Between 1625 and 1649, the Leiden publishing house Elzevir issued a series of thirty-five descriptions of all European, select non-European, and three ancient states, Greece, Israel and Rome.2 In some cases, earlier descriptions were reprinted; in other cases the authors, mostly Dutch merchants and scholars, compiled and systematized accounts derived from travelogues, histories, and chronicles; occasionally, the authors preferred to publish ‘fresh volumes’ and made use of existing accounts to write new books. Each volume depicted the respective country’s geography, its landscape and various regions, its people and mores, its government, its economy, its kings and noble families, and, in some cases, its arts and sciences as well. Because the titles of most of the volumes begin with De republica, the books were quickly referred to as ‘Elzevirian Republics’. Owing to their small size, they caused a stir among early modern printers and quickly became famous as the first pocketbook series in history.3

Until now, the Elzevirian Republics have been classified as a kind of encyclopedia of history and political science,4 and studied in the context of the early modern history of political ideas,5 or as part of the history of early modern ‘statistics’.6 But scholars have yet to determine the readership of the Elzevirian Republics. From the fact that the volumes were written in Latin and that some of them were dedicated to political dignitaries or their sons it is evident that they were aimed at an international audience of scholars and future politicians. However, a close look at the subjects discussed in the books and the worldviews expressed in them suggests that the Elzevirian Republics were also directed at the new generation of Dutch merchant-regents addressed in Barlaeus’s famous speech Mercator sapiens, given at the opening of the Amsterdam Athenaeum Illustre in 1632. This is indicated, for example, by the secularizing tendency that can be traced in many volumes. This tendency has recently been attributed to a circle of Leiden scholars influenced by French politiques.7 But it is equally prominent in Barlaeus’s Mercator sapiens or in the policy of the Amsterdam curators of the Athenaeum Illustre. In my future research I will discuss this phenomenon in detail while situating the Elzevirian Republics within the particular seventeenth-century Dutch merchant-regent-culture. In doing so, I hope to contribute to recent publications on mercantile cultures of knowledge.8

For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the descriptions of Spain and Portugal in the Elzevirian Republics. These two volumes are of special significance within the series for three reasons. First, they came out in the midst of the Dutch war with Spain; second, they were issued at a time when the Elzevirian editors sought to publish ‘fresh volumes’; and third they were the work of Johannes de Laet (1581–1649), one of the series’ most important authors who perfectly embodied the ideal of the mercator sapiens.9 De Laet combined commercial and scholarly skills in an impressive manner, as evidenced by the fact that he was not only one of the founding directors of the Dutch West India Company (wic), but also wrote the first history of the organization. More than that, he was a good example of the separation of religion from commerce and politics. Although De Laet actively sided with the Counter-Remonstrant party at the Synod of Dordt, he subsequently abstained from mixing his religious opinions with his geographical scholarship.10

In the first part of this essay, I will outline the ideal of the ‘wise merchant’ (mercator sapiens), which arose as a product of the very particular mixture of merchant and regent cultures in seventeenth-century Amsterdam. In the second part, I will discuss the Elzevirian Republics and more specifically the two volumes on Spain and Portugal. In the third part, I will show the affinities of the perspectives promulgated in these state descriptions with the ideal of the wise merchant and the Dutch merchant-regent-culture. In the fourth and final part, I will situate my conclusions within recent discussions in the history of science, connected to the history of epistemic virtues and aspects of the pre-history of objectivity.11

The ‘Wise merchant’

On the 8th and 9th of January 1632, the Athenaeum Illustre, forerunner of today’s University of Amsterdam, opened its doors with a festive ceremony. Officially intended for the youth of Amsterdam, the school’s founding was not only a response to the establishment of the University of Leiden constituted by William of Orange at the beginning of the Dutch Revolt, but also the expression of a new merchant-regent culture.12 From its very inception the Athenaeum was to serve the city in which it was located. In the years following 1585, Amsterdam had emerged as a trading metropolis and had become the power center of the Northern Netherlands. In the first third of the seventeenth century, it numbered some 125,000 citizens.13 Amsterdam regents, among them many merchants who had attained their offices after the Alteratie in 1578, were extremely influential in the decision-making processes of the States of Holland and the States General. In disputes with the princes of Orange they comported themselves with the confidence of an elite conscious of its power.

