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Leibniz’ “optical” Response to the Theologico-Political Treatise

Letter 45, Leibniz to Spinoza…

Leibniz wrote a short, almost entirely ignored by scholarship letter to Spinoza whose subject seems to be a lens invention of Leibniz’s, a “pandochal” (all receiving) lens which may have been something of a fish eye. What is of interest is the nature of the optical conflation Leibniz seems to be performing, and how this letter is sent right in the middle of the brewing tempest of the Spinoza’s blasphemous and anonymous Theological-Political Treatise. Leibniz appears to be offering, as he slandering Spinoza on the side, an optical Ideal world of pure perception, one which Spinoza ultimately shrugs off.

The Problem of the TTP

Leibniz’ letter to Spinoza on an issue of optics occurs just as he is positioning himself in correspondence with others who are outraged by Spinoza’s recently published Theologico-Political Treatise. Some of exchange:

Graevius writes on April 12, 1671, concerning TTP,

Last year there appeared this most pernicious book, whose title is Discursus Theologico-Politicus, a book which, having pursued a Hobbesian path, nevertheless quite often deviates rather far even from that, sets up the height of injustice as natural law, and having undermined the authority of sacred scripture, has opened the window very wide to ungodliness. Its author is said to be a Jew, named Spinoza, who was previously excommunicated from the synagogue because of his wicked opinions, but his book has also been proscribed for the same reason by the authorities. I think that you have seen it, but if you haven’t, I shall make it a point to have a copy sent to you. (A I, i, 142)

Leibniz’s replies, May 5 1671:

I have read Spinoza’s book. I grieve that a man of his evident learning should have fallen so far into error. Hobbes’ Leviathan has laid the foundations of the critique he carries out against the sacred books, but that critique can be shown to often be defective. These things tend to overturn the Christian Religion, which has been established by the precious blood of the martyrs and by such great labors and vigilance. If only someone could be stirred to activity who was equal to Spinoza in erudition, but [dedicated?] to the Christian cause, who might refute his frequent paralogisms and abuse of oriental letters. (A I, i, 148)

And then after his Letter 45 and 46 exchange with Spinoza, he writes to Gottlieb Spitzel, urging an erudite refutation,

Doubtless you have seen the book published in Holland, called The Liberty of Philosophizing. They say the author is a Jew. He employs a judgment which, while indeed erudite, is at the same time interspersed with much poison against the antiquity, genuineness, and authority of the sacred scripture of the Old Testament. In the interests of piety he should be refuted by some man solidly learned in Oriental studies, such as yourself or someone like you. (A I, i, 193)

Leibniz’s optical letter to Spinoza, given the epistolary machinations – and it is interesting that Leibniz hides from Spitzel the fact that he already knows Spinoza to be the author of TTP as Spinoza had incriminatingly offered to send Leibniz a copy of the text – reads as a scientico-political entreaty to the author of the Theologico-Political Treatise, an engagement of radical politics through science. This is supported by the very nature of the optical work that Leibniz includes. If one reads Leibniz’s very short A Note on Advanced Optics (“Notitia opticae promotae”) one sees that the intent of the work is to see in the perfection of optics a unification of all people under a rational perception of the world, framed as a distinctly political ambition of drawing heroic men together on a single path. Leibniz’s newly invented “Pandochal” (all-receiving [of rays]) lens, seems to manifest for him the rational and political power of his thought.

“Notitia opticae promotae” and J. Hudde

Also of significance is that Leibniz requests that his “Notitia opticae promotae” be forwarded to Johannes Hudde, who is on the verge of being appointed as Burgomaster of Amsterdam (a position he would hold for 30 years). Spinoza writes back that Hudde tells him that he is quite busy, but will look at the text in a week or two. This shows that Hudde and Spinoza are still in contact (despite the climbing rancor over his TTP); but also, it is from Hudde’s optical treatise, “Specilla circularia” that Spinoza composes much of his anti-Cartesian, or at least anti-hyperbolic, arguments. Leibniz, having himself studied Hudde’s Specilla, seems to be aware of this connection between the two men, and his conflation of the political and the optical in the Notitia, in part as a response to Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise, marks out what is at stake in the literalization of optical metaphors for some at the time.

Given this, it is most interesting how Spinoza responds to Leibniz’s Notitia and letter. He takes up, not in the least, the invitation of an optical-political conflation, but simply asks for a clarification how Leibniz conceives of spherical aberration, and thus how his Pandochal lenses might allow an aperture any size. And, then a month later offers to send Leibniz a copy of the Theologico-Political Treatise, if he had not read it.

Spinoza’s Refusal

Whether this separation out of the questions of optics from the questions of politics by Spinoza represents extreme circumspection on his part, or a genuine difference in concept with Leibniz, we cannot say with certainty. It makes sense that at this time Spinoza must be very sure of the motives of all who respond to his TTP, as his friend Koerbagh has only recently died in prison over published texts (August . But I suspect that optical theory does not represent for Spinoza what it does for Leibniz. It does not hold “secrets” which will put all of man into much more rational communication. I suspect that this is because Spinoza’s path to freedom is quiet divorced from metaphors of light, pictures or imagery, and that he viewed the products of observations accomplished through telescopes and microscopes with as informing, but not revealing the nature of things.

