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The Lessons of Spinoza

In his beautifully written book The Courtier and the Heretic, Matthew Stewart examines the lives of two great philosophers: Spinoza and Leibniz. As the title of the book indicates, he stresses the contrast between Leibniz’s career as a courtier and adviser to German princes and Spinoza’s meager existence as a heretic Jew in Holland, rather than on the similarities between the two. The lives of Benedictus (Baruch) de Spinoza (1632–1677) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646– 1716) intersected once. They met in November 1676, when Leibniz, then thirty years old, made what Stewart describes as a dramatic visit to The Hague, with the sole purpose of talking to the forty-three-year-old Spinoza. “In large part as a direct result of his meeting with Spinoza,” Stewart writes, Leibniz formulated “his own original and antithetical response to the challenges of the modern era.” Spinoza died three months later.

Stewart is very good at setting the stage for this summit meeting. Leibniz, a German polymath, knew many of the most important scientists of his day and had connections to several European courts. At the time of the encounter with Spinoza, he was living in Paris under the patronage of the Elector of Mainz, who employed him as a diplomat and counselor. Already the discoverer, along with Newton, of calculus and the inventor of the most advanced calculating machine known at the time, he arrived in Holland on a yacht belonging to Prince Ruprecht von der Pfalz, a cousin of the Duchess of Orléans. He had boarded the yacht in London, where he had been demonstrating an improved version of his calculating machine to the Royal Society, and where he was shown some of Newton’s papers on mathematics.

Leibniz, the son of a professor from Leipzig, was in pursuit of life among the grand. In contrast Spinoza, the son of Marrano parents who immigrated to Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition in Portugal, led a modest life of intellectual independence. In 1673 he had turned down a lucrative offer to become a professor at Heidelberg. He worked as a highly proficient grinder of lenses for telescopes and microscopes while pursuing his philosophical interests. Twenty years earlier, he had been excommunicated from Amsterdam’s Jewish community, whose elders accused him of unspecified “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.”

As contributors to early modern thought, Stewart suggests, the two were of supreme importance. At age thirty, Leibniz was “well on his way to claiming his title as the last universal genius of Europe.” For his part, Spinoza “anticipated later philosophical and scientific developments by two and sometimes three centuries.” Spinoza, Stewart tells us, was of average height, had a well-shaped body, olive complexion, shoulder-length frizzy black hair, a thin mustache, and “dark, languid eyes.” His wardrobe consisted of two pairs of pants, seven shirts, and five handkerchiefs. As for Leibniz when he met the handsome Spinoza, Stewart writes:

He would have been wearing his trademark wig, an elaborate traveling coat, and the kind of ornate vest, knee-length breeches, and silk stockings that were then the latest fashion in Paris…. He was of smallish frame, with an unavoidable nose and keen, scrutinizing eyes. He carried his head far forward of his hunched shoulders, and he never knew what to do with his arms. His limbs, it was said, were as crooked and ungainly as those of Charon—the old and sulky ferryman of the dead.

Stewart’s main achievement is to draw on known facts in order to create lifelike portraits of his subjects; these seem more convincing than his thesis about the momentous clash of two conflicting reactions to “the modern era.”

The contrasting lives of Spinoza and Leibniz are important to understanding their philosophy. Pierre Hadot, a historian of ancient philosophy, put forward the idea that for ancient Greek philosophers, philosophy meant something very different from the academic enterprise that has been pursued by philosophers since the early modern period. From Socrates and the Pythagoreans to the Hellenistic schools of Epicurus and the Stoic Zeno—as well as for some philosophers in Imperial Rome such as the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius—philosophy was not perceived as a set of propositions or a systematic doctrine. It was considered a way of life. Indeed Marcus Aurelius wrote his meditations in order to guide his own life so that every instant would be worth reliving: “What brings perfection to one’s way of life is to spend each day as if it were the last.”

Spinoza is not like the ancient philosophers in that he cares greatly about proving his propositions. His major book, the Ethics (1676), is presented in the form in which Euclid presented his geometry: axioms, definitions, and then propositions derived from them. Spinoza attempts through precise arguments of logic to describe the properties of God, human nature, and human emotions. But the main aim of his system of thought is not metaphysics but ethics: to define the way by which a “free man” should lead his life. In this sense, he was close to the early philosophers—like them, he was trying to establish principles for achieving a more perfect life.

