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Matthew Stewart


Leibniz, Spinoza, and the fate of God in the modern world

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The two philosophers whose lives and views are Stewart's subject in this lively book were superficially utterly dissimilar yet had important resemblances. Their personalities could be described in Jungian terms (though Stewart does not do so): Spinoza was the archetypal introvert, Leibniz his polar opposite, the total extrovert. But this way of looking at the pair may obscure something they had in common, according to Stewart: for both men, philosophy was not a disinterested search for truth but a form of political rhetoric.

Judged as personalities, Spinoza is undoubtedly the more attractive of the two. He lived simply, indeed was almost ascetic, yet evidently was a good companion and had many friends who cared for him deeply. Leibniz, in contrast, was vain, avaricious, and conceited, and his death seems to have been unmourned by anyone. Yet he was undoubtedly brilliant and all too human in his failings, whereas there is something almost eerie in Spinoza's self-sufficiency. However, Leibniz too seems to have been somewhat lacking in human warmth; it is interesting to note that neither man appears to have had any inclination to form erotic attachments (to either sex).

In 1676, at the age of thirty, Leibniz visited Spinoza in Holland. The encounter had a profound effect on his later thought although for much of his life he tried to conceal this fact. Stewart finds a deep paradox at the heart of their relationship. Spinoza was attacked by many of his contemporaries, including Leibniz, for his supposed atheism, while Leibniz made the existence of a transcendent God the centre of his philosophy. Yet Spinoza wrote a great deal about God and seems to have regarded the natural world as in a sense divine, whereas Leibniz apparently never went to church and his philosophy left no real place for God; Stewart seems to regard him as a crypto-atheist.

Both philosophers, Stewart believes, have until very recently been misrepresented in histories of philosophy, being thought of as superseded by their more modern successors. But in reality it is better to think of them as both very relevant to modernity, though in different ways.

Leibniz and Spinoza remain unsurpassed today as representatives of humankind's radically divided response to the set of experiences we call modernity. Much of modern thought simply wanders in the space between the two extremes represented by the men who met in The Hague in 1676.
Spinoza aims to show us how to be moral in a secular society and how to seek wisdom where nothing is certain. But this is a bleak view to many, and Leibniz's philosophy constitutes a reaction to it.
Spinoza speaks for those who believe that happiness and virtue are possible with nothing more than what we have in our hands. Leibniz stands for those convinced that happiness and virtue depend on something that lies beyond. … Without doubt there is a little piece of each in everybody; equally certain is the fact that, at times, a choice must be made.
This is a well-written book that carries its learning lightly and works well both as biography and philosophy.
16 June 2007

%T The Courtier and the Heretic
%S Leibniz, Spinosa, and the fate of God in the modern world
%A Matthew Stewart
%I New University Press
%C New Haven and London
%D 2005
%G ISBN 978-0-300-12507-8
%P 351pp
%K philosophy
%O paperback edition

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