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Frans Hemsterhuis (1721-1790)

Frans Hemsterhuis was born in Franeker on 27 December 1721, in a house on the north-western side of the Voorstraat, where nowadays the Kaatsmuseum (a museum for an old Frisian ball game) is located. He was the son of Cornelia Maria de Wilde, the descendant of an Amsterdam regent family, and Tiberius Hemsterhuis, professor of Greek at the University of Franeker.

The Hemsterhuis family was of old Frisian lineage. Originally freehold farmers at De Hem near Jorwerd, they improved their social position during the 17th century, developing into a family of scholars. Several became physicians, and Johannes Hemsterhuis (1657-1706) was professor of medicine at Franeker. But Tiberius (1685-1766), Frans’ father (his name is a Latinized version of the first name Tyebbe that had been in the family for generations), opted for Greek, eventually becoming the major force behind the 18th-century rediscovery of Greek antiquity in the Dutch Republic (prior to that, the main focus in ancient history was on sacred Hebrew and on Latin, which was still spoken).

Frans Hemsterhuis (1721-1790)
Frans Hemsterhuis (1721-1790)

The young Frans was fully initiated by his father into Greek antiquity. His interest lay in philosophy, however, although this did not become his profession. The aristocrat became a high-ranking official with the Council of State in The Hague, while also publishing more or less anonymously a number of discerning  philosophical writings. He wrote in French, the language of the philosophes and the aristocracy of that time, but the tone was clearly Greek. His great example was Socrates, who succeeded in bringing an open-minded audience to the right understanding through instruction. This ‘Batavian Socrates’, as he was called, eventually opted for dialogues entirely in the Platonic style. These writings were very favourably received by the early German Romanticists: Goethe, Herder, Jacobi, Hamann, Hölderlin, Novalis and Schleiermacher. Even Kant and Hegel were familiar with his work. Hemsterhuis, who never married, died on 7 July 1790 in The Hague.

A true Frisian, raised in accordance with the Greek ideal, writing in French, exerting a powerful influence on German Romanticism, translated today into Italian and Dutch, and reviewed in English – in Hemsterhuis we encounter someone of European stature.

Information about Frans Hemsterhuis and his work:

  • Jacob van Sluis, e-mail:
Last modified:11 January 2024 10.13 a.m.
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