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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.

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