Research summary

Revius’s versatile personality and varied work open a window to some important discussions in seventeenth-century society. His outspoken views overtly clashing with contemporaneous opinions and developments make him not only interesting as a person and as a poet, they also provide insight in the religious and literary culture of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.

One of the main characteristics of seventeenth-century Dutch Republic society is a continuing clash of interests, opinions and religious convictions, roused by revolutionary shifts and changes in science, religion and politics. In these sometimes heated disputes Jacob Revius (1586-1658) was one of the most important Calvinist opinion leaders. While many of his contemporaries increasingly tended to centralize the human subject (in theology, philosophy, science, literature, historiography), Revius fought a rearguard action in defense of universal truth and objective convictions.

Given his social environment, his upbringing and education, he seems to have had (and used) all kinds of opportunities to develop in a humanist way. During his life he always kept a tender spot for the humanist ambitions in literature and philosophy. He did not really underestimate himself, and he defended fiercely his personal opinions on all matters of life. In short, there seems to have been a lot of ‘self-development’ and ‘self-fashioning’ in Revius’ life, at first view.

Yet not many writers have taken as radical a position against the humanist idea of ‘self-development’ as Revius did. In opposition to Erasmus’s ‘Homines non nascuntur, sed finguntur’, Revius’s view can be summarized with ‘Homines non finguntur, sed renascuntur’. It is noticeable in the position he took in the controversy about the predestination doctrine, the first big conflict he fought during his lifetime (about 1618): he firmly supported the contraremonstrant belief, seeking religious certainty outside the human subject, and underlining God’s omnipotence and man’s impotence. It is also visible, later, in his attitude towards the Copernican world view. For him, human observation could never be decisive in philosophy or science, because observation always had to give way to the authority of the divine, revealed Scripture. That’s also why he fought Descartes in the years between 1647 and 1655: against the Cartesian doubt he set the prophetic Word – and Aristotelian philosophy.

Revius was not only a poet, but also a pastor, Bible translator, theologian, philosopher and historian, and therefore was engaged in many different fields of culture. In theological disputations, polemical writings, poetry and historiography he ventured his opinions on Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, the Twelve Years’ Truce and the regents’ politics, the predestination doctrine and Cartesian philosophy, education, literature, astronomy, hair style – and all other kinds of cultural phenomena. Moreover, he spent his life in different parts of the Republic: Amsterdam, Deventer, Leiden.

Revius’s versatile personality and varied work open a window to some important discussions in seventeenth-century society. His outspoken views overtly clashing with contemporaneous opinions and developments make him not only interesting as a person and as a poet, they also provide insight in the religious and literary culture of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. As a Calvinist opinion leader, Revius helped shape the contemporaneous culture, while at the same time he criticized it severely, reacting rather fiercely against developments in the society he lived in.

The aim of this research is to assess the life and works of Revius in their historical, political, religious, social and cultural context. Because his position in the cultural debate is connected with his personal development,  this research will assess (a) his world view (distilled from the texts he wrote) and (b) his personal life (constructed from several historical sources). Key questions are: What was Revius’ position in seventeenth-century Dutch culture and society? What can be said about his personality and world view, by analyzing his work? And, the other way round, in which way did his personal development determine his work and his position in culture and society?

To describe this historical personality against the background of his time, the genre of biography seems the most obvious choice. The only existing (scholarly) biography of Revius dates 1895 (E.J.W. Posthumus Meyjes, Jacobus Revius, zijn leven en werk). Since then, not only new facts regarding his life and work have been discovered, the facts also can tell a different story if approached in a new way. The biographical genre has the advantage of necessarily integrating discussions and problems that, during the centuries, have been compartmentalized increasingly. Since the second half of the nineteenth century Revius’ work has been subject of research regularly. However, Revius always has been regarded either as a theologian and philosopher, or as a poet – the results of both types of study have never been interconnected systematically. Therefore I am seeking to integrate these two sides of his life and works.

In literary history Revius’s poems have usually been placed in the framework of the seventeenth-century literary world: Which other Dutch poets did he have a connection with, and whose texts have anything in common with his poems? He mainly has been compared with other ‘minister-poets’ (‘domineedichters’) and as a result is usually regarded as a minor poet, whose influence on literary culture was only limited. But when he is placed in the context of cultural life in Deventer and Leiden, and against the background of the learned, calvinist networks in which he participated, it leads to a revaluation of Revius as a poet. The same is true for Revius as a theologian, philosopher and historian: his ideas and opinions have often been isolated from his life and poetry, which means that only part of the picture remained visible. My approach, in which the connections between life, opinions and poetry are researched, can therefore shed new light on Revius, his poetry and his position in society.

As the number of primary sources is quite large (Revius had about forty books to his name, mainly in Latin, a lot of which never have been seriously studied), the scope of this study has to be defined. The research particularly concentrates on certain themes, while ignoring other themes. Attention will be paid to Revius’ views on poethood, art, Cartesianism, Islam, historiography and cosmology –to give a few examples– but not to his specific-theological views on, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, or the doctrine of justification. This thematic approach of Revius’ work will be combined with a chronological approach of his life, in which ‘self-image’, ‘self-representation’, ‘self-presentation’ and (denial of) ‘self-fashioning’ will be the focal points.