The Courtier and the Heretic

Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) rationalized the universe with an immanent God who was identical with the creation. For Spinoza, whatever is, is God. But such a dismissal of a transcendental God was to most a brazen atheism, and the worldly ambitious Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was careful to distance himself from Spinoza's heresy. Both philosophers faced “the potentially destructive conflict between God and Nature, or between belief in divinity and the ever expanding power circle of scientific knowledge,” and they met the challenge in opposed ways.

The rationality of Spinoza's world enabled the discovery of its workings by the empirical methods of science but left no explanation for the transcendental mysteries many people intuited. Leibniz reacted to Spinoza's pantheism by formulating a murky picture of a world constituted of “monads,” indivisible entities acting independently of each other with God as the Supreme Monad.

Both philosophical positions entailed a political vision—a secular liberalism in Spinoza's case and the restatement of a traditional hierarchical arrangement governed by the Supreme Monad in Leibniz's reaction. Leibniz's descendants today label their enemies as “mechanism, instrumental reason, the Enlightenment, western metaphysics, phallogocentrism, and so on.” Author Matthew Stewart cites Martin Heidegger as one of Leibniz's modern disciples in his prattle about Being, and he might well have included Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno's rank screed Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972).

Stewart has richly written The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World and done so in the best witty and unpretentious prose.