The Courtier and the Heretic – Critical Acclaim
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
A selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, History Book Club, Reader’s Subscription, and Quality Paperback Book Club.
Exhilarating … Stewart has a achieved a near impossibility, creating a page-turner about jousting metaphysical ideas, casting thinkers as warriors. … He is a fluid, even a jaunty writer, and his summations show fertile wit.
[Stewart] lays the ground for a new genre: rigorous, readable intellectual history for the reader who would never buy a work of pure philosophy, but wants to know why people think the way they do.
A lively introduction to a fascinating period in philosophy.
Because Spinoza’s doctrines have won acceptance from the architects of the modern world even as Leibniz’s traditional religious beliefs have persisted among many who inhabit that world, the drama Stewart recounts will rivet readers skeptical and devout alike.
A most entertaining read about two extraordinary characters, which is both rich in history and overflowing with ideas. —David Edmonds and John Eidinow, authors of Wittgenstein’s Poker
Altogether excellent. . . . His approach is au courant and quite convincing. . . . He deserves a medal for avoiding jargon and opting instead for accessibility.
[A] witty, fascinating new book. . . . Following Nietzsche’s maxim that every great philosophy is . . . a kind of involuntary and unperceived memoir, Stewart deftly intertwines the lives and works of Spinoza and Leibniz and gives an elegant and sometimes hilarious overview of their differences.
Matthew Stewart has given us an engaging portrait of two of the most important and fascinating thinkers of the modern age and of their complicated relationship. Not only does he make their notoriously difficult ideas accessible, but he does a brilliant job of illuminating for the reader their personal, intellectual and historical context.
Lively and accessible . . . Stewart’s account of the influence of Leibniz and Spinoza on the history of ideas is thoroughly absorbing. —
Stewart goes far to rescue both men from a kind of dusty academic shelf, bringing them to life as enlightened humans displaying the kinds of intellectual and personality differences in which postmodern Westerners delight.
Wide-ranging and entertaining . . . splendid. —
[A] colorful reinterpretation of the lives and works of 17th-century philosophers Spinoza and Leibniz . . . Stewart’s wit and profluent prose make this book a fascinating read.
Stewart has discovered an appealing and novel way to write the history of ideas, and The Courtier and the Heretic is . . . an enlightening, absorbing study. —
Stewart makes accessible the many philosophical ideas presented and he brings the men to life. . . . A highly readable examination of two influential, but often overlooked, thinkers of the early Enlightenment.
Mr. Stewart handles Leibniz’s very complex response to Spinoza with dispatch, and impressive lucidity. . . . The Courtier and the Heretic is a very good book, an excellent introduction to the thought and lives of both its subjects. —
[An] agile and elegant book.
Starred Review. According to Nietzsche, Every great philosophy is… a personal confession of its creator and a kind of involuntary and unperceived memoir.. Stewart affirms this maxim in his colorful reinterpretation of the lives and works of 17th-century philosophers Spinoza and Leibniz. In November 1676, the foppish courtier Leibniz, the ultimate insider… an orthodox Lutheran from conservative Germany, journeyed to The Hague to visit the self-sufficient, freethinking Spinoza, a double exile… an apostate Jew from licentious Holland. A prodigious polymath, Leibniz understood Spinoza’s insight that science was in the process of rendering the God of revelation obsolete; that it had already undermined the special place of the human individual in nature. Spinoza embraced this new world. Seeing the orthodox God as a prop for theocratic tyranny, he articulated the basic theory for the modern secular state. Leibniz, on the other hand, spent the rest of his life championing God and theocracy like a defense lawyer defending a client he knows is guilty. He elaborated a metaphysics that was, at bottom, a reaction to Spinoza and collapses into Spinozism, as Stewart deftly shows. For Stewart, Leibniz’s reaction to Spinoza and modernity set the tone for the dominant form of modern philosophy—a category that includes Kant, Hegel, Bergson, Heidegger and the whole ‘postmodern’ project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought. Readers of philosophy may find much to disagree with in these arguments, but Stewart’s wit and profluent prose make this book a fascinating read. (Jan. 2006)
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A mere footnote for most historians, the meeting in 1676 between Leibniz and Spinoza opens to a discerning eye the intellectual forces destined to reshape the entire Western world. Stewart supplies that discerning eye as he chronicles the events and arguments linking the illustrious German polymath to the controversial Dutch lens grinder. In refreshingly lucid terms, he explains the controversies surrounding Spinoza as the consequence of the radical religious and political doctrines he articulated in works fiercely debated throughout Europe. By highlighting the way Spinoza’s metaphysics justified secular and democratic challenges to traditional regimes, Stewart also reveals the piquant irony in the way that metaphysics hypnotized the most brilliant of the status quo’s defenders–Gottfried Leibniz, who first eagerly absorbed Spinoza’s thought, then recognized in it a perilous threat to traditional beliefs in God and immortality. Because Spinoza’s doctrines have won acceptance from the architects of the modern world even as Leibniz’s traditional religious beliefs have persisted among many who inhabit that world, the drama Stewart recounts will rivet readers skeptical and devout alike.
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