Courtier 0, Heretic 1

Dear Baruch,

I have just finished The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart, a book I first heard about in that dialogue with Rebecca Goldstein you flagged a few weeks ago.

The book is very good, and I recommend it. There are, of course, quibbles: He translates the anecdote about the placard onto which Spinoza is said to have written “ultimi barbarorum” as meaning “the last of the barbarians”. This is completely nonsensical — these weren’t Mohicans Spinoza was dealing with, nor were the de Witts the barbarians in question.

He is also openly speculative at many points throughout the book, in part because primary sources are so scarce, but also because all the ingredients for good historical fiction are in place — and it sure is tempting to reïmagine the dialogue between Leibniz and Spinoza — even Goldstein has a go in the interview. I’m surprised there isn’t a Hollywood treatment of this.

Leibniz comes out of this rather badly, of course. What a vain intellectual dilettante! And above all, a compulsive liar, in stark contrast with Spinoza, whose entire life seems to have revolved around telling people the truth as he saw it, consequences be damned. Stewart’s thesis, in part, is that when Spinoza and Leibniz met, Spinoza must have given the German a dose of psychoanalysis he wasn’t at all ready to hear.

Leibniz saw in Spinoza’s version of God the downfall of civilization, should it gain currency. The only problem, according to Stewart: Leibniz was too smart not to see the genius of Spinoza’s ideas, and thus, a Salieri to Spinoza’s Mozart, he spent an inordinate amount of time constructing a highly unlikely and rickety facade as an alternative to Spinoza’s world view — involving monads, little miniscule particles in which souls can reside and which make up our bodies. It reminds me a lot of Scientology’s thetans avant la lettre, but it was supposed to salvage Christianity from Spinoza’s methodical scepticism.

As a bonus, in the last chapter Stewart takes the 10-mile-up view of the history of philosophy since Spinoza and Leibniz, and makes a compelling case that Kant’s taxonomy of philosophers, that of rationalists vs. empiricists, is bunk, despite the fact that it remains the orthodox way of teaching philosophy at universities today. Spinoza’s world was one where what you see is what you get, and one that is above all knowable through investigation — ergo, he was also an empiricist.

Stewart also mentions that Friedrich Nietzsche was among the philosophers that publicly derided Spinoza (along with Locke and Hume). A quick trawl through the publicly available Nietzsche resources on the web shows that Stewart is right; plenty of snide asides. Here is one example from Beyond Good and Evil:

198. All the systems of morals which address themselves with a view to their “happiness,” as it is called–what else are they but suggestions for behaviour adapted to the degree of DANGER from themselves in which the individuals live; recipes for their passions, their good and bad propensities, insofar as such have the Will to Power and would like to play the master; small and great expediencies and elaborations, permeated with the musty odour of old family medicines and old-wife wisdom; all of them grotesque and absurd in their form–because they address themselves to “all,” because they generalize where generalization is not authorized; all of them speaking unconditionally, and taking themselves unconditionally; all of them flavoured not merely with one grain of salt, but rather endurable only, and sometimes even seductive, when they are over-spiced and begin to smell dangerously, especially of “the other world.” That is all of little value when estimated intellectually, and is far from being “science,” much less “wisdom”; but, repeated once more, and three times repeated, it is expediency, expediency, expediency, mixed with stupidity, stupidity, stupidity–whether it be the indifference and statuesque coldness towards the heated folly of the emotions, which the Stoics advised and fostered; or the no- more-laughing and no-more-weeping of Spinoza, the destruction of the emotions by their analysis and vivisection, which he recommended so naively; or the lowering of the emotions to an innocent mean at which they may be satisfied, the Aristotelianism of morals; or even morality as the enjoyment of the emotions in a voluntary attenuation and spiritualization by the symbolism of art, perhaps as music, or as love of God, and of mankind for God’s sake–for in religion the passions are once more enfranchised, provided that . . . ; or, finally, even the complaisant and wanton surrender to the emotions, as has been taught by Hafis and Goethe, the bold letting-go of the reins, the spiritual and corporeal licentia morum in the exceptional cases of wise old codgers and drunkards, with whom it “no longer has much danger.” –This also for the chapter: “Morals as Timidity.”

In Nietzsche’s defense, he seems to have publicly derided everyone he ever read, so I’m not going to take it personally on this occasion. (Goldstein also touches upon Nietzsche’s view of Spinoza in the article linked to above.)

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2 thoughts on “Courtier 0, Heretic 1”

  1. Nietzsche was my favourite philosopher for a time, until I realised I hadn’t the faintest clue what he was on about, and neither did anyone else. Neither did he most of the time, I expect.

    Leibniz, as per Stewart, seems the perfect Stupid Cartesian; confronted with the truth, or rather an incontrovertible set of arguments — incontrovertible by its own lights — he at first wonders at its elegance, then begins to have second thoughts when he considers it means the end of a providential god, then moves to a position of antagonism, finally to one of total Vernichtungskrieg against it.

    I read the Stewart book a couple of months ago, and it is clearly a must-read for the amateur Spinozist, but I thought it the weaker of the Tryptich of Nadler, Goldstein and Stewart, in part because I felt the portrayal of Leibnitz might have been too unsympathetic. I realised somewhere in there that a bit like Nietzsche, no-one can fairly say what it was that he really thought. Stewart himself hints at this every now and again I recall (I don’t have my copy with me).

    I view him as the first “professional” philosopher, someone who makes his money by being jolly clever. The archetype of any member of today’s chattering classes or newpaper columnists. And if that’s how you make your money, you cannot wait until you are dead to publish. You can’t fall too far from the tree. And, like Matthew Dowd, you got to fool yourself most of the time.

    So he was a dick. But 99% of today’s talking heads, I suspect, spout crap they only half believe. In their public personae they have to be dicks. They feel safe toeing the party line. When their paychecks depend upon it, as did Leibniz’, it makes supression of truth not just a necessity but a virtue, though an unfortunate one. Not everyone is happy lensgrinding.

    I think Leibniz knew the game was up, that Spinoza had hit on something irrefutable, and Stewart makes this clear himself. The final form of god in Leibniz’ monad rubbish is a finite one, emasculated. He is a Jaffa orange god. Seedless and without flavour.

  2. By the way, I do think “Last” of the barbarians is at least possible as a translation of “Ultimi”: in this sense it could mean the final acme of barbarity. But it is a stretch, I agree.

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