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

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

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by Matthew Stewart

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“A colorful reinterpretation. . . . Stewart’s wit and profluent prose make this book a fascinating read.”—Publishers Weekly, starred reviewSee more details below


“A colorful reinterpretation. . . . Stewart’s wit and profluent prose make this book a fascinating read.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

Editorial Reviews

Liesl Schillinger
With The Courtier and the Heretic, Stewart has achieved a near impossibility, creating a page-turner about jousting metaphysical ideas that casts the hallowed, hoary thinkers as warriors in a heated ideological battle. He reveals early on that he believes the battle was one-sided, and that both men fought for the same cause. Even so, the conflict, as he paints it, is no less compelling for ending in a draw. This is a harder trick to pull off than it may sound because Stewart's rivals are both relatively unknown to modern nonspecialists. In other words, he has to acquaint his readers with both his main characters before he can unspool his take on their story.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
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. (Jan. 2006) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Independent scholar Stewart (The Truth About Everything) presents a page-turning read that examines all its titular concerns through the dynamics of biography, political history, and social relations. Spinoza-of Portuguese extraction-lived and died in the liberal urban Netherlands of the 17th century; Leibniz, half a generation younger, was a social climber in the courts of German principalities. Both were precocious as children, and both were orphaned on the verge of young adulthood. Spinoza's intellectual self-assurance as much as his contentious-and contentiously reported and misreported-ideas about the role of God in nature attracted Leibniz's attention and led to a meeting and an exchange of letters. Leibniz lived many years past Spinoza's death, arguing against the latter's resolution of such apparent conflicts as dualism but also disavowing his intellectual debt to the older man's clarifying conceptualizations of nature. Within the next century, Kant deified both men as rationalists in the modernist pantheon of philosophers. Stewart goes far to rescue both men from a kind of dusty academic shelf, bringing them to life as enlightened humans displaying the kinds of intellectual and personality differences in which postmodern Westerners delight. For public and academic collections.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley P.L., CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An exploration of how a pair of great philosophers, "one . . . the ultimate insider, the other a double exile," impacted both their own time period and ours. The author begins with and pivots upon the meeting of Baruch de Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, two of the most notable wunderkinder of 17th-century Europe, at Spinoza's home at The Hague in 1676. From that point of departure, Stewart discusses each man in alternating chapters, beginning with their childhoods and moving forward through their troubles and accomplishments, leading up finally to their brief association with one another. Having covered Spinoza's death, Stewart charts the further development of Leibniz's thinking, with an emphasis on Spinoza's influence. Stewart's thesis is two-fold. First, he wants to demonstrate the importance Spinoza had upon the thought and philosophy of his younger counterpart, Leibniz. Second, he attempts to ground much of philosophical and, indeed, world history since the Enlightenment in these two personages. Spinoza's ideas, though popularly reviled in his day, were the basis of classical liberalism and much of our modern scientific outlook. Leibniz, in contrast, formed the basis for the conservative religious community's response to modernism. The concept of God, and how that concept shaped, and was shaped by, each man's philosophical arguments, is a central theme here. Stewart makes accessible the many philosophical ideas presented, and he brings the men to life with descriptions of everything from their eating habits to their priorities in daily life. A highly readable examination of two influential, but often overlooked, thinkers of the early Enlightenment.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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