BookReview: The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World
by Matthew Stewart, W. W. Norton, January 9, 2006, 0393058980

Leibniz is the courtier and strong believer in God and the church. He wants to reunite the two churches (Protestants and Catholics) to go back to a world where everybody gets along. He is a child of the Thirty Years War.

Spinoza is the heretic. He is a logician that comes to realize that God is everything, that is, all substance. Therefore, God is neither good nor evil; he just is. Everything comes from God.

Although Leibniz publicly despise Spinoza, he corresponds secretly with Spinoza and ulimately visits Spinoza in 1676. There no direct record of the meeting, but Stewart goes on to show that Leibniz was greatly affected by the meeting. Leibniz's philosphy became more stridently anti-Spinoza, and he struggled with the idea that God was not the good-and-evil God presented by the church.

While Spinoza never lost faith in the concept in God, Stewart supposes that Leibniz saw that if God didn't exist as the good-and-evil God, then the church was founded on a great fallacy. And, being the ever-inventing scientist, he perhaps believed that if God was everywhere, he might be nowhere. That is, nature is simply a set of arbitrary laws that have nothing to do with morals or God. Nature simply is.

In the 17th century, "no one" was an out and out atheist, and neither was Spinoza although they called him the "atheist Jew". The philosophical community derided Spinoza as "our Jew". Spinoza, although regarded as one of the most "devout" philosophers, was never accepted in the community as a whole. Leibniz was no different, yet he always regarded Spinoza with respect, even in his most negative writings. This subtlety is what leads Stewart to believe that Leibniz was unable to forget their meeting, and that Leibniz had this internal struggle with the concept of God.

[p56] Equally futile, [Spinoza] reasons, is the craving for fame that dominates so many lives: "Honor has this great disadvantage, that to pursue it, we must direct our lives according to other men's power of understanding." As for money: "There are many examples of men who have suffered persecution even to death for the sake of their riches."

[p57] In his early treatise, Spinoza articulates a further, final element of the archetypal philosophical project: that the life of contemplation is also a life within a certain type of community-specifically, a fellowship of the mind. Like Socrates with his circle of debating partners, or Epicurus in his garden with his intellectual companions, Spinoza imagines a philosophical future in which he and other individuals of reason nourish their wisdom through ongoing, mutually enlightening dialogue. In fact, upon achieving blessedness for himself, he announces in his first treatise, his first step will be "to form a society of the kind that is desirable, so that as many as possible may attain it as easily and as surely as possible." For, "the highest good," he claims, is to achieve salvation together with other individuals "if possible."

[p58] Even as one consecrates one's life to the pursuit of continuous, supreme, and everlasting happiness, of course, as Spinoza himself points out, "it is necessary to live." He therefore rounds out the introductory sections of his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect with three proposed "rules of living," intended to serve as a practical guide to life for himself and his fellow philosophers. The first rule of living is, in brief, to get along with the rest of humanity. That is, fellow seekers should follow the accepted social customs. and behave amicably with ordinary people and otherwise avoid trouble that might jeopardize the overriding mission of attaining philosophical blessedness. The second rule is that one should enjoy sensual pleasures to the extent that they are required to safeguard health and thereby serve the all-important end of leading a life of the mind. The third rule is that one should seek money and other worldly goods just so far as is necessary to maintain life and health-again, for the purpose of maintaining a vigorous mind.

[p65] The apparent tension between the Heraclitean and Epicurean sides of Spinoza's character is one that has trailed philosophers since ancient times. On the one hand, philosophy by its nature seems to be an essentially solitary activity. It is the individual's lonely voyage of discovery through the eternal truths of the cosmos-a journey that would seem to place the seeker at ever greater removes of knowledge and abstraction fiom the rest of humankind. On the other hand, in practice, philosophy is a very social activity. It involves dialogues, debates, competition for recognition, and the dissemination of wisdom to the ever needy human race.

