God's Attorney Met The Atheistic Jew?

"There are also two kinds of truths: truths of reasoning and truths of fact. Truths of reasoning are necessary and their opposite is impossible; those of fact are contingent and their opposite is possible" - Gottfried Leibniz

"Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many” - Baruch Spinoza.

We have had interesting discussions recently on a couple of books in which two philosophers had come into some intellectual or philosophical conflict - Rousseau's Dog involving Hume/Rousseau and Wittgenstein's Poker involving Popper/Wittgenstein.

The next book in this series, The Courtier and the Heretic, involves the opposing world views of Leibniz and Spinoza. The book publisher writes that "philosophy in the late seventeenth century was a dangerous business. No careerist could afford to know the reclusive, controversial philosopher Baruch de Spinoza. Yet the wildly ambitious genius Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who denounced Spinoza in public, became privately obsessed with Spinoza’s ideas, wrote him clandestine letters, and ultimately met him in secret".

Writing in The New York Times Liesl Schillinger said: - With The Courtier and the Heretic, Stewart has achieved a near impossibility, creating a page-turner about jousting metaphysical ideas that casts the hallowed, hoary thinkers as warriors in a heated ideological battle. He reveals early on that he believes the battle was one-sided, and that both men fought for the same cause. Even so, the conflict, as he paints it, is no less compelling for ending in a draw. This is a harder trick to pull off than it may sound because Stewart's rivals are both relatively unknown to modern nonspecialists. In other words, he has to acquaint his readers with both his main characters before he can unspool his take on their story.

Publishers Weekly review stated: According to Nietzsche, "Every great philosophy is... a personal confession of its creator and a kind of involuntary and unperceived memoir.". Stewart affirms this maxim in his colorful reinterpretation of the lives and works of 17th-century philosophers Spinoza and Leibniz. In November 1676, the foppish courtier Leibniz, "the ultimate insider... an orthodox Lutheran from conservative Germany," journeyed to The Hague to visit the self-sufficient, freethinking Spinoza, "a double exile... an apostate Jew from licentious Holland." A prodigious polymath, Leibniz understood Spinoza's insight that "science was in the process of rendering the God of revelation obsolete; that it had already undermined the special place of the human individual in nature." Spinoza embraced this new world. Seeing the orthodox God as a "prop for theocratic tyranny," he articulated the basic theory for the modern secular state. Leibniz, on the other hand, spent the rest of his life championing God and theocracy like a defense lawyer defending a client he knows is guilty. He elaborated a metaphysics that was, at bottom, a reaction to Spinoza and collapses into Spinozism, as Stewart deftly shows. For Stewart, Leibniz's reaction to Spinoza and modernity set the tone for "the dominant form of modern philosophy" a category that includes Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Heidegger and "the whole `postmodern' project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought." Readers of philosophy may find much to disagree with in these arguments, but Stewart's wit and profluent prose make this book a fascinating read.

Did Leibniz and Spinoza decide the 'fate of God' in the modern world?

Posted September 05, 2007

18 comments:

Avid Reader said...

Let me kick this off with a comment that the beginning of the book reminded me of what Christopher Hitchens was saying in his book God is not Great when I read the stuff about the persecution of the Jews in the Iberian peninsula.

In 1590 the Portuguese Inquisition caught up with Spinoza’s ancestors with those who escaped being referred to as ones who had ‘fled before pardon’ while the ones who stayed to receive ‘the pardon’ got it in the form of imprisonment and torture.

Also it seems appropriate to see the Thirty Years War fought mostly on German soil from 1618 - 1648 described as ‘a festival of holy violence’ with the Catholics and the Protestants this time banging away at one another.

Ever,
DM

Michael N. Hull said...

DM

Your reference to God is not Great reminded me of the discussion that appears in that thread between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson in which they were debating whether there could be any morality if the universe was solely deterministic.

