Leibniz & Spinoza

by Heinrich Heine

Germany has always shown a dislike for materialism and hence became for a century and a half the true arena of idealism. The Germans also went to the school of Descartes, and the name of his great disciple was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz. As Locke followed the materialistic direction of his master, Leibnitz followed the idealistic direction. In Leibnitz we find the doctrine of innate ideas in its most decisive form. In his Nouveaux essays sur l'entendement humain he opposed Locke. With Leibnitz there sprang up among the Germans a great passion for philosophical studies. He awakened their minds and directed them into new paths. Because of the inherent kindliness, the religious feeling that animated his writings, even his opponents became reconciled in some measure to their boldness, and their effect was enormous. The boldness of this thinker is shown particularly in his theory of monads, one of the most remarkable hypotheses that ever originated from the mind of a philosopher. It is also the best thing he produced, for in it there already dawns the perception of the most important laws that have been accepted by modern philosophy. The theory of monads was perhaps only a crude formulation of these laws, which have now been expressed in better formulas by the philosophers of nature. Actually, instead of the word "law," I ought to say here simply "formula," for Newton is quite right when he remarks that what we call laws of nature does not really exist, that these are only formulas which help our power of comprehension to explain a succession of phenomena in nature. Of all the writings of Leibnitz', the Theodicy is the one that has been most discussed in Germany. Yet it is his weakest work. This book, like several other writings in which Leibnitz' religious spirit finds expression, exposed him to many a malicious rumor and much cruel misunderstanding. His enemies accused him of maudlin silliness; his friends, defending him, made him out to be a sly hypocrite. Leibnitz' character remained a subject of controversy among us for a long time. The fairest critics could not absolve him from the accusation of duplicity. The freethinkers and men of enlightenment reviled him most. How could they forgive a philosopher for having defended the Trinity, eternal punishment in Hell, and, worst of all, the divinity of Christ! Their tolerance did not go so far as that. But Leibnitz was neither a fool nor a knave, and from his serene heights he could very well defend the whole of Christianity. I say the whole of Christianity, for he defended it against semi‑Christianity. He demonstrated the consistency of the orthodox as opposed to the halfheartedness of their adversaries. More than this he never intended. And thus he stood at that neutral point of equilibrium where the most diverse systems seem to be merely different sides of the same truth. Mr. Schelling later also recognized this neutral point, and Hegel established it scientifically as a system of systems. In the same manner Leibnitz tried to reconcile Plato and Aristotle. Even in subsequent times this attempt has been made often enough in Germany. Has the problem been solved?

No, certainly not! For this problem is nothing less than a settlement of the struggle between idealism and materialism. Plato is an idealist through and through and recognizes only inborn or rather co‑born ideas; man brings ideas with him into the world, and when he becomes conscious of them, they seem to him like recollections of a former state of existence. Hence the vagueness and mysticism of Plato; his recollections are sometimes more clear, sometimes less. With Aristotle, however, everything is clear, intelligible, certain; for his perceptions are not revelations connected with any pre‑existence; he draws everything from experience and can classify everything with the utmost precision. He therefore remains a model for all empiricists, and they cannot thank God enough that He made him Alexander's teacher, that due to his lord's conquests Aristotle found so many opportunities for the advancement of science, and that his victorious pupil gave him so many thousand talents of gold for zoological research. The old master used this money conscientiously, and with it was able to dissect a respectable number of mammals and to stuff a like number of birds, and in so doing made very important observations. But the great beast which he had right before his eyes, which he had reared himself, and which was far more remarkable than the whole world‑menagerie of that time, he overlooked, alas, and failed to investigate. He has indeed left us totally without information about the nature of that youthful king whose life and deeds we still marvel at as wonder and enigma. Who was Alexander? What did he want? Was he a madman or a god? To this day we do not know. But Aristotle gives us all the more complete information about Babylonian monkeys, Indian parrots, and Greek tragedies, the last of which he also dissected .

Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely the two systems but also the representatives of two different types of human beings who have opposed each other more or less hostilely in many different guises since time immemorial. Especially throughout the entire Middle Ages and right up to the present day this conflict raged, and it is the most essential part of the history of the Christian church. The discussion is always about Plato and Aristotle, though under other names. Visionary, mystical, Platonic natures reveal from the depths of their being Christian ideas and the corresponding symbols. Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures construct out of these ideas and symbols a solid system, a dogma, and a cult. The Church ultimately embraces both natures, the one group usually entrenching itself within the clergy, the other within monasticism, yet feuding with each other incessantly. The same struggle is evident in the Protestant church, the conflict between Pietists and Orthodox, who correspond after a fashion to the Catholic mystics and dogmatists. The Protestant Pietists are mystics without imagination, and the orthodox Protestants are dogmatists without intelligence.

