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Leibniz and the Science of Happiness

Roger Caldwell is happy to introduce Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716).

For Bertrand Russell, Leibniz was something of an enigma. Although Russell thought he could see how Leibniz’s logical principles entailed his grand metaphysical system, he was unable to square this with the doctrines outlined in many of Leibniz’s published writings. His Theodicy of 1708, for example, whilst bland enough to be acceptable to nearly all, made no mention of doctrines such as that of contingency requiring an infinite analysis – that is, what appears contingent to us is logically necessary to the mind of God. Accordingly, Russell distinguished between ‘secret’ doctrines which Leibniz largely kept to himself as being unacceptable to the religious age in which he lived, and his ‘public’ philosophy, in which he dissembled and fudged for his own self-protection. One can understand Russell’s suspicions: after all, Leibniz himself once stated that “He who knows me only by my published writings does not know me at all.” It is certainly true that Leibniz had a tendency to adjust his published works to his audience: he put forward those theses which he hoped his public would accept, and held back his most counterintuitive ideas. An example of his caution is seen in his correspondence with the Dutch scientist Burchard de Volder. Only five years into this communication did it finally dawn on the astonished De Volder that “you now seem to me to eliminate bodies completely, inasmuch as you consider them merely appearances.”

Unfortunately, there is no single work of Leibniz that allows us to see his metaphysical system as a whole: we must piece it together from a mass of papers often published long after his death. Yet no one now accepts Russell’s thesis of a split between a private and a public philosophy. Indeed, there is a certain historical shortsightedness in this thesis. The modern conception of a philosopher did not then exist: in the seventeenth century philosophy proper was not distinguished from natural philosophy, which we now call science. Further, the age of the New Science was still also an age of faith: philosophers and natural philosophers must also of necessity be theologians. We tend to read (for example) Descartes’ most famous philosophical writings independently of their context. Nervously aware of the fate of Galileo, Descartes held back his scientific work, hoping to get acceptance for his methodology from the Catholic Church; an enterprise in which he failed. Yet there was no dissembling in this: there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Descartes’ Catholicism. With respect to Leibniz, although there is no doubt about the sincerity of his theism in general, there is some about his belief in Lutheran dogmatics in particular. (He held that it is best to hold to the religion in which one was brought up, and thus refused many lucrative offers of employment because he was unwilling to convert to Roman Catholicism.) Some of his Hanoverian contemporaries, punning on his name, saw him as a ‘ Glaubenichts’ or ‘believe-nothing’. Lutheranism aside, Leibniz’s spirit is clearly an ecumenical one: “it is possible to be saved in every religion,” he declared, “provided that one truly loves God above all things.”

There are theological presuppositions built into Leibniz’s metaphysics in a way foreign to most contemporary philosophy: articles of faith such as the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation and the resurrection of the body must all be accommodated in his philosophy of substance. A sort of religious optimism permeates his work from the beginning: in one of his early works he declares that “God wills those things that he perceives to be the best and likewise the most harmonious” and he sees God as selecting “from the infinite number of all the possibles” to fulfil these requirements. In a world that seem far from harmonious, Leibniz never doubts the ultimate harmony of all things. It seems that he was born an optimist.

Leibniz’s concern to dissociate himself from any hint of atheism can also be seen in his reaction to the work of Spinoza. He met Spinoza on a visit to The Hague in 1676, and had protracted conversations with him over the course of a few days. He noticed that some of Spinoza’s purported demonstrations were not exactly right (although it’s unclear whether he told him so). Leibniz felt, surely correctly, that Spinoza’s system led to deism [God doesn’t supernaturally interfere with natural laws], but was uneasily aware that his own developing speculations pointed towards the same deterministic universe. That is, once God had set the world in operation, to act by universal laws, it seemed that the space for human freedom shrunk to nothing; even God himself became redundant, having done his creative work. Leibniz’s subsequent struggles to reconcile freedom and necessity resulted in much ingenuity of thought, but as with some of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, the ingenuity sometimes comes at the expense of credibility.

Maria Rosa Antognazza’s magisterial new biography of Leibniz places him fully in the context of his time – that of a fragmented central Europe at the end of the disastrous Thirty Years’ War. She sees Leibniz as a natural conciliator, looking for ways to combine the old and the new, and bring together opposing beliefs, acting on his principle that “most sects are right in a good part of what they affirm, but not so much in what they deny.” He tried to harmonize the new mechanistic science with scholasticism, Roman Catholicism with Protes tantism, and within Protestantism, Calvinism with Lutheranism. In all this he was guided by a vision of the betterment of mankind or, as he put it to his employer Duke Johann Friedrich of Hanover, by “the glory of God and the advancement of the public good by means of useful works and beautiful discoveries.” Nor was his viewpoint a merely Eurocentric one: Leibniz was particularly fascinated by China, seeing its civilization as superior to Europe in practical philosophy, and enjoying “a more perfect manner of living.” A multiculturalist before his time, Leibniz saw different civilizations as expressing the same universe from different perspectives – much as his monads were with varying degrees of adequacy each the mirror of every other, and thus of the world as a whole. For Leibniz everything is interconnected – every mind perceives everything that happens in the universe, however confusedly.

