A CHASM of character and thought separates Spinoza from Leibniz. The solitary Jew, cast out by Judaism, not accepting Christianity, living in poverty in an attic room, finishing only two books, slowly evolving a boldly original philosophy that would alienate all the religions, and dying of consumption at forty-four; the German man of the world, busy with statesmen and courts, traveling through nearly all of Western Europe, spreading his feelers into Russia and China, accepting both Protestantism and Catholicism, welcoming and using a dozen systems of thought, writing half a hundred treatises, embracing God and the world with desperate optimism, living out his threescore years and ten, and resembling his predecessor only in the loneliness of his funeral: here in one generation are the antipodes of modern philosophy.
But before we come to this protean mosaic of a man, let us acknowledge some minor credits to German thought. Samuel von Pufendorf began his trajectory in 1632, in the same year as Spinoza and Locke. After studying at Leipzig and Jena he went to Copenhagen as tutor in the family of a Swedish diplomat; was arrested with him when Sweden declared war upon Denmark; and tempered the tedium of imprisonment by constructing a system of international law. Released, he moved to Leiden, where he published the results as Elementa Jurisprudentiae universalis (1661), which so pleased Charles Louis of the Palatinate (the same who later invited Spinoza) that the Elector called him to Heidelberg, and created for him a professorship in natural and international law—the first such chair in history. There Pufendorf composed a study of the German realm, De Statu Imperii Germanici, Liber Unus (1667), which shocked Leopold I by attacking the Holy Roman Empire and its emperors. Pufendorf migrated to Sweden and the University of Lund (1670), where he published his chef d’oeuvre, De lure Naturae et Gentium (1672). Attempting to mediate between Hobbes and Grotius, Pufendorf identified the “law of nature” not with the “war of each against all,” but with the dictates of “right reason.” He extended “natural rights” (rights belonging to all rational beings) to Jews and Turks, and argued that international law should hold not only among Christian states, but equally in their relations with “infidels.” He preceded Jean Jacques Rousseau by almost a century in declaring that the will of the state is, and should be, the sum of the wills of its constituent individuals; but he thought slavery desirable as a way of reducing the number of beggars, tramps and thieves. 1
Some Swedish pastors thought these theories made too little account of God and the Bible in political philosophy; they urged that Pufendorf be returned to Germany; but Charles XI called him to Stockholm and made him historiographer royal. The professor repaid him by writing a biography of the King and a history of Sweden. In 1687, perhaps with an eye to travel, Pufendorf dedicated to the Great Elector of Brandenburg a treatise on the relation of the Christian religion to civil life (De Habitu christianae Religionis ad Vitam civilem), defending toleration. He soon accepted a call to Berlin, became historiographer to Frederick William, was made a baron, and died (1694). His writings remained for half a century the dominant works in political and legal philosophy in Protestant Europe, and their realistic analysis of social relations helped events to deflate the theory of the divine right of kings.
The decline in the theological interpretation of human affairs was accentuated by the careers of Balthasar Bekker and Christian Thomasius. Bekker was a Dutch pastor ministering to a flock in Friesland. Having spoiled his faith with Descartes, he proposed to apply reason to Scripture. He interpreted Biblical devils as popular delusions or metaphors; he traced the pre-Christian history of the idea of Satan, held it an interpolation into Christianity, concluded that the Devil was a myth, and blasted him out of existence in a Dutch manifesto, De betooverte Wereld (The Bedeviled World, 1691). The Church severely censured Bekker, feeling that fear of the Devil is the beginning of wisdom. The Devil suffered some loss in prestige, but not in devotees.
Thomasius carried on the battle. While continuing to accept the Scriptures as a guide to religion and salvation, he aspired to follow the rule of reason, to believe only up to the evidence, and to encourage religious toleration. As professor of natural law at Leipzig (1684–90), he offended the faculty and the ministry by the originality of his views, methods, and language. He countered the superstitions of his time with lusty German laughter; he agreed with Bekker in exorcizing the Devil from religion; he denounced the belief in witchcraft as shameful ignorance, and the persecution of “witches” as criminal brutality; through his influence trials for sorcery were ended in Germany. To make matters worse, he lectured his students in German instead of Latin, taking half the dignity out of pedagogy. In 1688 he began to pubish a periodical review of books and ideas; we should have called it the first serious journal in German, but it took its erudition with a light heart, coated scholarship with humor, and called itself Scherzhafte und ernsthafte, vernünftige und einfältige Gedanken über allerhand lustige und nützliche Bücher und Fragen (Jocose and Earnest, Rational and Silly Thoughts on All Kinds of Pleasant and Useful Books and Questions). His defense of the Pietists against the orthodox clergy, and of intermarriage between Lutherans and Calvinists, so alarmed the authorities that they forbade him to write or lecture, and finally ordered his arrest (1690). He escaped to Berlin; the Elector Frederick III gave him a professorship at Halle; he took part in organizing the university there, and soon made it the liveliest intellectual center in Germany. In 1709 Leipzig invited him to return; he refused, and remained at Halle thirty-four years, to the end of his life. He inaugurated the Aufklärung which produced Lessing and Frederick the Great.
Some of the enthusiasts pushed their revolt to the extremes of atheism. Matthias Knutzen of Holstein discarded all supernatural belief; “insuper Deum negamus”—above all we deny God. 2 He proposed to replace Christianity, its churches, and its priests with a positivist “religion of humanity” in full anticipation of Auguste Comte, and to base morality solely on the naturalistic education of conscience (1674). He claimed seven hundred followers; this was probably an exaggeration; but we observe that between 1662 and 1713 at least twenty-two works were published in Germany aiming to spread or refute atheism. 3
Leibniz deplored “the apparent triumph of freethinkers.” “In our day,” he wrote, toward 1700, “many people have scant respect for Revelation . . . or miracles.” 4 And he added, in 1715: “Natural religion is growing very much weaker. Many hold that souls are corporeal; others that God Himself is corporeal. Mr. Locke and his followers are doubtful whether souls are not material and naturally perishable.” 5 Leibniz was not too firm in his own faith; but as a man of the world and its courts, he wondered where the rising rationalism would end, and what it would do to churches, morals, and thrones. Could the rationalists be answered in their own terms, and the faith of the fathers be rescued for the health of the children?