Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Courting the Heretic (Part 1 of more than 1)

Since I've been in graduate school, I've developed the habit of reading a "pleasure book" upon the completion of a semester. The time-sensitive pressures of teaching and coursework don't allow me to read much that isn't directly related to either of those tasks. And since I'm usually burned out on philosophy by the time December or May roll around, reading something different is kind of a reward to myself for making it through. Usually the book ends up being something historical; occasionally it's a novel.

This spring, even though the reading was historical, I didn't manage to get very far from home since the history was a history centered around philosophy. The book was The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart and it is an account of the lives, and eventual meeting, of two of the greatest philosophers of the modern period: Spinoza and Leibniz. It isn't an easy read for those without some philosophical background but it is beautifully written and tells quite a riveting story. (Of course, maybe it is just a sign of how much of a geek I am that I find it so riveting.)


Leibniz might be known to some of you as either the inventor of the calculus (he developed it independent of, but at roughly the same time as, Newton) or, for those of you in religious circles, the author of Theodicy (a work which was lambasted by Voltaire for its argument that despite all appearances to the contrary, we live in the best of all possible worlds). My guess is that none of you know much about Spinoza (shown at the left) even though he is one of the fathers of modern biblical criticism and one of the earliest theorists of the secular liberal state. If it did nothing else, I think The Courtier would be valuable for the way in which it tries to give Spinoza his rightful historical due.

What I found myself surprised by as the narrative unfolded was the way in which I grew to like Spinoza and basically dislike Leibniz even though I philosophically and theologically agree much more with Leibniz. I had expected precisely the opposite. As Stewart paints him, Leibniz was rather insecure and spent much of his life attempting to obtain money from various governmental officials so that he could devote himself to his work and live in considerable luxury.

Spinoza, on the other hand, supported himself as a lens grinder--a job which probably exacerbated the lung condition from which he died--and did his philosophical work at night. And despite being formally excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam for his beliefs (a relatively difficult thing to do) he was unwilling to revise his views in order to save face. By contrast, even though he fancied himself a great defender of the faith, Leibniz never seems to have gone to church or been at all personally pious.

The contrast has occasioned more than a little reflection: about the relationship between our personal character and our intellectual endeavors; about why I feel attracted to people of certain temperaments; and how all of that might fit together. In the next few posts, I'll be tracing out some of these themes.

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