Ruben S. Buys
Philosophy and (Popular) Culture: A Conference for Graduate and Undergraduate Students, University of New Mexico (2007)
It must have been around the 1530s that Dirck Volkertsz. Coornhert, the famous Dutch proponent of free thought and toleration, decided not to write any of his texts in Latin. This was, of course, an odd decision. Did not all scholars use Latin, many of them even going as far as to describe common language as rude, uncivilised and barbarian? For Coornhert, though, using his mother tongue was nothing less than a matter of principle. It was his conviction that knowledge should be accessible for every right-thinking individual, be he learned or layman. Hiding knowledge behind the walls of an exclusive language was therefore of no use. Hence, Coornhert wrote a vast number of Dutch texts, among which also Zedekunst, published in 1586, the first ethics to appear in any national language of post-Roman Europe.
Although Coornhert thus may have been the first to write a ‘European’ vernacular ethics, he certainly was not the first author who used the Dutch language as a means to transport moral ideas to a broad, non-Latin speaking audience. From as early as the thirteenth century onwards many authors deliberately wrote philosophical tracts in the vernacular.
This paper’s aim is to shed light on the interaction between philosophy and popular culture from a historical point of view. I hope to show that philosophical ideas played an important role in one of the greatest shifts in Western civilization – namely the downfall of nobility and clergy and the rise of ‘layman culture’ during the late Middle Ages and Early Modernity. I will try to do so by considering the nature and function of vernacular philosophy in the Netherlands –or the Low Countries– between 1280 and 1600. It is in this unique and highly urbanised area that some important features of popular culture and modern Western citizenship arose, such as freedom of conscience, pragmatism, and social mobility.