Monday, March 4, 2019

On Spinoza and Leibniz

I am reading Matthew Stewart’s book The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. Stewart is a good storyteller and the book is interesting, but I am reading it with some amount of skepticism because I am getting the impression that this is not an objective account of the two philosophers. I am currently at page 60 and I have already come across several passages that are very unfair to Leibniz. It appears that Stewart’s aim is to build up Spinoza by attacking Leibniz.

For instance, here’s an excerpt from the first page of Stewart's book:
In a personal letter to… [a] French theologian, Leibniz described Spinoza’s work as “horrible” and “terrifying.” To a famous professor, he called it “intolerably impudent.” To a friend he confided, “I deplore that man of such evident culture should have fallen so low.”  
Yet, in the privacy of his study, Leibniz crammed his notebooks with meticulous commentaries on Spinoza’s writings. He exchanged secret letters with his public nemesis, addressing him as “celebrated doctor and profound philosopher.” Through mutual friends he pleaded for a chance to examine a manuscript copy of the Ethics. And on or around November 18, 1676, he traveled to The Hague and called Spinoza in person. 
Stewart is talking about the November 1676 meeting between the two philosophers in such a manner that he makes Leibniz look like a spineless hypocrite who used to criticize Spinoza in public while admiring him secretly. Other historians of philosophy have given a more balanced account of their meeting.

Nicholas Jolley, in his book Leibniz, writes: “In 1676 Leibniz found a pretext to visit Spinoza in The Hague, having learned that Spinoza was at work on a philosophical treatise of great importance. Spinoza showed Leibniz the manuscript of the Ethics, and the two men discussed philosophy together over several days. Although there is no written record of their conversation, it seems likely that these discussions were among the most rewarding in the whole history of philosophy.” (Page 18)

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