As historians have stressed time and again, Amsterdam quickly became a melting pot of all kinds of religions and cultures. But Amsterdam’s wealth did not only encourage diversity of religion. A wide spectrum of secular knowledge was in demand as well, and the Amsterdam Athenaeum was to provide the city’s elites with the instruction they called for: it offered daily morning lectures for the merchant-regents before the opening of the bourse. In his inaugural speech of January 9, 1632, Caspar Barlaeus (1584–1648), the famous philosopher, poet, and one of two founding professors of the institution,14 characterized the new approach to knowledge as follows. Mercury, the god of commerce, was to be joined by Minerva, the goddess of erudition (eruditio), culture (humanitas) and wisdom (sapientia). Under the protection of both these deities, the mercator sapiens, the ‘wise merchant’, was to emerge as a merchant-regent and a regent-philosopher at the same time.15

Contrary to what scholars commonly suggest, Barlaeus’s ideal merchant not only commanded moral knowledge, but also ‘speculative philosophy’ (speculativa philosophia).16 Indeed, he was to measure his material against his spiritual wealth, acquire no more possessions than he could consciously administer, sell his wares at suitable prices, and support others in need of money. In this respect he seemed to echo the earlier ideal of the ‘Christian merchant’,17 with the difference that while the ‘Christian merchant’ was to remember that any success he had was owed to God, the ‘wise merchant’s’ conduct was to be informed by antique and especially Stoic traditions.18 Yet Barlaeus’s ‘wise merchant’ was also to make himself a well-educated scholar in the broadest sense of the word.19 Not only was he to acquire common mercantile knowledge such as being familiar with the conditions of the countries with which he traded, knowing which regions yielded which products and which seasons and routes favored travel to which regions. He was also to study erudite books and to obtain administrative and governmental wisdom. Whereas the ‘ordinary merchant’ based most of his knowledge on experience and aspired to ars mercatoria, the Amsterdam merchant strove to prepare himself for political and social responsibilities as well.20

According to Barlaeus, the new education would produce a new type of merchant, one whose life was governed by philosophy to such an extent that he would become a philosopher himself. Interestingly, Barlaeus does not only refer to one, but to several generations among his readers. First came the fathers, whose businesses were established and most of whom had lived in Amsterdam for a long time. They were to learn how to conduct their operations with greater efficiency and morality while remaining ‘practicing’ merchants in travel and trade. However, the younger merchants – to whom Barlaeus addresses himself at the end of his speech – were to become philosophers and they were to observe commerce rather than to partake in it. Instead of being actively engaged in wars they were to read about them; instead of travelling to distant lands they were to undertake voyages of the mind; instead of weighing gold they were to weigh words.21

According to Barlaeus, those new merchants would resemble the perfect merchants described in Greek antiquity. They would trade not in material but in mental goods and, in doing so, follow the ideal of Plato.22 At the same time, they would embody the perfect merchant depicted by Pythagoras. That type of merchant emerged from a subdivision of the market into three groups. The first group consisted of persons entering the marketplace in order to sell; the second one consisted of persons entering to buy. According to Pythagoras, both groups had to worry constantly and thus could not achieve happiness. Members of the third group came to the marketplace merely to observe, and those were the only ones Pythagoras considered to be happy men, free of anxiety and fully capable of enjoying their status.23

Barlaeus’s speech is breathtakingly current and its elegance impressive even today.24 But what is most arresting is that Barlaeus apparently invoked the mercator sapiens because the ideal had gained real weight in seventeenth-century Amsterdam and that the mercator sapiens in turn helped to make the acquisition of knowledge among Amsterdam merchants a status symbol, converting the merchant-regent into a new version of the philosopher-king. This nexus has not yet been fully proven,25 but is discernible in recent studies of individual Dutch merchants.26 I will argue that it can also be located in the contemporary Dutch book market and in the series of the Elzevirian Republics.