One should, Spinoza believes, lead one’s life by reason rather than under the sway of passive emotions that come from the outside (“passions”). “Reason” according to his account “demands nothing contrary to Nature, it demands that everyone love himself, seek his own advantage, which is really useful to him, want what really leads man to greater perfection.” Perfection is attained when reason, in its striving to understand, attains knowledge of Nature, or in Spinoza’s language “knowledge of God.” Marcus Aurelius would have found that thought very congenial. Hadot writes:

One could say that Spinoza’s discourse, nourished on ancient philosophy, teaches man how to transform, radically and concretely, his own being, and how to accede to beatitude.1

Spinoza’s life should be viewed in this light. In his early adulthood, he pursued a career in business and worldly affairs as a member of Amsterdam’s Jewish community; he became fully committed to a life of contemplation only after he was excommunicated in 1656. According to Stewart, Spinoza’s project of treating philosophy as a way of life can be traced in part to this dramatic turning point, which made him reflect on the futility of leading an unexamined life in the marketplace. The radical shift that Spinoza advocates lies in replacing one’s subjective perspective on life, torn by doubts and fears, with an enlightened, objective perspective. We glimpse such a change in our own lives when, for example, we stop viewing our aching body from our own anxious point of view and try, at least, to adopt the rational point of view of an informed physician. It is still our body and our self-preservation that we care about, but in Spinoza’s view we can do so from a much better perspective—the scientific perspective, which is objective. He succeeded in adopting an objective point of view in the way he led his life.

The interest in Spinoza’s life matters not only philosophically but also religiously. The image of Spinoza as a lens-grinding hermit who ate only gruel is an exaggeration; he lived modestly but not meekly (he despised humility) and was far from isolated. He had true talent for friendship and he was surrounded by loyal and admiring friends who were willing to provide him with considerably more money, but he turned them down. No wonder his pious contemporaries found it hard to reconcile his saintly life with his atheist beliefs. For many Christian thinkers of the time, being a godless Jew and leading a morally excellent life was a dreadful contradiction: if there was no God in one’s life, anything bad was possible. Yet by any seventeenth-century standard of morality, Spinoza led an exemplary life. Stewart mentions that his only indulgences were smoking and wearing silver shoe buckles.

Like Spinoza, Leibniz was a philosopher of propositions. He held, for example, that there must be a sufficient reason why something is the way it is and not otherwise. This means that everything that happens can be explained and nothing happens just by chance. This is Leibniz’s well-known principle of sufficient reason. He also advocated the principle that things that have no discernible difference with respect to their properties, say, two indistinguishable drops of water, are identical; there is, he concluded, only one such drop. This is his principle of the identity of indiscernibles.

But unlike his Dutch counterpart, Leibniz did not try to turn his propositions into a way of life: he was a fashionable diplomat, not a sage. In Stewart’s words he was “the ultimate insider,” whose work in metaphysics and philosophy coincided with an intense involvement in worldly affairs and often took the form of letters of advice written to powerful patrons. By the time he was twenty-four, Leibniz was a leading figure in German efforts to contain the expansionist policies of Louis XIV. (He tried to persuade the French king to launch a crusade against Egypt, as a way to divert the French army away from Germany.) When he and Spinoza met, his income as a diplomat was eleven times higher than Spinoza’s as a lens grinder. He died rich, leaving his nephew a huge sum of over 12,000 thalers. When the nephew’s wife heard of this windfall, “she fell to the floor in a frenzy and died of joy.”

Leibniz was engaged in speculative philosophy, looking at philosophy as a mirror (speculum) of life rather than as a guide. Leibniz made a distinction, which greatly influenced Kant, between the universe as it really is—or rather as it is viewed by God—and the universe as it is presented to us finite human beings. The universe in itself is the proper subject of metaphysical speculation. The world as it appears to us is the realm of science. Science deals with appearances—with what we actually see—not with ultimate reality, with which it need not concern itself. In making this distinction Leibniz freed science from the yoke of metaphysics and religion.

With the help of such guiding principles Leibniz speculated about the nature of ultimate reality. It consists, he thought, of nothing but a multiplicity of soul-like entities that he called monads. Space, time, material particles, cause and effect, are all appearances and not part of ultimate reality. In the world of monads each monad mirrors the whole universe. God, in this account, is a super-monad, a necessary being that by its very existence provides sufficient reason for everything that could have been otherwise. Monads, unlike atoms, do not interact but evolve by preestablished harmony the way clocks are synchronized. The synchronizer is God.

With the help of this rather weird conception, Leibniz tried to solve nagging problems in Christian doctrine such as the problem of evil: how the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God created a world in which evil exists. He hoped that his speculations would help support conventional Christian beliefs and practices. But I doubt that Leibniz viewed himself as a moral model for his contemporaries. He was a wunderkind who went on to become astonishingly adept in such different fields as chemistry, geology, and optics. Indeed the clash between Leibniz and Spinoza, who shared so many interests, is also a clash between the adult philosopher and the wunderkind. Spinoza died young but he was in every sense a mature thinker who had sound judgment of what the world is like and especially of what human beings are like; and he cared greatly about the soundness of the premises in his arguments. Leibniz, even in his old age, remained a brilliant adolescent.

  1. 1

    Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell, 1995), p. 271.

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