It is not often that one is intrigued by a three hundred year old philosophical controversy, but The Courtier and the Heretic: Liebniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World manages to achieve this goal in impressive fashion. Oxford graduate Mathew Stewart creates a compelling, rich storyline as well as a thorough description and analysis of Liebniz and Spinoza’s philosophical works. The story is truly the highlight of the book, as Stewart tells the sometimes tragic but always fascinating tale of one Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz, the German philosopher most prominently known for his metaphysical system, the “monadology.” I have always found this system to be slightly absurd, but Stewart places it in a proper historical and social context such that we realize at once that Liebniz was attempting to respond to both the precursors of modernity and the recent scientific developments of his era which threatened the survival of most medieval institutions.
Liebniz found his nemesis and his motivation in the works of Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza lived a modest life, but was truly an intellectual giant, and his work flew in the face of thousands of years of philosophical inquiry and assumed knowledge. More importantly, it threatened the long-term viability of the organized church, a group whose patronage Liebniz was constantly seeking. Liebniz was at once repulsed and obsessed with Spinoza, publicly disparaging him while privately studying his every word. Even after Spinoza’s death, Liebnizian philosophy can only be fully understood when placed in the context of what it truly was, namely a continued effort to refute Spinoza coupled with an unquenchable desire to agree with the “atheist Jew.” Even as we look back upon this relationship that changed the course of philosophical discourse forever, we cannot be sure who the true Liebniz was.
This book is an excellent choice for both beginners and serious students of philosophy. Stewart manages to keep the story moving without losing the reader’s interest, but he is still able to provide a thorough description of Liebnizian and Spinozan concepts. Past exposure to these writers is helpful but by no means necessary. This book helps the reader to understand and appreciate not only what these great thinkers were trying to say, but why they felt the need to say it as they did. It answers that inexorable question of “why” that all students of philosophy must ask.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.