The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Visit or contribute today!
Learn more about the process involved in ACH services
When it comes to the most prolific work in a lifetime, there is no early modern philosopher more qualified to take the crown than Gottfried Leibniz. As was the case with most philosophers of his time, Leibniz was a jack (even a master) of all trades, from physics and metaphysics to math, engineering, philosophy, science, geology, law, and history, among other things. The amount of writing and inventing he did during his life time is positively staggering, particularly when one considers that he did not have many of the same advantages of other men in this hallowed group. Still, that kind of production inevitably provokes hostility, and Leibniz did not spend his final years surrounded by the comforts earned by his work, as we shall see.
Leibniz was born in 1646, the son of a family that was no stranger to the best education in the territory. His father, Friedrich, was the professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Leipzig, and his mother was the daughter of a Professor of Law at that same school. This meant that from birth, it was assured that Gottfried would receive the finest of educations.
This outcome was not threatened by the passing of Leibniz's father when Gottfried was only six years old. Instead, his mother took over his education, along with her father, his uncle, and himself. He was given total access to the vast library his father had accumulated, and by the age of fourteen was fluent in Latin and had begun to learn Greek. It is worth noting that his mother was a dedicated Lutheran, and religion was to have an immediate and lasting effect on all of Leibniz's work.
At the age of fourteen, Leibniz began attending the University of Leipzig. At this time, the higher ideas prevalent in France and England had not made their way to the German speaking lands of Europe, in large part due to their small sizes and their debts after years of war. Although Leibniz did succeed in the areas where he received education, he was limited in many academic areas; his papers demonstrated a good understanding of traditional math, for example, but were far from cutting edge, as far as British and French standards. Moreover, the German speaking universities had not yet made the jump from the Scholastic-only schools of philosophical thought and Leibniz lacked exposure to the newer ideas of other early modern philosophers. This discrepancy in available learning was to haunt Leibniz for most of his life, and accounts for the extreme wanderlust in which he would later indulge.
After graduating from Leipzig, Leibniz (somewhat put out after failing to secure promises of employment) switched schools and began to attend the University of Atdorf. He achieved his doctorate of law from this institution in five months, but declined a professorship in favour of employment from the Elector of Mainz. The Elector hired Leibniz as his assistant and Gottfried would stay with this family until his dismissal in 1674.
During his stint with the Elector and his family, Leibniz began to receive a lot of attention for his ideas and for his adaptability. He assisted the Elector in many political arenas, which earned him the chance to travel, specifically to Paris. It was at this time that Leibniz the Intellectual truly began to flourish.
In Paris, Leibniz began to meet the leading intellects of his time, including Arnauld and Malebranche, Pascal and Huygens. Huygens, in particular, would have an incredible impact on Leibniz, tutoring him in the latest patterns of thought in the areas of physics, philosophy, and mathematics. During his stay in Paris, Leibniz would also invent the first calculator in the world, and would take a trip to London. His invention would earn him an honorary membership in the Royal Society.
Unfortunately, Leibniz was forced to leave his cutting edge intellectual life in Paris when his employer died and he was hired by the ruler of Hanover. This German speaking duchy was where Leibniz would spend the remainder of his life, isolated from the knowledge that he craved and hampered by several situations from delving full time into intellectual pursuits. For this reason, it is even more astounding how much the man was able to produce during his lifetime.
And perhaps it is the difficulty to process that one man could really do so much work that led to the real problems that Leibniz would face in his waning years, for it was then that he would face charges of plagiarism from the Royal Society, led by Isaac Newton, who asserted the Leibniz had stolen his ideas for the calculus. Other mentions of stolen material came forward, some from the Spinoza camp, and Leibniz died in 1716 under a cloud of suspicion and far from the light of learning that he craved.