Philosophical Journeyman

Leibniz was the last of the great polymaths – by turns scientist, jurist, mathematician, historian, logician, engineer, ethnologist: nothing was foreign to his intellect. Once having been let loose on his father’s library as a schoolboy there was no stopping him. There he greedily absorbed everything he could find: Roman history, works of logic, moral philosophy, the writings of the scholastics. By thirteen, and clearly a nightmare to teachers, he was already questioning Aristotelian logic and seeking ways to improve it. At fifteen he wandered the streets of Leipzig pondering the merits of the new mechanistic philosophy against the medieval doctrine of ‘substantial form’, which states that form ‘impressed’ upon matter is what makes something the particular substance it is – say, a dog or a man. Characteristically, Leibniz was to go on to combine the two philosophies, declaring that “substance is a composite of matter and substantial form” – another example of what Antogonazza calls his ‘conciliatory eclecticism’.

Leibniz left Leipzig at the age of twenty and hardly ever returned, thereafter having little contact with his devoutly Lutheran family. His first paid job was as the secretary of a Nuremburg society devoted to secret alchemical experiments. Then he was off to Mainz, to propose a rationalization of the legal system and educational reform. For Leibniz, the ultimate aim of the state was not only the security but also the happiness of its inhabitants, and he saw it as the duty of the state to promote their health and provide them with education. This is a commonplace today, but was utopian then. None of the German rulers (for whom happiness was not much on the agenda) was eager to take on any of the ambitious plans Leibniz attempted to foist on them, although Leibniz, with his usual obstinacy, never gave up trying.

For a metaphysician whose work is sometimes quite abstruse, his concerns were often surprisingly practical. He declared that to have discovered a certain and tested cure for a disease would be a greater achievement for mankind than the quadrature of the circle – a remarkable statement from someone who indeed went on to achieve the latter. But his ambition was all-encompassing. He envisaged a systematic encyclopaedia of all the sciences which would at the same time support the key tenets of Christianity. As a preparation for this he tried to devise a universal language or characteristica universalis designed to eliminate all linguistic ambiguity. This he trusted would lead to the peaceful resolution of all manner of controversies: “There will be no more need of a disputation between two philosophers than between two accountants … Rather, let us calculate,” he wrote in a treatise of 1688. (Such was also the ambition of the founders of propositional logic in the early twentieth century; although it would appear that for all their great hopes, agreed solutions to philosophical problems remain as elusive as ever.)

In the course of four years in Paris, mixing with the savants of the day, Leibniz made an intensive study of mathematics, and invented the infinitesimal calculus. This was later to lead to the famous dispute with Newton over priority. In London he presented a calculating machine to a less-than-enthusiastic Royal Society. Back in Paris he was to enter into the service of the Elector of Hanover; an employment which was to continue for the rest of his life, although not unproblematically. The problem was that although Duke Johann Friedrich was appreciative of Leibniz’ genius, and valued his projects, his two successors were uninterested in universal reform and required of Leibniz only two main projects: the draining of water from the Harz mines, and the writing of a history of the Guelf dynasty. Neither project was completed. Turning himself with characteristic brio into a mining engineer, Leibniz devised scheme after scheme, and in the course of his exertions he invented what is now known as the endless cable, but the Harz mines obstinately refused to be drained. As for the history of the Guelf dynasty, Leibniz made the task harder (but undoubtedly more interesting) for himself by beginning with the study of the geology of Lower Saxony and of its prehistoric and ancient inhabitants, which itself involved protracted linguistic studies. The result was that, by the time of Leibniz’ death, the history had reached only the eleventh century. Though now scarcely remembered amongst Leibniz’s many other achievements, Antognazza reminds us of its virtues, stating that “any other scholar might well have regarded this impressive work as his most important contribution to the world of learning.”

There is a certain comedy in all this: Leibniz saw Hanover as an intellectual backwater – “this prison in which I find myself” – and he took every opportunity to slip away, on the pretext of conducting researches for his Guelf history in libraries abroad. In reality he was indulging his insatiable curiosity and his tireless ambition to spread Enlightenment. He conversed with all the eruditi of the day; he consulted Jewish experts on the Kabbalah and the Jesuits of the Chinese Mission; met lead miners, geologists, historians, lawyers – men of intellectual distinction in all spheres. He networked ceaselessly in the courts of Europe. The Duchess of Orl éans, who clearly had had less than agreeable experiences of intellectuals, found him to be one of those rare learned men who “did not stink, and had a sense of humour.” He enlisted the aid of the Elector of Brandenburg to set up the Berlin Society of Sciences, and acted as its President. He met Peter the Great, and became his adviser on scientific matters. As he criss-crossed Europe he would compose treatises on an immense variety of subjects, which he would sometimes publish, but most often not. His literary production was immense, though very little of it was to meet the public eye. In 1686 alone he produced four texts that are now seen as milestones – on physics, metaphysics, logic and philosophy.

