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From Publisher's Weekly Starred Review. 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 ul From Publisher's Weekly Starred Review. 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.


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From Publisher's Weekly Starred Review. 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 ul From Publisher's Weekly Starred Review. 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.

30 review for The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza & the Fate of God in the Modern World

  1. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    Security Against Freedom Who could have anticipated that a three day visit in The Hague by Gottfried Leibniz to Baruch Spinoza in 1676 would set a cultural agenda that would still be relevant three and a half centuries later? Not the men involved. Nor their contemporaries who weren’t even aware of the meeting. And certainly not the leaders of today who believe that they are running the show but who are actually acting out the meeting’s result. As it has turned out, the script for much of today’s p Security Against Freedom Who could have anticipated that a three day visit in The Hague by Gottfried Leibniz to Baruch Spinoza in 1676 would set a cultural agenda that would still be relevant three and a half centuries later? Not the men involved. Nor their contemporaries who weren’t even aware of the meeting. And certainly not the leaders of today who believe that they are running the show but who are actually acting out the meeting’s result. As it has turned out, the script for much of today’s politics and intellectual debate was set at that meeting in The Hague. The encounter was decisive, not because it came to a union of the minds, but because of the precisely opposite result. It effectively established an enduring dialectic that is not just intellectual, but also spiritual, moral, and political. The strategies of the culture wars being waged today were mapped out then and are still being followed in ways that are remarkably consistent with the views of the original protagonists. Matthew Stewart’s book is much more than a comparative biography of Leibniz and Spinoza. It is a narrative that explains each man in terms of his intentions rather than merely his background or history. The fact that their intentions implicitly involve each other is the vital crux of both their lives. Stewart recognises this and uses it to establish the peculiar rationale, the meaning of reason itself, for each man. I doubt there is any other way to either get to the truth about their lives, or their enduring legacy other than by Stewart’s highly creative technique. It is difficult to imagine more different personalities than Leibniz and Spinoza. Aside from their exceptional intellects, they shared nothing. One an ambitious, well-born, polymath, and inveterate do-gooder, inserting himself into every controversy - theological, political, and practical as well as intellectual - for, in his mind, the benefit of others. The Other, a self-effacing yeshiva-boy whose primary ambition was to be left alone to figure out how to live his own life responsibly, and who believed other people ought to be entitled to do the same. Both men were, I think it is fair to say, odd, in the very specific sense that each was attempting to establish a vision of the world which compensated for what each lacked. Stewart makes an excellent case that for Leibniz, this meant security. His personality was stamped by the horrors of the Thirty Years War. He knew and feared the tenuousness of civilised existence. This clearly shaped his Idealism and rationalises not just his ambition, and his almost frenetic engagement in a continuous string of diverse projects, but also his pronounced social conservatism extending not infrequently into vulgar snobbery and prejudice. Spinoza, on the other hand, a religiously and racially vulnerable Jew, was brought up to keep a low profile, to conform, to do one’s duty as a member of a community which had been historically harassed and constrained by discriminatory legal systems. His concern could have run to something similar to Leibniz, to security, but it didn’t. Spinoza’s vision is one of freedom, freedom to reason without constraint, freedom to judge right and wrong without the interference of religious doctrine, and freedom to express oneself without fear of official reprisal. These two objectives, security and freedom, permeate not just their personalities but also their philosophies. Spinoza effectively established the charter for the liberal democratic state as it emerged a century after his death. The precise freedoms that he enumerated are the one’s that we now take for granted: of religion, of conscience, of the press, of living in a manner one chooses. Spinoza set a trajectory for world history which has been a dominant cultural force for three and a half centuries. But this force, although dominant, has never gone unchallenged. Resistance to the Spinozan liberal agenda has always been fierce right from its first formal statement in his two major works in the late 17th century. And the original front-line commander of that opposition was Leibniz who would not conceive of a world without a fixed order, without permanent hierarchy, without an elite in charge... and, importantly, without God to guarantee cosmic stability. Spinoza’s ideal of freedom was Leibniz’s worst nightmare; and I suppose the reverse is also true. I would be lying if I said I admired both men equally. While I appreciate Leibniz’s remarkable intellectual achievements, I can only view his political tendencies as rotten. The sentiments of conservatives around the world - from American Evangelical Republicans, to the Eurocrats of Strasbourg, to the pious clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church - are Leibnizian in remarkable detail. These are people who desire orderliness, coherence, and stability at any price. The challenge as they see it is to impose their version of the Good (and of God) on the world. This requires ‘strong leadership’ and followers who ‘stand united’ in the cause. They, of course, are referring to the cause of power, their power. That this cause is self-serving, unjust, unreasonable, and ultimately self-defeating are not things they want to hear. They never have. So they remain a constant danger to the legacy of Spinoza. I fear them as he did. Postscript: I think it’s interesting to note that Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen uses a similar meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr to the same effect as Stewart’s narrative (See: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...). It’s also interesting to note that the personalities of Leibniz and Spinoza are wonderful representatives of Isaiah Berlin’s parable of the Fox and the Hedgehog - The Fox knowing a great deal about many things, and the Hedgehog knowing everything about the one big thing (See: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8...).

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jonfaith

    Matthew Stewart reminds us every few pages that Spinoza and Leibniz met in Holland during 1676. We are also informed that the world of their meeting was one of turmoil. The Reformation left Europe disenchanted, literally removing the catholic magic out of life and leaving everyone scurrying to a camp or church. Spinoza's ancestors had been expelled from Spain and Leibniz grew up in a Germany blackened by the Thirty Year War. Spinoza lived simply, distrusted the hordes and aimed for a life of the Matthew Stewart reminds us every few pages that Spinoza and Leibniz met in Holland during 1676. We are also informed that the world of their meeting was one of turmoil. The Reformation left Europe disenchanted, literally removing the catholic magic out of life and leaving everyone scurrying to a camp or church. Spinoza's ancestors had been expelled from Spain and Leibniz grew up in a Germany blackened by the Thirty Year War. Spinoza lived simply, distrusted the hordes and aimed for a life of the mind. Leibniz was a prodigy who required constant confirmation and affection. He also liked money. Leibniz famously grew up to be a foil for both Newton and Voltaire: the best of all possible worlds and a calculus co-write remain on his CV. Spinoza is regarded as the first modern philosopher, Matthew Stewart quips that such a declaration leaves Leibniz as perhaps the first modern human. Oh well, that ignores L's diplomatic scheme to save Germany. The plan was known as the Egypt Plan, which was to persuade France that instead of conquering a devastated Germany, the French would benefit themselves and Europe by instead invading Egypt in some postscript to the hallowed Annals of Crusades (from Marathon to Fallujah). So what transpired during this 1676 meeting of the era's brightest minds? We don't know exactly. Leibniz wrote about it often, but continually altered specifics and responses to suit his needs. Spinoza died a short time later. I suppose it doesn't matter. This is a fun book despite the lacunae at its center.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ethan

    I'm a big Spinoza fan and I deeply appreciate Leibniz, so I was delighted to read this philosophical biography that revolves around the time Spinoza and Leibniz met in person in The Hague in 1676. It was even more fun to read parts of this while I was visiting the Netherlands recently (including The Hague, Voorburg, and Amsterdam). While one could get a lot out of this book never having read Spinoza or Leibniz before, I think at least a little bit of background, like a survey course in modern Eur I'm a big Spinoza fan and I deeply appreciate Leibniz, so I was delighted to read this philosophical biography that revolves around the time Spinoza and Leibniz met in person in The Hague in 1676. It was even more fun to read parts of this while I was visiting the Netherlands recently (including The Hague, Voorburg, and Amsterdam). While one could get a lot out of this book never having read Spinoza or Leibniz before, I think at least a little bit of background, like a survey course in modern European philosophy, would enhance one's appreciation. Stewart does a pretty decent job explaining the views and arguments of each philosopher, but of course there's no substitute for reading for oneself. People who have tried to read Spinoza and Leibniz, though, will be pleased that Stewart's book is light reading by comparison. I learned a lot about the biographies and general historical context of each philosopher, and the story of how these two men and their respective philosophies are related was intriguing. Hard-core Spinoza and Leibniz scholars may not be impressed with Stewart's interpretations, but I at least found his contention that Leibniz was forever haunted by the specter of Spinozism to be intriguing, even if a bit over-done (Leibniz was reacting to what he saw as the threats of modernism in a general sense whether that always meant specifically Spinoza in his mind or not). I also greatly appreciate Stewart's attention both to the internal details of each philosopher's views, but also their contexts, influences, personalities, and legacies. I enjoyed getting to know each philosopher a little bit. Spinoza was loved by his neighbors later in life despite the tumultuous times of his early expunging from the Jewish community of Amsterdam and his publication of a radical book that was widely scorned as dangerous atheistic heresy. Leibniz fans may feel that Stewart shows too much favoritism to Spinoza (and they would have a point), but I came away feeling like I knew Leibniz and could forgive his personal idiosyncrasies and foibles in light of his tremendous intellect and breadth of interests. To sum up, this is a book for lovers of philosophy especially, but also for anyone interested in the history of early modern Europe and its legacy today. (See also my blog review: https://examinedworlds.blogspot.com/2...)

