In which, once again, we bite off more ideas than we could conceivably chew, somewhat in the manner of a ‘Summarize Proust’ competition.
The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World
Matthew Stuart (W. W. Norton, 2006)
Last month I discussed Russell Shorto’s Descartes’ Bones, which averred that the writings of René Descartes set in motion a philosophical revolution that became the modern age. As it happens, Matthew Stuart’s The Courtier and the Heretic picks up that story with two of Descartes’ most important immediate successors: Stuart frames h is book around a visit paid by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to Baruch Spinoza, which took place in 1676, twenty-six years after Descartes’ death.
Spinoza had been a prize student among the Jews of Amsterdam, but was, as a young man, excommunicated for heresy by the rabbis; he never looked back, and retired to a quiet life as a lens-grinder by day, and a philosopher by night. By the time of Leibniz’s visit, Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) had made him the most notorious atheist in Europe. In it, he reads the Bible with a cool modern eye, pointing out contradictions and absurdities, and he advocates for a form of democratic government free of theocratic intolerance and oppression.
In contrast to the retiring Spinoza, Leibniz was very much a man of affairs. In addition to groundbreaking work in mathematics, “(h)e had begun to fill out the long list of his contributions to the fields of chemistry, chronometry, geology, historiography, jurisprudence, linguistics, optics, philosophy, physics, poetry, and political theory,” says Stuart, though he also points out that Leibniz’s ceaseless activity could render him highly distractible. When he went to Holland to see Spinoza, for instance, he was overdue in Hanover for a job in the Duke’s library which he had accepted ten months before.
By temperament and profession, Leibniz was a defender of the status quo, so why was he intent on visiting this apostate Jew, the outcast of outcasts? They had several interests in common, but metaphysics must have been chief among them. The only record of what they actually discussed is a single sheet of paper, on which Leibniz recorded a proof “That a Most Perfect Being Exists,” which he wrote down in the midst of their conversation and read aloud to his host.
Leibniz proceeded to Hanover and took up his duties (along with his perennial complaint that he was underpaid for them.) Spinoza was overcome, just three months later, by the lung ailment he had long labored under, which may have been partly a side effect of breathing glass dust while polishing lenses. His desk was packed up and delivered to his publisher in Amsterdam, and a year later, his posthumous works emerged. Chief among those, the Ethics started the brouhaha about his dangerous atheism all over again.
In the end, Spinoza is not actually against God; but he posits a God who is reasonable, who is not inconsistent and capricious, who does not break his own rules, but acts only according to his own Nature--of which everything that is, is an expression. “Spinoza’s God does not intervene in the course of events--for that would be to countermand itself--nor does it produce miracles--for that would be to contradict itself. Above all, God does not judge individuals and send them to heaven or hell.” A God, in short, who will be right at home in the twenty-first century (in certain circles), but who is a grave offense to the seventeenth.
Leibniz would live another forty years, stuck in the Hanoverian backwater but relentlessly busy. His work in philosophy can be read as an extended response to the dangerous heresies of Spinoza, though there are also notes in which he seems to understand him sympathetically, and to manfully resist the temptation of believing him correct. Where Spinoza disposes of the Cartesian conundrum by demonstrating that mind is not, after all, separate from body, Leibniz ends up with a baroque, not to say bizarre, system of many minds, called monads, which are created by God, and eternal.
We must give that round to Spinoza, though the cognitive-science implications of brain-based minds are still being worked out; but Stuart demonstrates that Leibniz’s struggle to rescue something transcendent from modernity’s cold rationality has continued in many forms ever since. We humans get lonely when we contemplate an eternal time and space that doesn’t have a plan for us.
The Courtier and the Heretic is a marvel of a book: it makes abstruse philosophical ideas approachable, and embeds them in sparkling drama. Matthew Stuart has done a noble job of setting aside what the intervening generations have made of these two men, touching on it only in the final chapter, and looking freshly at what they actually said. The two principals are great characters, especially set off against one another, the one always striving to make the world better, the other content to establish, and embody, his own sense of how things truly are. “Without doubt, there is a little piece of each in everybody; equally certain is the fact that, at times, a choice must be made.”
A bracing thought for the new year! May it bring you many blessings.
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