Read The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza & the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart Online


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 ultiFrom 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....

Title : The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza & the Fate of God in the Modern World
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780393329179
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 352 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

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

  • Jonfaith
    2019-03-30 00:41

    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.

  • Louise
    2019-03-22 02:18

    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.

  • Andrew Spear
    2019-03-31 02:38

    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.

  • Andrew
    2019-04-11 01:40

    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.

  • Erik Graff
    2019-04-05 22:28

    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.

  • Lauren Albert
    2019-04-06 20:44

    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.

  • Nat
    2019-03-25 01:28

    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.

  • David M
    2019-04-07 00:43

    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?

  • Aria
    2019-04-07 18:20

    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.

  • Jess
    2019-04-10 02:24

    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.

  • Meghan Davis strader
    2019-03-29 23:43

    Steward writes in an incredibly accessible way. I’m even strongly considering having my 12-year old give it a go. One of my favorite quotes from this book was (and I am paraphrasing) “Humanity agrees on philosophy, it’s only grammar that we need to iron out.” I also found it an even more interesting read having read Voltaire’s Candide first. I wasn’t sure which philosopher it was in response to and now I know (Leibniz). I think I found it a little extra interesting because of that background. Highly recommend!

  • Karl Hallbjörnsson
    2019-04-11 20:44

    Interesting read.

  • Peter Bradley
    2019-03-21 00:15

    If you like this review, please give me a helpful vote on Amazon - 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.

  • Chris
    2019-04-12 02:43

    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.

  • Maria
    2019-04-09 23:20

    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.

  • Andrew Galvin
    2019-04-15 20:43

    Great book.

  • B. Rule
    2019-04-03 01:25

    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.

  • Carl
    2019-03-27 00:37

    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.

  • Jared Colley
    2019-03-22 22:39

    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.

  • Luc
    2019-03-23 23:38

    I bought this book because it was recommended in Alessandro Baricco's book reviews ( 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.

  • Mateo
    2019-03-28 21:20

    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.

  • LeRon Harrison
    2019-03-28 20:45

    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.

  • David
    2019-04-14 23:38

    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 rulingtheocracy 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.

    2019-03-27 18:22


  • James
    2019-03-21 00:42

    Matthew Stewart has created an entertaining history of ideas with The Courtier and the Heretic. In it the author elegantly depicts the contrast between Baruch de Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in both their lifestyles and their philosophies. He does so in an entertaining way and, while presenting a certain amount of speculation about the interaction between them, provides a lucid presentation of the portion of their lives and philosophies relevant to his project.Some of the details were particularly fascinating to me, such as the connection between Leibniz and a young George Frideric Handel who was Kapellmeister for George, the Elector of Hanover, when Liebniz was present at the same court. This brought into focus the Baroque culture that surrounded Leibniz. The philosophical comparisons were also compelling as Stewart discusses major issues including the two philosophers' views of immortality, happiness, mind, necessity, substance, and god. I'm not sure I was convinced by all his speculation, but the book was a good introduction to controversies surrounding the development of modern philosophy in the wake of Descartes and it was a great read as well.

  • Podiceps
    2019-04-15 18:38

    I loved this book, I was introduced to two pleasantly quirky characters, invited into their minds, lifes and times and it was delightful being in their company. I nibbled delicious Leibniz Cakes (named after the philosopher and from the city, in which he spent most of his time (although he didn't like Hannover too much), ate gruel a la Spinoza (gruel with raisins and butter) while being taught about the intricacies of 17th century philosophy and I simply enjoyed myself and had a great time, not least du to the humor of the author. At times reading felt like walking through the aisles of a strange museum, displaying the thoughts, ideas and concepts these two illustrious men had contrived. "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God" is a brilliant book and the two eponymous philosophers it deals with are kissed to life by a gifted writer who knows how to tell an interesting, gripping story. Stewart's work is at the same time entertaining, funny, intellectually stimulating and emotionally captivating. It was a higly pleasurable experience for me to read this wonderful book.

  • Anton
    2019-04-12 19:33

    As we reflect on the lives of great composers, scientists, mathematicians, authors, etc, we more often than not use their names to make reference to certain big ideas and contributions with which they are associated. What is almost more fascinating is how those ideas were inspired at the intersection of their personal gifts, life experiences and conversations with allies and detractors ( who were sometimes one in the same person). Stewart captures extraordinary 17th century intellectual worlds in collision in the public discourse with a less well-known, quiet and private admiration and influence between two men of great ideas: Leibniz, the "courtier", & Spinoza ( the "heretic"). I left the reading of this book thinking about how the tensions that existed then between these two giants of thought are still raging today as people struggle to reconcile the relationship of science, and its revelations about the world, with the expressions and experiences of revelatory religion. If you are a lover of history, and the history of ideas in particular, you will not be disappointed.

  • Paul Bond
    2019-04-01 20:39

    No man can serve two masters, Jesus warned. As usual, he was right. And, as usual, this insight of his has been generally ignored. The Courtier and The Heretic tells the story of two men struggling to serve the two commanding spirits of their age, Reason and Religious Dogma. The men, Liebniz and Spinoza respectively, twisted themselves and their metaphysics into knots. Liebniz's windowless monads acting in uncoordinated but pre-existing harmony is a pretty silly concept, but that's what you get when you have to reconcile the catechism and calculus, your optimism of a knowable creation with the supremacy of an ineffable Creator. Likewise, the "God" of Spinoza, who is totally alien and unapproachable, isn't much of a God in any Judeo-Christian sense, but any closer to naturalism and Spinoza may as well have bought the matches for his own auto-da-fe. It's an interesting story, how these two very different men approached the same dilemma in very different ways, but dragged out to book length here.

  • Thomas
    2019-04-14 00:41

    The writing is very clear and direct, and paints a vivid portrayal of the Hague of the 17th century, along with portraits of Spinoza and Leobniz. Although somewhat brief and narrow, or perhaps too focused, I found the information regarding Spinoza especially thin. The author takes pains to set the stage for the great meeting of the minds when Leibniz travelled to the Hague to meet Spinoza in 1676, and then spends the bulk of the remainder of the book telling us how world-changing, and perhaps devastating it was for Leibniz who went on spending the rest of his days trying to refute Spinoza. This I found increasingly tedious, and it only served to make me wish the author had given equal time to explaining Spinoza's philosophy in more depth. If something good comes from the reading of this book, I hope it is that readers will pursue their own inquiries into Spinoza's ideas, and forget about Leibniz, whose philosophy seems to be an almost complete waste of time.

  • Paula
    2019-03-31 20:15

    Competent.That's really the best thing that can be said about "Courtier." It covers the major players, summarizes the relevant historical events, and more than adequately compares and contrasts two of the greatest philosophers of the seventeenth century: Leibniz and Spinoza. In fact, what this book really feels like is a term paper. A well-documented, sincere, thorough and boring thesis drawn out into 300 pages. Stewart goes back and forth between the two philosophers, talks about their meeting, and then goes back to going back and forth. At about the seventh "Meanwhile, back at the ranch" I wanted to scream, "get on with it!" I did, however, learn two things from this book, so it wasn't a total loss:1. The philosophies of Leibniz and Spinoza, and2. Leibniz was the basis of Dr. Pangloss in Candide, one of my favorite satires ever. Neat!