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Friday, November 5, 2010


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716)

Hannover, July 6, 2010

Je mehr aus Venunft gehandelt wird, desto größer is die Freiheit.
[The more that Reason becomes used, the greater will be the Freedom]


Myself, standing in front of the Neustädterkirche in Hannover, where Leibniz is buried, July 6, 2010

Tomb of Leibniz at the Neustädterkirche.
The inscription in Latin reads: “The bones of Leibniz.”

In his relations with the Duke of Braunschweig, Leibniz played hard to get. The invitation to move to Hannover and become the Librarian of the Ducal House was initially rejected. It was only when his two patrons died, Johann Christian von Boineburg (1622–1672) and the Elector of Mainz, and he had become convinced that there were no opportunities for him in Paris or Vienna, that Leibniz reluctantly accepted in 1675 to take the position of Counselor with the court of the Duke of Braunschweig in Hannover. The position had been offered in 1673.

Leibniz managed to delay his arrival in Hanover until the end of 1676, after making one more short journey to London, and stopping in Den Haag, where he met Leeuwenhoek, the discoverer of microorganisms, and spoke to Spinoza, whose philosophy left him astonished, as it contradicted both Christian and Jewish orthodoxy.

In 1677, he was promoted, at his request, to Privy Counselor (Herzoglichen Hofrat) of Justice at Hannover, a post he held for the rest of his life. Leibniz served three consecutive rulers of the House of Brunswick as historian, political adviser, and most consequentially, as librarian of the ducal library. He thenceforth employed his pen on all the various political, historical, and theological matters involving the House of Braunschweig; the resulting documents form a valuable part of the historical record for the period.

Electress Sophia of Hannover (1630-1714). Statue in the gardens at Herrenhausen.

Among the few people in northern Germany to accept Leibniz wholeheartedly were the Electress Sophia and her daughter Sophia Charlotte of Hannover (1668–1705), the Queen of Prussia and his avowed disciple, and Caroline von Ansbach, the consort of her grandson, the future King George II of England. To each of these women he was correspondent, adviser, and friend. In turn, they all approved of Leibniz more than did their spouses and the future king of England, George I. On her death bed, the Queen of Prussia is reported to have said that she looked forward to meeting God, as she thought He might answer certain questions that Herr Leibniz had failed to make entirely clear to her.

The population of Hannover in the late seventeenth century was only about 10,000, and Leibniz felt a little confined there, as it was not London or Paris, and the only one he could converse with intelligently appeared to be the Electress Sophia. Nevertheless, to be a major courtier to the House of Braunschweig was quite an honor, especially in light of the meteoric rise in the prestige of that House during Leibniz's association with it. In 1692, the Duke of Braunschweig became a hereditary Elector of the Holy Roman Empire and in 1701, the Electress Sophia and her descendants were designated heirs to the throne of England.

A street in old Hannover, in the Summer

In Hannover, Leibniz devoted himself to intellectual pursuits unrelated to his duties as a courtier, pursuits such as perfecting the calculus, writing about other mathematics, logic, physics, and philosophy, and keeping up a vast correspondence. He began working on the calculus in 1674; the earliest evidence of its use in his surviving notebooks is 1675. By 1677 he had a coherent system in hand, but did not publish it until 1684. Leibniz's most important mathematical papers were published between 1682 and 1692, usually in a journal which he and Otto Mencke founded in 1682, the Acta Eruditorum. That journal played a key role in advancing his mathematical and scientific reputation, which in turn enhanced his eminence in diplomacy, history, theology, and philosophy.

On the death of Queen Anne in 1714, Elector Georg Ludwig became King George I of Great Britain, under the terms of the 1701 Act of Settlement. Even though Leibniz had done much to bring about this happy event, it was not to be his hour of glory. Despite the intercession of the Princess of Wales, Caroline von Ansbach, George I forbade Leibniz to join him in London until he completed at least one volume of the history of the Braunschweig family which his father had commissioned nearly 30 years earlier. Moreover, for George I to include Leibniz in his London court would have been deemed insulting to Newton, who felt he had won the dispute as to whether the differential calculus had been first discovered by himself and not by Leibniz, and whose reputation in English official and academic circles at the time could not have been higher.

In 1714, his friend and ruler, the Electress Sophia, died, and Leibniz survived her by only two years. He died alone in Hannover in 1716: at the time, he was so out of favor that neither George I (who happened to be near Hanover at the time) nor any fellow courtier other than his personal secretary attended the funeral. His grave went unmarked for more than 50 years, until his bones were deposited in the Neustädterkirche in the center of the city where he had lived his most productive years.

The Harmony of the World

Leibniz understood the universe to be a harmonious rationally comprehensible order, consistent with the Absolutist State, of which he was a servant, but his main concern was the place within this system of the individual self, the human being’s rational soul. As Nietzsche would say, a man's philosophy is his autobiography. In 1714, Leibniz' Monadologie, a set of ninety aphorisms, was published posthumously. The Monad, says Leibniz, is the individual self, the human soul, a force which reflects within it all of the cosmos in its perfect rational ordering, and which is in no way altered or determined by forces external to it, including those forces which are interpreted according to the laws of cause and effect. The individual evolves from within itself independently, according to a rational pattern which reflects the harmonious evolution of the entire world, including the State. The Monad has no windows open to the world, for, although it appears to interact with the world and with other Monads, its law of development, the law of its own being, is totally autonomous. Because of this isolation from the world and from the forces of cause and effect, the Monad is sovereign and untouchable by the State, and the apparent contradictions of its existence are subsumed into the overall plan which is God’s plan for mankind. The freedom of the individual is internal, but outside, the individual obeys the laws of the State and of the entire cosmos. As Kant would later express it, "you can argue about anything you want, and as long as you want, but obey!"

From the perspective of God, therefore, all is harmonious, the order of the world and the life of the individual Monads within it, in the manner of the great geometrically designed palatial gardens of the Age of the Baroque, such as the gardens of the Dukes of Braunschweig, at Herrenhausen.

The gardens of the palace of the Dukes of Braunschweig
at Herrenhausen, in Hannover

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