The Lessons of Spinoza

Spinoza; drawing by David Levine

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…

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