His absences from the Hanoverian court could last weeks, months, or even years, and his employer was frequently unaware of the whereabouts of his peripatetic privy councillor of justice. Duke Georg Ludwig sarcastically joked about offering a reward in the papers for anyone who could locate him. By 1705 the Duke had lost patience, and issued an ordinance forbidding Leibniz to travel without specific permission – though to little permanent effect. Leibniz ingenuously claimed that since his main activities were so sedentary the exercise of travel was necessary to his health. He was in Vienna when he heard that the Duke had been elevated to King George I of England, and immediately started on his way to Hanover. His employer was unimpressed – “He is only coming now that I have become king,” he said – and by the time Leibniz arrived in Hanover the King and his entourage had already decamped to London. Any chance of following him was quickly dashed – given the controversy Leibniz was having with Newton, the last thing the new King wanted was Leibniz in London. He would not be allowed to leave Hanover until the history of the Guelfs (now over thirty years in the making) was completed. Leibniz’s last years were thus spent in Hanover, in greater isolation than suited a man of his gregarious temperament, although he never lost his characteristic optimism: in one of his last writings, viewing the prospects for mankind, he records his conviction that “things are bound to progress for the better, whether gradually or sometimes by leaps and bounds.” He admits that sometimes things seem to change for the worse, but “this should be regarded as similar to the way in which we sometimes retrace our footsteps in order to leap forward with greater vigour.”

Leibniz’s Legacy

When Leibniz died, amidst a pile of papers and a host of unfinished schemes and projects, he had published little of his work, although that little was sufficient to confirm his status as an intellectual titan. His extensive correspondence with the major savants of his time, even including Newton – briefly, before the dispute – fills up volume after volume of his Gesamtausgabe [Complete Edition], still in the course of publication. And he had an essential influence on his philosophical successors in Germany. But his real rehabilitation began at the beginning of the twentieth century with Russell’s influential book on him, and the publication of his logical papers by Couturat. Since then Leibniz studies have grown apace, with a flood of publications of his writings, their translations, and a Leibniz industry of commentary and interpretation. Still, it is hard to see the man whole, so multifarious is his legacy. Antognazza’s biography gives us some new bearings: we see him better as a man with one foot in the past, one in the future. The concept of the pre-established harmony, for all the fascinating questions to which it gives rise, has a certain quaintness now, and few now believe (or ever did) in his ‘windowless monads’; but much of Leibniz’s work extends well beyond his times. For example, we see there the beginnings of probability theory and adumbrations of many-worlds semantics, among many other legacies.

Quite apart from his many contributions to scientific knowledge – including his founding of the science of dynamics and his overturning of Cartesian physics – Leibniz’s status as one of the greatest of philosophers is secure; all the more so now that metaphysics is no longer unfashionable. However, to what degree does his philosophy form a whole? He himself states that the principles of his system were such that “they could hardly be torn apart from one another. Whoever knows one well knows them all.” Yet it is less of a seamless whole than he admits. Further, to what degree is Leibniz’s later philosophy implicit in his philosophical beginnings? Antognazza would have it that the most basic features of Leibniz’s intellectual system were there from the start. This is surely questionable. Some philosophers are early starters, and never substantially alter their views; others are late starters, their major works having a long gestation, and only seeing light in their author’s late middle age. If Berkeley, Hume or Schopenhauer had died at thirty we would still have their essential thought. Yet if Hobbes, Locke or Kant had died at fifty, they would be mere footnotes in the history of philosophy. Had Leibniz died young he would undoubtedly still be remembered, but it would not be as the Leibniz we know. The late Leibniz is an idealist: the early one closer to a materialist. The development of his system was a piecemeal thing, important elements not being worked out until old age. For example, his relational theory of space and time was developed in the course of his correspondence with Samuel Clarke as late as 1715-16, the last year of his life. Yet in general respects Antognazza is undoubtedly right: his youthful vision of a universal science consonant with Christian theology sustained him through a lifetime of work dedicated to the betterment of humanity. Clearly, his optimism and Enlightenment belief in progress were there from the beginning. And if Voltaire mocked him as Doctor Pangloss, Leibniz was nevertheless that rarest of things – a happy philosopher, one for whom wisdom is in fact “nothing other than the science of happiness.”

© Roger Caldwell 2010

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry This Being Eden (2001) is published by Peterloo Poets.

• Maria Rose Antognazza’s Leibniz – An Intellectual Biography is published by Cambridge University Press at £25.

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