[p76] Leibniz wanted very badly to do good. He turned to philosophy not in order to solve an essentially personal problem-as Spinoza, for example, did-but rather in order to solve other people's problems. He measured his results not in terms of his own salvation but rather by the general happiness of the human race. Philosophy for him was not a way of being but one of many instruments to be used in service of the general good. The maxim that guided him throughout his long and colorfullife-and that he later made the explicit foundation of his entire system of philosophy-was "Justice is the charity of the wise." His vaulting ambition was to unite in his own practice the virtues of wisdom,justice, and charity. And if, as was inevitable in the course of such a long and productive life, he seemed to fall short of his ideal at times, it should always be remembered just how high he had set the bar for himself.

[p78] In his quest for intellectual peace, Leibniz always insisted on the virtue of clarity. If philosophers would only write clearly, he declared--no dbout speaking for generations of exasperated students--they would stop fighting one another. Thus Leibniz inaugurated one of the leitmotifS of his mature "philosophy of philosophy." In The Art of Combinations, an academic paper he produced before he turned tWenty, the brilliant young scholar first mooted the idea of a universal characteristic-a language of logical symbols so transparent that it would reduce all philosophical disputes to the mechanical manipulation of tokens. With possibly eerie prescience about the future of information technology, he envisioned encoding this logical language in an "arithmetical machine" that could end philosophical debates with the push of a button. In the future, he rhapsodized, philosophers reaching a point of disagreement will shout joyously, "Let's calculate!" Such a device, he assured his patron, the Duke of Hanover, would be the "mother of all my inventions."

[p87] The moment he had been elevated to privy counselor of justice in the court of Mainz in the summer of 1670, Leibniz launched an aggressive campaign to thrust himself into the limelight of the panEuropean intellectual scene. The first phase of this campaign consisted of direct-mail approaches to leading figures in the republic ofletters. Although he occupied a political position of some note, the young diplomat had not yet established his reputation in the intellectual world; these early letters were, in essence, cold calls.

[p94] "We must always adapt ourselves to the world," Leibniz once said, "for the world will not adapt itself to us." In the political ideal that he advocated, reason may have been the basis for empire; but in the real world in which he lived and acted, as Leibniz amply demonstrated in his practice, reason was just one more expression of power, and "the good" was just another name for "the useful."

[p116] In thinking along such lines, Leibniz recognizes that he now faces a "hard conclusion": He must acknowledge that the sins of a sinner-he names Pontius Pilate-are ultimately attributable to God: "For it is necessary to refer everything to some reason, and we cannot stop until we have arrived at a first cause--or it must be admitted that something can exist without a reason for its existence, and this admission destroys the demonstration of the existence of God and of many philosophical theorems." There is no clearer statement of one of Leibniz's core commitments: the world must be reasonable, that is, everything must have a reason, and even God must participate in this chain of reasons. The principle of sufficient reason binds everything together in a chain of necessity; its iron grip must begin with God and include even all those things we call evil, too.

But the same commitment to reason, understood in a certain way, is the very foundation of Spinoza's philosophy, too. The challenge of showing that his own conception of God does not lead direcdy to Spinozism would come to dominate all of Leibniz's mature philosophy. Even in his letter to Wedderkopf, he indicates an awareness of the danger he courts. In the closing paragraph he warns his friend: "But this is said to you; I should not like to have it get abroad. For not even the most accurate remarks are understood by everyone:' Many years later, perhaps fearing that his earlier remarks might be too well understood, Leibniz took the trouble to dig up the letter and scrawl in the margins: "I later corrected this:'

Leibniz spent his life trying to correct the error, yet he never quite erased the suspicion that he was just showing the pretty side of some hideous ideas borrowed &om another. To be sure, it would be naive to imagine that Leibniz and Spinoza fell neady into putative roles as, respectively, the exoteric and esoteric philosophers of modernity. But, even in the .days of their first exchange, there was already at least a hint of the possibility that, far &om being pure contraries, Leibniz and Spinoza were tWo very different faces of the same philosophical coin, always looking in the opposite directions as they spin through the air, yet always landing in the same place.