  4. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Spear

    The Courtier and the Heretic is a magnificent book that blends a remarkable depth of scholarship with good writing and a sensitivity for human beings, history and philosophy. Stewart’s telling of the portion of the history of modern philosophy having to do with Spinoza and Leibniz is interesting in a number of ways. Most striking, perhaps, is his identification of Spinoza as the first philosopher to truly appreciate the implications of modern science and the reformation for politics, religion an The Courtier and the Heretic is a magnificent book that blends a remarkable depth of scholarship with good writing and a sensitivity for human beings, history and philosophy. Stewart’s telling of the portion of the history of modern philosophy having to do with Spinoza and Leibniz is interesting in a number of ways. Most striking, perhaps, is his identification of Spinoza as the first philosopher to truly appreciate the implications of modern science and the reformation for politics, religion and human life. Spinoza, on Stewart’s account, puts forward the metaphysical picture of a detached and uncaring God who is for all intents and purposes identical with nature, understood as the sum total of efficient casual processes at work in the universe. Human beings are just one of the many modes of this single substance, God or nature, with no special place or purpose in existence, but nevertheless capable of achieving a certain kind of happiness, collectively and individually, in the context of a modern secular state; one not ruled by the theocratic fanatics who were still at work during the lifetimes of Spinoza and Leibniz. If Spinoza is the first fully modern philosopher, then on Stewart’s account, Leibniz is the first great reaction against modernity. For reasons both intellectual and philosophical, Stewart paints a portrait of Leibniz’s entire philosophical project as ultimately being a reaction to the modern philosophical world view that he encountered, first in the writings then in the person of Spinoza when the two met in the Hague in November 1676 and after. On Stewart’s account, the key to understanding Leibniz’s primary philosophical doctrines as they developed over the course of his entire life after 1676 is to view them as so many attempts to respond in a philosophically coherent way to the doctrines of Spinoza. Whereas it is common, at least amongst philosophers, to view Spinoza and Leibniz as epistemological allies, heirs to the rationalist tradition of Descartes and squarely opposed to the empiricism of the British, Stewart paints a picture according to which Leibniz and Spinoza are the true antipodes in the context of modern philosophy, with Spinoza falling on the side of (and quite possibly strongly influencing) the empiricist tradition, and Leibniz holding out for a rationalist, or more properly a scholastic revival in response to modern philosophy and science. Stewart substantiates this view by focusing on the political motivations and implications of the philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz respectively, rather than on their views of and arguments in epistemology or metaphysics primarily. While my own view is that it is not fair to ignore, in ways that Stewart seems at times to do, the self-proclaimed arguments, epistemological, metaphysical or otherwise that particular philosophers put forward, nevertheless Stewart makes a very compelling case, one substantiated by a great deal of research, so I can only say that my jury is out until further notice on the question of the accuracy of his thesis that both Leibniz and Spinoza were motivated as much by politics as by reason in their metaphysics and epistemologies. Finally, no discussion of Stewart’s book could be complete without mentioning what is really its primary focus, the characters and interaction of two of the modern period’s most outstanding philosophers. Whereas Stewart paints Spinoza as the self-sufficient sage par excellence, both materially and spiritually, his portrait of Leibniz is that of an enterprising and ambiguously self-serving courtier, unable to be satisfied with what he has available to him either materially or psychologically. Indeed, when it comes to the personalities of his two philosophers, Stewart could be said to pit the self-sufficiency of Spinoza against the “neediness” of Leibniz, while yet retaining a remarkable respect for and interest in both men. While one could complain that Stewart paints a rather unflattering picture of Leibniz, his analysis rarely amounts to more than recounting known historical facts, often as witnessed in Leibniz’s own letters and private notes. But further, Stewart exhibits a genuine fascination with and sympathy for the personality of Leibniz, one that makes up, almost if not entirely, for his sometimes harsh treatment of the philosopher’s motives and life. A point that Stewart does not devote much time to, but one that his book raises rather sharply, is the question not just of the clash between the modern world, the per-modern world and the ‘post-modern’ reaction to modernity (which, as yet, has not truly been able to be anything more than a reaction; it is not at all clear that we live in a post-modern world at this point in history), but rather of the type of person whom we are likely to find associated with each. Stewart portrays Spinoza as a kind of stoical latter-day Socrates, whereas Leibniz, the reaction to modernity and partial champion of a by-gone era, comes off as rather conflicted and self-serving. What is interesting about this contrast is that there are a number of considerations suggesting that just the opposite will, in general, be the case. Few in the modern world are the Spinozas who, while propounding the purposelessness of nature and of human existence, are nevertheless able to advocate a kind of genuine virtue and human solidarity. Something rings hollow in the ruminations of a Dennett or a Dawkins that, for some reason or other, seems to have life in the philosophy and person of Spinoza. And, by contrast, it is precisely the Leibnizs, on Stewart’s telling, the individuals who react against the modern world in various ways attempting to re-establish something of the significance of human existence in the universe, who in general are able to exhibit a kind of unity and integrity of character and purpose. It is the modern world view that renders individuals fragmented and self-serving, while that of the ancients and medievals lends unity of purpose and action, an integrity of character in the face of choice, that seems to be what is so admirable in, for example, Spinoza. Thus if, as Stewart suggests, we must all make a choice between Leibniz and Spinoza, it is worth noting that the choice between the philosophy, politics and religion that he takes each to be expounding on the one hand, and that between the character and style of life that each embodied on the other, may in fact be exactly inverse, at least for most of us.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    Through the personal stories of the two well known philosophers, author Matthew Stuart provides a window on how medieval philosophy broke into modern. The difficulties for those ahead of their times is apparent: Gottfried Leibniz enjoyed public acclaim and status while Baruch Spinoza who dared break with convention was branded as a heretic. Both had had early experiences of rejection: Spinoza’s case was a complete expulsion from his community. In response, Spinoza made a simple living with the t Through the personal stories of the two well known philosophers, author Matthew Stuart provides a window on how medieval philosophy broke into modern. The difficulties for those ahead of their times is apparent: Gottfried Leibniz enjoyed public acclaim and status while Baruch Spinoza who dared break with convention was branded as a heretic. Both had had early experiences of rejection: Spinoza’s case was a complete expulsion from his community. In response, Spinoza made a simple living with the trade of lens grinding and made a few friends, some, thinkers like himself. He dedicated his free time to his writing which was considered atheistic and under constant attack. Leibniz, stung by not getting a coveted university post, faced the world with manic energy. He forced himself into the limelight and attached himself to wealthy patrons. He worked in mathematics (inventing a calculating machine; independently discovered calculus 10 years after Newton), politics (drafted and promoted a French war in Egypt), ecumenism (created a plan to re-unite Protestants and Catholics) mining, alchemy, genealogy (paid very well over two years of travel and produced nothing) and studied things Chinese. Stewart shows how Leibniz took advantage of the approbation Spinoza suffered for being ahead of his time. He shows Leibniz joining the anti-Spinoza chorus while taking Spinoza’s thought and spinning it around so that it would look more incremental and original to him. Leibniz's own words on page 193 sum it up: “nothing should be demonstrated in it that which does not clash too much with approved opinions.” For the general reader, the Leibniz's interesting life makes the book. Stewart presents the points of philosophy in the plainest English possible, but the book remains a niche read; that is, if you are not interested in early modern philosophy, it will not rope you in. For those interested in the topic, you see how Leibniz was in competitive obsession with Spinoza (even beyond the grave) and essentially plagiarized him. You will appreciate the research and interpretive abilities of the author.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    Too often philosophy is taught in the abstract, reflecting either a certain idealism on the part of the instructor or an ignorance of the history of the text and its author. As I.F. Stone did for Socrates, contextualizing Plato, so Stewart does for Leibnitz and Spinoza,. The focus of The Courtier and the Heretic is upon the relationship between the two philosophers who both corresponded and, during one brief period, conversed. Stewart's thesis is that Leibnitz' work was very much influenced by Sp Too often philosophy is taught in the abstract, reflecting either a certain idealism on the part of the instructor or an ignorance of the history of the text and its author. As I.F. Stone did for Socrates, contextualizing Plato, so Stewart does for Leibnitz and Spinoza,. The focus of The Courtier and the Heretic is upon the relationship between the two philosophers who both corresponded and, during one brief period, conversed. Stewart's thesis is that Leibnitz' work was very much influenced by Spinoza despite the younger man's public disparagement of his atheism. The treatment of this thesis is conducted on three levels. First, Stewart traces the actual links between them, direct and indirect. Second, he compares their ideas. Third, he concocts a psychological explanation. The influence is entirely in one direction, Spinoza on Leibnitz, the former having had the misfortune of dying young, shortly after their encounter. This book could be dangerous reading for anyone not already familiar with its subjects. I came out of continental philosophy very much impressed with both Spinoza and Leibnitz, not so impressed with Descartes, the one who posed some of the problems they dealt with. Stewart's book favors Spinoza, both as a person and as a thinker, and disparages Leibnitz. If I had read The Courtier and the Heretic prior to reading the primary texts of its subjects I would be disposed to ignore Leibnitz because of Stewart's ad hominem arguments. In fact, however, we know quite a bit about Leibnitz' personal and professional lives and very little of Spinoza's, giving us broad grounds to attack the former and little to go on as regards the latter.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    An entertaining and exceptionally well-written intellectual history, although as I've never read any Leibniz, I couldn't tell you much about how much I agree or disagree with Stewart's argument. However, I do know a fair bit about Spinoza and his place in the history of ideas, and Stewart gives him a fair shake, even if, like so many contemporary thinkers, he elevates Spinoza to damn near hierophantic status. As for the famed meeting in Den Haag, I can't say whether it had the world-changing sta An entertaining and exceptionally well-written intellectual history, although as I've never read any Leibniz, I couldn't tell you much about how much I agree or disagree with Stewart's argument. However, I do know a fair bit about Spinoza and his place in the history of ideas, and Stewart gives him a fair shake, even if, like so many contemporary thinkers, he elevates Spinoza to damn near hierophantic status. As for the famed meeting in Den Haag, I can't say whether it had the world-changing status Stewart claims (or whether this was just the general direction the history of intellect was going among many entities at the time), but it's at least an interesting story. Bring this one with you on holiday, it's got enough meat to it to prevent your brain from turning to mush and yet it's light enough that you can comfortably read it on the beach or on a train, and added bonus, it'll give you plenty of anecdotes to bother your traveling companion with.

