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 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.

Following his encounter with Spinoza, Stewart argues, Leibniz became secretly obsessed with Spinoza’s ideas, and set out to create a philosophy that would attack and respond to precisely the challenges to religious belief that Spinoza posed. His book is essentially a speculation on what happened between these two great minds in November 1676.

Stewart surmises that the two met for three to seven days. They discussed the scientific views they held in common, including Descartes’s theory of motion, and they talked about politics. Spinoza described his personal reaction to the murder of his two illustrious friends the brothers de Witt, leaders of the Dutch republic who were lynched by a mob incited by their political enemies. Leibniz writes:

He told me that on the day of the de Witt massacre, he was moved to go out in the night and put up a paper somewhere near the site of the murders saying: ultimi barbarorum [Stewart translates this as “the last of the barbarians” although “the ultimate barbarians” better serves Spinoza’s intention]. But his landlord locked him in the house to prevent him from leaving, for otherwise he would have risked being ripped to shreds.

The massacre of the de Witts presented Spinoza with a philosophical problem: How should philosophers, who live by reason, live among the masses, who have erratic passions and a fervent imagination unchecked by reason? Spinoza’s solution, as Stewart explains, was twofold: “to allow [the masses] to divert their religious energies in commerce”; and to create a civil religion that would guide their imagination and emotions in order to make them amenable to rational behavior. This civil religion, he argued, should be under the control of the state rather than a church authority, and its doctrines should be shaped with a view less to achieving philosophical truth than to conveying a message that is politically expedient. Spinoza’s concern with the lay public, in other words, is no different from that of any other elitist medieval thinkers, but his political solution is very different and very new. The system in which he thought his notion of civil religion would best function was a democratic republic based on individual freedoms and rights. Only liberal democracy, he argued, can influence the masses for the better.

Leibniz, the court philosopher, believed in enlightened authoritarian rule. He was too young to have experienced the Thirty Years’ War—he was born two years before it ended—but he was raised among people who remembered its horrors very well. It was a terrible conflict that devastated Germany nearly as badly as the Second World War (though Leipzig, the city in which Leibniz was born, was relatively spared).2 The destruction of the war made a great impression on Leibniz and his generation. They cherished stability above all and, like Hobbes, believed that strong authoritarian rule was the sole guarantor against civil war. Spinoza, too, was greatly influenced by Hobbes, but he admired the absence of moralizing in Hobbes’s writing about politics rather than his theory of authoritarian rule.

In any case, it was theology more than politics that made Leibniz’s meeting with Spinoza so important. The issue that troubled them both was God. Spinoza argued that God was one and the same as Nature itself, whereas Leibniz described God as a divine being who sustains the universe through the rational exercise of his own good will. Stewart is right to pose the question: Did they have the same God in mind?

All we know about what was discussed in the November meetings comes from references in Leibniz’s work. Among the 120 volumes of his writing, one contains the notes he prepared for his meeting with Spinoza, bearing the title “That Most Perfect Being Exists”—Leibniz’s proof of the existence of God. Spinoza was an atheist in a particular sense of the word: not godless, but one who denies the existence of a theistic God. The theistic God is a person. He expresses himself by his will. He is a supreme being, omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent. In the historical religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam the theistic God created a world distinct from himself by free will. The theistic God sustains the world out of his goodness and is worthy of our devotion and worship. The source of our knowledge about the theistic God, according to the historical religions, is revelation to prophets and messengers.

Spinoza found the idea of a theistic God profoundly superstitious. Reason, not revelation, he believed, should be our source of knowledge about God. Revelations are dreams and fantasies of self-appointed prophets. Spinoza’s God, as one and the same as Nature, is not transcendent and separated from the world. Everything in the world follows causally and necessarily from the nature of God in the same way that the sum of the angles in a triangle equaling 180 degrees follows from the nature of the triangle. The world is not created and sustained by the will of a person any more than the will of the triangle is what makes the sum of its angles equal 180 degrees. The theistic God can live without the world. Spinoza’s God cannot exist apart from the world; he is immanent in the world or, if you like, he is the world. By contrast, Leibniz wanted to retain the attributes of the theistic God as understood by Christianity and provide them with proper philosophical underpinnings. The main attribute of God is freedom to choose. God is a being who was free to choose this world out of all possible worlds. He sustains this world out of his goodness—hence our world is the best possible world.

According to Stewart’s thesis about two conflicting responses to “the modern era,” Leibniz was a “religious conservative,” committed to defending the status quo rule of Christian princes; “his politics,” Stewart writes, “may be summed up in one word: theocracy.” Spinoza, in contrast, was a committed secular democrat. In other words, Spinoza was a radical thinker who, according to Stewart, uncannily anticipated secular liberal democracy well before there were democrats and liberals, or, for that matter, secularists. He also anticipated where science was heading by attempting, well before Darwin, to provide an account of Nature based on the struggle to survive.

The contrast between Spinoza and Leibniz for Stewart is both metaphysical and political—and the two are related. The best way to see their metaphysical differences is through their respective notions of God. Leibniz wanted his God to be a Christian God separated from Nature whereas for Spinoza God and Nature are interchangeable ideas. The political contrast is in their attitude to theocracy—Leibniz was mildly for it, Spinoza strongly against it.

