Blog by Han Bakker
Dear Readers Worldwide
Today is a wonderful day for me as I’m starting a weblog at the invitation of the Embassy of the Free Mind (EFM), which I consider a great honour! It’ll be a blog in which I will regularly share with you the EFM’s plans.
I will look back occasionally on past events, or tell you a little bit about what’s happening at present. For current news and updates, please visit the website.
First, let me introduce myself. My name is Han Bakker, I was born in 1955 and I’ve been fortunate to have been able to play a role in international culture life in many ways, in such fields as the theatre and music, festivals and cultural programmes of numerous European cities.
Early on, while still at University, I became fascinated by the subject of creativity, by the question how something new or new knowledge and insights emerge and how we may acquire the ability to achieve insight. My search initially led me away from the academic world after completing university, to the world of creative arts and of spirituality.
Source of inspiration
It must have been around the beginning of the new millennium when someone pointed out to me there was a very special library in the heart of 17th-century Amsterdam. A collection, hidden in a few historical buildings, of thousands of rare books and manuscripts by so-called freethinkers. People who, independent of church dogmas or ideology, reflected on who we are, and on the origin of all that is. Manuscripts and rare printed books containing views and visions which were said to be capable of uniting the world religions into a coherent whole. Eminent literary men like Umberto Eco and Harry Mulisch were to have consulted the library as a source of inspiration. I became immensely curious.
Florence in Amsterdam
My first visit was decisive for my by now long-standing relationship with the library. The founder of the library, Joost Ritman, happened to be there himself and handed me a hefty volume in a case, with the words: ‘Han, this is where the Renaissance starts.’ He invited me to take the book out of the case without having to wear gloves. With my bare hands I put the book on the wooden reading desk and found myself leafing through a 15th-century Plato translation. It was the famous translation by Marsilio Ficino, who had received the commission from Cosimo de Medici, ruler of Florence. As pristine as if it had been printed yesterday, with marginal notes – by the translator himself?
A historical sensation
The renowned Dutch historian Johan Huizinga once referred to ‘the historical sensation’. What he meant was the emotion we experience when we find ourselves in direct contact with the past. It was what happened to me when I held this book that seemed to bridge five centuries in a single instant. For a moment I felt I was in 15th-century Florence.
The literary writer and later Culture Minister of the Netherlands, Aad Nuis, once described the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica as the ‘House of Living Books’. Anyone lucky enough to have experienced what I have, will appreciate why.
In the years that followed I regularly returned to the library, bringing artist friends along to share my fascination with. More about that in future blogs.
Dear readers worldwide
We humans are passionate and truth-seeking beings. We have also always felt the urge to pass on wisdom, whether in the form of stories, insights or visions. Sometimes they were laid down in manuscripts, and, since the 15th century, in printed books and printed images. Such messages from the sometimes distant past can reach us through the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. This famous library is now at the heart of the Embassy of the Free Mind, a museum housed in a magnificent monument on Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht. The 17th-century mansion not only boasts a wonderful library but also offers an attractive programme of exhibitions, presentations and lectures, concerts and master classes.
In my first blog I already mentioned the name of the Greek philosopher Plato. Possibly less known to you is that of the legendary sage Hermes Trismegistus, who was sometimes assumed to have been the wisdom teacher of the Old Testament Moses and the Greek philosopher Plato. Writings attributed to him were rediscovered in the Renaissance. This ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ plays a central role in our Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (BPH) and was of great influence on thinkers and visionaries from the 16th and 17th centuries such as Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Jacob Böhme and other champions of a free spirituality. By this I mean that they formulated insights based on research of their own, and held views that were free from dogmatism. In the past, such independent spirits regularly came into conflict with the establishment, and sometimes paid with their lives (see below). Sometimes, however, their thoughts and views survived in their writings. You are now free to study them here at the Embassy of the Free Mind.