  8. 4 out of 5

    robin friedman

    Two Approaches To Modernity In November, 1676, the German polymath and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646 - 1716) visited the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632 -1677) at the Hague. Leibniz, age 30, was a rising and ambitious young man who had already, independently of Isaac Newton, invented the calculus. Spinoza, age 44, had been excommunicated from the synagogue in Amsterdam at the age of 24. He had published a notorious work, the "Theological-Political Treatise", and his as-yet unpublis Two Approaches To Modernity In November, 1676, the German polymath and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646 - 1716) visited the Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632 -1677) at the Hague. Leibniz, age 30, was a rising and ambitious young man who had already, independently of Isaac Newton, invented the calculus. Spinoza, age 44, had been excommunicated from the synagogue in Amsterdam at the age of 24. He had published a notorious work, the "Theological-Political Treatise", and his as-yet unpublished masterpiece, the "Ethics", had been widely if surreptitiously circulated among learned people. At the time of his meeting with Leibniz, Spinoza had only three months to live. In "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World"" (2005), Matthew Stewart takes as his pivot-point the Leibniz-Spinoza meeting. Little is known of what occurred at this meeting because Spinoza left no record of it and Leibniz rarely spoke of it. Nevertheless, Stewart uses this meeting as a fulcrum to illuminate the thought of these two philosophers and to show how their views developed into the two broad and competing responses to modernity and to the secular world that remain with us today. Stewart has the gift of presenting his story articulately and well. He combines elements of storytelling, historical narrative, and philosophy in an appealing and accessible fashion. He also shows a great dealing of learning and reflection. Stewart received a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford and is an independent scholar in California. Spinoza was a self-contained individual. Stewart portrays him as the first and the prototypical secular thinker in philosophy. Stewart rightly places great emphasis on the "Theological-Political Treatise", a work which until recently has not received the attention it deserves. Stewart emphasizes the political character of the work, its goal of freeing the state from the claims of revealed religion, its commitment to the value of free inquiry, and its leanings towards democracy. In this work, Spinoza used a historical approach to interpreting the Bible with the purpose of clearing away supernaturalism and establishing a basis for what became modern, secular life. In the Ethics, Spinoza rejected a transcendent God with a will and with commands for the good conduct of people. Spinoza equated God with nature and with the scientific laws of the universe. Human beings were subject to scientific law and could be studied, rather than constituting a realm separate from nature. The mind was tied to the activities of the body. Human ethics and well-being were naturalistically based. Unlike Spinoza, Leibniz valued worldly success and the approval of others. For Stewart, Leibniz' mature philosophy, as set forth in the "Monadology" and elsewhere, developed as a response to and rejection of Spinoza's secularism. Leibniz argues for a transcendent God with a free moral will, for a plurality of independent and autonomous substances called monads, and for the immortality of the soul. Stewart places greater emphasis of the meeting between Leibniz and Spinoza, and on Spinoza's alleged influence on Leibniz , than would some historians of philosophy. But Stewart's philosophical approach doesn't appear to me to turn upon his reading of the historical record of Leibniz' actual contact with Spinoza. Rather, Stewart finds in Leibniz the first modern thinker who attempted, reactively, to restore many aspects of earlier, largely religious, thought, including a transcendent God, autonomous persons, and an afterlife, that have no place in Spinoza's thought. Thus, for Stewart, Leibniz is a distinctively modern thinker and the first to try to reconcile the world of physical science and physical law, with a form of transcendent, religious life not controlled by the dictates of science. I found Stewart's reading highly challenging and suggestive, and he goes on to characterize the subsequent 300 year course of philosophy as a continuation of the basic divide between Spinoza and Leibniz. Thus, the basic issue that modern philosophy has addressed is the way in which meaning, purpose, and value are to be found in a secular world. Stewart finds that the dominant trend of modern philosophy has been an attempt to follow and strengthen Leibniz' approach and to answer Spinoza. He writes: "Kant's attempt to prove the existence of a `noumenal' world of pure selves and things in themselves on the basis of a critique of pure reason, the nineteenth-century-spanning efforts to reconcile teleology with mechanism that began with Hegel; Bergson's claim to have discovered a world of life forces immune to the analytical embrace of modern science; Heidegger's call for the overthrow of western metaphysics in order to recover the truth about Being; and the whole `postmodern' project of deconstructing the phallocentric tradition of western thought- all of these diverse trends in modern thought have one thing in common: they are at bottom forms of the reaction to modernity first instantiated by Leibniz." (p. 311) Stewart might also have included the American philosopher William James, whom I have been studying recently, in this latter group. Stewart does not come to a firm conclusion regarding the merits of the Spinozian and Leibnitzian positions, but he notes a strong tendency among most thinkers and most individuals to try to work a compromise between them. But to me Spinoza appears to have the last word with his famous conclusion that "fine things are as difficult as they are rare". Robin Friedman

  9. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

    The book is not an easy read--it couldn't be as long as it aimed to explain the philosophy of the two principal antagonists. But I think he makes a good effort at clarity. Two things annoyed me--his sarcasm and his repetitive argument about Leibniz--they detract from a good book. His sarcasm can be funny as when he said of Leibniz: "he [Leibniz] was always more interested in creating a sensation than in having one.” 137 But it gets to be a distraction from the story and therefore an irritant. Hi The book is not an easy read--it couldn't be as long as it aimed to explain the philosophy of the two principal antagonists. But I think he makes a good effort at clarity. Two things annoyed me--his sarcasm and his repetitive argument about Leibniz--they detract from a good book. His sarcasm can be funny as when he said of Leibniz: "he [Leibniz] was always more interested in creating a sensation than in having one.” 137 But it gets to be a distraction from the story and therefore an irritant. His psychological analysis of Leibniz--his argument that Leibniz's philosophy and much of his life is a struggle with Spinoza--gets a bit repetitive and could have been told by the story itself and the conclusion.