Spain and Portugal in the Elzevirian Republics


Johannes de Laet’s description of Spain is entitled Hispania sive de Regis Hispaniae regnis et opibus commentarius (Hispania, or a commentary on the kingdoms of the king of Spain and their wealth; 1629). Over the course of 520 pages and 28 chapters, the reader is informed about the precise location of Spain, its landscape and climate, the manners and particular talents of the Spaniards, Spain’s demography, economy and government, its rulers, noble families and ecclesiastical dignitaries, as well as its possessions in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and outside Europe.

Overall, Hispania is a highly ambivalent book. On the one hand it is written in an astonishingly neutral tone: allusions to religious or political conflicts are reduced to a minimum. Wars, civil wars, and insurrections are passed over. Accounts such as the one of the Spanish monarchy, its councils, and even the Inquisition as an integral part of the Spanish government, lack any affect or polemicism.27 Explicit opinions and comments are missing where one would have expected them most. Generally, De Laet prefers to speak through the voices of others, and due to the number and variety of sources he cites it is easy to get the impression that he is in fact giving an unbiased introduction to Spain and the Spanish dominions.28

On the other hand, Hispania is clearly partial. De Laet opens his book with a statement that could hardly be more explicit. In the very first pages, right in the dedication, he echoes parts of what would later be called ‘the myth of Spanish decline’,29 stressing that the Spanish Empire was badly proportioned, that it was everywhere exposed to danger and that hate and envy turned many populations into enemies of the Spaniards.30 Afterwards, De Laet uses quotes to reproduce negative stereotypes about Spain or to covertly voice his own opinions.31 In his chapter on mores, for example, De Laet refers to John Barclay and Francesco Guicciardini, who stressed the arrogance and avarice of the Spanish people. In his chapter on demography De Laet paraphrases Juan de Mariana to describe how Spain suffered from being underpopulated. Further into the chapter, De Laet touches on the explosive subjects of the expulsions of the Jews and the moriscos, but he conceals his own opinion by pretending to ventriloquize the Jesuit historian.32 In another chapter, De Laet uses Jacques Auguste de Thou and Traiano Boccalini to refute one of Giovanni Botero’s statements about the universal and absolute power of the Spanish kings. Finally, in his chapter on economy, De Laet again quotes De Thou and the Spanish reformer Fernando de Navarrete to explain the Spanish king’s shortage of money and the bankruptcy of the kingdom of Castile.33

The aforementioned examples are representative. De Laet presents Spain as an empire whose demise was inevitable, but he suggests that there was no poignant reason for the Dutch to hate or fear the country. Rather, he thinks it sufficient to observe its decline and speaks with the rhetorical ethos of someone who is so confident in his superiority that he does not need to engage in the means or methods of current propaganda: let others comment on the state of affairs on the Iberian Peninsula – De Laet seemingly contents himself with ‘soberly’ reporting the facts. The Elzevirian editors corroborated De Laet’s attitude in that they did not make any overt political statements, but still anticipated political developments and created faits accomplis through their publication strategies. The most striking example for this is the treatment of Italy and the Netherlands: no part of Hispania was devoted to the Spanish possessions in either country. Instead, both state descriptions were assigned to separate books, which the Elzevirs already printed in the 1620s.34 Portugal, on the contrary, was integrated into Hispania in 1629. This seems to confirm the observation that it was common in the Netherlands not to distinguish properly between Spain and Portugal.35 However, the Elzevirian publishers changed their attitude after 1640, and in 1641 Portugal received a separate Portugallia that I will now discuss in more detail.

Portugal and the Spanish succession to the Portuguese throne

The Elzevirian Portugallia sive de Regis Portugalliae regnis et opibus commentarius (Portugallia, or a commentary on the kingdoms of the king of Portugal and their wealth) was published in 1641. Also written by De Laet, it contains some of the same argumentative strategies and intellectual attitudes described earlier. However, the context of the description of Portugal was more politically sensitive than that of Spain, and De Laet’s depiction was even more ambiguous.