Undercurrents in culture
The texts of the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ are held to date from the first centuries of our era, but they may go back to much older Egyptian sources, which unfortunately can no longer be traced. The rediscovery and translation of the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ in 15th-century Florence provided a great impetus to the arts and sciences of the Renaissance.
Once when I was in the library on Bloemstraat, I was able to hold an early copy of the translated ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ in my hands. The work is part of the BPH’s core collection of books, manuscripts and images from the 15th to the late 18th centuries. Together with younger publications, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica collection holds more than 28,000 titles. This intellectual and spiritual heritage is available to you and to everyone else. There is also a scholarly research institute attached to the library, the Ritman Research Institute (RRI), about which more in coming blogs.
The exhibitions in the Embassy change regularly. They show books from the library as well as loans, and focus on themes and personalities based on our research. Recently, for example, the EFM presented the young Amsterdam philosopher, lawyer and physician Adriaan Koerbagh, a contemporary and friend of the much better known Amsterdam philosopher Spinoza. ‘Young' because he died prematurely in an Amsterdam prison. Only 36 years of age, he was severely punished for his radical views. He did not survive the deprivations of prison life, and died within a year. Koerbagh wanted to show the Dutch people the way to a reasonable and tolerant religion. This was too much for the Amsterdam authorities. His sad story also qualifies the idea of Amsterdam as a spiritual haven in the 17th and 18th centuries.
An Oasis of Wisdom and Inspiration in the Heart of Amsterdam
In my previous blog, I told you something about my introduction to the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in the 1990s - known to insiders as the BPH. I want to delve deeper into the Embassy of the Free Mind, because I may have given the impression that it is mainly about rare manuscripts and exceptionally beautiful antique books. That is partly true, but it is so much more than that; it is primarily about the content, about a living collection that we want to share with the whole world. Here, there are thousands of extremely rare works that bear witness to the intuitive knowledge and insight of authors who have lived over the past 25 centuries. Why is that so valuable?
Intuition is perhaps the most human quality we possess. We share instincts with other animals, but intuition, that sudden clear insight, that authentic imagination, is what truly makes us human. Without it, there would be no development in art, science, or our cultures. And it has always been individuals who bear witness to that in their writings or artistic creations. This is precisely where the Embassy of the Free Mind comes into play:
There are multiple forms of intelligence. Currently, three are in the spotlight: the intelligence inherent in nature, human intelligence with intuition and imagination as distinguishing factors, and the much-discussed artificial intelligence, which is based on the results of human intelligence and utilizes them in a brilliant but still mechanical manner. The intelligence hidden in nature is currently of great interest due to the ecological crisis we are facing. We seek a deeper understanding of how everything is interconnected, and this is pursued
through the classical scientific method. However, additionally, younger generations also turn to indigenous cultures, ancient rituals, or explore spiritual initiation paths for a deeper understanding. They tread ancient paths that are unique to human intelligence. This growing interest, this global quest, makes the Embassy of the Free Mind so relevant now.
The core of our BPH collection offers over two and a half thousand years of testimonies from great minds who came before us. Studying these sources yields a boundless stream of insights and knowledge from various traditions that have had and continue to have a tremendous influence on Western culture. Some of these sources originate from areas outside of Europe, belonging to the history of humanity, connecting us to North Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, among others. It is no coincidence that the BPH was granted the UNESCO Memory of the World status.
But it is not only these sources that make the Embassy of the Free Mind so special. It is also the social environment in which they are studied. Not everyone masters ancient languages like Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, or Coptic. With the help of our extensive reference library and guided by our scientific staff, scholars and enthusiastic individuals can delve into these works. Thus, they become part of a lively and international community of inquisitive minds. The Embassy of the Free Mind is the center of this community and their source of inspiration.
A visit to the Embassy invites us to dig deeper into the grand connections, into what it means to be human. It is a place where our minds can freely wander and where, within a living community, new ideas and initiatives can emerge for a better world.
Follow the program of lectures, exhibitions, and other activities on our website, and come to the Embassy to be inspired and meet like-minded individuals.
June 2023, Amsterdam