  10. 5 out of 5

    David M

    This isn't exactly a terrible book. Some of the notes I took while reading it may have been overly harsh. In 1676 two of the greatest philosophers of that or any other century met for a couple of days to talk God. The sole meeting of Leibniz and Spinoza could be the subject of a wonderful play, but it would require a great deal of artistic license by the playwright. No record exists of what they said, but we can bet it was a lot more interesting than David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace discussi This isn't exactly a terrible book. Some of the notes I took while reading it may have been overly harsh. In 1676 two of the greatest philosophers of that or any other century met for a couple of days to talk God. The sole meeting of Leibniz and Spinoza could be the subject of a wonderful play, but it would require a great deal of artistic license by the playwright. No record exists of what they said, but we can bet it was a lot more interesting than David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace discussing French fries in Minneapolis. This material doesn't really lend itself to nonficiton treatment, unfortunately. There's just not enough information. Matthew Stewart is thus forced to over-interpret the few sources that do exist in order to suggest that Leibniz had a lifelong obsession with Spinoza, and that this obsession was the single most important factor in developing his own philosophy. As a portrait of two fascinating personalities, however, it's a pretty decent book. While clearly partial to Spinoza, Stewart does fully acknowledge Leibniz's genius. Spinoza's extreme self-sufficiency and unworldly commitment to the light of truth are well known. Leibniz is an altogether different animal. Today we might be tempted to diagnose him with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, given that he always dozens and dozens of projects going at once, and though he lived to an old age rarely managed to finish any of them, yet a list of his accomplishments is truly staggering - inventor, diplomat, logician, one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived, and of course the author of monads and the theodicy. Overall the author's understanding of intellectual history is far too simplistic. On the second to last page he lumps Kant, Hegel, Bergson, and Heidegger together as heirs to Leibniz's reactionary, anti-modern philosophy. Really? It's hard to even know where to begin with that. Then on the very last page he writes that Spinoza teaches us that there is "no secret truth about anything. There is instead only the slow and steady accumulation of many small truths." Clearly he'd like to identify Spinoza with the progress of modern science, but it's an awkward fit in many ways. Whatever else it may be, the Ethics is not a work of empirical science. It's an extremely ambitious, intentionally esoteric books that attempts to sum up the truth about everything via axiomatic reasoning. Chapter 10 is the author's most sustained engagement with the Ethics, and it becomes an opportunity for Stewart to write his own manifesto for a fairly banal kind of atheist naturalism in the manner of Richard Dawkins and others. He claims this as the modern, scientific way of seeing the world, and claims Spinoza as its forefather. Stewart approvingly cites the physicist Steven Weinberg that "the more we know about the origins of the universe, the more pointless it seems" (pp 157). And then the very next page, on Spinoza, "His philosophy is at a deep level a declaration of confidence that there is nothing ultimately mysterious in the world... that there is nothing that cannot be known" (pp 158-59). Stewart doesn't pause for a second to reflect on the apparent contradiction here. Just how is it that this universe of ours can be totally pointless and random and at the same time perfectly intelligible?

  11. 4 out of 5

    Maria

    This is a huge misrepresentation of the thought of Leibniz and even the philosophy of Spinoza. I count this book as a work of pure fiction, as it focuses more on the dead skeletons of each philosopher's thoughts than on their ideas as living, evolving things. Countless generations of people have equated Leibniz's thought to merely the metaphysics of the Monadology when this is in fact not the case. Moreover it is ridiculous to argue that a single meeting of less than a week had an overarching im This is a huge misrepresentation of the thought of Leibniz and even the philosophy of Spinoza. I count this book as a work of pure fiction, as it focuses more on the dead skeletons of each philosopher's thoughts than on their ideas as living, evolving things. Countless generations of people have equated Leibniz's thought to merely the metaphysics of the Monadology when this is in fact not the case. Moreover it is ridiculous to argue that a single meeting of less than a week had an overarching impact on Leibniz's thought. It ridiculously subordinates the entire, complex thinking of a long, rich life to one formalizing experience when in fact Leibniz's thought went through many, equally important (though not equally recognized) stages and continued to evolve after the Monadology, unable to crystallize in another form due only to the philosopher's death. Leibniz is a laughable historical figure. It is true that he obfuscated his own views. But he wasn't the only one to do so in a time when the Church (even the Protestant Churches) made life very difficult for all independent thinkers. Not everyone wants to live a life like Spinoza. So although Leibniz did often misrepresent or orthodoxize himself, such practices were necessary for self-preservation. And laughing at Leibniz's schemes (draining the silver mines for instance) is certainly a rational reaction. But laughing at him in fondness is very different than the sort of immature needling Stewart stoops to in his book. I read this entire book because I thought that maybe Stewart would eventually present a more equal picture of the two philosophers. And it was an entertaining read. BUT, it is not the sort of thing one should read expecting to know significantly more about philosophy and Stewart's words should be taken with a heavy dose of salt. It makes me sad to see so many people who normally don't like or don't know anything about philosophy review this book enthusiastically because I know, as I'm sure do others, that it is NOT an accurate representation. A popularizing book must be entertaining, and this one certainly is, but it entertains at the expense of one thinker and to the detriment of the other. AND it's a shame that the author couldn't try to be more fair. A valid argument for Spinoza > Leibniz could be made without bashing Leibniz. Moreover, there are certainly reasons why Leibniz > Spinoza in some respects as well. For a more balanced look at Leibniz, the book by Nicholas Jolley is superb and entertaining. Even if the philosophy is too difficult to follow at times, one can gain a fairly unbiased knowledge of Leibniz's life and achievements from this book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Nat

    Good, readable intro to the life and times of Spinoza and Leibniz. Short summary: Spinoza was a genius and lived a spartan life in the Netherlands eating rice gruel and grinding lenses. Leibiz was a genius but was in constant pursuit of money and recognition from famous patrons. They met each other once. The author argues that Leibniz's philosophy is best viewed as a reaction to Spinozism, which he was secretly attracted to and publicly repelled by. Good, readable intro to the life and times of Spinoza and Leibniz. Short summary: Spinoza was a genius and lived a spartan life in the Netherlands eating rice gruel and grinding lenses. Leibiz was a genius but was in constant pursuit of money and recognition from famous patrons. They met each other once. The author argues that Leibniz's philosophy is best viewed as a reaction to Spinozism, which he was secretly attracted to and publicly repelled by.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ari Landa

    An engaging and thought provoking historical and philosophical review of the two personalities that came to define the trajectory of modern philosophy and the the role of the modern state. More than just get us intimately connected with Spinoza and Leibniz, we're provoked to consider the true nature of their philosophies and theories as it relates to their individual personalities, their fears for society, and their fears for each other's ideas. Stewart moves beyond regular psychological and phi An engaging and thought provoking historical and philosophical review of the two personalities that came to define the trajectory of modern philosophy and the the role of the modern state. More than just get us intimately connected with Spinoza and Leibniz, we're provoked to consider the true nature of their philosophies and theories as it relates to their individual personalities, their fears for society, and their fears for each other's ideas. Stewart moves beyond regular psychological and philosophical analysis and disapproves of those murky boundaries that seek to categorize philosophical schools into one group or another. Instead we're left with a free flowing understanding of the philosophers intentions, and hone in to how their life events and individual goals create and give substance to their philosophical directions. As Neitzsch said philosophy is just the confession of the philosopher, and as Hegel said, philosophy is just the written expression of the age within the philosopher lived, Stewart presents Spinoza and Leibniz and their diverse, but also quite similar, philosophical perspective as a manifestation of those two ideals. Stewart clearly favors Spinoza, both personally and philosophically, but equally presents Leibniz as a compelling figure and as the father of many a modern idea.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Noah Goats