According to Stewart, we can understand Spinoza without Leibniz but we cannot understand Leibniz without Spinoza. Leibniz, he argues, formulated his position only in reaction to another position. Stewart argues that it is Spinoza to whom he reacted for much of his life. When the two met in The Hague, Leibniz already knew a great deal about the views Spinoza put forward in his yet unpublished Ethics—including the radical idea that we live in a purposeless world—which were leaked to him by two common friends, the German mathematician and nobleman Walther Ehrenfried von Tschirnhaus and a shady German medical student, Georg Schuller (who is suspected of stealing Spinoza’s belongings after his death).

Leibniz was clearly impressed, but I am far from being convinced by Stewart’s attempt to link the difference in the two men’s political ideas to their respective concepts of God. Spinoza’s attitude toward God or Nature is complicated and cannot easily be classified as secular. True, Spinoza believed that there is nothing above and beyond Nature, and that the total account of Nature is an account of all there is. But there is also religiosity—not religion—in his attitude toward Nature, which becomes god-like in his system. What he finds so astonishing about Nature is not that it exists but that it is an intelligible world. For Spinoza, that the world is comprehensible by reason should serve as a source of deep wonder, not as a motive for submissive religious worship but for love and admiration of God or Nature.

Einstein admired Spinoza for this attitude (“How I love that noble man/ More than to express by words I can/I fear though he remains alone/with a holy halo of his own,” wrote the twenty-one-year-old Einstein). If modern thought means accepting what Max Weber called disenchantment—explaining the world only by appeal to natural causes, shying away from invoking supernatural ones, and thereby removing the spell of magic and religious belief from the world—Spinoza’s attitude is mixed. On one hand he strongly advocates explaining the world solely by referring to natural causes. In that sense he is disenchanted with the world. On the other hand he has a strong sense of what Freud calls “oceanic feeling”: of being one with a limitless external reality. It is this strong oceanic feeling that led the Romantic poet Novalis to call Spinoza a “God-intoxicated man.”

As for Leibniz’s philosophical God, he is by no means the God of conservative Christians, who do not believe that Jesus prayed to a super-monad when he prayed to his father in heaven. Do the attitudes of the two great minds toward the role of religion in good government give better support to Stewart’s thesis about their having antithetical reactions to modern thought? I doubt it. To formulate his argument about Leibniz and Spinoza, Stewart relies heavily on the idea of “modernity,” a much-contested concept. We should be wary of explanations that reduce complex ideas to the lazy notion that they are a “reaction to modernity.” This purports to explain everything but explains nothing in particular.

At the end of the first century CE, the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius coined the term “theocracy” to mean the rule of God, which he believed was a political system that Moses invented. The claim that the Jews invented theocracy is thus an old one and was not an invention of Spinoza; even in the seventeenth century, ten years before Spinoza was born, John Donne made much the same argument in one of his sermons.

Spinoza’s attack on theocracy amplifies this claim. He tells his Christian audience that the Jewish Pharisees—he uses the term in the derogatory sense of the New Testament—inflicted theocracy on the world and it is time to get rid of it. Clearly Spinoza was very hostile to theocracy, and his view of God as an impersonal God undermined the idea of God as ruler; for one thing, He has no will. Still, did Leibniz advocate theocracy, as Stewart believes?

Theocracy is far from being a clear notion. In one sense, it means the rule of clerics and priests; in another it means rule by divine and revealed law, and in still another sense it means that at the end of days there will be direct rule by God. In none of these senses was Leibniz an advocate of theocracy. A Lutheran employed by a Catholic prince, Leibniz was engaged, both as a diplomat and as a theorist, in efforts to achieve a historical compromise between Catholics and Protestants in Europe. But he discovered that the powerful Catholics he approached, rather than being open to compromises with their enemy, demanded capitulation from them. He envisioned the unification of Europe as a Christian civilization, but it is wrong to impute to him any idea of theocracy as the ideal form of government.

Talk of God is not all the two men had in common. Neither one of them had women or children in their lives. There might have been a man, or men, in Leibniz’s life. But that’s all we can say. Most of his life, Spinoza was surrounded by good friends. Leibniz was relentlessly busy with “projects,” some of which may sound to us absurd, such as pumping water from mines with the help of windmills in places where there was no wind.

While Stewart sees Spinoza in a European setting, Rebecca Goldstein emphasizes his Jewish background in general and, in particular, his significance from an American Jewish perspective. In Goldstein’s book Spinoza is seen as contending not with Leibniz but with Rabbi Saul Morteira and Rabbi Issac Abohab—two Dutch Jews who were involved both in Spinoza’s education and in his excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam.

Spinoza is still a troubling presence to some Jews. So far as I know, not until recently was there a street in Israel named after him, in spite of the fact that David Ben-Gurion greatly admired him. Rebecca Goldstein’s book is cleverly entitled Betraying Spinoza, which is ambiguous about who betrayed whom: Did Spinoza betray the Jews, or did the Jews betray Spinoza? The ambiguity is an important part of Goldstein’s account of Spinoza and the Jews, and, more interestingly, his meaning for today’s ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York, among whom Goldstein grew up.

