"Exhilarating…Stewart has achieved a near impossibility, creating a page-turner about jousting metaphysical ideas, casting thinkers as warriors." —Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review
Once upon a time, philosophy was a dangerous business—and for no one more so than for Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century philosopher vilified by theologians and political authorities everywhere as “the atheist Jew.” As his inflammatory manuscripts circulated underground, Spinoza lived a humble existence in The Hague, grinding optical lenses to make ends meet. Meanwhile, in the glittering salons of Paris, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was climbing the ladder of courtly success. In between trips to the opera and groundbreaking work in mathematics, philosophy, and jurisprudence, he took every opportunity to denounce Spinoza, relishing his self-appointed role as “God’s attorney.”
In this exquisitely written philosophical romance of attraction and repulsion, greed and virtue, religion and heresy, Matthew Stewart gives narrative form to an epic contest of ideas that shook the seventeenth century—and continues today.
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.