From the July/August, 2006 issue of Touchstone

Prime Removal by Graeme Hunter

Prime Removal

The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World
by Matthew Stewart
Norton, 2006
(351 pages, $25.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Graeme Hunter

The waning of the Middle Ages left behind a spiritual vacuum that has never been filled. For every self-assured modern who derides the pseudo-comforts, pretended legitimacy, and fallacious certainty of the past, there has always been a reluctant modern who wished them back again, or wished at least for something comparable to take their place. Perhaps the private scholar and author Matthew Stewart is right to say that each of us, as heirs of the modern period, can detect elements of the booster and the critic in his own divided heart.

Stewart had a superb idea for his latest book, The Courtier and the Heretic. He set out to follow the interconnected lives and writings of two of the great philosophers of the seventeenth century, Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), detailing how they grew up, how they grew toward one another, how they eventually met, and then how they grew rapidly apart, ultimately defining the polar extremes of which modern thought is capable.

In their irreconcilable philosophies Stewart hoped to articulate “a choice [about the modern age] which we all must make and have implicitly already made.” Essentially, Stewart argues, the choice before us is either to spread our soul’s sail to the modern wind, leaving our baggage behind, or to deliberate with care and take as much of our baggage with us as we possibly can.

We can either be radical, in other words, or we can be conservative. To be liberal is simply not to have made up our minds; to be reactionary is not among the intelligent options at all.

The First Modern

Stewart is a fine storyteller. The chapters unfold in counterpoint, recounting first each philosopher’s vastly different childhood, adolescence, and early career.

Spinoza was born into the Jewish community of Amsterdam, a descendant of Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal in the late sixteenth century. He was recognized as prodigiously intelligent within his community, though his formal education was cut short by his entering into his father’s import-export business. He did not last long in business, either, however.

Spinoza developed radical political and theological views that alienated him from his co-religionists and ultimately led to his excommunication from the synagogue. On Stewart’s telling, Spinoza then went into a period of intense self-examination, a kind of “dark night of the soul,” from which he emerged as the most articulate spokesman of and for modernity.

“Spinoza did not invent the modern world, but he was perhaps the first to observe it well” and also the first to try “to answer the ancient questions of philosophy from a distinctly modern perspective,” Stewart tells us. His philosophical system

offers a concept of God befitting the universe 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 government suitable for an inherently fragmented and diverse society.

Spinoza, he concludes, “is the first and archetypal instance of the active response to modernity—an affirmation of the modern world that today we associate mainly with secular liberalism.”

The Last Polymath

If the German philosopher Leibniz’s life showed less inward storm and stress than Spinoza’s, it was outwardly more brilliant, resembling Spinoza’s only in the massive intelligence he exhibited from his earliest years. He followed brilliantly successful student years with an equally dazzling diplomatic career in Mainz and Paris, spending his last four decades as a courtier and librarian in the Duchy of Hannover.

He was the confidant of kings, czars, and emperors, the correspondent of every leading intellectual of his age, and a distinguished contributor to nearly every field that was a field in the seventeenth century. In a word, he was Europe’s last great polymath.

But for all his achievements he does not meet with Stewart’s full approval. His first reference to Leibniz’s laurelled life follows the description of Spinoza quoted above and emphasizes what he “claims” to have done, rather than what he in fact accomplished:

[Leibniz] 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.

The Two Judged

In the course of his book, Stewart compares the two philosophers’ attitudes to society, fashion, sex, learning, politics, fame, and several central philosophical questions. But he rightly sees that their philosophies are ultimately to be judged, as all thought must be, by their response to God.

Unfortunately, as the subtitle, “The Fate of God in the Modern World,” implies, Stewart’s own answer is a foregone conclusion: God has a “fate” and his fate is determined by something as transient as “the modern world.” God is no more than a concept, one that we must learn to do without as we move to embrace modernity without reserve.

The attraction of this book is its ambition to lay before the reader two great philosophical responses to the modern age. But it does not live up to its promise. For one thing, Stewart is at times so preoccupied with telling his tale well that he neglects to tell it accurately. His Spinoza owes too much to an Enlightenment fabrication—“Spinoza, the virtuous atheist”—a figure who bears little relation to the excommunicated Jewish philosopher, who was certainly not an atheist and likely not singularly virtuous.

But factual distortions are not the biggest disappointment. In words quoted above, the reader is at first promised a reflection on “a choice which we all must make,” only to have the choice preempted by Stewart’s claim that the choice is already “implicitly made.” The story of his book is told in that addendum.

According to Stewart, “we” have already chosen modernity “implicitly.” I take him to mean that the die is cast in favor of modernity, whether we have consciously accepted it or not. And he implies that if we had more sense, we would all make our choice explicit and get on with living the godless modern life whose possibilities he thinks Spinoza anticipated. The more hesitant and useful book, the one that evenhandedly presents both the Spinozistic enticements and the Leibnizian reservations about going modern has yet to be written.

Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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