In 1578 King Sebastian of Portugal had been killed at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir in Morocco, and his death was of enormous consequence for Portuguese history. His corpse had never been recovered from the battlefield and speculations about a quasi-messianic return of the young king were rampant.36 King Sebastian, grandson of John III of Portugal, left no heirs, and the question of his successor became a pressing problem in 1580 with the death of Henry, last surviving brother of Sebastian’s grandfather. When the Portuguese nobility gathered to elect their future king, there were three pretenders to the throne: 1) King Philip II of Spain, whose mother was a sister of John III and who had married one of John III’s daughters; 2) Antonio de Crato, another nephew of John III, but of illegitimate descent; and 3) Catherine of Portugal, niece of John III and wife of John I Duke of Braganza. It was decided that a committee of professors from the University of Coimbra should convene and consider the claims. Yet, Philip II decided not to wait. In the same year, he had the Duke of Alba march into Lisbon, and Portugal fell to the Spanish crown.

In the immediately following years the world of diplomacy and letters seemed to accept the inclusion of Portugal into the Spanish Empire as a fait accompli. Voices like that of the Dominican José Teixeira (1534–1604), who went into exile in 1592 and later published his Speculum tyrannidis Philippi, Regis Castellae, in usurpanda Portugallia (1592; Mirror of the tyranny of the Castilian King Philip in his forcible accession to power in Portugal) were distinct exceptions, and the Dutch editors of the ‘Republics’ did not react differently. Yet in the first decades of the seventeenth century, confrontations between the Portuguese and Philip’s successors increased, and European scholars started battling in the form of polemics, apologia, pamphlets and learned treatises.37 Finally Philip IV was so heavily attacked that he himself intervened. In 1639 he commissioned the Cistercian monk Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz (1606–1682) to compose a tract in Philip II’s defense. Caramuel’s Philippus prudens Caroli V., Imperatoris filius, Lusitaniae, Algarbiae, Indiae, Brasiliae legitimus Rex demonstratus (Philip the Wise, son of emperor Charles V, proven and established king of Portugal, Algarve, India and Brazil) was published in 1640. But events had advanced too far for the treatise to have more than a mere rhetorical effect. In the same year as the Catalonian insurrections, the Portuguese rebelled. The Spanish regent in Lisbon, Duchess Margarita of Mantua, was deposed, and on the 15th of December, 1640, the Portuguese nobility declared John IV, son of Catherine of Braganza, as their new king.

It is evident that Portugallia, printed in 1641, was not simply a testimony to the general struggle of the Elzevir family to keep their series up to date. It also represented an attempt to reconfirm the not yet generally recognized Portuguese king in his new position. De Laet himself corroborated the editorial policy of the Elzevirs’ in his introduction by explicitly welcoming the Portuguese into the club of those who had successfully overthrown the Spanish yoke. Furthermore, he wished the Portuguese king success and prosperity for the duration of his reign.38 Yet, beyond the introduction, and beyond the obvious solidarity of the Dutch with the Portuguese, De Laet pretended to present to his readers a picture as seemingly complete and well-balanced as he had in Hispania. Like Hispania, Portugallia lacks passages on religious or military conflicts (especially where the Dutch were involved), and like Hispania, Portugallia is devoid of direct personal comments by its author. Furthermore, as in Hispania, De Laet reduces direct commentaries or criticism to a minimum and makes extensive use of his technique of eclecticism to suggest ‘neutrality’. But of course De Laet’s eclecticism is as partisan in Portugallia as it is in Hispania, and his use of quotes and paraphrases is everything but ‘neutral’.

