Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (July 1, 1646 – November 14, 1716) was a German mathematician and philosopher.
He made major contributions to physics and technology, and anticipated notions that surfaced much later in philosophy, probability theory, biology, medicine, geology, psychology, linguistics, and computer science. He wrote works on philosophy, politics, law, ethics, theology, history, and philology.
He was also a prolific, though not entirely successful inventor:
Alison P Coudert – Leibniz and the Kabbalah [in Leibniz, Mysticism and religion]
Leibniz proposed grand plans for such things as a high speed coach that would proceed along tracks on something like ball bearings, a scheme for draining water from the Hartz mines, an inland navigation system, the utilization of waste heat in furnaces, tax reform, a public health and fire service, steam-powered fountains, street lighting, a state bank, and isolation wards for plague victims.
On a more mundane level, he drew up plans for a more efficient wheel barrow, better cooking pots, and even shoes with springs to allow for "fast getaways." ln addition to these specific inventions aimed at improving everyday life, he worked throughout his career to reunite Catholics and Protestants as well as to devise a universal language that would allow all men to understand each other so clearly that they could resolve their differences with mathematical exactitude.
When Leibniz accepted a position from the Duke of Hanover, Johann Friedrich, from December 1676 until his death, he worked as a librarian but also tackled projects he had devised. The drainage project mentioned above, together with an idea to use wind power and water power to operate pumps were suggested then but
every one of these projects ended in failure. Leibniz himself believed that this was because of deliberate obstruction by administrators and technicians, and the workers' fear that technological progress would cost them their jobs.
But this was not the reason as we shall see shortly. His areas of interest cover so many fields we cannot possibly do justice to them in one section, so we have concentrated only on his philosophical and metaphysical objectives.
Objectives in life
Leibniz had an abiding interest and voracious appetite for numerous forms of religious and spiritual thought. Some of this was just natural curiosity, but there was more to his interest than that, it did have a purpose. One of its primary purposes was to try to unite religious thought under one banner, in order to promote a successful defence and attack against “atheists, Socinians, naturalists and sceptics”. He stated that they “can never be opposed successfully unless this philosophy [that is his own] is established … to serve as a plank which pious and prudent men may use to escape the shipwreck of atheism which now threatens us’.
So, how did he set about this mammoth task?
Leibniz had an amazing memory, a gift for very rudimentary synthesis and a talent for collecting ideas. He was never dismissive of the ideas of others, his aim always appeared to be to tease out what he perceived to be the best of the ideas from each culture, school, religion or thinker. As he said “I scorn nothing and I find very often that what the world scorns, merits being esteemed”.
He studied the mystics, for example, and stated that they had some good ideas, but the ideas were often badly expressed “there is sometimes an excellent point mixed in with the errors … I would not want to lose the wheat with the chaff”. He based his analysis on ‘reason’ which makes him essentially a philosopher in approach, but he was clearly drawn to mysticism in an extremely major way. He was a strong advocate of the spiritual path, for example, though just fell short by saying that annihilation was a step too far, union was as far as he would be prepared to let things go.
“it is not a question of an annihilation or an ecstasy, but of a repose, an interior silence. In this way God will be found within us at the end of the endeavour towards our most profound self”.
As Jean Baruzi has said his was “a rational search for a mystical reality”.
He studied Judaism and the Kabbalah, Catholic mysticism [even though he was brought up as a Lutheran], and Alchemy [of which more in a moment]. He read Jacob Boehme, he knew of Valentin Weigel (1533-1588), the German theologian and philosopher. He followed the Quakers, the Pietists, the Labadists and the Quietists. He acknowledged a long standing debt to the German Jesuit Frederick Spee, whose Guldenes Tugend-Buch he often recommended for the virtue it gave to Divine Love.
He had unusual access to early Freemasonry and also read the Rosicrucean Fama Fraternitatas. Through his friendship and correspondence with Swedish advocates he also witnessed the rise of Swedish Freemasonry. He knew Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 - 1772), who as one can see, was younger than Leibniz.
He studied Spinoza. Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus was published in 1670 and Leibniz’s copy, still in the old library of the Baron Boineburg, is liberally smattered with Leibniz’s annotations.
He was friends with Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) who had a reputation at the time of being one of the great Christian Kabbalists. He read Rosenroth’s Kabbala denudata. He was introduced to Rosenroth by Francis Mercury van Helmont [the son of Jan Baptist van Helmont].
