- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006


By Matthew Stewart

Norton, $25.95, 351pages

The “courtier” mentioned in the title of Matthew Stewart’s very readable — and often entertaining — new book, “The Courtier and the Heretic,” is the prolific German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). The “heretic” is Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), the Dutch thinker, 14 years Leibniz’s senior and author of two highly (in their time) controversial books, the “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus” and “Ethics,” among other works.

The two men, as Mr. Stewart points out, are generally regarded as the greatest philosophers of their time, the 17th century: The era when the early scientific revolution, with its emphasis on reason and empirical investigation, was changing the ways men regarded the world around them, and undermining the power that traditional religion had on society.

Both Spinoza and Leibniz were enormously influential in the realm of pure thought, as well as in practical politics. Spinoza’s writings anticipate and celebrate what we would now call the secular state, a republic where government and religion are separate realms of human activity. Leibniz’s work looks forward to — and passionately urges the establishment of — government-run institutions of charity, our modern welfare state.

But it’s not their political or social influence that interests Mr. Stewart nearly so much as it is what the two thinkers had to say about God, a subject on which both men wrote a great deal. At the center of “The Courtier and the Heretic” is the one meeting that took place between Spinoza and Leibniz, when the younger philosopher called upon the older man at his home in The Hague in The Netherlands in November, 1676.

The encounter couldn’t have meant much to Spinoza, who would be dead in a few months at the young age of 44, and he left no detailed description of the occasion. But for the 30-year-old Leibniz it was pivotal. As Mr. Stewart observes, “the meeting with Spinoza was the defining event of Leibniz’s life,” and it was the defining moment because for the rest of his life, much of what Leibniz wrote was an effort to come to terms with Spinoza’s thinking about God, and prove Spinoza wrong.

In Spinoza’s thought, God was no longer the transcendent deity of the Old and New Testaments. He didn’t act to change what happens in the world, nor could he be prayed to in any meaningful way. He was Nature itself, and, for Spinoza, such a God was the one required by the recent discoveries and advances in science and mathematics.

“I shall consider human actions and desires as though I were concerned with lines, planes and solids,” wrote Spinoza, sounding very much the mathematician. “Knowledge,” he claimed, “is the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature.” The act of reasoning, which he pursued systematically and fearlessly, Spinoza called “the intellectual love of God.”

But is Spinoza’s God really God? Leibniz came to think not. The younger philosopher found much that was attractive in Spinoza. He was equally enamored with the power of reason, and believed it should play a central role in the affairs of men. He was impressed by the thoroughness and clarity of the older man’s writings.

Leibniz could not share Spinoza’s notions of God because Leibniz firmly believed that any God who did not have the freedom to act in history and respond to the prayers and pleas of mankind was no God at all. He also concluded that Spinoza’s conceptions of God and reality were too static and materialistic, offering no explanation for change, movement or for the continuity (Leibniz believed) must exist between the material world and the world of the spirit.

Mr. Stewart handles Leibniz’s very complex response to Spinoza with dispatch and impressive lucidity, underlining the agility and power of the German philosopher’s mind. Clearly, the author has read — and handles with ease — the central works and ideas of both men, no simple task in the case of Leibniz, who, as Mr. Stewart points out, left behind 120 volumes of writings, in which “there are without doubt hundreds of sparkling inventions that have yet to catalogued, let alone realized.”

This book is not just about the thought of two very serious thinkers, however. It’s also about their personalities, which differed considerably. These differences, the author claims, influenced the ways they looked at the world, and what they wrote. Indeed, avers Mr. Stewart, “There are no two finer examples of the dictum that character is philosophy.”

Spinoza was from a Jewish merchant family that fled persecution in Portugal for the relative freedom and tolerance of Holland. As a young man, he was excommunicated for his heretical views from the Jewish congregation he had grown up in and that had educated him. Spinoza, the author shows, was an outsider, a rebel.

But he chose to lead an exemplary life of simplicity and self-denial, showing that even heretics might live profoundly moral lives. In Mr. Stewart’s well-chosen words, Spinoza “consecrated his entire life to philosophy.” He was also said to be a great conversationalist and wit who was sought out by a circle of loyal and devoted friends who risked damage to their own reputations by associating with him.

Leibniz on the other hand was a Lutheran and (much more than Spinoza ever was) an insider who loved good clothes and the company of the titled, rich and well-known. Where Spinoza was stoic and calm, and indifferent to the trappings of great fame, Mr. Stewart sees Leibniz as grasping, needy and very much wanting all that he thought was coming to him, which was a great deal (he died a very wealthy man):

“When it came to loving Leibniz, as far as Leibniz was concerned, enough was never enough. It was this insatiable and very human … neediness that ultimately came to define his philosophy.”

And his life, too: Leibniz’s need to impress others led him to be deceitful, claiming to have mastered authors he could not possibly have read and mastered, Mr. Stewart notes, a fault that seems especially senseless in a man already so erudite.

Mr. Stewart tells Spinoza’s and Leibniz’s stories with great skill, though at times he does make use of a cliche that jars. A supper arranged by Spinoza’s enemies to trap him in his heresies, for instance, is described as “the dinner party from hell.”

But “The Courtier and the Heretic” is a very good book, an excellent introduction to the thought and lives of both its subjects. And Mr. Stewart’s research is thorough. After meeting Leibniz, the duchess of Orleans noted approvingly, “It is so rare for an intellectual to dress properly, not to smell, and to understand jokes.” From such quotes we learn a great deal about the society of the time. What’s fun, though, is that with some mild changes, the same might be said about many of today’s intellectuals.

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