This is best exemplified by De Laet’s discussion of the Spanish succession to the Portuguese throne in 1580 and a comparison of the corresponding chapters in Hispania and Portugallia. In Hispania, the De successione-chapter comprises fourteen pages,39 and De Laet only quotes neutral or even pro-Spanish sources such as Jacques Auguste de Thou’s Historia sui temporis (1604–1620; History of his time) or Girolamo Conestaggio’s Dell’unione del regno di Portugallo alla corona di Castiglia (1585; The integration of the kingdom of Portugal into the [lands of the] Castilian crown).40 In Portugallia, the De successione-chapter is not only considerably expanded (comprising forty-three pages), it is also deliberately interspersed with arguments of the opponents of the Spanish seizure of power.41

Like the De successione-chapter in Hispania, the De successione-chapter in Portugallia starts with a paraphrase of Conestaggio. But De Laet adds a second paraphrase of Conestaggio, authored by Teixeira (the Portuguese emigrant and polemicist against the Spanish king), and he directly continues with Teixeira’s comment that Philip had in fact illicitly seized the Kingdom of Portugal.42 Later in the chapter, there are two references to Caramuel y Lobkowitz (who had defended Philip and the Spanish kings in 1639), which are also telling. In the first passage, De Laet does base his text on Caramuel and his Philippus prudens, but instead of using a chapter where Caramuel presents his own position, he uses one where Caramuel summarizes the arguments of his opponents and hence lists the authors who were for Catherine’s and against Philip’s accession to the Portuguese throne.43 In the second passage, De Laet refers to Caramuel, but he does not base his text on the words of Caramuel himself. Instead he makes use of the anti-Spanish Manifeste du Royaume de Portugal (Paris 1641), in which an anonymous author quotes Caramuel, refutes him and finally comes to affirm John IV’s claims against Philip II.44 Furthermore, still in the same chapter of Portugallia, De Laet follows Teixeira’s lengthy discussion of the question whether or not women (and hence Catherine) were to be excluded from accession to the Portuguese throne. Then he repeats Texeira’s statement that Philip also traced his claims back to a woman (his mother) and that he was therefore wrong no matter the general verdict on the legitimacy of royal heiresses in Portugal.45 At the end of the chapter De Laet cites Teixeira’s appeal – clearly in accordance with his own strategy – to join those who judge the matter at hand ‘without passion or partisanship’ (sine affectu aut partium studio). In line with this strategy he then goes on to also repeat Teixeira’s conclusion that these non-partisan voices had rightfully judged the Spanish king to be a tyrant on the Portuguese throne (Tyrannus in Regno Portugalliae).46

The combination of quotations and paraphrases in Portugallia’s chapter De successione leaves no doubt that De Laet is against the Spanish and with the Portuguese. But yet again De Laet’s eclecticism works to conceal his feelings and to create a semblance of objectivity. More than that, in Portugallia De Laet even makes his strategy of argumentation explicit, stating with regard to the Spanish succession to the Portuguese throne that ‘it is not our intention to discuss or to judge about right or wrong in this affair. Instead, we modestly want to learn a few things from the opinion of important men’.47 Further into the book, De Laet repeats:

It is not the right place or work to give an exact definition of the controversy between the [different] pretenders [to the throne] and to disclose on which laws they based their claims or who was having the stronger arguments. Instead, we want to refer to a few arguments of other authors and herewith to avoid the impression that we totally elided [the aforementioned question].48

His words are remarkable: when De Laet wrote Hispania, his compatriots had just resumed their war against Spain. When Portugallia was published, the war was still going on. Its first phase until the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609–21) as well as its second phase until the Peace of Westphalia (1648) was accompanied by intense propaganda. The propaganda publicized cruelties perpetrated by the Spanish and was to contribute heavily to the identity of the newly founded Republic. One of its main elements consisted in the dissemination throughout Europe of Bartolomé de las Casas’ Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A brief account of the destruction of the Indies; 1552).49 Originally written as an admonition to Charles I to withdraw from the encomienda system and its consequences for the Indian populations in the Americas, the book was quickly translated into several European languages and made a seminal contribution to the spread of the leyenda negra.50 Its Dutch translation, originally published in 1578, was re-edited in 1596, now entitled Spieghel der Spaensche Tyrannye, gheschiet in West-Indien (Mirror of the Spanish tyranny, exerted in the West-Indies). After the Truce, it was published in yet another edition now supplemented with a Spieghel der Spaensche Tyrannye, Gheschiedt in Nederlandt, onder Philippus, Coninck van Spaengien (Mirror of the Spanish tyranny, exerted in the Netherlands under Philip, king of Spain).51 Other Dutch descriptions of the war, too, meticulously recorded and condemned the atrocities of the Spaniards. The publication of those descriptions lasted well past the time of the publication of the Elzevirian Republics. Only in the late seventeenth century did new perspectives make their way into Dutch geography and finally created a ‘semblance of neutrality’, which also changed Dutch descriptions of Spain.52