His friendship with van Helmont and through him Knorr, extended from 1671 right through to Helmont’s death in 1698 and has been described as “far closer than has previously been known”. Leibnitz and van Helmont according to biographers of them both were ‘practising alchemists’. I do not know whether the writers of this fully understand the implications of this phrase. Given that alchemy is based almost entirely on sexual methods of obtaining spiritual experience and that Leibniz’s apparent interest in “minerals, retorts, metals and chemical processes” might be perhaps not exactly the laboratory equipment they envisage, we have a rather interesting new view of Leibniz that has perhaps not been explored. He said
nothing allows us to indicate the divine perfections better than the admirable beauties that are found in his works.
Leibniz never married.
Alison P Coudert – Leibniz and the Kabbalah [in Leibniz, Mysticism and religion]
Leibniz did many things in the company of Francis Mercury van Helmont. But as I discovered, the friendship between these two men was very close, close enough for Leibniz to ghost van Helmont's last book. It is an extraordinary thing for someone of Leibniz’s intelligence and stature to write a book for another man, especially for a man who has been generally dismissed as an intellectual light weight.
Love is love is love.
Leibniz had little time though for the ascetic or fanatic.
Many people speak of the love of God, but I see by the results that few people truly have it, even those who are most absorbed with it…… when I see a true fervour for obtaining the general good, one is not far from the love of God [A I 14]
He saw in Jesus a role model – a person whose charity and kindness spoke to all humanity.
God’s goodness would not be supreme, if he did not aim at the good and at perfection so far as possible. But what will one say, if I show that this same motive has a place in truly virtuous and generous men, whose supreme function is to imitate divinity.
He was an avid reader of Greek mystical and philosophical thought. He devoured Plotinus as a very young man. And he read the works of Aristotle [with whom he did not always agree], Plato, the Stoics, Parmenides, Democritus and what small number of works he could find on Pythagoras.
Perhaps the most fascinating of all was that through the works of the Jesuits he followed some of the great thinkers of China. Commenting on the Confucius Sinarum Philosophus and Couplet’s account of Chinese chronology in his letter to Landgrave Ernst von Hessen-Rheinfels, Leibniz wrote that Chinese history surpassed the histories of all other peoples, bar the history of the Jewish people, in terms of exactness and antiquity. So excited was he about this new source of information that he repeatedly urged Jesuit Fathers Claudio Filippo Grimaldi and Joachim Bouvet to study more Chinese works and provide him with translations. He even tried to encourage more people to study Chinese so that the flow would not dry up. He accepted without question the idea that Chinese culture was at least the equal to the Greek.
Why did he do this? Because he wanted to unite people through a common belief system.
Letter to Pierre Bayle
Our greatest failure has been the sectarian spirit which imposes limits on itself by rejecting others
So the objective of Leibniz was to produce a system that integrated all these ideas into one system under which people could unite in harmony and love.
Leibniz realised that the most efficient way of making progress in philosophy is not to feign an attitude of novelty, razing philosophy’s past in an effort to begin anew on new untried foundations, rather it is to appropriate from the past all that serves to unite as opposed to divide, reconciling the differences as one goes along, differences which are often superficial or even due to later interpretations and misunderstandings by commentators.
This was indeed a fine and worthy undertaking and his motives were not those of the power crazy – a new religion with a new messiah. There was no hint within Leibniz’s writings of some dire need to create a movement of his own. Many times he even hid his own ideas behind those he said were others’.
Letter Gilles Des Billettes 21/10/1697
I have a zeal for advancing the public good in general without regard for differences of religion or nationality and without dwelling on matters of self interest. I am not a phil-Helene or a philo Roman but a philo-anthropos. My great interest is to be able to contribute to the search for truth and the advancement of the arts and sciences.
Alison P Coudert – Leibniz and the Kabbalah [in Leibniz, Mysticism and religion]
By the time Leibniz’s mature philosophy was in place, he was not a determinist, he was not a dualist, he was not an idealist and he was not a phenomenalist, as varied scholars have claimed. He was a man whose philosophy defied classification and who was in many respects so far ahead of his time that it has only recently been fully appreciated.
His ‘best of all worlds’ theory is totally misunderstood by apparently all present day philosophers and not a small number of past philosophers including Voltaire who brutally ridiculed it. But as is often the case with ‘brutal ridicule’, the criticism stems from ignorance. We will try to redress the balance on this site and explain Leibniz’s philosophical argument using his own explanations as the starting point.