[p147] The 1,000 or so thalers annually that Leibniz anticipated from his ideal job in Paris turns out to be about half the level of income he ultimately achieved in Hanover after strenuous efforts to improve his financial condition. According to the currency exchange rates of the time, 2,000 thalers was equivalent to approximately 3,300 Dutch guilders. Spinoza, by way of contrast, was content to live on rougWy 300 guilders per year (in Holland, one might add, where prices were significandy higher than elsewhere on the continent). If we define a Philosopher's Unit as the amount a given philosopher feels is required to sustain himself in good philosophical spirits, then we may deduce:

1 Leibniz Unit = 11 Spinoza Units

That is, you could feed, house, and clothe roughly eleven Spinozas for the price of one Leibniz.

[p162] It also makes no sense to say that God is "good:' according to Spinoza. Inasmuch as everything in the world follows of necessity from God's eternal essence, in fact, then we must infer that all those things we call "evil" are in God just as much as that which we call "good:' But, Spinoza elaborates, there is no good or evil in any absolute sense. Good and evil are relative notions-relative to us and our particular interests and uses. Spinoza's God-or Nature, or Substance-may be perfect, but it isn't good.

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: "God gives no laws to mankind so as to reward them when they fulfill them and to punish them when they transgress them; or, to state it more clearly, God's laws are not of such a nature that they could be transgressed."

All of the traditional notions of a bearded deity blowing hot and cold from the heavens, in Spinoza's view, are contemptible instances of the human fondness for anthropomorphism. Besotted with our unruly imaginations, we humans often attribute to God whatever is desirable in a man. But, "to ascribe to God those attributes which make a man perfect would be as wrong as to ascribe to a man the attributes that make perfect an elephant or an ass:' as Spinoza scoffs to Blijenburgh. "If a triangle could speak," he adds, "it would say that God is eminently triangular."

In Spinoza's adamant rejection of the anthropomorphic conception of God we may glimpse a very deep link betWeen his metaphysics and his politics. According to the political analysis first laid out in the Tractatus, the orthodox idea of God is one of the mainstays of tyranny. The theologians, Spinoza suggests, promote the belief in a fearsome, judgmental, and punishing God in order to extract obeisance from the superstitious masses. A people living under Spinoza's God, on the other hand, could easily dispense with theocratic oppression. The most they might require is a few scientists and philosophers.

[p179] Many commentators, beginning in the seventeenth century, have gone so far as to interpret Spinoza's work as the expression of a characteristically Jewish theological position. His monism, they say, may be traced to Deuteronomy ("the Lord our God is One"); and his seemingly mystical tendencies link him to the Kabbalah. If indeed it is a religion-a very problematic possibility-then

Spinoza's philosophy is in any case one of those religions that offers itself only to an elect few. The philosopher's last words on the highway to salvation are "all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare:' Part of the rarity of his way, no doubt, stems &om the fact that it is very difficult to read tracts like his, written in the geometrical style and stuffed with medieval barbarisms like "substance" and "attributes." But there is another sense in which salvation is no easy task.

Spinoza's God is a tremendous thing (actually, it is every thing), and it is bound to inspire awe, wonder, and perhaps for some even love. But it is not the kind of thing that will love you back.

It cannot be said that God loves mankind, much less that he should love them because they love him, or hate them because they hate him.

He who loves God cannot endeavor that God should love him in return.

[p180] "Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy is," says Nietzsche, "namely, a personal confession of its creator and a kind of involuntary and unperceived memoir."

[p194] Where Spinoza says, "All things are in God and move in God," Leibniz writes: "One could say: all things are one, all things are in God in the way that an effect is entirely contained within its cause and properties of a subject are in the essence of the same subject." Leibniz here implicidy acknowledges that his own speculations-notably, his repeated suggestion that the things of the world are to God what properties are to an essence-are elaborations of the central doctrine of Spinoza's philosophy.