I see that the same debate was occurring in Spinoza’s time where the author states:

According to 17th century thinking an atheist was by definition a decadent. If there is no God, the reasoning went, then everything is permitted. So a non-believer would be expected to indulge in all manner of sensual stimulation, to fornicate regularly, to lie, cheat, and steal with abandon, and then to suffer an agonizing death once the Almighty caught up with him.

However, Spinoza was living a model life very much like a clean-living man ‘of the spirit’. And to allow that Spinoza could lead a ‘good’ life was to suggest that the belief in God was not a necessary element of virtue.

That seems to have been a problem for Leibniz.

Regards,
Michael

Avid Reader said...

Michael

Yes indeed! And I would also mention Leibniz’s view that there are no genuine philosophical conflicts; only bad grammar which is the position that Wittgenstein held and which we saw bubbled into the conflict with Popper in Wittgenstein’s Poker.

Ever,
DM

Peter said...

While we are referencing other threads let me add in one of my own.

Leibniz’s position in defending Christian (Lutheran) doctrines such as transubstantiation reverted into legalistic prose. To this extent I am reminded of Alister McGrath whom I have seen in at least one debate with Richard Dawkins shift around one of Dawkin’s pointed questions in much the same way. Leibniz doesn’t appear to have had a positive philosophy of his own only a ‘reactive’ philosophy against other people’s philosophies. I like the way the author put it that it was defined by and couldn’t exist without that to which it was opposed.

Take care,
Peter

James Carnaghan said...

Leibniz’s “Egypt Plan” was positively Machievellian. And I thought he was just Isaac Newton’s competitor for the discovery of the Calculus! Saving Germany from an attack by Louis XIV by trying to persuade Louis to attack Egypt instead so Christians would not be fighting Christians but rather would be “killing infidels” was quite original to say the least. And he called it “The Plan for a New Holy War”! Was Leibniz a brilliant ‘jihadist’ as well as a brilliant ‘mathematician’?

Jim

Diana Malcolm said...

Spinoza position on the bible as reported to be stated in Tractatus Theologico-Politicus reminds me of Marcus Borg’s views that we recently discussed in an earlier thread.

Hasn’t Borg adopted Spinoza’s position as described in the passage below?

The bible is full of obscurities and contradicts itself …. the Pentateuch did not come from the pen of God, Moses, or any other single author but rather was the work of many people over a long period of time …. miracles are always imaginary …. the prophets had not special powers but rather had only a talent for elaborating moral insights in a language adapted to the preconceptions and the prejudices of the common people. … the bible is the work of human hands, and the truths it relays are, in the main, not factual but moral.

Di Di

Vinny Hall said...

Not much has changed in 400 years with human behavior as I see from the comment about the number and quality of carriages in Paris at the end of the 17th Century.

The new vehicles were icons of progress. Voltaire enthused that the glass windows and new suspension systems of modern carriages rendered the earlier models obsolete. Among ‘people of quality,’ the right kind of carriage became a coveted status symbol.The new test of eligibility for a marriageable male was: What kind of carriage does he drive?

Take that all you BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus drivers!

Vinny

Michael N. Hull said...

Hey Vinny, as a driver of one of the ‘coveted carriages’ that you mention I assure you that I am unmarriageable!

Regards,
Michael

Roger Spenser said...

I am about half way through the book and nothing about Leibniz has impressed me yet though the author constantly mentions his prodigious output or ideas and writings. He discovers calculus ten years behind Newton, he shows off a calculating machine to the Royal Society that doesn’t work, he has a plan for Louis XIV to invade Egypt that the French ignore, and his positions vary according to who he is meeting or who he is trying to impress.

Returning to chapter 10!

R

Janet Witherspoon said...

Roger:

Glancing through the wikipedia article on Leibniz I see:

Leibniz …. (made) one more short journey to London, where he possibly was shown some of Newton's unpublished work on the calculus. This fact was deemed evidence supporting the accusation, made decades later, that he had stolen the calculus from Newton.

