Monday, January 04, 2016

Leibniz and Spinoza

The 17th century was an age of glitter and strife; of spiritual awakenings followed by religious wars, civil wars, revolutions, invasions, and acts of ethnic cleansing; of explosive growth in international trade, the formation of global empires, rapid urbanization in the major capitals, inevitably accompanied by epic plagues and fires; and, at least in the eyes of a select few, of a new kind of science rising with all the promise of a slumbering god. Historians have since called it "the century of genius"; but informed opinion at the time generally held that it was an age of exceptional wickedness. If there is a single thread that runs through the rich and confusing tapestry of seventeenth-century life, it is that this was an age of transition—the time in which the theocratic order of the medieval era ceded to the secular order of modernity. Spinoza did not invent the modern world, but he was perhaps the first to observe it well. He was the first to attempt to answer the ancient questions of philosophy from a distinctly modern perspective. In his philosophical system, he offers a concept of God befitting the uni-verse revealed by modern science—a universe ruled only by the cause and effect of natural laws, without purpose or design. He describes what it means to be human after our pretension to occupy a special place in nature has been shattered. He prescribes a means to find happiness and virtue in an era when the old theologies have no credibility. And he advocates a liberal, democratic system of govern-ment suitable for an inherently fragmented and diverse society. His is the first and archetypal instance of the active response to moder-nity—an affirmation of the modern world that today we associate mainly with secular liberalism. Leibniz was no less farsighted than his rival, and no less grand in his ambitions. He, too, put his faith in the guidance of reason, and it was this faith that impelled him on his journey to The Hague. But the two men who met in that windy November belonged to their age in very different ways. In circumstances of birth, in social posi-tion, in personal aspirations, in eating habits, fashion sense, and the infinity of small things that make up what we call character, the glamorous polymath of Hanover and the saintly revolutionary of The Hague were nearly perfect contraries. And there are no two finer examples of the dictum that character is philosophy. In large part as a direct result of his meeting with Spinoza, Leibniz came to represent his own original and antithetical response to the challenges of the modern era. In his philosophical writings, he articulates a strategy for recovering something of the old ideas about God and man by means of an analysis of the limits of reason. He claims to discover the meaning and purpose of life in all that modernity fails to comprehend. He presents a vision of a modern society united to serve goals of justice and charity that transcend self-interest. His metaphysical system is the paradigm for the reactive response to modernity—or what today we associate mainly with religious conservatism. In the most widely accepted versions of the history of philosophy, Spinoza and Leibniz are understood to represent a speculative meta-physical program that long ago succumbed to academic progress. In
fact, taking a broader view of events, it is clear that the two greatest philosophers of the seventeenth century remain unsurpassed, and should perhaps be considered the twin founders of modern thought. We live in an age defined by its reaction to Spinoza and to all that he recorded in his philosophy. And there is no more compelling expres-sion of this reaction than the philosophy Leibniz developed in the long years after his return from Holland. Contemporary debates con-cerning the separation of church and state, the clash of civilizations, and the theory of natural selection, to name just a few examples, are all continuations of the discussion that began in November 1676. Even today, the two men who met in The Hague stand for a choice that we all must make and have implicitly already made.
-from The Courtier and the Heretic

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