Why did it all go wrong?
Whilst not wishing to downplay any of Leibniz’s achievements it is clear he did not achieve his goal. Why?
Inability to focus
Leibniz’s mind went everywhere, like a distracted butterfly. He never actually concentrated on anything with any focussed or planned intention. Another of Leibniz's lifelong aims was to collate all human knowledge! By himself. Until he realised he may need help and then tried to bring the work of the learned societies together to coordinate research.
Then he veered off into physics and began to study motion, with a view to explaining the results of Wren and Huygens on elastic collisions. Then just as his interests were developing in a scientific direction, he started to hanker after a literary career. All his life he prided himself on his poetry (mostly Latin), and not exactly memorable, and boasted that he could recite the bulk of Virgil's "Aeneid" by heart. He began construction of a calculating machine which he hoped would be of interest. He formed a political plan to try to persuade the French to attack Egypt and in 1672 Leibniz went to Paris on behalf of his patron Boineburg to try to use his plan to divert Louis XIV from attacking German areas. And so it goes on. Each one of the things he tackled was a lifetime’s work. As we say in the vernacular – too many irons in the fire.
Leibniz’s philosophy and belief system was formed and enforced during his childhood and he was unable to see that these beliefs needed to be questioned as much as any other beliefs. He made massive assumptions about many things that were fundamental. He assumed there was a God, he assumed that there was ‘sin’ and wrote vast rambling papers about ‘why God created sin’, without ever questioning the assumption that there is sin. He assumed the Bible was literally true, when it is symbolic. He assumed there were angels, in fact he questioned nothing of the beliefs of his youth. At school he was taught Aristotle's theory of categorising knowledge, but he seems not to have been taught logic and the need to suppress beliefs in order to create a viable system.
His father, Friedrich Leibniz, was a professor of moral philosophy and the actuary/notary of the university of Leipzig and a Lutheran. Friedrich died when Leibniz was only six years old and Leibniz learnt his moral and religious values from Catharina, his mother, also a staunch Lutheran. A letter from Leibniz’s sister which expresses great concern for his salvation given his approach, shows just how entrenched were his family’s views. Furthermore, Leibniz was born in Leipzig and Leipzig is near Wittenburg, the heartland of the Lutheran church. The university theologians dominated the city’s academic life and polemic pamphlets against Catholics and non Lutherans filled the university libraries. The battle was vitriolic and Leibniz even had to defend himself in later years. He desperately tried to heal the rifts and shrug off his early indoctrination, but he never really succeeded.
Lack of access to key philosophical and mystical systems
Leibniz was taught Latin at school, and had taught himself far more advanced Latin and some Greek by the age of 12, motivated by wanting to read his father's books, which were mostly theology books from both Catholic and Protestant writers. The Chinese books he studied were from Jesuit priests who had just gained access to China and its systems. He was a voracious collector of books, but access to works from different cultures other than the Biblical ones was very very severely limited. Furthermore he had great difficulty in finding out what actually existed that might be of use.
The Royal Society of London elected Leibniz a fellow on 19 April 1673. Whilst there Leibniz met with Huygens who gave him a reading list including works by Pascal, Fabri, Gregory, Saint-Vincent, Descartes and Sluze! Basically despite his Aristotlean training he had devised no system of selection of sources. Anything that became available was valid, which is not the way to conduct a project of this sensitivity. One should restrict one’s sources to only those who ‘know’ and have the credentials.
And there was the perennial problem of language.
In 1661, at the age of fourteen, Leibniz entered the University of Leipzig. He studied philosophy, but among the other topics which were included in this two year general degree course were rhetoric, and Hebrew. This extended the scope of the works he could study, but overall he was missing all Hindu thought, all Japanese Shinto thought, all the wisdom of shamanic cultures and the indigenous peoples, Celtic and Norse thought, and all the early mystic systems such as those of Egypt and Babylonia and so on. China was the only really different system he came across and he found it almost impossible to reconcile his pre-conceived philosophical and religious ideas with this system. It would have helped if he had been a mystic, as he would have been able to intuitively pick out the perennial wisdom, but he wasn’t.
Considering he was a mathematician and a librarian, Leibnitz proved to be a very disorganised person.