Leibniz’s exactly timed letter and its implicit optical-political conflation makes a very good case study for Spinoza. For Spinoza would like to treat even something as fluid as human emotion as if it were the lines and planes of Euclidean geometry. His resistance to Leibniz’ enthusiasm for his pandochal lens, and the rhetoric of illustrious men marching together on the rational path, marks out I think, a certain sobriety toward questions of science; or perhaps greater finesse in understanding the totality of causes at play at that very volatile crossroads in history, the full and ballasting weight of the joined, imaginary perception of the social, something not to be solved by, or even addressed by the capacities of a paricular kind of lens.

Pythagorian Spinoza?

Leibniz’s Summation

Of some significance, here I post a summation of Spinoza’s philosophy, as passed through the mouth of a loyal friend, Tschirnhaus, and as relayed to Leibniz in 1675, originally published in English by Wim Klever. It draws out some curious Klever might say esoteric aspects of Spinoza’s thinking. Most distinct about it is the notion that Spinoza held a Pythagorian idea of a transmigration of the Mind. Besides the obvious distortions that can be brought about through one man telling another man what someone else believes, there remains the possibility that the account is somehow intentionally colored in details, either to couch Spinoza, or to put him in a personally favorable light:

As Klever relates:

“In spite of Spinoza’s warning that Tschirnhaus should be reluctant in communicating what he had received for private use, we know that Tschirnhaus nonetheless revealed many secrets to the inquisitive Leibniz. This appears from a note written by Leibniz which he must have made shortly after a meeting. I think it worthwhile to quote this note here in full because it enables us to see how Spinoza’s doctrine was perceived, understood, and explained by his friends and followers in or around 1675. A second reason is that this note which is not known by many scholars and iis not yet available otherwise in English contains several interesting points which cannot be found elsewhere and is also for that reason relevant:

Sir Tischirnhaus told me many things about the handwritten book of Spinoza. There is a merchant in Amsterdam, called Gerrit Gilles [Jarig Jelles] I think who supports Spinoza. Spinoza’s book will be about God, mind, happiness or the idea of the perfect man, the recovery of the mind and the recovery of the body. He asserts the demonstration of a number of things about God. The he alone is free. He supposes that freedom exists when the action or determination originates not from an external impact, but only from the nature of the actor. In this sense he justly ascribes freedom to God alone.

According to him the mind itself is in a certain sense a part of God. He thinks that there is a sense in all things to the degrees of their existence. God is defined by him as an absolutely infinite Being, which contains all perfections, i.e. affirmations or realities or what may be conceived. Likewise only God would be substance or a Being which exists in itself, or which can be understood by itself; all creatures are nothing else other than modes. Man is free insofar as he is not determined by any external things. But because this is never the case, man is not free at all, though he participates more in freedom than the bodies.

The mind would be nothing but the idea of the body. He thinks that the unity of the bodies is caused by a certain pressure. Most people’s philosophy starts with creatures, Des Cartes started with the mind, he [Spinoza] starts with God. Extension does not imply divisibility as was unduly supposed by Descartes; although he supposed to see this also clearly, he fell into the error that the mind acts on the body or is acted upon by the body.

He thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge that he calls intuitive, of which of which only a few are conscious. Because knowledge is either sensual, imaginative, or intuitive. He believes a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that the mind goes from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher. He thinks that apart from thought and extension there are an infinity of other positive attributes, but that in all of them there is thought like here in extension. How they are constituted cannot be conceived by us but every one is infinite like space here (“Spinoza’s life and works” Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, 46-47)


I posted below some rough thoughts I had some time ago, and their related Spinoza texts. Klever’s evidence of a kind of at least percieved Pythagorian transmigration adds an esoteric meaning to Spinoza’s mathematization. And while I cannot conceive how such a transformation could be understood within the propositions of the Ethics [on what account is the preservation of identity maintained], it does give conceptual context for some of the more difficult to interpret passages on this issue.

Notable as well is the summation’s deviation from Spinoza’s theory of the three knowledges as found in the Ethics. Here, the trinity of “imaginary, rational, intuitive” has become “sensual, imaginary, intuitive”. Assuming an accurate translation of the passage, this may give some clue to the differences of Spinoza’s treatment of the Imaginary and Order (spoken about here, in Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order). Professor Della Rocca in correspondence had affirmed his belief that Spinoza is somewhat inconsistent in his treatment of “order” in the various parts of the Ethics. What is suggested by the Leibniz summation, perhaps, is that even the rational, propositional conception of true and free in Spinoza is still imaginary; this may be linked to Spinoza’s variation on whether we can or cannot ever have wholly Adequate Ideas.


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