Leibniz: before and after Pangloss

Writing in 1751, Voltaire celebrated and yearned for the vibrancy of the previous decades when Europe had seemingly experienced an intellectual renaissance. This golden age, the ‘Age of Louis XIV’, as he came to term it in his eponymous historical work (the Siècle de Louis XIV), had surpassed all previous centuries in terms of the various discoveries and institutions it had helped foster in the sciences and the arts. These, unlike political matters, would stand the test of time and forever attest to the capacities of human reason.

During this period, Voltaire wrote, ‘the human mind made the greatest progress’ [1], ‘[acquiring] throughout Europe greater lights than in all the ages that preceded it’, mainly through the tireless and often anonymous labours of several geniuses who, spread across Europe, ‘[had] enlightened and comforted the world during the wars that spread desolation through it’. This ‘Republic of Letters’ had gradually imposed itself throughout Europe, oblivious to the religious and political schisms that had torn it apart: ‘The arts and sciences, all of them thus received mutual assistance from each other, and the academies helped to form this republic […] the truly learned of every denomination have strengthened the band of this great society of geniuses, which is universally diffused, and everywhere independent’.

Even though this network’s influence had considerably waned in Voltaire’s time, it had subsisted over the years bringing comfort to mankind over the ‘evils which ambition and politics scatter through the world’.

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

Ironically enough for the future author of Candide (1759) and creator of the infamous character Dr Pangloss, it was none other than the German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), ‘perhaps a man of the most universal learning in Europe’, who had animated the universal network of communication that underpinned the intellectual revolution that had taken place decades earlier. Indeed, through Leibniz’s intervention, ‘there never was a more universal correspondence kept between philosophers than at this period’.

Already as a young man, steadily expanding his network of correspondents, Leibniz prided himself on having entered into literary commerce with many of the most learned scholars in Europe. In a letter of August 1671 to Peter Lambeck, historian and librarian at the Imperial Court in Vienna, he highlights the wide geographical distribution of his network, listing the most notable names according to country – Athanasius Kircher and Francesco de Lana in Italy, Otto von Guericke and Hermann Conring in Germany, the royal librarian Pierre de Carcavi, Louis Ferrand, and others in France, Henry Oldenburg and John Wallis in England, Johann Georg Graevius and Lambert van Velthuysen in the Low Countries, and so on.

Leibniz chose his correspondents purposefully. By establishing an epistolary commerce with the secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in 1670, at an early stage in his career, Leibniz sought entry into the leading scientific institution of his day. Moreover, he was successful in this enterprise, producing within a year a new physical hypothesis dealing with many of the concerns of the London virtuosi at the time.

In the case of Antoine Arnauld, he sought to subject his philosophical ideas to the scrutiny and criticism of one of France’s most astute thinkers who was also a leading Catholic theologian. Since Leibniz was, alongside his various other projects, seeking to bring about Christian reconciliation, he was additionally able to test the acceptability of his irenic theses to the Roman Catholic Church through his discourse with Arnauld.

As with Arnauld, Leibniz first met the scholar Simon Foucher during his momentous stay in Paris from 1672 to 1676. He valued the sagacity Foucher had displayed in his opposition to Malebranche’s philosophy and used the medium of their correspondence to air some of his own fundamental metaphysical ideas. Foucher for his part kept Leibniz, now living in provincial Hanover, abreast of intellectual news from Paris and in particular of members of his French circle of friends – scholars such as the churchman Pierre Daniel Huet, the editor of the Journal des savants, Jean Gallois, and Melchisédech Thévenot, an important figure in the foundation of the Académie royale des Sciences.

Already in his new physical hypothesis, Leibniz had declared the improvement of the human condition to be ‘the sole aim of philosophy’. His groundbreaking work in diverse fields such as mathematics (where alongside Newton he was the inventor of the calculus), logic, engineering, geology, and the biological sciences, and his promotion of the need for scientific academies in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and St Petersburg in which theoretical investigations could be combined with practical considerations, all fall within the overall compass of improving life. The Berlin Academy bears to this day the Leibnizian motto ‘Theoria cum praxi’.

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

While Voltaire’s scathing criticism of his philosophy, particularly the doctrine put forward in the Théodicée that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’, appeared difficult to answer against the backdrop of natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake (1755), much of Leibniz’s scientific and technological thought has been of tremendous prescience and significance – although sometimes only identified as such comparatively recently. His work on a calculating machine based on the binary system anticipated our modern day computers, his ideas on insurance and fiscal policy were designed to ensure a greater degree of protection and justice for the population, mathematical papers on determinants and combinatorics were years ahead of their time. And as his extensive surviving papers and letters are steadily edited in the critical Academy Edition, more wonders of this nature are expected.

– Audrey Borowski and Philip Beeley

[1] All quotations are from the Siècle de Louis XIV, chapter 34, ‘Des Beaux-Arts en Europe du temps de Louis XIV’. Translations are from The Works of M. de Voltaire. Translated from the French, by T. Smollett, T. Francklin and others, 36 vol. (London, 1761-1765), vol.9 (1761), p.152-62.

Rococo rivalries: Germany v. France

As an American who studies European art, I must confess to a particular fascination with how European societies characterize each other. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and politically charged allegiances inflect all aspects of European culture. In eighteenth-century studies, we encounter this most commonly in the appreciation and animosities exchanged between Britain and France. My recent research on the Rococo took me to explore a different yet equally charged rivalry – that of Germany and France.

