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
[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
[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
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
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