"An attribute is a predicate which is conceived through itself," Leibniz continues in his shipboard draft. (Spinoza himself says: "Each attribute. . . must be conceived through itself.") "An essence is ..." Suddenly, the manuscript breaks off in midword, midsentence: Essenlia est pr...

Something throws Leibniz off; his quill quivers; he stops to think about what he is doing. He retreats from philosophy to the "philosophy of philosophy." His next lines are perhaps the most revealing he ever committed to paper:

A metaphysics should be written with accurate definitions and demonstrations. But nothing should be demonstrated in it apart &om that which does not clash too much with received opinions. For in that way this metaphysics can be accepted; and once it has been approved then, if people examine it more deeply later, they themselves will draw the necessary consequences. Besides this, one can, as a separate undertaking, show these people later the way of reasoning about these things. In this metaphysics, it will be useful for there to be added here and there the authoritative utterances of great men, who have reasoned in a similar way....

[p291] Leibniz's tendency toward a Spinozism in ethics extends beyond his commitment to some form of determinism and penetrates into his very idea of self-realization, or happiness. Because it has a conatus of sorts, each monad wants to "become what it is," as it were; and anything that contributes to this project of perfecting the self counts as pleasure, whereas whatever detracts from it is pain. "Pleasure is nothing but the feeling of an increase in perfection," explains Leibniz. But these words could easily have been lifted from Spinoza's Ethics. The more "active" a monad is-which is to say, the more it realizes its own nature, as opposed to submitting passively to the domination of other monads-the happier it is. "We will be happier the clearer our comprehension of things and the more we act in accordance with our proper nature, namely, reason," Leibniz clarifies. "Only to the extent that our reasonings are correct are we free and exempt from the pas-sions which are impressed upon us by surrounding bodies:' It is passages like this one-which, again, could simply have been cribbed from the Ethics-that lead Russell to suggest that, in his ethical philosophy, "Leibniz no longer shows great originality, but tends, with slight alterations of phraseology, to adopt (without acknowledgment) the views of the decried Spinoza." In fact, Leibniz's unswerving commitment to the guidance of reason leads him inexorably toward the identification of freedom and happiness that is the defining feature of Spinoza's ethics.

[p307] Justice is no more assured in the history of thought than it is in the rest of human experience. In the crucial half century after his death-the crucible of modernity-Spinoza was arguably the most important philosopher in the world. Yet, his influence was mosdy negative and almost always unacknowledged. The incalculable impact he had on Leibniz is only one example, albeit the finest, of the immense but nearly invisible power Spinoza wielded over his contemporaries.

[p312] Leibniz was a man whose failings were writ as large as his outsized virtues. Yet it was his greed, his vanity, and above all, his insatiable, all too human neediness that made his work so emblematic for the species. With the promise that the cruel surface of experience conceals a most pleasing and beautiful truth, a world in which everything happens for a reason and all is for the best, the glamorous courtier of Hanover made himself into the philosopher of the common man. If Spinoza was the first great thinker of the modern era, then perhaps Leibniz should count as its first human being.

Spinoza, on the other hand, was marked &om the start as a ram avis. Given his eerie self-sufficiency, his inhuman virtue, and his contempt for the multitudes, it could not have been otherwise.Yet the message of his philosophy is not that we know all that there is to know; but rather that there is nothing that cannot be known. Spinoza's teaching is that there is no unfathomable mystery in the world; no other-world accessible only through revelation or epiphany; no hidden power capable of judging or affirming us; no secret truth about everything. There is instead only the slow and steady accumulation of many small truths; and the most important of these is that we need expect nothing more in order to find happiness in this world. His is a philosophy for philosophers, who are as uncommon now as they have always been.

Via Rob 2006
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