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Book Review 301: The Courtier and the Heretic

November 17, 2013 - Harry Eagar
THE COURTIER AND THE HERETIC: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World, by Matthew Stewart. 351 pages. Norton paperback, $15.95

Well, somehow most of us got to be modern without reading either Spinoza or Leibniz. That’s the moral I draw from “The Courtier and the Heretic,” though that is just about the opposite of what Matthew Stewart intended.

I was surprised to learn he thinks -- and implies it is the received notion in the professional philosophical community -- that Spinoza and Leibniz were the greatest philosophers of the 17th century, both pioneers treading into the modern, one happily, one unhappily. I would have thought that Newton, despite his alchemical and antitrinitarian obsessions, was the first and greatest modern philosopher, since he was the first to take philosophy out of the study and into the world

Think what a lot of nonsense was written about “light” by philosophers (starting at least as early as Genesis 1:1) before (and after, regrettably) “The Opticks” was published in 1704.

Thinking about thinking never got us very far, although we can probably agree with Stewart that Spinoza made one of the (very rare) breakthroughs using this method.

“The Courtier and the Heretic” attempts a difficult feat: to write something serious about the history of ideas, and a gossipy backstory, and introduce something novel into a much-studied subject.

The novelty is what Stewart imagines happened at a meeting between Spinoza and Leibniz in 1676. Imagines because no record exists. Drawing inferences for 300 pages is a bold experiment, which does not persuade.

The gossip is far more successful. That philosophers are just as much cads as the rest of us is no surprise (Spinoza seeming a rare exception). That Leibniz was a cad of cads is not something I had known before; though he usually gets a bad notice for his behavior toward Newton over priority in finding the calculus.

Stewart pooh-poohs that episode but portrays Leibniz as an awful person in just about every way. What Stewart does not say, though, is perhaps the awfullest thing about this awful man.

As a conservative and lifelong schemer to reunite the Catholic and Protestant sects, Leibniz constructed a philosophy (which seems to me to be nothing but a series of word tricks without any interest) to justify (even compel) such a reunification in the interest of better behavior. Like Ronald Reagan, Leibniz did not believe a person could be moral unless he feared the hereafter.

The evidence that this is so is all negative; people who fear the hereafter are some of the cruelest people there are, and this was more evident in Europe in Leibniz’ lifetime than at most times and places. Spinoza, who had some of his friends tortured and burned alive by Christians and would have been murdered by Christians if they could have gotten the evidence they wanted, knew better.

So did Leibniz, who panicked at the thought that evidence of his meeting with an “atheist” would get out.

Despite this knowledge, Leibniz worked endlessly to put people like that back in control, as he imagined they had been in the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, the world (or much of it) went on getting modern, somehow or other, while few people knew much, if anything, about the tortured thinking of Leibniz and Spinoza.


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