Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam is not only a biography of the city, but a genealogy of the “tattered, ancient, much misunderstood word ‘liberalism,’” an Amsterdam-born set of habits.

As Philipp Blom sums up the argument in a TLS review, Dutch liberalism was economically motivated: “Dutch tolerance was never ‘nice.’ It was, as Shorto remarks, built not on admiration or even celebrating difference, but precisely on indifference, on letting others live their lives regardless of what one might think of their practices and beliefs, as long as they did not interfere with the business of society and of business itself. It was a shoulder-shrugging tolerance. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Amsterdam’s liberalism exercised a decisive influence on European debates through its print shops, from where a constant stream of writing by such heretics and dissidents as Spinoza, Descartes, La Mettrie, Holbach and Diderot flowed across the borders. But inviting persecuted thinkers, as well as Huguenots and Jews, into the city was a result not of humanitarian sentiments but of a shrewd appreciation of the fact that encouraging diversity, attracting expertise and trading networks, establishing strong civic institutions and lowering ideological thresholds would all yield sound economic assets.”

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