The Embarrassment of Riches

by Simon Schama

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

[T]he trial of faith by adversity was a formative element of the national culture.

This quote encapsulates Schama’s interpretation of seventeenth-century Dutch culture. Schama argues that the Dutch, even as they emerged as the wealthiest nation in Europe in the seventeenth century, were always gripped by a knowledge of the potentially ephemeral nature of it all. That is, they knew that what God had given, He could also take away. Calvinist theology was part of this, but this belief was also, Schama argues, rooted in the origins of the country itself. Much of the region, of course, had been reclaimed from the sea by using dikes, levees, canals, and other technological marvels. The Dutch had experienced many catastrophic floods in the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries (which were memorialized in the art that Schama analyzes) and were always conscious of the realities and possibilities of destruction. Constant labor and vigilance, then, were required of the Dutch people. The fact that the Dutch had won their independence from Spain, a global power, helped convince them that their existence was highly precarious; but this also caused them to believe that it was possible that God was smiling upon them.

[T]heir fear of drowning in destitution and terror was exactly counterbalanced by their fear of drowning in luxury and sin.

What this means, in short, is that Dutch people, even as they became rich and powerful, saw their wealth and power as potentially corrupting. Their labors, in their eyes, made them the wealthy and prosperous nation they were, but it was important to retain the values they saw as the source of their success. Schama sees this in Dutch art, which juxtaposes wealth with scenes of frugality, with an obsession with morality (but also a winking acceptance of worldliness), and with the potential conflict between "the renegade individualist, the arch-capitalist," and the "commercial and ecclesiastical codes of decorum" that defined Dutch society. Thus, Dutch culture is fundamentally conflicted.

[The Dutch mind is] adrift between the fear of the deluge and the hope of moral salvage, in the tidal ebb and flow between worldliness and homeliness, between the gratification of appetite and its denial, between the conditional consecration of wealth and perdition in its surfeit.

Schama is convinced that these irreconcilable concepts lay at the heart of Dutch culture and that the struggle to reconcile them, while ultimately impossible, is what defined the Dutch as people (at least in their own minds) in the seventeenth century. The pursuit of wealth while acknowledging its danger, the fear that it all might come crashing down with floods of water, corruption, or Spanish soldiers, and the constant obsession with work ethic and frugality among people who lived comfortable, leisurely lives produce a distinctive Dutch culture.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access