    In The Courtier and the Heretic, Matthew Stewart tells the story behind the ideas of Leibniz and Spinoza and the way that the two philosophers influenced one another. In Stewart's telling, the heretical philosophy of Spinoza reduced God to another word for nature, destroyed the idea of personal immortality, threw shade all over the bible, and was a highly disruptive system of thought at the time that went on to have a huge impact on the shape of the modern world. In Stewart's telling, Leibniz wa In The Courtier and the Heretic, Matthew Stewart tells the story behind the ideas of Leibniz and Spinoza and the way that the two philosophers influenced one another. In Stewart's telling, the heretical philosophy of Spinoza reduced God to another word for nature, destroyed the idea of personal immortality, threw shade all over the bible, and was a highly disruptive system of thought at the time that went on to have a huge impact on the shape of the modern world. In Stewart's telling, Leibniz was a slippery character and it's hard to pin down what, if anything, he actually believed. Regardless of what he believed, Leibniz's philosophy was largely a reaction to Spinoza, an attempt to put a thinking, feeling God back at the center of the world. Stewart does a good job of making complex ideas comprehensible to the average reader here, and his portraits of the two men (the fascinatingly complex Leibniz in particular) keep the pages turning with human interest.

  15. 5 out of 5

    B. Rule

    The twin strands of this book are the lives and thought of Spinoza and Leibniz, which knot in the middle at a 1676 meeting that had reverberations throughout the rest of Leibniz's long life (and seems to have had little effect on Spinoza in the few remaining months allotted to him). The prose of the book is lucid and engaging, and the author does a remarkable job of synthesizing biography, philosophy, history, and critical analysis to effectively tell the tale of the anxiety of influence felt by The twin strands of this book are the lives and thought of Spinoza and Leibniz, which knot in the middle at a 1676 meeting that had reverberations throughout the rest of Leibniz's long life (and seems to have had little effect on Spinoza in the few remaining months allotted to him). The prose of the book is lucid and engaging, and the author does a remarkable job of synthesizing biography, philosophy, history, and critical analysis to effectively tell the tale of the anxiety of influence felt by Leibniz after his encounter with Spinoza. Stewart does a great job at sketching the personalities of his two subjects and of contrasting how their psychology is mirrored in their metaphysics. He provides a cogent description of the philosophical ideas propounded by each man and draws out the implications of their metaphysical principles in a wonderful way. Stewart also gives some glimpses into the political and social structures of the day that add color to the work. The fundamental thesis is that Leibniz was in effect a secret Spinozist who spent his entire life wrestling with the profound truths he found in Spinoza's works, struggling to hide the marks of influence and to answer Spinoza's vision of the world with an account that would salvage much of the medieval world order, all while, perhaps, secretly harboring the belief that Spinoza was actually right all along. Stewart puts his thumb on the scale for Spinoza perhaps a little too heavily, but he provides a sharp immanent critique of Leibniz that essentially shows that he largely failed in his project to disprove Spinoza. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are found in Stewart's convincing psychological portrayal of Leibniz as a creature of enormous self-regard and greed, driven by his need for approval to create some of the most amazing intellectual feats of the late 17th/early 18th century. It is almost heartbreaking to watch his successes and failures and to get a glimpse into his internal struggle with an idea that he could not shake but also could not abide as a map for human flourishing. Both Leibniz and Spinoza emerge as recognizable personality types and it is easy to visualize the nature of their interactions even at a distance of centuries and obscured by the lack of primary sources documenting their visit. This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in metaphysics, the Age of Enlightenment, or the psychology of great thinkers.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer

    A book I read after reading Neal Stephenson's wonderful "Quicksilver". Biography of Spinoza and Leibniz and examination of their philosophies. Books central claim is that following a meeting between the two not long before Spionoza’s death, the rest of Leibniz’s philosophical developments (and particularly his theory of monads) were a reaction to that meeting. Leibniz is painted in the book as the ultimate peacemaker and conciliator. Book’s premise is that Leibniz was very attracted by the logic A book I read after reading Neal Stephenson's wonderful "Quicksilver". Biography of Spinoza and Leibniz and examination of their philosophies. Books central claim is that following a meeting between the two not long before Spionoza’s death, the rest of Leibniz’s philosophical developments (and particularly his theory of monads) were a reaction to that meeting. Leibniz is painted in the book as the ultimate peacemaker and conciliator. Book’s premise is that Leibniz was very attracted by the logic of Spinoza’s “proof” that God and nature are the same, and that no souls or free will exist, but was alarmed at the eventual implications of this for the current religious states. His theory was therefore an attempt to embrace many of Spinoza’s ideas but not his conclusion. Fairly well written – although philosophy can be hard to follow this is unavoidable as ideas of both are not straightforward. Book is weak on Leibniz’s mathematics – very limited detail is given on calculus, except the claim that his dispute with Newton was made worse but Leibniz’s fear that attraction at a distance necessarily lead to Spinoza’s world and hence Newton’s views were heretical (despite Newton being firmly convinced of the death of God). Claim is that just as in other disputes (e.g. his demolition of Cartesian logic) Leibniz was actually fighting the ghost of Spinoza. Book mentions various episodes that link to Quicksilver and only goes to show what a wonderful note that is: His research into family history of Hanoverians; His trip to London on a political mission when he presented his calculating machine to the Royal Society; His appointment as a consultant to the Hanover silver mines in the Harz mountains (although this was actually a failure); Obsession with forming a faculty of sciences and of amassing a library (although assertion is he was extremely possessive of this. Interestingly no mention is made of being locked out of his father’s library when he was younger although this would seem to explain this behaviour). Book does claim that Leibniz deliberately never returned to Leipzig after leaving it as a young man.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Aria

    All the Spinoza bits were good. The Leibniz bits were so boring i ended up skimming those chapters completely. Should have just skipped them altogether. Spinoza is interesting enough w/o needing to contrast him with some character of the age. If the aim was to review the philosophical climate of the day, I'd have to say that it could have been done in a way that wasn't so dull. The presentation here of Leibniz himself I do feel is merely to have something to set Spinoza's thoughts in contrast w All the Spinoza bits were good. The Leibniz bits were so boring i ended up skimming those chapters completely. Should have just skipped them altogether. Spinoza is interesting enough w/o needing to contrast him with some character of the age. If the aim was to review the philosophical climate of the day, I'd have to say that it could have been done in a way that wasn't so dull. The presentation here of Leibniz himself I do feel is merely to have something to set Spinoza's thoughts in contrast w/, but as the two idea sets are so utterly different, it is akin to comparing apples and broccoli. Short summation on Leibniz: he decided he wanted to believe in an external God and thus having decided such, he proceeded to put on airs toward philosophically setting forth some so-called "proof" of said concept. Obvious rubbish way to pretend at objectivity. He was dull, and typical of the sort of person who to this day still would carry on in this manner. He was not needed in this book, and I would not recommend it for reading. I marked this as a 2-star "okay," b/c the Spinoza bits are still worth the read.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jess

    This book is one of those that makes you stop, put it down, write things down, and start asking large questions about the nature of things. It's about a short meeting between two philosophers 400 years ago that can be seen as symbolic of the notion of the nature of God in the modern world. On one side, Spinoza argues that God is 'Nature' -- not a judging, bearded fellow who punishes us, but more like a Buddhist notion of the underlying architecture of everything. On the other side is Leibnitz, w This book is one of those that makes you stop, put it down, write things down, and start asking large questions about the nature of things. It's about a short meeting between two philosophers 400 years ago that can be seen as symbolic of the notion of the nature of God in the modern world. On one side, Spinoza argues that God is 'Nature' -- not a judging, bearded fellow who punishes us, but more like a Buddhist notion of the underlying architecture of everything. On the other side is Leibnitz, who was so shaken by the implications of a world without God, he spent much of his life trying to disprove Spinoza by contemplating intricate systems of 'modes' to prove humanity is special. Makes you wonder about existential questions, why we don't study philosophy as much as we used to, and how such inquiry can help us understand why we are and who we are.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Gary Bengier

