Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Spinoza, Leibniz and the Fate of God in the Modern World

Just finished the above titled book and I greatly enjoyed reading it. While I came into it with really no knowledge of either of the two philosophers, the way the storyline is woven with some basic tenets of their philosophy and how the authors connect that to their lives and certain events in those lives really helped me see the whole picture. I really do feel that no two people have the exact same philosophy/theology-- mainly because our lives, backgrounds, and other factors create the palette on which we paint our world view. This idea plays a major role in the philosophy of these two men.

Spinoza was a Jew who at an early age was thought by some to be one of the next great Rabbis, but after espousing his seemingly atheistic views, he was excommunicated and cursed by the synagogue. He basically spent the rest of his life living in a monastic seclusion in an upstairs apartment in a small Amsterdam house where he made his living by grinding lenses. (This work probably was the cause of his death--the grinding produced a powder that he inhaled and caused silicosis) His major work was Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, in which he espoused his major views. Spinoza was never rich like Leibniz, and never had the friends in high places like Leibniz--and this might be a key ingredient to their differences in philosophy.

Leibniz was born into a strict (and fairly well-off) conservative German Christian family. His father was a professor at the University of Leipzig until he died when Leibniz was six years old. After finishing his law degree at Leipzig, Leipniz applied to teach there but was declined. He was devastated. Leibniz then submitted the thesis he had intended for Leipzig to the University of Altdorf, and obtained his doctorate in law in five months. He then declined an offer of academic appointment at Altdorf, and spent the rest of his life in the service of two major German noble families.

The book I just finished weaves the idea throughout the story that Leibniz really agreed with Spinoza at certain times in his life but tried to cover it up. And he most definitely did admire Spinoza, but he disagreed with his philosophical conclusions mainly because they were not in step with orthodox Christianity. Both men believed in God---but their definitions of God were completely different. Leibniz was a Cartesian, but Spinoza was not. Spinoza's God, which he called "God or nature" was the unity of all that exists, a living, natural god, who represented the identity of spirit and nature. For Spinoza, everything was god and god was everything. Spinoza's god is not the Christian God of Leibniz, but their are similarities. The similarities are not so much in the actual description of God, but they are in the effects of their description of god.
Spinoza's philosophical and political works lay the foundation for the Constitution of the United States, and the idea of liberal democracy (what ever happened to that anyway?)

Albert Einstein was asked by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein if he believed in God, to which Einstein responded: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings."


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