Wednesday, April 04, 2007
A brief look at the life of Felix Ortt, prominent Dutch christian anarchist
Felix Louis Ortt (Groningen 9 June 1866 - Soest 15 October 1959) is the most important theoretician of christian anarchism in the Netherlands. Should he be typified with one word it would probably be: philosopher. But there are no sharp borders between the specifications given below.
Ortt was educated to be a civil engineer, specialised in hydrography. In 1887 he finished his studies at Delft Polytechnic School with a thesis on the shipworm (Teredo navalis). In line with family tradition he took up a post at Rijkswaterstaat (the department for the maintenance of dikes, roads, bridges and the navigability of canals). Working at the site where the new Merwede canal was being dug he caught malaria. As he writes himself he had been given up by regular medicine, but was cured by naturopathy. He duly also became a vegetarian and a teetotaller, a choice which would determine the course of his further life and career. After being transferred for health reasons to Brielle he was working in 1894 with the general service of Rijkswaterstaat in The Hague. Here he developed a system for the development of tide tables for the Dutch coast, the Ortt/De Bruin-system (1895), which would be used for the next ninety years. In 1899 he left the service because he considered possible future work for the development of the Den Helder marine harbour as a preparation for war. He could not combine this work with his newly developed political views. He also ceded his title as a member of the nobility and his heritage and left the Dutch Reformed Church, which he had served as a churchwarden. He became titular secretary to C. van der Hucht-Kerkhoven and in this function became heavily involved with the Dutch League against Vivisection (Nederlandsche Bond ter Bestrijding van de Vivisectie), founded by mr. and mrs. Van der Hucht. Until the end of his life he would be engaged in the struggle against vivisection, writing reports, articles and brochures.
As a propagandist for vegetarianism and total abstinence Ortt gets in touch with the radical young wing of the modernist current in the Dutch Reformed Church, organised in the Dutch Protestant League (Nederlandsche Protestantenbond) with its organ De Hervorming [Reformation]. This young current was heavily influenced by the religious and social thinking of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, which by his followers was defined as christian anarchist. Tolstoy saw the Sermon on the Mount as the essence of the gospel, and of this he saw defencelessness and the complete renunciation of violence as the most important principle. In 1897 these young people separated from the Protestantenbond and started the journal Vrede (Peace). Later that year Ortt wrote Christelijk anarchisme (Christian anarchism), reprinted later in 1897 under the title Het beginsel der liefde (The priciple of love) – a plea for defencelessness.
Ortt’s socialist ideas were – apart from Tolstoy – strongly influenced by Frederik van Eeden, with whom he had been in touch since his youth. He was involved with the Vereeniging Gemeenschappelijk Grondbezit (League for the Common Possession of the Ground) which purported the foundation of industry and co-operation of the workers themselves in self-managed enterprises. For some time he was editor of the journal of the league, De Pionier (The Pioneer).
The Dutch christian anarchists organised in the Vereeniging Internationale Broederschap [Society of International Fraternity] (which remained a Dutch association), which had inland colonisation as its first aim: undertaking agriculture and industry together in equality and fraternity (in the spirit of Jesus Christ, according to the articles of the association). In 1899 a colony was started on poor soil in Blaricum, bought by the adherent professor Jac. van Rees, who did not join the colony himself. Participants were amongst others the theoreticians J.K. van der Veer, Lodewijk van Mierop, Anne de Koe, S.C. Kylstra. There were but few skilled craftsmen in the colony, and certainly very few craftsmen who fully shared the high ideals of the founders. Ortt from 1902 to 1903 was in the colony working with the printing office and the publishing house, and as a naturopath. During the Great Railway strike of 1903 the strike committee came together in the colony. This was a thorn in the eye to the population of nearby Laren and of Blaricum, which distrusted these red “grasseaters” (vegetarians) and “nudists” anyway (they did not wear hats and sometimes not even socks!) A drunken mob came to set the colony buildings on fire. The anarchist colonists had to flee under protection of the armed guard of the State. Afterwards some people considered armed defence against future attacks, which led to the departure of the founding group. It effectively also meant the end of the christian anarchist organisation. Ortt wrote a trilogy about the colony and left no doubt about his feelings about so-called kindred spirits and withdrew for some time. Ortt would in the future co-operate mainly with his friend and comrade Lod. van Mierop, until incompatiblity of humour of both men’s spouses ended their working together.