Hispania and Portugallia did not contain similar descriptions of atrocities or cruelties, and they did not or only marginally touch on the main themes of the leyenda negra.53 Interestingly, De Laet even passed over the cruelties of the Spaniards in the New World that constituted the core of the leyenda negra in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.54 This is all the more remarkable as De Laet himself had written one of the most important descriptions of America of his time,55 and was over several years locked in a debate with Hugo de Groot about the origins of the indigenous populations in the New World.56 However, in Hispania and Portugallia, De Laet programmatically ignored all contemporary debates about the Americas.

Granted, the Elzevirian Republics were anything but neutral, yet they were free of hatred and even the partiality they embodied was very particular: in its explicit form it was limited to the introductions and very few chapters of the books. In its implicit form it consisted in a careful choice of quotes, De Laet’s disguised extrapolation of the assertions of other authors and the subtle dissemination of the myth of Spanish decline. This myth as well is usually considered to be part of the leyenda negra and the Elzevirian Republics might have contributed to the dissemination of this idea in the extra-Spanish world.57 But the account of Spain’s decline had a different ring to it than descriptions of Spanish slayings and cruelties and it offered new perspectives on the Spanish peninsula. Those perspectives can be described as the result of a combination of distance and interest, but an interest dictated by a feeling of superiority. They correspond exactly to the perspectives I consider to be characteristic of the seventeenth-century Amsterdam merchant-regents: the latter recognized that a certain degree of pragmatism was necessary for them to succeed in their business affairs. Their pragmatism entailed not only a particular attitude with regard to religious difference, but also with regard to the ‘national enemy’. The Elzevirian Republics and more specifically the descriptions of Spain and Portugal are perfect examples of this.

The Elzevirian Republics, the Dutch merchant-regents, and the history of science

In her illuminating book A Culture of Fact, Barbara Shapiro has argued for the importance of early modern travel accounts and state descriptions for the transition from ‘human’ to ‘natural fact’. The latter then became the condition for the rise of ‘scientific fact’ in experimental science and natural philosophy. According to Shapiro an early modern ‘culture of fact’ developed first in the legal area, spread into early modern historiography and chorography and was only afterwards adopted by the ‘community of naturalists’.58 Bacon’s draft of a New Science and the Royal Societies’ adoption of it were not limited to natural philosophy. On the contrary, the methods they posited for a better understanding of nature were the same as – and probably even inspired by – the ones they proposed for a better understanding of historical, political and social phenomena.59

Correspondingly, the Royal Society was one of the first early modern institutions systematically to advance empirical and experimental knowledge about foreign countries and peoples. Important examples were the questionnaires their early secretary Robert Hooke handed to merchants and travelers in order to record their experiences and to use them subsequently for scientific research. As Antonio Barrera-Osorio has shown, many of those questionnaires relied on early colonial and, again, mercantile experiences of Spaniards in the New World.60 In the project of the Royal Society descriptions of states took on precisely the same empirical significance as natural history did in the sciences. Bacon had written eloquently that scholars should work like bees, going back and forth between the work of collecting and the interweaving of information.61 The Elzevirian Republics as well as other contemporary state descriptions can be seen as clear expressions of the empirical part of this program in the realm of early modern politics. As should be added, not only the Elzevirian Republics but also others of De Laet’s contributions to scholarship, such as his discussion about the origins of the American Indians, can be read in the light of Bacon’s approach and interpreted as an ‘advancement of geographic learning’.62