    You will like Spinoza much more and dislike Leibniz after reading this.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Peter Bradley

    If you like this review, please give me a helpful vote on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/review/R16E9AA... I am fascinated by the moments of serendipity in history, the crossing of historical paths in surprising and illuminating ways. For example, Ted Williams was John Glenn's wingman? I wouldn't have believed that in a historical novel, but it really happened. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and German Dictator Adolph Hitler were in the same class as teenagers, and there are class pictures to p If you like this review, please give me a helpful vote on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/review/R16E9AA... I am fascinated by the moments of serendipity in history, the crossing of historical paths in surprising and illuminating ways. For example, Ted Williams was John Glenn's wingman? I wouldn't have believed that in a historical novel, but it really happened. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and German Dictator Adolph Hitler were in the same class as teenagers, and there are class pictures to prove it? Well, why not?, but how weird? The nice feature of these conjunctions, and the history books written about them, is that they somehow demonstrate that famous historical figures were merely human, particularly since these events usually occurred before the individuals became famous. Ted Williams was famous before the Korean War, but John Glenn was not yet the man who orbited the planet. These books also illuminate the time and place in interesting ways. In this book, the odd moment of conjunction involves the future inventor of Calculus meeting, Gottfried Leibniz, meeting the older excommunicated Benedict Spinoza at Spinoza's home in The Hague in 1676. The meeting lasted an afternoon, and there is a fair indication that they discussed, naturally, their mutual interest in the nature of God. There was some correspondence between the two thereafter, but since Spinoza died in 1677, there was not much development of their relationship. Author Matthew Stewart does not give us much reason to be optimistic that a relationship would have developed if Spinoza had lived. Manichean dichotomy is the theme of the book. Spinoza was a secular saint, committed to a life of poverty while he advanced his philosophy that would become the foundation for modernity. Leibniz was an opportunist and grifter who got into fights with everyone and swindled his benefactors.Are these characterizations fair? Maybe so, but I got the feeling that Stewart had a distinct rooting interest for the atheist Spinoza and that he used his characterization of Leibniz to magnify the glory of his hero. There was an element of Stewart's book that I found interesting, but Stewart doesn't develop, namely the international community of letters. The figures in Stewart's book were constantly writing long gossipy letters to each other, which could prove embarrassing if revealed publically or to the wrong person. Leibniz was writing to philosophers in England, Germany and France, and receiving replies, while at the same time, those philosophers were communicating with other philosophers throughout Europe. Often these letters became the books that later generations would read in order to discover the philosophies that make up the Western philosophical tradition. Letters were entrusted to friends and agents in order to be delivered. In the age before national posts, they were presumably given to ships or tradesmen headed in the desired direction. The fact that there was such an international community is amazing. Again, though, this is not Stewart's interest, but in the hands of a more reflective historian, it would have made for a great chapter. Stewart is at his best in discussing the philosophical systems of Spinoza and Leibniz. Leibniz was characterized by Voltaire as "Dr. Pangloss" and while Stewart describes Leibnizian philosophy as incoherent and confused, he does offer a description that shows there was more depth to Leibniz than caricatures suggest. Of course, Stewart finds Spinoza's philosophy to be off the chart brilliant, although it shares a certain incomprehensibility with Leibniz's. Stewart argues that Leibniz was a supporter of Spinoza prior to Spinoza's death, and may have been seeking to meet Spinoza so that some of Spinoza's glory might rub off on him, but after Spinoza's death, Leibniz trimmed his sails to become a public Spinoza opponent, while remaining a Spinoza disciple in his heart. Is this true? Obviously, I'm not a scholar of the subject, which is why I was reading this book. Unfortunately, Stewart's adulation for Spinoza had the effect of putting me off his lead. My usual motto is never read "a" book on a subject, read several. In this case, Stewart's adulation of Spinoza eroded my trust in his judgment such that I won't be citing his book uncritically without checking his judgment. I also found this book to be a slog. I've had the book for several years and have tried to read it previously. I got through it this time out of a grim determination to finish it. The writing is well-done, but somehow the endless tropes of "wonderful Spinoza" and "grifter Leibniz" became tiring. Likewise, Stewart's unwillingness to flesh out the cultural mileau in which Spinoza and Leibniz found themselves defeated my expectations. I would have given this book a 3.5 stars if I could, but the scholarship in this book and the book's gesture toward issues like the international community of letters, were sufficient value added to warrant four stars.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rick Patterson

    While the idea of reading a dual biography of 17th century philosophers may not immediately strike you as an entertaining investment of your time, this certainly repays the effort. Matthew Stewart is obviously thoroughly immersed in the philosophies he must deal with by way of introducing the characters of both Spinoza and Leibniz, and he does a masterful job of making the often abstruse ideas relatively clear to the attentive reader; however, he is much more interested in making his case regard While the idea of reading a dual biography of 17th century philosophers may not immediately strike you as an entertaining investment of your time, this certainly repays the effort. Matthew Stewart is obviously thoroughly immersed in the philosophies he must deal with by way of introducing the characters of both Spinoza and Leibniz, and he does a masterful job of making the often abstruse ideas relatively clear to the attentive reader; however, he is much more interested in making his case regarding Spinoza's paradigm-shifting influence on Leibniz and, along the way, making the elder philosopher a much more attractive personality than the younger. Clearly, Stewart just plain likes Spinoza, and he wants us to like him too. Baruch de Spinoza is justifiably considered the father of modern philosophical thought, a man whose rigorous analytical mind led him to conclusions that remain revolutionary to this day. Instead of lumbering through the Ethics and guiding us from observation to observation, Stewart cuts dramatically to the chase, as in this passage: "A final (and for his contemporaries, dreadful) consequence of Spinoza's theory of the mind is that there is no personal immortality. For, to the extent that mental acts always have a correlate in physical states, then when the physical states turn to dust, so, too, does the mind. In other words, inasmuch as the mind is the idea of the body, then when a particular body ceases to exist, so, too, does its mind" (172). So much for most of the world's religions, dismissed as so much groundless wish-fulfillment by a man who knew very well what effect this would have on the society in which he lived. Stewart goes on: "The ruthless quashing of personal immortality reveals again the extent to which Spinoza's metaphysics is linked to his radical politics. The theologians, says Spinoza, shamelessly use the prospect of eternal reward and damnation to cow the masses. If Spinoza is right, then philosophy since Plato is not just wrong, but an abomination, a fraud of global dimensions intended to excuse oppression in this world with the empty promise of justice in the afterlife" (172). This is earth-shaking stuff. No wonder the organized religions of his day sought so strenuously to quash any publication of Spinoza's ideas after his death. Stewart provides a very funny description of their desperate activity: "The Vatican committee resolved to spare no effort in suppressing the insurgency [the posthumous publication of Spinoza's Ethics]. They alerted the vicar of the Dutch Catholic Church, who assigned the case to a leading priest in Amsterdam, who in turn called on all the denominations to contribute fellow spiritual detectives to his squad. On the canals of Amsterdam at the time, it seems, a visitor might well have espied the proverbial boat with a rabbi, a Protestant minister, and a Catholic priest" (216). It is impossible to miss Stewart's delight in Spinoza's heresies, nor his obviously profound respect for the man's lasting influence. Gottfried Leibniz, on the other hand, fares considerably less well in Stewart's hands. The obvious genius Wunderkind who seems to have mastered many disciplines and has left innumerable volumes of his thoughts on just about every subject that can be imagined is, in the end, presented as a sycophantic glory-seeker who lives long enough to become an ignored has-been whose funeral is unattended and whose grave is unmarked. Stewart is careful to describe Leibniz's passing in suffocatingly close and nauseating detail, which is as good an illustration of Sic Transit Gloria Mundi as one could hope for. But Stewart saves his most harsh criticism for Leibniz's obvious rejection of Spinoza's philosophy, ideas which were much too revolutionary to be entertained by someone who was boot-lickingly enamored of the conservative status quo, particularly that embodied by a despot like Louis XIV. It is impossible to take seriously Leibniz's reactionary (in more ways than one) invention of monads as his response to the intolerable clarity of Spinoza. Stewart depicts a man whose most precious and sacred dreams have been revealed as vain illusions and who, rather than waking up to unavoidable reality, pulls his covers over his head and tries to sing himself back to sleep with nonsense lullabies. It is not very kind, to say the least. But it is definitely entertaining, perhaps against my own expectations.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Dual biography of Leibniz and Spinoza, seemingly a worthy introduction to continental rationalism and the coincidences and divergences between these antagonistic philosophers. Leibniz is an amazing figure, towering over western intellectuals - regarded as having the highest IQ ever, inventor of calculus, a true prodigy and polymath, interested in everything, a successful politician, diplomat and legal theorist, among a host of other pursuits including synthesizing existing western philosophy, cr Dual biography of Leibniz and Spinoza, seemingly a worthy introduction to continental rationalism and the coincidences and divergences between these antagonistic philosophers. Leibniz is an amazing figure, towering over western intellectuals - regarded as having the highest IQ ever, inventor of calculus, a true prodigy and polymath, interested in everything, a successful politician, diplomat and legal theorist, among a host of other pursuits including synthesizing existing western philosophy, creating his own system of philosophy (albeit a reactive one), and perhaps writing more than any person ever. Even today, his full literary corpus isn't completely edited, published, or even complied, and it's believed that by any metric (words per minute of life, ideas per person) he is simply the most prolific thinker and writer the world has ever seen; the kind of grand, transcendent, almost messianic, synthesizing genius that defines certain stages of a civilization, the kind you wish lived to be 110 and who were ensconced in safety to think and write from a young age, never having to suffer the ignominious depredations of a messy, quotidian life. His employer, the future King George of England, dismissed him as a walking dictionary. I'd say he was a reincarnation of Aristotle. Spinoza, (the 'Heretic', the excommunicated, hermit Jew of Amsterdam, author of philosophical texts so shocking that church authorities called them 'the evilest books written since the beginning of the world'),also created an all-encompassing philosophy which, and there is little debate about this, secretly influenced Leibniz (though he publicly lambasted Spinoza as a threat to western civilization) and so thoroughly changed Western Europe's scientific and enlightenment age that we now inhabit a world that is based upon his ideas about individuality, reason and science, to such an extent that is it hard to imagine a worldview which is preferable. The two met only once, in November 1676, at Spinoza's meek house, and argued for three days. Leibniz presented Spinoza with a sheet of paper which he claimed presented absolute proof of the existence of God. While there is no mention of this meeting by Spinoza, Leibniz claims that Spinoza pronounced the proof 'sound'. The rest of Leibniz's philosophical writing, for the remainder of his life, is now thought to be in response to Spinoza's thought, which obsessed Leibniz to distraction, seeing the phantasms of Spinoza in the thought of Newton, Locke, and in later developments of politics and science. A fine read which explains in clear prose the basics of each philosopher's system and philosophy, including judicious explanatory quotes from Bertrand Russell, and a fine bibliography.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Carl