Leibniz's contributions to all this vast array of subjects were scattered in various learned journals, in tens of thousands of letters, and in unpublished manuscripts. He wrote in several languages, but primarily in Latin, French, and German. There is no ‘complete works’ of the writings of Leibniz, and they are still being gathered translated and catalogued, even today.
Leibniz had thoughts and ideas aplenty, good ones, but he had no system, and his papers can be contradictory because of this and many ideas simply got lost or never finalised.
If we provide an example. One of Leibniz's great achievements in mathematics was his development of the binary system of arithmetic. He perfected his system by 1679 but he did not publish anything until 1701 when he sent the paper Essay d'une nouvelle science des nombres to the Paris Academy to mark his election to the Academy. Another major mathematical work by Leibniz was his work on determinants which arose from his developing methods to solve systems of linear equations. He never published this work in his lifetime, he developed many different approaches to the topic with many different notations being tried out to find the one which was most useful. An unpublished paper dated 22 January 1684 contains the results.
Another major project which Leibniz undertook, this time for Duke Ernst August, was writing the history of the Guelf family, of which the House of Brunswick was a part. He made a lengthy trip to search archives for material on which to base this history, visiting Bavaria, Austria and Italy between November 1687 and June 1690. Although Leibniz published nine large volumes of archival material on the history of the Guelf family, he never wrote the work that was commissioned.
Ultimately Leibniz was a genius, but he was incapable of seeing or forming systems, thus he hardly ever actually completed anything. A scatterbrain.
Seeking merger as opposed to common ground
Leibniz seems to have changed his objectives at some stage so that instead of trying to find common ground and sets of symbols and concepts that would explain something of the spiritual landscape, one that might be accepted by Lutherans and Catholics, he started to aim for a merged religion. He even wrote a text – System of Theology.
You cannot merge religions.
The whole point about a religion is that it is the political business arm of a spiritual leader or set of beliefs. In order for it to raise money, to spread the word and exist as a business entity, it has to differentiate itself from other religions or sects. Religion divides under various powerful men whose objective is to gather enough followers and income to sustain that entity. Theologians are generally the ones chosen to decide what those differences should be – the marketing and advertising executives. The differences, incidentally, can be farcical – just as they are in most commercial companies selling products. They also have nothing to do with the original teachings of their founder, just like the marketing messages and advertisements are unrelated to products.
Dress as differentiator - the Amish
Religion, in some senses is a necessary evil if the objective is to ‘spread the word’. But if your aim is to merge doctrines you are attacking the very thing that gives the religion its differentiating factor. It is a bit like saying why don’t all these soap powder manufacturers merge and become one happy family. It doesn’t work like that. Leibniz got tied up, for example, in discussions about Transubstantiation according to the Council of Trent and the Lutheran concept of the Eucharist. Pointless – unless of course you see a value in merging the businesses for money and customer reasons.
There is value in having powerful men raise money under various doctrines if the money is spent on musicians, composers, marvellous buildings, works of art, poetry, things to raise the spirits of people. If they spend it on war, torture, intimidation, terror, then that is a problem.
Leibniz was in some senses endearingly naïve. He wanted everyone to love one another and not fight and compete and argue and hate. But hate can be quite a strong driving force for change, sometimes more powerful than love, it is a different sort of force for unity. The goad that gets the ox to move forward – competition as a driving force.
Leibniz, the I Ching and the Word
Leibniz was fascinated by the I Ching. In a letter to Bouvet dated 15th February 1701, Leibniz included a table of correspondences between the binary system of number [which uses only 0 and 1] and the decimal system [0-9] and Bouvet saw the parallel with the 64 hexagrams in the I Ching at once. Leibniz was still working on the idea of a universal language and of course the discovery immediately fascinated him. The I Ching uses a line and a broken line as the two main symbols for 0 and 1. Each hexagram then consists of two trigrams each of which consist of three lines.
In Bouvet’s letter to Leibniz of 4th November 1701, he enclosed the I Ching diagram. Bouvet remarked that one could see that the progression in the binary system corresponded to the order of the hexagrams in the Hsien-tien tzu-hsu diagram. The discovery made a deep impression on Leibniz and he looked on the binary system as the basis of a universal language. For Leibniz the Chinese language in its ancient form was a calculus of thought, an early artificial invention of a universal language – the Word.
