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

Matthew Stewart, Boston College

Date: January 24, 2006

Event Recap

For our first event in 2006, independent scholar Matthew Stewart discussed his new book, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. Stewart’s book recovers how dangerous the business of philosophy could be in the seventeenth century—especially when the issue was the nature of God. Stewart traces these debates about God through the lives and thought of Baruch de Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Spinoza, known as the “atheist Jew” for his critique of the God of traditional piety, suffered excommunication from the Jewish faith and ostracism from Dutch society. Leibniz, Stewart’s other protagonist, was a prominent defender of orthodox Christian views of God, and yet he was privately obsessed with Spinoza’s work. He risked his social position and reputation by writing clandestine letters to Spinoza and by visiting his counterpart in secret.

The differences in Spinoza’s and Leibniz’s views regarding God, according to Stewart, reshape the way we understand the history of ideas. Among other things, the intellectual exchange of Leibniz and Spinoza challenges two common perceptions of the Enlightenment: first, that the Enlightenment rejected the notion of a divine or transcendent power at work in the universe. And second, that the movement we call the “Enlightenment” has been overplayed as a historical phenomenon. Stewart argues instead that the Enlightenment did happen but that it was not necessarily hostile to belief in “God.” As Stewart shows, Spinoza “crossed a line,” re-imagining God outside of orthodox Christian doctrine. Yet, Spinoza hardly lost belief in the supernatural. Stewart’s narrative also turns attention away from the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment that too often dominates the story of the development of the modern world. Spinoza wrote in the context of the Dutch Enlightenment, while Leibniz was a figure of the German Enlightenment. Stewart, then, affirms the existence of the Enlightenment as a movement but broadens its scope both in terms of geography and intellectual content.

Stewart stressed that he hoped the book might further illuminate why debates about God from the seventeenth century matter today. For Stewart, Spinoza’s unorthodox definition of God has much to teach contemporary America. Spinoza resisted precise characterizations of the Divine because of the many faces of religion in the seventeenth century. He doubted not the existence of God but the certainty with which the Christian Church perceived God. Meanwhile, Leibniz sensed the power and coherence of Spinoza’s ideas, but ultimately could not publicly acknowledge such a view of God. He held fast to the ordered God of seventeenth century Christianity.

For Stewart, much of modern thought about God “simply wanders in the space between” the positions of Spinoza and Leibniz. Leibniz’s views, however, have bested Spinoza’s ideas as humankind has pursued the security of a doctrinal God that provides certainty despite continued scientific discovery and philosophical inquiry that challenge traditional views of God. The turn toward Leibniz and away from Spinoza over the past three centuries is curious, particularly in America. Spinoza’s God, Stewart argues, is most compatible with modern life. In societies that value religious toleration and freedom of conscience, his is the “religion that works.”