We find these two Protestant groups engaged in bitter combat at the time of Leibnitz, whose philosophy intervened later when Christian Wolf made himself master of it, adapted it to contemporary needs, and, most important of all, lectured on it in German. Before giving more information about this pupil of Leibnitz, however, about the effects of his endeavors, and about the subsequent fate of Lutheranism, we must mention the providential man who, at the same time as Locke and Leibnitz, had educated himself in the school of Descartes, had for a long time been viewed only with scorn and hatred, and who nevertheless today is rising to exclusive supremacy in the world of intellect.

I am speaking about Benedict Spinoza.

One great genius shapes himself by means of another, less through assimilation than through friction. One diamond polishes the other. Thus Descartes' philosophy did not originate, but merely furthered, Spinoza's. Hence we find in the pupil, first of all, the method of the master; this is a great gain. We also find in Spinoza, as in Descartes, a method of demonstration borrowed from mathematics. This is a great defect. The mathematical form gives Spinoza's work a harsh exterior. But this is like the hard shell of the almond; the kernel is all the more delightful. On reading Spinoza we are seized by an emotion similar to that which we feel at the sight of great Nature in her most animated composure. A forest of heaven‑aspiring thoughts whose blossoming treetops are tossing like waves, while the immovable trunks are rooted in the eternal earth. There is a certain mysterious aura about Spinoza's writings. The air of the future seems to flow over us. Perhaps the spirit of the Hebrew prophets still hovered over their late‑born descendant. There is, withal, a seriousness in him, a confident pride, a solemn dignity of thought, which also seem to be a part of his inheritance; for Spinoza belonged to one of those martyr families exiled from Spain by the most Catholic of kings. Added to this is the patience of the Hollander, which was always revealed in the life of the man as well as in his writings.

It is a fact that Spinoza's life was beyond reproach and pure and spotless as the life of his divine cousin, Jesus Christ. Like Him, he too suffered for his teachings; like Him he wore the crown of thorns. Wherever a great mind expresses its thought, there is Golgotha.

Dear reader, if you go to Amsterdam sometime, have a guide show you the Spanish synagogue. It is a beautiful building. The roof rests on four colossal pillars, and in the center stands the pulpit from which excommunication was pronounced on the man who despised the Mosaic law, the hidalgo Don Benedict de Spinoza. On such an occasion a ram's horn called the shophar was blown. There must be something very frightening about this horn. For, as I once read in the life of Salomon Maimon, when the rabbi of Altona once tried to lead him, the pupil of Kant, back again to the old faith, and when he stubbornly persisted in his philosophical heresies, the rabbi resorted to threats, showed him the shophar, and asked sinisterly, "Do you know what this is?" But when Kant's pupil replied with calm indifference, "It is a ram's horn," the rabbi fell flat on his back from horror.

The excommunication of Spinoza was accompanied by the sound of this horn; he was solemnly expelled from the communion of Israel and declared unworthy henceforth of bearing the name of Jew. His Christian enemies were magnanimous enough to leave him the name. The Jews, however, the Swiss guard of deism, were inexorable, and the place is still pointed out in front of the Spanish synagogue in Amsterdam where they once tried to stab Spinoza with their long daggers.

I could not refrain from calling particular attention to these personal misfortunes of the man. It was not merely schooling that shaped him, but life as well. In this he is different from most philosophers, and in his writings we recognize the indirect influence of his own life. Theology was for him not simply a branch of knowledge. Nor was politics. This too he became acquainted with through experience. His fiancée's father was hung in the Netherlands for political offenses. And nowhere in the world are people so badly hung as in the Netherlands. You have no idea what innumerable preparations and ceremonies are connected with the procedure. The delinquent dies of boredom while these are going on, and the spectator has plenty of time for reflection. So I am convinced that Benedict Spinoza reflected a great deal on the execution of old Van Ende, and just as he had previously learned to understand religion by its daggers, so now he learned to understand politics by its ropes. His Tractatus politicus gives evidence of this.

My aim is merely to point out how the philosophers are related to each other, and whether more or less closely, and I shall show only the degrees of relationship and the genealogy. The philosophy of Spinoza, the third son on René Descartes, as he teaches it in his main work, the Ethics, is as remote from the materialism of his brother Locke as from the idealism of his brother Leibnitz. Spinoza does not torment himself with analytical inquiry into the ultimate grounds of our knowledge. He gives us his grand synthesis, his explanation of the Deity.