Once we understand the Elzevirian Republics in the context of seventeenth-century ‘New Science’, it makes sense to compare questions of perspective and general methodical approach in both programs. Here as well we can discern affinities. Such observation owes much to recent studies of the history of epistemic virtues and the pre-history of modern objectivity. Lorraine Daston and Julie Solomon have both suggested that predecessors of the modern scientific ideal of ‘objectivity’ did emerge in different fields of knowledge and social practice and were only later transferred to the sciences.63 Daston’s and Solomon’s studies differ considerably with regard to the periods and the sources they take into account. For my purposes, however, both are equally illuminating. Daston declares objectivity to be a radically new value of the nineteenth century. However, she identifies an early modern precursor of one element of the idea – ‘aperspectival objectivity’ – in the ‘perspectival suppleness’ she locates in eighteenth-century moral philosophy and aesthetics. This precursor is defined as the ‘ability to assume myriad other points of view’.64 According to Daston, ‘perspectival suppleness’ ultimately implies a point of view beyond any subjective perspective. In our context, perspectival suppleness recalls De Laet’s explicit strategy of compilation as a distancing technique described earlier.

Solomon, whose subject matter is closer to the period immediately relevant for the Elzevirian Republics has argued that it was in fact the attitude of merchants and travelers that Bacon pleaded for when he broke with traditional ways of acquiring scientific knowledge and established the foundations for what would later become the concept of scientific ‘objectivity’. According to Solomon, merchants and travelers knew more than anybody else that they could only succeed if they initially distanced themselves from their own interests and deferred to the views of the people whom they visited and with whom they traded. And it was exactly this knowledge that led them to the seemingly contradictory but highly successful attitude of ‘disinterested interestedness’: an attitude of distance combined with the effort to realize personal aims and ambitions. Bacon transferred this principle to the scientific context arguing that natural philosophers should likewise distance themselves from their interests and defer to the things they observed in nature so that they could then use their knowledge to pursue their interests and rule over those things.65

When drawing a connection between English merchants, travelers and the attitude of ‘disinterested interestedness’, Solomon addresses precisely the same aspects discussed in this essay. The parallels between the perspective I have traced in the Elzevirian Republics and the one Solomon describes with regard to the English context are evident. But Solomon’s reference to merchants and travelers seems to fit as well. If we recall Barlaeus’s reference to the antique merchant and the Pythagorean ideal, there are striking similarities between the perspectives conveyed to the mercator sapiens and the readers of De Laet’s Hispania and Portugallia. In the same way the mercator sapiens was asked to observe the business transactions others were pursuing, De Laet’s readers were asked to follow the political debates others were having. In the same way the mercator sapiens was supposed to pursue his interests while keeping his distance, so were De Laet’s readers. In Hispania and Portugallia their stance was expressed through a particular form and content. The particular form was the compilation. The particular content was the myth of Spanish decline.

The only remaining question is what connects Barlaeus’s conception with the actual seventeenth-century Amsterdam regent-merchants. To answer this question, historians have lately conducted a considerable amount of research into the ‘reality’ and the self-perception of Dutch regent-merchants, their experience of trade, learning, and art.66 However, due to the difficult state of sources it will probably never be completely answered. But there is evidence suggesting that at least some of the Amsterdam regent-merchants had ideals similar to the ones Barlaeus formulated, a fact that might have contributed to the success of Barlaeus’s discourse. As one piece of evidence (to which I will only briefly allude here because it goes beyond the scope of this essay) we might consider the impact of Neo-Stoicism on early modern Dutch culture which Gerhard Oestreich so strikingly captured in several of his books and essays.67 According to Oestreich, this Neo-Stoicism which combined virtues of the Roman Stoa with basic principles of Italian ragion di stato, was anything but purely contemplative.68 It ended up being a leitmotif for early modern Dutch political and military organization and gave birth to ideals such as the philosopher-soldier, whose attitudes undoubtedly resemble those of Barlaeus’s philosopher-merchant.69 Interestingly, Justus Lipsius, to whom early modern Dutch political Neo-Stoicism was strongly indebted, also used a technique of compilation in his Politica (1589) to conceal his interests while projecting an attitude of superiority and distance.70

