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Word of the day: gemenebest (commonwealth)

This morning I went to the nearest school in order to cast my vote. For today it’s municipal election day. In the many political debates in the last few weeks, the question why the numbers of voters are in decline was raised. It was predicted that the amount of voters would be far below 50%. Tonight we found out that the amount was 53,5 percent. In 2010 it was 54 percent of all Dutchmen. 


In The Hague D’66 became the largest party (with eight seats). Number two is the Freedom Party (seven seats) and number three the PVDA (six seats). Nationally the largest party is the CDA.

Ours is a democratic country, and I am happy that this is so. However, if more and more of my fellow-countrymen and countrywomen refuse to vote, this will affect the democratic quality of the state. The gap between politics and citizens will grow larger and I shudder to think where this will end. Our GEMENEBEST is in danger.

The word GEMENEBEST (a het-woord) is a combination of the two words GEMEEN (common) and BEST (best).

GEMEEN is a common word, so it is still in use. ‘To have something common’ is ‘iets gemeen hebben’. You can also recognise it in the noun GEMEENTE (municipality) which was invented by the new administration in 1798 when the Batavian Republic was divided in ‘departementen’, ‘ringen’ and ‘gemeenten’.

Before the Netherlands became the Batavian Republic in 1795 (which led to the monarchy in 1815) it was officially called the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden), or the Republic of the United Netherlands. This Republic existed from 1581 until 1795. And the Council of State (the States General) was its most powerful body. And it still is by the way.

The representatives of the Dutch citizens in the States General have a duty to work for and safeguard our GEMENEBEST (our general interest). The Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes several meanings for ‘commonweath’:

1. Public welfare or general good;
2. The whole body of people constituting a nation or state, the body politic; a state, an independent community, esp. viewed as a body in which the whole people have a voice or an interest;
3. A state in which the supreme power is vested in the people; a republic or democratic state.

GEMENEBEST or ‘commonweath’ as a democratic body in which everyone has a voice is the kind of government that was preferred by the most famous of all Dutch philosophers Baruch Spinoza who lived in the seventeenth century. At the end of his short life in The Hague he wrote the Political Treatise. When Spinoza died it was still unfinished.

Last week a new translation was published in Dutch. It is the first full translation in a century or so. It is a fascinating read. Many pages sound as if they were written for today’s audience. Unbelievable, what genius this man had!

I’ll end this posting by quoting a relevant passage from this new and very readable translation by Karel D’huyvetters. It is called: Benedictus de Spinoza ‘Staatkundige verhandeling’ (Wereldbibliotheek, Amsterdam 2014, p.241)

[…] wanneer een zeer gering aantal personen alles beslist uit eigenbelang alleen, dan gaan de vrijheid en het GEMENEBEST zelf verloren. Met ons menselijk verstand kunnen we niet alles meteen doorzien, maar door met elkaar te overleggen, te luisteren naar elkaar en te disputeren, krijgen we meer inzicht. En als we alle mogelijkheden onderzoeken, dan vinden we uiteindelijk toch wat we zoeken en wat iedereen dan ook meteen toejuicht, maar wat niemand voordien zelfs maar kon vermoeden.

(… when a small group of people is deciding everything according to their own interests only, freedom and the general good (or commonwealth) are lost. For man’s intellect or reason cannot see through everything at once; but by consulting, listening, and debating, we gain more insight. And while we are searching all possibilities, we will at last find what we want, acclaimed by all, but what no one could have assumed beforehand.)

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