Benedict Spinoza teaches: there is only one substance, and that is God. This one substance is infinite; it is absolute. All finite substances originate from it, are contained in it, arise out of it, are immersed in it; they have only a relative, transient, accidental existence. The absolute substance is revealed to us both in the form of infinite thought and in the form of infinite dimension. These two, infinite thought and infinite dimension, are the two attributes of the absolute substance. We recognize only these two attributes, but it is possible that God, the absolute substance, has other attributes that we do not know. "Non dico, me deum omnino cognoscere, sed me quaedam ejus attributa, non autem omnia, neque maximam intelligere partem."

Only stupidity and malice could attach to this doctrine the epithet "atheistic." No one has ever spoken more sublimely of the Deity than Spinoza. Instead of saying that he denied God, one might say that he denied man. All finite things are to him only modi of the infinite substance. All finite things are contained in God; the human mind is but a light‑ray of infinite thought; the human body is but a particle of the infinite dimension. God is the infinite cause of both, of spirits and of bodies, natura naturans.

In a letter to Madame du Deffant Voltaire professes himself quite delighted at a sally of this lady's, who had said that everything man can know absolutely nothing about is certainly of such a nature that knowledge about it would be of no use to him. I would like to apply this remark to the passage from Spinoza just quoted in his own words, according to which not only the two knowable attributes, thought and dimension, pertain to the Deity, but also possibly other attributes that we cannot know. What we cannot know has no value for us, at least no value from a social point of view, where the important thing is to bring to realization as a corporeal phenomenon what the intellect perceives. In our explanation of the nature of God, therefore, we refer only to these two knowable attributes. And besides, everything we call an attribute of God is ultimately but a different form of our intuition, and these different forms are identical in the absolute substance. Thought is, after all, only invisible dimension, and dimension is only visible thought. Here we come to the main point of the German Philosophy of Identity, which in essence differs in no way from the doctrine of Spinoza. No matter how violently Mr. Schelling may protest that his philosophy is different from Spinozism, that it is rather "a living amalgam of the ideal and the real," that it differs from Spinozism "as the perfection of Greek sculpture differs from the rigid Egyptian originals," nevertheless I must declare most emphatically that in his earlier period, when he was still a philosopher, Mr. Schelling did not differ in the slightest from Spinoza. He merely arrived at the same philosophy by a different path. I shall illustrate this later when I tell how Kant entered on a new path, how Fichte followed him, how Mr. Schelling in turn continued in Fichte's footsteps and, wandering lost in the forest darkness of nature philosophy, finally found himself face to face with the great figure of Spinoza.

The only merit of modern nature philosophy is that it demonstrated most ingeniously the eternal parallelism between spirit and matter. I say spirit and matter, and I use these terms as equivalents for what Spinoza calls thought and dimension. These terms are also, to some extent, synonymous with what our nature philosophers call spirit and nature or the ideal and the real.

In what follows I shall designate by the name Pantheism not so much Spinoza's system as his way of viewing things. Pantheism, like Deism, assumes the unity of God. But the god of the pantheist is in the world itself, not by permeating it with his divinity in the manner which St. Augustine tried to illustrate by comparing God to a large lake and the world to a large sponge lying in the middle of it and absorbing the Deity—no, the world is not merely God‑imbued, God‑impregnated; it is identical with God. "God," called by Spinoza the one and only substance, and by German philosophers the absolute, "is everything that exists"; He is matter as well as spirit, both are equally divine, and whoever insults the sanctity of matter is just as sinful as he who sins against the Holy Ghost.

SOURCE: Heine, Heinrich. "Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany," translated by Helen Mustard, in: The Romantic School and Other Essays, edited by Jost Hermand and Robert C. Holub (New York: Continuum, 1985) [The German Library; no. 33],. pp. 170-176 (sans footnotes).

Note: this is the first volume of Heine's essays you must get, for it contains his two seminal works of philosophical and ideological criticism—this one on religion and philosophy in Germany, and The Romantic School. An alternative translation of the former by John Snodgrass was published under the title Religion and Philosophy in Germany. The other essential compilation of Heine's prose writings is Frederic Ewen's Heinrich Heine: Self Portrait and Other Prose Writings. See my bibliography.

Heinrich Heine on Spinoza and Our Lenses

Heinrich Heine on German Romantic Orientalism

"Spinoza" poem by Jorge Luis Borges

"Baruch Spinoza" poem by Jorge Luis Borges

"Zu Spinozas Ethik" (On Spinoza's Ethics) — poem by Albert Einstein

"Spinoza, the First Secular Jew?" by Yirmiyahu Yovel

Spinoza’s World-View by A. M. Deborin

Spinoza's Attributes by Constantin Brunner

Spinoza en Esperantujo

Heinrich Heine: “Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam” (The Lonely Fir Tree), with links

“Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam” by Heinrich Heine with English translations

Heinrich Heine: Selected Bibliography

The Young Hegelians: Selected Bibliography

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Leibniz & Ideology: Selected Bibliography

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

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