Ortt for a while was editor of Vrede and the continuation of the journal, De Vrije Mensch (The Free Human). In 1915 he was one of the signers of the Manifesto calling for Refusal of Military Service, a call for individual conscientious objection which made many a signer acquainted with the Dutch prison system. Ortt was not prosecuted, which led him to write an indictment against the Dutch system of prosecution (Het peil van ons rechtswezen, 1916 [The standard of our administration of justice]). After this he has not been involved with any form of organisation of relligious anarchists, he did not participate in the new organisations after the War.
Humanitarian education and the Chaste Life
From its founding in 1901 to the dissolution in 1929 Ortt was engaged in the Rein Leven-beweging (Movement for Chaste Living). This organisation struggled in word with the connected evils of venereal disease and prostitution. One of its means was the hitherto unheard-of sexual enlightenment, always given with reference to love which was considered to be chaste. Actually intercourse was only considered to be acceptable when it was intended for procreation. So preservatives and the practicing of homosexual love were anathema. In this spirit Ortt wrote the introduction to what is judged to be the first sex education brochure for homosexuals (written by the adherent J.H.François, "Een Hunner" [One of Them]). Abstention was indissolubly connected to the Chaste Life. To the christian anarchist Chaste Life-adherents it was unacceptable that women in and by marriage were given a status of a subjected human being. Ortt was the first to engage in a more or less officially recognised “free marriage” with Tine Hinlópen in 1905. (He had been officially married before). The well-nigh indissoluble complex of pacifism, vegetarianism, anti-vivisection and protection of animals, chaste living and teetotalism was referred to as the humanitarian current or humanitarianism in its days.
This humanitarian striving was organised by Van Mierop and Ortt, after they went living next to each other in Soest in 1908, in the Stichting Chreestarchia [Foundation for the Dominion of the Good]. The foundation was a publishing house (books published by the Chaste Life Movement, amongst others) and started a humanitarian school, originally in Soest near the houses of the founders, the Engendaalschool, later called Van der Huchtschool. Ortt has become especially well-known as a pedagogue outside of the Netherlands, particularly for his ideas about the needs to tell the facts of life and his introductions to religious life. He also wrote biblical stories and fairy tales in latitudinarian spirit for children and “the little ones”. As an academic he was not allowed to teach in prep school so he could only act as a school assistant at the school he had founded himself. At very high age he would still be helping pupils with their homework ("Uncle Felix").
Philosopher, spritist theoretician, humanitarist
Ortt did not involve with experiments, but was convinced of the truth of spiritism. His philosophical considerations always have this conviction – sometimes against his better judgement – as a background. He developed a monistic philosophy at the border area of theology, philosophy, parapsychology and physics, pneumat-energetic monism. It did not get a following. Besides spiritism his scientific education returns in his dissertations. He was one of the first to popularise Einstein’s theory of relativity, connecting it to the spiritual (De relativiteitstheorie van Einstein uiteengezet voor een wiskundig niet-geschoold publiek [Einstein’s theory of relativity explained to people unfamiliar with mathematics]). Until very high age Ortt was editor of Spiritische bladen, the journal of the association of spiritists Harmonia, and he regularly delivered lectures for this society. He was one of the co-founders of the Dutch branch of the Society for Psychical Research.
In the struggle against vivisection he collided a few times with partisans who wanted to exaggerate the stories about the torturing of animals and who wanted to depict the intentions of the vivisectors as worse than could responsably be told. He insisted that he integrity of researchers was not an issue for discussion and that they should be met at their own terms. This led to a split in the movement against vivisection. Ortt wanted it to co-operate with the Nederlandsche Vereeniging voor Nauurgeneeswijze [Dutch Association for Naturopathy], in which he also had been participating from the start. When the leading man of this association, Hettema, collaborated with the German occupation forces (1940-1945) Ortt distanced himself from the society. The occupation was a watershed at another point: the defencelessness and the turning of the other cheek in Tolstoy’s spirit in his opinion could not reasonably be maintained during the terror of the nazi regime. His son, also called Felix, had been killed in a concentration camp in 1944, after being caught as an active resister ("auf der Flucht erschossen").
A good part of his active life he housed the Vegetarian Bureau which gave information and tips, kept a lending library and he was editor of the Vegetarische Bode [Vegetarian Herald]. He presented some radio programmes for the social-democratic radio society VARA about vegetarianism and he wrote several cook books.
Labels: Christen-anarchisme, Felix Ortt
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A great summary for beginners like me. Are any of Felix Ortt's works published in English?
Yes, are there any works of his in English?
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