Another indication could be seen in Barlaeus’s ‘generational model’ and the socio-political constellation prevailing in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, one characterized by close ties between merchant and regent families.71 Following the Alteratie of 1578 numerous merchants ascended to public office. New elites took shape that over time would become significant power factors. Parts of these elites were the merchant-regents who had little in common with earlier generations of merchants. They had wealth, lived from their capital and were engaged in government and administration. Their new social position found expression in a new mentality which scholars generally trace back to the years around 1650 and which they link more or less explicitly to the emergence of a stock market.72 Horst Lademacher, however, a renowned expert in the history of the Netherlands, speaks of an earlier sea change and this may well be of interest here. Lademacher distinguishes between three generations of merchants: the first generation stemmed from the years of the Revolt; the second generation used the years of the Twelve Years’ Truce from 1609 to 1621 to expand Dutch trade relations around the world (Lademacher calls them the generation of ‘adventure-merchants’); and the third generation was one that had ‘arrived’.73 With regard to this generation, Lademacher writes succinctly:

The merchant had hardly any cares; and he had wealth at his disposal that allowed him the possibility of studying law, of furthering his education, in the best instance through educational tours; and then, should he so desire, to preoccupy himself with governmental matters.74

One might well suspect that it is precisely this type of merchant that both Barlaeus and De Laet envisioned. In the morning he would go to the Athenaeum to hear the Latin lectures of the famous professors; at noontime he would check in at the Bourse to follow stock developments; and in the afternoon he would devote himself to studying scientific books, among them descriptions of the world such as the Elzevirian Republics. For this merchant there was little difference between merchant-knowledge and that pertaining to governance. What is more, his knowledge was an integral part of his self-image and identity. After 1632, the term mercator sapiens became an honorary title given to those who had taken the important step into a new era.75 The ‘new’ Amsterdam merchant was not only different from other merchants around the world; he also differed from his predecessors in the first phase of the Dutch struggle for independence. His identity was tightly bound up with the image and identity of the city of Amsterdam. As the city changed when the university was founded, so did the merchant when he came into contact with scholarly studies. It was through his erudition that he was ennobled. His wisdom made him into a merchant-regent and philosopher-prince who, for his part, promoted scholarship and contributed to its success. Interestingly enough, not only De Laet but also Barlaeus treat the Spanish as one nation among many, once a political enemy but now a commercial partner that must therefore be observed with an impartial and objective eye.76


To conclude, there are two lessons to be learned from the ‘wise merchant’ and his perspectives on Spain and Portugal. The first lesson is a lesson in the history of early modern state descriptions. The second lesson is a lesson in the history of knowledge and epistemic virtues. Both are of course interconnected. Generally, seventeenth- century state descriptions have been referred to as precursors of the works of German university professors such as Gottfried Achenwall (1719–1772) and his followers, who integrated the study of ‘statistics’ into the study of Staatswissenschaften and established it as a discipline within law studies at most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German universities.77 Only rarely have they been examined in the broader context of a cultural history of knowledge and science,78 and only recently have some of them been read in the light of possible influences exercised by mercantile cultures.79 Yet, in the case of early modern state descriptions the connection between trade and knowledge seems to be self-evident, and the Dutch context could be useful to promote further research.

The second lesson is connected to the history of knowledge and epistemic virtues in early modern Europe. As I have tried to show, the Elzevirian Republics with their descriptions of Spain and Portugal corroborate perspectives and attitudes such as ‘disinterested interestedness’ and ‘perspectival suppleness’, which have been described as elements of the prehistory of aperspectival objectivity. The ideal of the mercator sapiens serves not only as further proof for the connection between those attitudes and early modern merchant cultures but it also helps to link early modern objectivity with superiority. It would then be clear that the specific seventeenth-century Amsterdam culture that originated from the merchant-regents’ struggle for political and material power, their desire for social advancement, their need for pragmatic self-distancing, and their Stoic ideals of active contemplation, contributed to the blossoming of a perspective of superiority and distance. And it would also be clear that the prehistory of aperspectival objectivity comprised epistemic attitudes and virtues such as the perspective of superiority and distance that I have traced in seventeenth-century Dutch state descriptions, but that most likely can also be located in other fields of knowledge and stages of the history of the social sciences and the humanities.