In a sense the binary system was both the language of spells and the core of natural theology. Given that we have outlined the unit of energy as having a spin/don’t spin setting, with the Word being a language – a programming language for the functions of the universe, Leibniz we believe was on the right track. Prior to the discovery of the I Ching correspondences, in a letter to Father Verjus in 1697, he equated binary arithmetic with philosophical counting. Numbers transcend language – as Pythagoras said.
Leibniz was very clear that the use of the numbers 0 and 1 are all that is needed to create creation. One could program the universe.
In 1697 he tried to persuade Duke Rudolf Augustus of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel to have a medal struck on which the numbers 0 and 1 appear, as well as the words ‘Imago Creationis’ and ‘Omnibus ex nihilo ducendis sufficit unum'. The design would have included rays of Light shining on an abyss.
The accounts of spiritual experiences
Even if Leibniz himself appeared to have no profound mystical experiences he was a very keen collector of such experiences. Leibniz was always seeking out first hand accounts of various spiritual experience and in particular collected reports of mystical experiences and miracles.
His test for determining whether a mystical [high level spiritual] experience was genuine was very interesting and indeed seems to be born out in practice. ‘If such experiences do not result in charity towards others then the person is boasting falsely of illumination’. Charity in this sense means giving your life in the service of others, seeking no reward for helping other people and wanting to do something which helps humanity or sections of humanity. And doing so despite adversity, and without reward or recognition of what you are doing.
Strewn throughout the files of theological manuscripts in Hanover are many individual sheets with such reports. There may be others elsewhere. He was such a disorganised man they could be all over the place. Researchers would be doing the spiritual movement a great favour if they could gather all these, translate them and post them on the internet. Needless to say we would be overjoyed to have them and add them to the site, but just having access to them at all would be of major value.
Leibniz had a penchant for acting like a sort of clearing house for information on anything spiritual as such his collection of accounts is probably extremely extensive.
Towards the end of his life Leibniz appears to have realised why he had not succeeded in his quest to produce a universal philosophy, aside from the reasons above. It is because he relied on philosophical methods and reason as his only mentors:
Letter to Toland 1701
I venture to claim understanding by a mystery something which goes beyond all reason, that it is true that no natural appearances are beyond reason, but that even the conception or comprehension of individual substances is impossible for the human understanding, because these involve the infinite. Hence it happens, that we cannot give a complete reason for the universe. And this also explains why certain dogmas revealed by God should not belong even in this place – that they cannot be explained by any power of reason in a sufficient way, although the mind can attain to them to a certain extent.
And this is why direct spiritual experience is essential and why the true mystics of old used symbols and analogies to explain what is in the spiritual world. Reason alone is not enough. As Leibniz said
Essays in Theodicy
I do not disfavour the mystics; their thoughts are generally confused; but since they use for the most part beautiful allegories, or moving images, this may be useful for making the truth more acceptable and accessible
Leibniz died in Hanover in 1716: at the time, he was so out of favour that neither George I (who happened to be near Hanover at that time) nor any fellow courtier other than his personal secretary attended the funeral. Even though Leibniz was a life member of the Royal Society and the Berlin Academy of Sciences, neither organization saw fit to honour his passing. His grave went unmarked for more than 50 years.
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- Leibniz - A prophecy of our greater understanding of the systems of the universe
- Leibniz - And Communing with Nature as a way of knowing God
- Leibniz - Ascension and the Spiritual path
- Leibniz - Form, Function and the Word
- Leibniz - Function, Form, Mind and the Unmoving mover
- Leibniz - Letter to Damaris Masham - The aggregates of the body
- Leibniz - Light
- Leibniz - Love must give us the greatest pleasure of which we are capable
- Leibniz - On adversity
- Leibniz - On desire
- Leibniz - On Prophecy
- Leibniz - On symbol systems
- Leibniz - On the Higher spirit, soul and body
- Leibniz - The Best of all Worlds
- Leibniz - The Monadology - 01
- Leibniz - The Monadology - 02
- Leibniz - The Monadology - 03
- Leibniz - The Monadology - 04
- Leibniz - The Monadology - 05
- Leibniz - The Monadology - 06
- Leibniz - The Monadology - 07
- Leibniz - The Monadology - 08
- Leibniz - The Monadology - 09
- Leibniz - The source of wisdom and inspiration
- Leibniz - Whatever moves is being constantly created
- Leibniz - Wisdom comes from the Higher spirit
- Leibniz - World soul