300 years ago, on November 14th 1716, the German philosopher, scientist and diplomat Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz died in Hannover, leaving behind an immense scientific and philosophical work as well as a large correspondence with leading scientists, jurists, diplomats and church representatives. These documents up to this day are not yet fully explored.
Several commemoration events were held in Germany which shed light on the range of subjects which are being looked at right now by several leading Leibniz researchers. In the Hannover city hall, on November 14th , the well-known Leibniz researcher, Professor Maria Rosa Antognazza (King’s College London) gave a lecture about the subject “Unity in diversity” in life of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz”. In the city of Leipzig the “Max Planck Institute for Mathematics” organized a two day conference entitled “Leibniz and the Sciences” which included as speakers aside Professor Antognazza other leading Leibniz scholars who spoke about subjects like “Leibniz and geology” (D. Garber), “Leibniz and the quantum theory” (Richard T.W. Arthur); “Leibniz and the Infinite” (E.Knobloch) as well as “Leibniz on organic bodies and living beings” (Justin E.Smith).
The well-known Austrian-German writer David Kehlmann (author of the novel “Die Vermessung der Welt”-Survey of the world”, in which he described in poetic terms the role of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl F. Gauss) praised the brilliant universal thinker Leibniz in his speech in Hannover, who with his groundbreaking concepts that were explored in his late work “Monadology”, could serve as inspiration for modern science. In the city of Tübingen, the director of the China Centrum Tübingen (CCT), the Sinologist Professor Dr. Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer gave a lecture under the title “China’s Renaissance – a challenge for Europe”.
UNESCO: “Leibniz’ writings. Founding Documents of Mankind”
Leibniz’ writings were declared “Founding documents of mankind” by UNESCO in the year 2007. There are still 200.000 unedited manuscripts and 15.000 letters in the Leibniz archive in Hannover, waiting to be explored, which could offer a fascinating insight into the period in which Leibniz lived. Born during the Thirty Years religious war (1rst of July 1646) and dying in Nov 14th 1716, Leibniz – who had spent his childhood in Leipzig and studied jurisprudence – became a prominent jurist and advisor for example to his first patron in Mainz, the diplomat Johannes Christian von Boineburg (1622-1672), who also sent Leibniz to Paris where Leibniz stayed for 4 years. The “Peace of Westphalia” (1648) was a groundbreaking document which on the basis of “mutual forgiveness”, “reconciliation” as well as “tolerance” brought peace to Europe after the bloody thirty years war that still leaves its shadows in today’s Mideast conflict. At that time Leibniz wrote several memoranda for the Mainz based Baron Christian von Boineburg, in which he developed plans how to reconstruct the Holy Roman Empire. His main concept was to give new impulse for a renaissance of the sciences (Academy projects and several legal reforms) and combine this with practical economic and infrastructural works (in the field of mining, energy, windmills as well as social projects and education reforms).
Leibniz’ immense correspondence reveals that he was in contact with the most advanced scientists of his time. He debated metaphysical, physical and mathematical issues with Christian Huygens and, as Antognazza underlined in her booklet “Leibniz. A very short introduction” (Oxford 2016), with Johann Bernoulli (1667-1748), Burchard de Volder (1643-1709), Bartholomew Des Bosses (1668-1738), Christian Wolff (1663-1709) and many others. His correspondence with the Newtonian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) mediated by Princess Caroline, constituted, as Antognazza underlined, “a treasure trove of mature views on a wide range of issues including for instance, the nature of space and time.”
At the same time he was in correspondence with the advisors of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1721), whom Leibniz served for a while as personal advisor in order to assist in the modernization of the Russian Empire. Simultaneously he corresponded with some leading Jesuits at the Imperial Court of the Chinese Emperor K’ang-his (1662-1722) and had an extensive correspondence with several diplomats in Europe as well as with leading Cardinals, such as Bossuet and representatives of the Catholic Church about the concept of “reunion” and a new “ecumenical alliance”.
Leibniz’ Method of Thinking
One of the main concepts of Leibniz was to emphasize that after the long devastating religious wars, society had to be guided by the idea of “Justice and Love”. Without the love for God, Leibniz had stated, it would not be possible to found a just society. By imitating God and by discovering new laws of nature, man lays the ground for improvement of man’s living conditions through bona opera (good works), Leibniz reasoned. In her short essay “Philosophy and Science in Leibniz” (2016) Prof. Rosa Maria Antognazza recently referred to the “Memoir for enlightened Persons” from the 1690ies, in which Leibniz had developed the idea that the real aim of his inquiries were dedicated to the promotion of the “Common Good” and to the fostering of “human happiness”. “Leibniz’ work in physics and his inquiries into the natural world were integral parts of an encyclopedic, systematic plan of development of all the sciences grounded in the unity of knowledge and ultimately aimed at human happiness” Antognazza wrote. Leibniz thought that there is no better way to celebrate the Glory of God in His creation “by advancing all the sciences and thereby improve the human condition.”
