elaborate structures of the Catholic Church standing in its way. The obsession with stark light and shadow reflects this direct relationship with God/Nature. Shadow is the hidden, mysterious soul upon which the light of the world is impressed. This is reflected in the favoured technique of painting from dark to light.


Materialism denies the existence of a celestial realm. Without a central Church there was also no-one to commission public art. As such, renaissance subject matter died out. No-one believed in, or at least were no one was willing to pay for, celestial choirs of angels and saints. Instead, art was commissioned by individuals and families. Small canvases were bought by merchants and the middle classes. Patrons favoured the domestic and mercantile worlds with which they were familiar.


Religiously, materialism also reduces the soul to an entirely individual concern. Your personal reflection upon God/Nature should take place in the private sphere, in your everyday ethics of living.


The individual is set at liberty. Tolerance and trade – freedom of conscience, religion and commerce – liberates people from former legal categories based on class, belief or ethnicity. Portraiture moves away from depicting people as embodiments of their role and concentrates on their character and quirks. These are people with personalities.


The emphasis on private space over public space is also reflected in the music of the Dutch Golden Age. Renaissance polyphony and mass chanting is replaced by music suitable for ballrooms and private gatherings.


The same Aristotelian systematizing that enabled Spinoza’s spectacles also created modern musical notation, the concept of musical keys, and instruments capable of being finely tuned and played together in close harmony. The greatest masterpieces of the Dutch Masters were large scale commissions not from public bodies but from private guilds.


Capitalism in 17th Century Holland shifted from a means of making money to a way of organizing society. The emergence of private institutions seemed to confirm Spinoza’s theory of a self-perpetuating God/Nature. The totalizing vision of Spinoza’s Substance suggests that the world is sufficient to explain itself. There is therefore no need for fantasy or the supernatural. Instead, painters like Hals and Steen offer us whimsy.


Part 4: Conclusion

Overall, the emphasis on private space, light and shadow, and the omission of supernatural elements can be seen to define the Dutch Golden Age style. It also serves as a perfect embodiment of Spinoza’s materialist philosophy.


The legacy of Spinoza’s philosophy lives on in an altered form through Kant’s category of matter. We now recognize that the world is governed by cause and effect. This may not be as extreme a vision as Spinoza’s self-perpetuating God/Nature but it does remove the need for supernatural interference for us to understand everyday life and the science that governs it. The Dutch Masters were a key reference point for the 18th Century Academic artists and their 19th Century Realist descendants.


They were the first major art movement to embrace:

  • Art as a private experience rather than a public spectacle.
  • Personal identity as more important than collective identity or social role.
  • The expression of spirituality through non-mythical symbols.


Any Questions?


Josef’s weblinks?

Website – www.josefadarlington.co.uk
Twitter – @Joe_Darlo
Public Email – [email protected]
Academic site – https://futureworks.academia.edu/JosephDarlington