    Stewart tells the history of philosophy with a light touch that won't scare away those who aren't academically trained, and he's excellent at bringing alive those long since dead with rich attention to personal details and to historical contexts. The focus of the book is a meeting between Spinoza ("the heretic") and Leibniz ("the courtier"). Officially, Leibniz hated Spinoza; but Stewart argues that the clue to Leibniz's philosophy is the encounter with, and reaction against, Spinoza. Accordingl Stewart tells the history of philosophy with a light touch that won't scare away those who aren't academically trained, and he's excellent at bringing alive those long since dead with rich attention to personal details and to historical contexts. The focus of the book is a meeting between Spinoza ("the heretic") and Leibniz ("the courtier"). Officially, Leibniz hated Spinoza; but Stewart argues that the clue to Leibniz's philosophy is the encounter with, and reaction against, Spinoza. Accordingly, one cannot understand Leibniz except in relation to Spinoza. More generally, Stewart reads Spinoza and Leibniz as offering two different responses to modernity and religion. Spinoza opens up the door of all those who see that there is no need for faith if there is reason, and that there is much in religion which is superstition that fuels the ignorance of the masses and the self-importance of the clergy. But genuine knowledge is no threat to genuine virtue, and indeed genuine knowledge is indispensable to a feeling of reverence and awe in relation to the universe. Leibniz, by contrast, insists on a need for faith and revelation even after reason has had its say. Yet Leibniz is no fideist, or even Thomist. Though Leibniz would accept that "God has his reasons which we know not," we know that through reason, not through faith. It is of fundamental importance for Leibniz, as for Spinoza, that God is rational, and that the fundamental order of the world is a rational order. For Leibniz, this is because the world's order is the result of a rational mind. It is because God is supremely rational, as well as supremely wise and good, that we live in a world in which physics works -- even though physics is not complete in itself and requires a metaphysical foundation. Spinoza is therefore the intellectual godfather of the critics of religion who think that science has made, or is making, religion obsolete (or at least, increasingly so), whereas Leibniz is the intellectual godfather of those who want to show why science and religion must be seen as compatible.

  24. 4 out of 5

    DoGG

    Spinoza's God is not a supernatural being that stands outside the world and creates it. Rather, his God exists in the world and  subsists together with what it creates. God is the fundamental aspect of everything. “All things, I say, are in God and move God.”    Everything is contingent on a chain of causality. To be free is to act in accordance with one’s own nature. To be blessed is to realize the union that the mind has with the whole of nature. We find happiness not through some unfathomable m Spinoza's God is not a supernatural being that stands outside the world and creates it. Rather, his God exists in the world and  subsists together with what it creates. God is the fundamental aspect of everything. “All things, I say, are in God and move God.”    Everything is contingent on a chain of causality. To be free is to act in accordance with one’s own nature. To be blessed is to realize the union that the mind has with the whole of nature. We find happiness not through some unfathomable mystery or trying to reach some other-world. Instead we find happiness through the slow and steady accumulation of many small truths; and the most important truth is that we need expect nothing more in order to find happiness in this world.  Spinoza radically rejected Descartes’ dualism, which was an attempt to conserve old truths in the face of new threats (by isolating the mind from the physical world the central doctrines of orthodoxy -- immortality of the soul, free will, humans are special-- could not be taken down by scientific investigation). Spinoza said humans are not special, rather a part of nature, the same way that stones and trees are. The mind is not distinct from the body. The mind is just an abstraction -- an idea, not a thing. The Mind and body operate in parallel because they are really the same thing seen from two angles, like two sides of the same coin. Leibniz aimed to reunite the Protestant and Catholic churches and to establish “the religious organization of the earth”. His God is an agent, decision maker who faces options and makes choices. The human being is special and actually the point and substance of the world. The mind and body are independent. “The two philosophers, after all, were nothing if not natural enemies. One was the ultimate insider, the other a double exile; one was an orthodox Lutheran from conservative Germany, the other an apostate Jew from licentious Holland. Above all, one was sworn to uphold the same theocratic order that the other sought to demolish.” But maybe they weren’t contraries rather different faces of the same philosophical coin.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jared Colley

    This book was a disappointment. Sometimes it's hard to tell with philosophical biographies. They look appealing, suggesting promise - but oftentimes fail due to cheap literary gimicks. Upon reflecting, I can think of two things wrong with this book: its reductive, preliminary thesis and its reliance on kitschy marketing ploys. The book investigates the lives of Spinoza & Leibniz and attempts to make sense of the thinkers' intellectual relationship. The author, however, spends way too much energy This book was a disappointment. Sometimes it's hard to tell with philosophical biographies. They look appealing, suggesting promise - but oftentimes fail due to cheap literary gimicks. Upon reflecting, I can think of two things wrong with this book: its reductive, preliminary thesis and its reliance on kitschy marketing ploys. The book investigates the lives of Spinoza & Leibniz and attempts to make sense of the thinkers' intellectual relationship. The author, however, spends way too much energy trying to convince us of some sort of secretive, inverse relationship between the thinkers and their opposing philosophies (Leibniz was supposedly secretly enamored whith Spinoza's atheistic philosophy, for instance). Yet, he fails to make any concrete connections between his various suggestive claims. There is no direct, thoughtful engagement with either thinker's texts - nor is there any satisfactory explanations of their philosophical systems. There is simply need-to-know information, related for the purpose of granting his speculative narrative some remote sense of plausibility. This book, in my opinion, is partly the result of a new bad trend emerging in the field of literary/philosophical biography. The first one I read - that fits this trend - was Wittgenstein's Poker, a book that focuses on a heated encounter between philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein & Karl Popper. Although, such books can be interesting (there is good one about Camus & Sartre, for instance), they often revert into a kind of sensationalist journalism, reveling in the biographical drama without seriously engaging the thoughtful disputes at hand. I will say, W's Poker succeeded in ways that this book fails. But as for this book, I cannot offer any recommendation.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Terry