On several occasions, Leibniz backdated and altered personal manuscripts, actions which cannot be excused or defended and which put him in a bad light during the calculus controversy. On the other hand, he was charming and well-mannered, with many friends and admirers all over Europe.

Janet

Vinny Hill said...

The Spinoza concept of conatus was a new one to me which I see comes from the ‘Ethics’ where Spinoza states that all of the emotions we experience come down to pleasure, pain, and conatus; conatus being the desire to persist in one’s own being and so happiness arises when we act in accordance with our nature. Pleasure contributes to conatus while pain detracts from it.

As I understand it Spinoza says that there is no free will associated with increasing one’s pleasure or pain?

Spinoza’s philosophy that God is Nature becomes somewhat abstract when one realizes that the ‘Nature’ he is describing is not the world of plants, animals, etc but rather is the abstract concept of ‘nature’ as in the ‘nature of light’ or the ‘nature of man’. It becomes a little more comprehensible when the author points out that, while today’s philosophical discussions might be about whether or not ‘God’ exists, the existence of ‘God’ was not under dispute in the 17th Century. Rather it was assumed that ‘God’ existed and what was being disputed was God’s ‘function’. So if the world was deemed to be deterministic as science was beginning to show then what was being discussed was what is ‘God’ doing, what can ‘His’ role possibly be, not whether ‘He’ is existing.

Sincerely
Vinny

Diana Malcolm said...

I found the chapter on the meeting between Leibniz and Spinoza very unsatisfactory. I think the author should just have said that there is little known about the meeting or indeed how long it lasted instead of writing a mini 'novel' about what went on.

Statements such as one is entitled to wonder if a certain expression passed over Spinoza's eyes .... Leibniz's reaction is easy to imagine. The yellow bile inevitably erupted up from within. The moment is a perfect snapshop of the two philosophers in action: Spinoza sitting unmoved, deeply indifferent, perhaps silently contemptuous, the very incarnation of his own Nature-God; Leibniz pacing around the room, clinging to his proof, depserately shouting out his demands, the perfect representative of an ever needy human race.

Fiction, Fiction, Fiction!

Di Di

Janet Witherspoon said...

I'm confused. Did the doctor kill Spinoza or did Spinoza commit suicide with the doctor's help?

Janet

Stan Preston said...

Janet, That’s a question for me too. Spinoza was suffering from a lung ailment due to the glass he inhaled from his lens making activities but I agree he seems to have died in a hurry. Unless he had a heart attack? There does appear to be some smoke here!
SP

James Carnaghan said...

I can see why Voltaire satirized Leibniz in Dr. Pangloss!

Jim

Geoff Fox said...

Intriguing how the Leibniz/Spinoza views have spilled over into modern scientific thinking.

The author writes that Spinoza’s divinity is one that inhabits the ‘here and now’ while Leibniz’s resides in the ‘before and beyond.

He then goes on to make the point …

Among contemporary physicists, there are those who maintain that the laws of nature are inherently arbitrary. According to their rather Leibnizian view, God (or a Great Designer) selects from among an infinite range of parameters for the laws of nature, and everything else in the world then unfolds within the chosen regime. Other physicists, however, maintain that the parameters that define the laws of physics may ultimately be determined by the laws themselves, such that nature may account for itself in an utterly self-sufficient way. Such theorists may be said to lean to the side of Spinoza.

GFox

Diana Malcolm said...

Geoff

Leibniz was probably the first to propose the ‘argument from design’. As the author says the modern question that parallels Leibniz is “How is it that the apparently arbitrary parameters of the physical laws of the universe are set at precisely those values that make life in the universe possible?”

Di Di

Neil said...

Jim: Leibniz’s belief in God’s choice of all possible worlds is not far off in my opinion from the ‘multiple universes’ that are in vogue with physicists today hung up with String Theory! Maybe we need a modern day Voltaire to produce a modern day Dr. Pangloss? Neil