The Art of invention, the validity of Leibniz’ discoveries today
With his discoveries in mathematics (infinitesimal calculus, binary system) as well as in physics, his work on dynamics and energy and the “principle of conservation of energy” as well as his philosophical writings, Leibniz laid the basis for modern mathematics, informatics and physics. There is however an irony: In our time where all human knowledge and information of mankind seems to be made fully “accessible” by the method of “digitalization” and “tricky algorithms”, the irony remains, that in terms of “scientific method” which Leibniz applied, his “ars inveniendi (“art of discovery”) is considered by many scientists today as “irrelevant” and “baroque”. This is opposite to what the well- known German physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912-2007) told the author during a colloquium in Tübingen (2002), which celebrated his 90th birthday. When he was asked by the author what he considered as the greatest challenge for modern science, he answered “that modern physics must return to the ancient principles which Plato developed in his dialogue ‘Parmenides’, namely to the question how to solve the ‘Paradox’ between the ‘One and the Many’”.
Being a devout follower of Plato, G.W.Leibniz was puzzled by the same question and tried to demonstrate that there exists a “unity between science and metaphysics”. In his numerous philosophical investigations “Principles of Nature and Grace”, “Discourse on Metaphysics” and “Monadology” he wrote that between the particular fields of science there exists an underlying unity which itself is based on the metaphysical idea of a “Self- Sufficient Being”.
Leibniz saw himself in the footsteps of the ancient Greek philosophers Plato, as well as of Aristotle. As he once wrote in a letter to Remond ( correspondence Leibniz/ Remond 1714-1716) he qualified Plato’s method of thinking as one which defines the human mind as self –moving substance, as a “principle of action”. Leibniz conceived the human mind not as “matter”, but stated that mind has its origins in “metaphysical principles” which supersede the material. He sees man’s faculty to create universal ideas as an “inborn” faculty of man, very much as St. Paul understood it, whereby the laws of the universe are inscribed in the hearts of people. Ideas are “innate” in man’s nature and in every man there is a natural inclination, the “traces of natural law” which God inscribed in the heart of man, Leibniz had stated in his “New Essay on Human Understanding”.
In his metaphysical writings (“Principles of Nature and of Grace” and “Monadology” 1714) Leibniz demonstrated, that behind the phenomena of nature, there exists an eternal, invariant principle, which he calls “Sufficient Reason”, or “Necessary Existent”, which is its own cause: this ultimate cause is called God , i.e. in this universe there is nothing without “Sufficient Reason”.
Leibniz researcher Maria Rosa Antognazza in a little booklet “Leibniz- A very short Introduction” commented this by writing that “everything has ‘a sufficient reason why it should be thus and not otherwise, even though most often these reasons cannot be known to us’… This is Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason. To endorse the principle of sufficient reason is to endorse the through-going intelligibility- that is rationality- of reality. For Leibniz no fact could be found to be true or existing, and no proposition to be true, unless there is a sufficient reason.
The universe was not created by blind caprice, but rather was created as the “best of all possible worlds”, Leibniz wrote in “Principles of Nature and Grace” (1714). “God has chosen the best possible plan, in bringing forth the universe, according to the greatest multiplicity united with the greatest order: where place and time are used in the best way and where the greatest knowledge is brought forth in the simplest way: shortly by which Creation is given the greatest power, the greatest knowledge, the greatest luck and the greatest good, which the universe can take up in itself.”
Learning the lessons from Leibniz 300 years after his death is quite a challenge in a world which seems to have all information available. Yet what is needed today is his art of invention, his method of making fundamental discoveries. The numerous memoranda, which were written by him for the leading European rulers of his epoch, have left a “treasure for mankind”. For Leibniz the most important challenge was to contribute to “the Common Good” of mankind, to improve the life of all human beings through the advancement of science and to establish as stable and just political order in which the divisions amongst the Christian churches could be reconciled.
Wiesbaden, November 2016
Elisabeth Hellenbroich is author of the book “G.W. Leibniz. Um outro caminho. A atualidade do pensamento de um Ĝenio universal” (Capax Dei, Rio de Janeiro 2012)