Leibniz Reinterpreted. By Lloyd Strickland

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Pp. xii, 172 , London , Continuum , 2006 , $120.00.

Leibniz claimed that this was the ‘best possible world’, but what did he mean by the ‘best’? Strickland has trawled through all of the works available so far and given the best account to date; writing with verve and polish, he makes it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The one critique that could be made is that, though he engages thoroughly with recent scholarship, he eschews broader historical comparisons; in fact, he seems almost to avert his gaze wilfully from issues that cry for attention. For example, Strickland notes early that Leibniz was no lone optimist, but part of a larger group that included Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, Lord Shaftesbury, William King, Henry Bolingbroke, Alexander Pope, Christian Wolff, and (initially) even Voltaire and Kant. Yet Leibniz was born two years before the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the disastrous Thirty Years' War that mutilated the Holy Roman Empire; all these thinkers were further aware of the persecutions and wars of religion which had defaced and scarred Europe in the wake of the Reformation. There is a scent of ‘methinks they do protest too much’ here, which in Leibniz's case evolved into ‘whistling in the dark’, all of which Strickland studiously avoids. Specifically, Leibniz's subordination of freedom to a mathematical ‘reason’ to explain all action, and his mathematical parsing of the ‘harmony’, ‘simplicity’, and the resulting ‘richness’ which are the chief concerns and highest priorities in God's framing of the universe, in effect transform the world into a ‘thing’ that vies with and replaces God's concern with individual souls. Further, although placing himself under Augustine, Leibniz also sides with Lessing, converting a necessity into a virtue in our infinite distance from God, preferring the ‘perpetual search’ to the definitive finding, making novelty a precondition for pleasure and happiness, but thereby also limiting the transformation man can and should undergo to approximate union with God according to the classical (and earlier neo-Platonic) view. The result is that his philosophy of history lacks the tragic, and inevitably appears thin, superficial, and paltry in comparison with Augustine's. Leibniz always called the glass half full rather than half empty, but however much ‘progress’ we make, we always remain an infinite distance away from our goal. One comes away inclined to agree with Voltaire that the ‘God’ this optimist commits us to is indiscernibly different from a monster.

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