Indeed, there are two distinct parts to the book. The first (much shorter) part is an autobiographical account of her own “search for Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza” while attending an extremely Orthodox Jewish school. The second part is a biographical sketch of Spinoza’s life and thought, with special emphasis on the question of his Jewish identity. Discussing Spinoza in an ultra-Orthodox school in New York sounds as unexpected as reading Lolita in a school in Tehran. In the ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel, where Spinoza is still banned because of his excommunication, his name, I suspect, would not be mentioned.

But Goldstein’s English-born teacher, Mrs. Schoenfeld, who, she writes, had an attractive English accent and unattractive black glasses, taught the girls Jewish history. Spinoza was introduced to the class as relevant to the question of “modernity,” by which she seems to have meant adopting the way of life of the Gentiles in modern times. Mrs. Schoenfeld, unlike Leibniz, decidedly stood on the other side of the modern divide from Spinoza: she believed that the rational, scientific world embraced by Spinoza was a threat to Judaism.

Her summary of Spinoza’s philosophy consisted of two propositions. “The first was that the Torah was not a divine revelation but rather written by man—written in fact by several men who came much later than Moshe Rabbenu, Moses Our Teacher.” And the second was that “God was identical with nature.” Not bad as a summary: first of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, and secondly as a summary of his Ethics. Rebecca asked the teacher what Spinoza meant by identifying God with nature. Mrs. Schoenfeld answered that it was clear that Spinoza’s God is not our Lord of creation. Rebecca asked:

Then Spinoza was an atheist?

Yes, she answered me, an atheist. Why do you look so baffled by that? Do you still have a question, Rebecca?

I did, and since she was pushing me, I asked it: Why did he take such a roundabout way just to say that God doesn’t exist? It sounds like he was trying to say something more by saying that God is nature.

A very good question.

In any case, her school made her keenly interested in Spinoza (although, judging by her blunders, it did not put much emphasis on historical geography3 ). Like most pious Christians, Mrs. Schoenfeld found it hard to believe that an atheist could lead a moral life. But unlike those Christians she insisted that Spinoza retained “one Jewish virtue,” and a very important one at that:

Respect for his parents. Just think about that for a moment, girls. Even a man like that, completely godless, still honored his parents. He waited until both his parents had passed away before he revealed his apikorsus [heresy].4

There is no direct evidence explaining why exactly Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community. For historians the main issue is whether he was expelled for what he did—i.e., his actual behavior as a member of a Jewish family who did not observe Jewish law—or for what he believed, or rather disbelieved. The issue is of great importance since it touches on the question of whether Judaism is a religion centered on practice or on belief. It appears that Spinoza’s beliefs, as crudely put by Mrs. Schoenfeld and crudely understood by most members of her community, had a great deal to do with his expulsion. The Jewish community in Holland could not stomach his beliefs that God exists only philosophically and that the soul dies with the body.

Spinoza did not convert to Christianity but lived outside the world of the two religions. This is perhaps the source of the view that Spinoza forged the way for a new form of life among Jews, namely, being secular, which turned him into the patron saint of secular Jews. Goldstein herself is much involved with the issue of Jewish identity. “What is it to be Jewish?” she asks. “Is it a matter of creed, of culture, of family or blood?” Ultimately, what did Spinoza do to clarify, or muddle, these questions?

For Christians in Spinoza’s own time, he was a Jew—an atheist Jew, but still a Jew. Christians at the time did not find the expression “an atheist Jew” an oxymoron but rather reassuring (if Jews deny the divinity of Christ why should they be trusted when they accept the divinity of God?). It was clear to them that Jews are defined by blood relations, especially if they “look Jewish.” Even those who forced conversion on Spinoza’s ancestors in Spain and Portugal believed that being a Jew is ultimately a matter of blood and not of creed.

For the Jews too, his excommunication notwithstanding, Spinoza was always perceived as a Jew—perhaps a sinner, but a Jew nonetheless. It helped that Spinoza did not convert to Christianity, but even with apostates, the popular perception of who remains a Jew has an odd double standard. Those who have achieved much in the world—say, those who have won the Nobel Prize, such as the poet Boris Pasternak or the physicist Wolfgang Pauli—are counted as Jews, whereas common apostates with no socially redeeming features may not be seen as Jews.

I mention this fact because, unlike Goldstein, I believe that the real problem for the Jews is not the problem of identity—namely, who we are—but the problem of identification—with whom should we identify. Whose values and views and qualities do we want to adopt as our own? The so-called identity crisis should be more accurately seen as an identification crisis. Spinoza, in my view, is not a problem for the Jews but suggests a solution for them. He is a saintly “secular” Jew who, unlike religious saints, does not believe we should be burdened by our sense of guilt. Spinoza is the ethically serious man with whom Jews, or at least secular Jews, can and should identify, in feeling, in thought, and in action.

This Issue

April 12, 2007