Gottfried Leibniz, The Tragic Genius Of The Early Enlightenment

(Portrait of Gottfried Leibniz by Christoph Bernhard Francke  (1660–1729), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Education and Advancement

In 1646, one of the great Western minds was born in the city of Leipzig, within the Electorate of Saxony, in the Holy Roman Empire. The boy’s name was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and his path as an intellectual and an academic was seemingly set in stone from an early age. Leibniz’s father, Friedrich, was not only a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Leipzig, but was also the chairman of the university’s philosophy faculty. As a child, Gottfried Leibniz was undoubtedly influenced by the his father’s collection of books, as well as Friedrich Leibniz’s personal knowledge accumulated from years of academia.

In 1661, Gottfried Leibniz was accepted into the University of Leipzig, where he studies philosophy and law. He obtained his degree, and applied to be a doctoral candidate at Leipzig, yet the university declined his application. Most historians and observers cite Leibniz’s youth as a reason his application was refused. Nevertheless, he quickly shed any resentment or bitterness caused by the rejection and gained a doctorate elsewhere, at the University of Altdorf.

Once Leibniz obtained his doctorate, a friend named Johann Christian von Boyneburg helped the young scholar secure his first lofty job in 1667—a position with the Elector of Mainz. In the elector’s employment, Leibniz enjoyed around four years as a diplomat in Paris, France. There, he congregated with other intellectuals, such as the mathematician Christian Haygens. During his stay in Paris, Leibniz’s patrons, the Elector and Johann Boyneburg, both died in Mainz. The Duke of Brunswick immediately offered to employ Leibniz, a job he would eventually accept. Yet, for now, the scholar continued to procrastinate in Paris, managing to stay in the French Capital for a few more years.

In 1676, Gottfried Leibniz traveled to the domain of his new employers in Hanover, taking with him all the knowledge and inspiration he had gained in Paris. He would spend the remainder of his life employed in Hanover—these would be his most brilliant and prolific years.

The Lonely Genius

Gottfried Leibniz was a polymath, a man with a broad range of interests and numerous fields of study. One of the areas of interest that piqued Leibniz’s curiosity was mathematics. While he was serving as a diplomat in Paris, Leibniz began making breakthroughs in differential and integral calculus. Yet, unfortunately for Leibniz, another man was independently reaching the same mathematical conclusions in England—this other man’s name was Isaac Newton.


  (Portrait of Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1689), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


As it happened, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz were pen pals, and Newton sent Leibniz some of his findings concerning calculus. Consequently, when Leibniz realized that he and his English rival were both nearing the same monumental mathematical breakthrough, Leibniz quickly published his own findings on calculus.

When Newton heard the news, he speedily accused Gottfried Leibniz of plagiarism, an accusation that much of the academic community believed for the rest of Leibniz’s life. By the time Leibniz moved to Hanover in 1676, the man was largely an unappreciated outcast in the eyes of the scholarly world. For the rest of his life, Gottfried Leibniz would continue to refute Newton’s claims of plagiarism, which would only isolate Leibniz further and further from the scholarly world. Now, however, most historians and mathematicians have refuted the charge of plagiarism, finding that he and Newton both discovered differential and integral calculus at the same time, but independently of each other. Nevertheless, during Leibniz’s heyday in Hanover, much of his work was disregarded and overlooked.

In the court of the Dukes of Brunswick in Hanover, Gottfried Leibniz served as a librarian, historian and an advisor. During this time, he devoted much of his life to compiling a history for the duke’s family. Around 1687, Leibniz journeyed throughout Europe, searching archives and records to gather information to put into the history about his employer’s family. He returned to Hanover with his findings in 1690, and his genealogical work would later be crucial for strengthening Hanover’s claim to the English crown, with King George I becoming the first Hanoverian king of England in 1714.



  (Portrait of King George I of Britain, housed in the Yale University Art Gallery, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Gottfried Leibniz, however, did much more than simply research family history while he was in Hanover. After all, he was a polymath skilled in philosophy, diplomacy, law, engineering, mathematics, physics, logic and other academic subjects. He designed his own windmills and invented pumps to remove water from flooded silver mines in the Harz Mountains. He studied silk and linen textile production. He even wrote about water desalinization methods and was a pioneer in library cataloguing.

He did not limit himself to only one field of study. He wrote prolifically on different subjects and is known to have exchanged academic letters with at least six hundred people, such as Isaac Newton (before the plagiarism incident), Antoine Arnauld and Samuel Clarke. Many of the subjects that Gottfried Leibniz wrote about included the investigation of substance, space and time, reality (relation, composition and harmony), and some theology. Some of Leibniz’s most notable writings on metaphysics were his Discourse on Metaphysics (published in 1686), New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1704), Theodicy and Monadology (both published in 1710).

As Gottfried Leibniz grew older, his status continued to decrease. When Leibniz’s liege became King George I of England in 1714, the aging intellectual was left behind in Hanover, so as not to offend Isaac Newton, or Newton’s colleagues. Fortunately for Leibniz, he still had at least three women of note from the German nobility as his patrons—Charolotte of Hanover, Caroline of Ansbach and the Electress of Brunswick, Sophia (wife of King George I).



  (Portrait of Gottfried Leibniz by Johann Friedrich Wentzel  (1670–1729), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Gottfried Leibniz died in Hanover on November 14, 1716, after several months of being bedridden because of intense gout. He had never married, had no known children and very few of his relatives remained alive. Leibniz’s living relatives were so thin in number that the wealth that he had accumulated over years of service to the nobility of Hanover was left to his sister’s stepson. Tragically, according to legend, Gottfried Leibniz’s funeral was only attended by his personal secretary, and his grave was either unmarked or misplaced.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


Leave a Reply