You know what the only downside is to LeibnizFest?* Reading the last chapter of that Antognazza biography.
Man, is it sad.
Leibniz did not have a very good time at the end of his life. “Leibniz’s last years were marred by frustration and loneliness,” is the first sentence of that last chapter, and unfortunately it is a very fitting first sentence. First, he’d outlived almost everyone he’d ever communicated with (most of them died in the 1690’s; Leibniz lived until 1716) and thus had very few people to communicate with. Second, he was still trying to recover his reputation after the whole calculus debate with Newton (and actually, I shouldn’t say “after” yet because Newton and his cronies (mostly his cronies) dragged that thing out well past Leibniz’ death). Third, he wanted desperately to keep traveling, but injury, poor health, and prior obligations basically forced him to stay put for a good several years. A quote of his from the bio: “I am shut in my room working and I hardly ever leave it.” This is coming from a man who took on innumerable projects just so that he’d have the excuse to travel and converse with people of different backgrounds and skills, so it’s super sad. And then, of course, there’s the fact that he basically died alone and was given very little recognition for his accomplishments until well after his death.
It’s heartbreaking to me to hear all the crappy things that happened to him in the last five or so years of his life. Someone with such a great mind, such compassion, and such good spirit deserved something better at the end.
UGH IT JUST MAKES ME UPSET, OKAY?
To end LeibnizFest on a lighter note, have a look at this Leibniz-centric website that has pretty much everything you could ever want on the amazing polymath. I have it bookmarked. I visit it a few times a week.
It’s a healthy obsession.
Anyway. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LEIBNIZ!
*I’m totally calling mid-June to mid-July LeibnizFest now; it’s gone beyond just celebrating on his birthday, let’s be honest.
Yes, I’m going to read this every June/July until I die.
No, I don’t think that’s a sign of an unhealthy obsession.
Also, I posted this awhile back, but I’m going to post it again because it’s a really good discussion of a good amount of Leibniz’ philosophical viewpoints.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
Let me tell you about this sexy, badass, wig-adorned genius, shall I?
I just finished Antognazzi’s amazingly thorough biography of him. As I mentioned, I had gotten to when he was 40 years old in the bio by the time I raved about him a few days ago, and so I still had about 30 more years to cover in the latter half of the book.
And let me tell you something: as fascinating as the first 40 years of his life appeared to be, the last 30 were even more amazing.
Here’s the run-down of awesomeness, presented in bullet form so that I can keep track of stuff.
- Leibniz was a very social man. He loved being with people, talking to them about everything and exchanging ideas and thoughts. According to the people in charge of archiving Leibniz’ work/letters/papers, he corresponded with no fewer than 1,100 individuals. That’s insane. And this wasn’t like “Facebook friends approve them and then never speak to them again” correspondence. This was “all his free time was consumed by writing letters to these other people” correspondence. Even when he was older and had bad gout, an injured leg, and was extremely near-sighted, he was still hell bent on getting out of Hanover to visit people. Probably the saddest aspect of this incredibly social demeanor, though, was the fact that he outlived the vast majority of people with whom he corresponded, including many of his closest friends. How sad must it have been for him to slowly lose these people over the course of like a decade (a LOT of them died in the 1690s; Leibniz lived until 1716).
- He. Did. Everything. Far from the “I’ll lock myself in this room and just think for all eternity” picture that I think we tend to have of philosophers, Leibniz was always just out doing stuff. Hell, he personally supervised some of his proposed improvements on the Harz mines (he had some ideas to keep them from flooding) and was constantly trying to start up scientific societies and journals across Germany. Though he appeared to consistently run into bad luck with these schemes throughout his life (money was always tight for him and it seemed like every time he got a project going there’d be one thing that’d go wrong and cause everything to fall apart), he never let go of many of his main projects aimed at improving the world.
- For all his running around in mainland Europe, he was not one to shirk (at least entirely) the duties set forth to him by his various employers. Example: his main employer in his later years, Georg Ludwig, put him in charge of writing a complete history of the House of Guelph (a dynasty of German and English monarchs). This was supposed to take like 10 years max but, Leibniz being Leibniz, he kept the task in the back of his mind as he traveled about and slowly began to amass a huge amount of information he deemed relevant to the history. Ludwig was always asking him, “Hey man, how’s that history comin’?” and Leibniz always managed to say, truthfully, that he was still researching, all the while sneakily making his way around the continent to do the other Leibniz things that he really wanted to focus on. However, as time went on and Leibniz continued to travel much to the dismay of his employer, tension rose between the two and Ludwig became more and more upset with him. I particularly enjoyed this little quote of frustration: “at the very least he [Leibniz] should tell me where he is going when he takes off. I never know where to find him.” By the time Ludwig was finally like, “Gottfried, dude, just sit your butt down and write this thing or I’m suspending your salary!” the amount of material Leibniz had gathered was so extensive that the history actually was left unfinished by the time he died. And that’s even with him spending the last 5 years or so of his life sequestered in his study (he was pretty much forbidden to travel by that point), frantically trying to get it done so that he could pursue more important tasks.
- I mentioned this before but it bears mentioning again, because it’s one of the main reasons I like Leibniz so much: it seems like he was a good guy. The idea a lot of people seem to have about European White Guys, especially of that era, is probably something along the lines of, “each one thought they themselves were correct in their thoughts, ideas, and philosophies, and all other cultures/genders/backgrounds/European White Guys were unquestionably wrong!” Leibniz communicated with men, women, uneducated people, very learned people, people from many different countries…and from what it sounds like, he was just very open to the possibility of views different than his own. He seemed to take it all in and use it—regardless of who/where it came from—to further refine what he himself believed or knew. He was also a major Sinophile, in part because of his interest in creating a “universal alphabet” and the parallels he saw between that and Chinese symbols/writing.
- Even when people disagreed with him he seemed to retain a polite congeniality in correspondence with the disagreeing party(ies). The one exception to this appears to be the final years (at least for him) of the calculus dispute. But by then he was really just like, “gettin’ real tired of your shit, Keill,” which honestly was quite a valid reaction by that point in time. (Side note: I really like how this biography talks about the calculus dispute but doesn’t make it the focus of Leibniz’ last few years of life. It really emphasizes that even though he was at war with freaking Isaac Newton and his cronies, he was still trying to bring his other more important projects to fruition).
Just…nnnf. I love this guy.
Man, I was going to restart my fiction list today with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I don’t think I can read anything else for a few days. I’m like in mourning now that I’ve finished this book. I seriously recommend reading it, even if you’re not a hardcore Leibniz fangirl/fanguy/whatev.
HOLY CRAP look what I got!!!
I completely forgot I asked for this, so it was a very pleasant surprise upon opening the box. It also made for a very amusing few minutes during which I was screaming with glee and my mom had to explain to her freaked out boyfriend that this reaction was natural.