Leibniz and Spinoza

A couple of weeks ago, Doug and I were enjoying a supper of a wonderful roast lamb shoulder with baked Yukon Gold potatoes from the garden and asperagus frozen last spring from Ter-Lea Gardens. Doug was telling me about his recent reading (a Talking Book from the Minnesota Institute for the Blind Library) about Leibniz and Spinoza, 17th century philosophers. It occurred to me that the lamb came from the farm of Diane Rixen, a Nebish poet. Somehow a meal that featured poet-raised lamb fit with the tenor of Doug’s description of the rarified lives of the philosophers. I asked him to tell me more about them, and he came up with a longer treatise than I’d expected.

But I said some blog-reader might be interested.

D. B. Miron, 20 February 2011

I recently finished a talking-book version of “The Courtier and The Heretic” about Leibniz and Spinoza, two philosophers of the 17th century. Molly and I were talking about it at supper, and she asked me to write something about it, so here goes.
Baruch (Bento) Spinoza was part of a Jewish family that fled Portugal to Holland during the Inquisition. He was a brilliant student, speaking and literate in several languages, who had developed a sufficiently critical analysis of religion that his synagogue expelled him at about age 20. He is the heretic. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was also a brilliant student, master of many languages, and gave his doctoral dissertation in fluent Latin without reading it. He was the son of a Lutheran professor of Moral Philosophy, and basically believed that whether or not the claims of religion were true, they were necessary for the good of society. Much more is known about him than about Spinoza because Leibniz wrote a tremendous amount, 150,000 sheets of paper are in his archive. He was a supreme multitasker, and, like most modern multitaskers, most of his projects failed. He is the courtier because he was always looking for a rich patron to support him. He eventually became privy counselor to the Dukes of Hanover, the last one he served became George I of Great Britain.
The central problem of philosophy of that age was the mind-matter problem. Spinoza took the position that mind is an attribute of substance. He also said that all substance is God. God is to be loved by us, but does not love us back. Our love is shown by right living.
Spinoza wasn’t only anathema to his former congregation, the Church authorities in Holland, an otherwise tolerant nation, were after him too. Consequently, he moved around and published his works clandestinely. When Leibniz started reading Spinoza’s work, he was horrified because he couldn’t stand their implications, and yet the reasoning was very tight. They had a secret meeting at Spinoza’s apartment in The Hague, in 1676. It’s a great mystery because neither of them wrote anything about it at the time. After that, he constructed a metaphysics by analogy with points and a line. A line, in concept, is made up of infinitely many infinitesimal points. Even so, matter is made up of infinitely many infinitesimal things called monads. Each monad contains within itself an imperfect image of the Universe, past, present, and future. Is God inside these monads or outside? Free will is an illusion because our monads’ image is imperfect, so we think we have choices. Like his calculating machine and his mine water pump, there are a lot of problems he doesn’t get sorted out in this system.
Leibniz discovered calculus 10 years after Newton, but he published before Newton, and our notation today is based on Leibniz’ version. He was a great contributor in mathematics and German law. However, he alienated his employers so much by non-performance that he died in 1716 at age 70 with almost no salary.
Bento’s family had been in trading by ship when he was young, but they had several disasters, including some caused by the British Royal Navy, so he left the business. He made his living grinding lenses for microscopes and telescopes. He died in 1680 at age 44, from a congenital lung problem aggravated by glass dust. His metaphysics can be seen today in aspects of modern religious thought, and our current understanding of neurophysiology.

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About mollymiron

Molly Miron is a retired newspaper editor and acreage manager.
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One Response to Leibniz and Spinoza

  1. Patt Rall says:

    Fascinating story, Doug, thank you very much for adding to our knowledge and understanding of a complicated subject. Thank you Molly for thinking of letting us in on your private over dinner conversation.

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