    My favorite read of 2018. The story of two philosophers who grapple w/ the Enlightenment breakthroughs in the sciences and how to reconcile these 'truths' with the Bibical 'truths'. Stewart clearly finds Spinoza the superior philosopher and the more admirable person. The reader needs to trust that Stewart provides us with fair and complete picture of both philosophers. Since both were prolific (letter) writers, there was a lot of material to draw from including recently discovered materials. Stewa My favorite read of 2018. The story of two philosophers who grapple w/ the Enlightenment breakthroughs in the sciences and how to reconcile these 'truths' with the Bibical 'truths'. Stewart clearly finds Spinoza the superior philosopher and the more admirable person. The reader needs to trust that Stewart provides us with fair and complete picture of both philosophers. Since both were prolific (letter) writers, there was a lot of material to draw from including recently discovered materials. Stewart has a background and passion for philosophy so we learn in quite detail the philosophic challenges of the time (and also today) and how Spinoza, Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, Hume, and others addressed them. I found the philosophic discussions interesting and entertaining except at the end. Others may find it too much of 'how many angels can dance on the head of pin' stuff. Spinoza died young while Leibniz lived to 70 and way past his time of fame and glory - buried in an unmarked grave! Today we remember Leibniz for inventing calculus independent of Newton. Newton did it first but didn't publish until he was told Leibniz was writing his calculus paper. The notation used by mathematicians is the Leibniz one. Spinoza is admired because as a child of the Enlightenment he had the knowledge plus the courage and intelligence to announce that the Biblical Christian/Judaic version of eternal 'truths' was untenable. Leibniz, according to Stewart, deep down suspected S. was right but didn't have the courage or integrity to challenge the elites. L wanted to be a member of the elites and his vanity prevented him from seeking real truths.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mateo

    At last, a book for all of us who have been long awaiting a work about the fateful 1676 meeting between Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz. I enjoyed this book. I know nothing about philosophy, unless by "philosophy" you mean the Packer's West Coast short passing game, but I enjoyed this book nonetheless. I fall short in sharing the author's almost carnal reverence for Spinoza, whose philosophy strikes me as remarkably turgid and who, I can't help think, really should have just been an atheist At last, a book for all of us who have been long awaiting a work about the fateful 1676 meeting between Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz. I enjoyed this book. I know nothing about philosophy, unless by "philosophy" you mean the Packer's West Coast short passing game, but I enjoyed this book nonetheless. I fall short in sharing the author's almost carnal reverence for Spinoza, whose philosophy strikes me as remarkably turgid and who, I can't help think, really should have just been an atheist and have done with it--although I appreciate Spinoza's devotion to reason and materialism over received theology and its bracing effect on Western thought. And I rather think that Stewart has it in for poor Leibniz, who, while admittedly a prevaricating, egotistical flatterer whose notion of monads strikes me as something that you'd come up with if you were in a Loony Tunes cartoon and had just been struck with a mallet, DID invent the calculus, after all. Despite a tendency toward repetition (forgivable when dealing with such dense themes), as well as a bit of oversell on his themes--I can accept that Spinoza was influential, but Stewart lays it on a bit thick--Stewart does a good job of presenting the arcane themes of philosophy in their historical context. He's also leavens the book with some sly humor, which comes as something of a relief, given the amount of angels-dancing-on-pins that goes on in philosophy.

  28. 4 out of 5

    LeRon Harrison

    You could call this book A Tale of Two Philosophers. Stewart as narrator relates to us the lives of Spinoza and Leibniz, their meeting in 1676 and Leibniz'z subsequent wrestling with Spinoza's philosophy and its implication on faith, religion, and the world at large in the years after Spinoza's death. Stewart relates the events in their lives in a very enjoyable manner largely through his switching between the lives of the two and the contrast that results. Spinoza is the excommunicated Jew who, You could call this book A Tale of Two Philosophers. Stewart as narrator relates to us the lives of Spinoza and Leibniz, their meeting in 1676 and Leibniz'z subsequent wrestling with Spinoza's philosophy and its implication on faith, religion, and the world at large in the years after Spinoza's death. Stewart relates the events in their lives in a very enjoyable manner largely through his switching between the lives of the two and the contrast that results. Spinoza is the excommunicated Jew who, while fleeing persecution, remains a simple yet profound thinker; Leibniz, on the other hand, is the idealist who envisions himself as being able to bring good to the world and himself through his philosophy and pursues that course in the world at large. Spinoza lives in a small world but draws people great and small towards him through his philosophy; Leibniz seeks influence and renown in the major centers of European culture. The contrast and Stewart's prose make a very interesting and funny tale, particularly in Chapter 16, where Leibniz sees Spinoza's philosophy in Locke and Newton and launches into railings against them, particularly in the case of Newton, that grow progressively more seething in nature. It doesn't deliver much as far as the titular "Fate of God in the Modern World," in my opinion, but what it does deliver is a tale of two philosophers and their respective philosophies that was entertaining as it was enlightening.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Luc De Coster

    I bought this book because it was recommended in Alessandro Baricco's book reviews (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...). I cannot write a better review than Mr. Baricco, so if you want to know what makes this book attractive, read those three pages in that book. In November 1676 Leibniz and Spinoza met: this is the pivotal event in this book. What was the meeting like? What did they say to each other? Why are these two men with their theories about the existence of God so important for West I bought this book because it was recommended in Alessandro Baricco's book reviews (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...). I cannot write a better review than Mr. Baricco, so if you want to know what makes this book attractive, read those three pages in that book. In November 1676 Leibniz and Spinoza met: this is the pivotal event in this book. What was the meeting like? What did they say to each other? Why are these two men with their theories about the existence of God so important for Western thought? It is commonly accepted that modern times begin with Spinoza whose dismissal of a transcendent, interventionist, purposeful, judging, punishing and rewarding God threw open the doors for new political and ethical theories and independent scientific research. Leibniz understood this early on and tried to save what was left of the old order. Leibniz, who survived Spinoza many years, struggled for the rest of his live with the latter's philosophical heritage. Maybe this book is best described as a philosopher's epic. A struggle of giants out on the frontier of uncharted thought territory in times when speaking up your mind could still be very dangerous. A mixture of philosophy, biography, history and some speculation on both men's motives and sentiments. A delicious mix with with some useful insights for those who believe that theocracies could be an alternative for democracy.

  30. 4 out of 5

    David

    This book is the most engaging history-of-thought book I've ever seen and is fascinating on many levels. Reading it, I remembered how in Western Civ I looked at both of their metaphysical systems and all I could think of was "Why would anyone want to spend their time dreaming up stuff like that?" Stewart provides provocative answers. Despite dealing with abstractions like Leibniz' "monads," and Spinoza's "Substance" and immanent deity, he has managed to create a page-turner out of the story, as This book is the most engaging history-of-thought book I've ever seen and is fascinating on many levels. Reading it, I remembered how in Western Civ I looked at both of their metaphysical systems and all I could think of was "Why would anyone want to spend their time dreaming up stuff like that?" Stewart provides provocative answers. Despite dealing with abstractions like Leibniz' "monads," and Spinoza's "Substance" and immanent deity, he has managed to create a page-turner out of the story, as one NYT reviewer remarks. One reason I picked this one up was that Leibniz plays a large supporting role in Neil Stephenson's quasi-historical fiction, the Baroque Cycle. Stephenson focuses a lot on Leibniz famous duel with Newton over the invention of the calculus. Stewart shows that the real action was in Liebniz' lifelong duel with Spinoza. Spinoza clearly meant his metaphysics to bring down the ruling theocracy of the time, to pave the way for something like modern liberal democracy. Leibniz bent over backwards creating a baroque metaphysical model to defend the kind of God required by the theocracy. Some of the more intriguing questions are why Leibniz went on such a quest and did he believe his own arguments.

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