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The palace of Amalienburg. Photo: M. Yonan.

Bolstered by the art of Oppenord, Meissonnier, Watteau, and Boucher to name just a few, the Rococo’s place in French art history is secure. Harder to explain has been its popularity in Germany. German patrons built hundreds of richly decorated palaces outfitted with gorgeous rococo interiors, and the Germans went a step further by incorporating rococo ornament into religious edifices, something encountered only rarely in France. Both can be seen in Catholic Munich, where the urge to adopt rococo forms occurred early and eagerly. The palaces of Nymphenburg, Amalienburg, and Schleissheim, all in or near that city, contain room after room of beautifully ornamented rococo art. Travel a short distance outside Munich and you will encounter rococo pilgrimage churches, perhaps the most famous of which is the stunningly beautiful Wieskirche. But it is just one of hundreds. In short, the Germans loved the Rococo. A colleague once even described Bavaria to me as ‘Rococo Paradise’, so abundant is the style in that region.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

In my contribution to the volume Rococo echo: art, theory, and historiography from Cochin to Coppola, ‘The Uncomfortable Frenchness of the German Rococo’, I explore specifically how German writers dealt with the problem of the Rococo’s French origins, and how that Frenchness became a thorn in the side of German art history for almost three hundred years.

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

German writers have struggled to explain the abundance of the Rococo in their homeland, and as nineteenth-century scholars began to write Germany’s national art history, they found the Rococo highly problematic, since it could not be easily characterized as German. And you might guess what happened: some rather creative attempts to explain (or explain away!) the Rococo’s Frenchness. When commenting on rococo southern German palaces, writers such as Cornelius Gurlitt and Hermann Bauer argued that the style was really German. In contrast, an earlier writer, Johann Friedrich Reiffenstein, complained that as a whimsical foreign import the Rococo was alien to the German character and therefore damaging to serious German art. Gottfried Semper tried to claim that it was the Germans who had invented rococo art, not the French, and thereby Germanized its origins. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and even military themes abounded. Writing this essay reminded me of how subversive Rococo art really is, and how much it challenges simple categorization, be it about quality, technique, subject matter, or national identity.

– Michael Yonan, University of Missouri

East meets west in the global eighteenth century

Adam Smith, one of the eighteenth century’s most perceptive minds, claimed in The Wealth of nations that the ‘discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events in the history of mankind’. His observation illuminates one of the key issues affecting major European powers in the late eighteenth century: where to expand on the world stage?

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Britain, for example, was experiencing contrasting fortunes. Having defeated the French in the Seven Years War in what is often regarded as the first global conflict, the British were subsequently defeated in the American War of Independence. Attention was increasingly directed to opportunities offered by the east, as the celebrated voyages of Cook and Bougainville to the Pacific Ocean were opening up new territorial and cultural challenges.

It was, however, the Indian sub-continent with its promise of new commercial opportunities and wealth that proved most attractive to European powers. As history has proved, the Indian sub-continent became fertile ground for colonial expansion and the transformation of the global order.

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But the relations between east and west were more complicated and nuanced than a simple binary opposition would suggest, as contributors to India and Europe in the global eighteenth century uncover. European rivalries in India produced unanticipated repercussions back in the Old World, expansionist agendas were questioned and enhanced knowledge of ancient Indian civilisations and belief systems challenged the hegemony of Greco-Roman antiquity. India was, in a sense, expanding west and making a mark politically, commercially and culturally in Europe as an essential part of an increasingly interconnected global world.

–Simon Davies

See also Céline Spector’s blog on Civilisation et empire au siècle des Lumières (October 2013).

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Frontispiece and title-page of La Cabaña Indiana y El Café de Surate (Valencia, José Ferrer de Orga, 1811).

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Disparate de bestia, Goya.

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment – what’s in a name?

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Jean-François de Troy, ‘Reading from Molière’, c.1728, Collection Marchioness of Cholmondeley .

As it enters its sixtieth year, and approaches its 550th volume, SVEC is changing its name; from 2014 the series will be known as Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.  

A change of name, yes, but not a change of direction. Over the last few years, the series has published leading research relating not only to France, but also to the UK, Germany and Spain, Russia and Greece, Africa and America; and it has encouraged work across a broad range of disciplines – economics and science, political and cultural history, music and the visual arts, literature and publishing -, as well as promoting new areas of research such as environmental studies.

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This editorial policy is quite consistent with the eighteenth century itself, which was constantly crossing boundaries of language, of nation and of discipline. Distinctions we might wish to make between, for instance, exception and rule, reason and emotion, functional and ornamental, laughter and tears, are all questioned in this period.  The Enlightenment is not about a single discipline, methodology, geographical terrain, intellectual position, or even about a defined period; it is an extensive process of exploration, exchange, and transgression.

The title Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment reflects those editorial principles and that intellectual practice.  The fact that the series is published by the Voltaire Foundation, a department of the University of Oxford and birthplace of the Electronic Enlightenment project, could not be more apt. Voltaire was one of the most interdisciplinary and international of writers, who thought beyond intellectual, cultural or even chronological boundaries.

It is in this spirit that the first book of the newly renamed series, India and Europe in the global eighteenth century, looks afresh at the relations between Europe and India using both eastern and western sources to explore the emergence of a new political and commercial order. From their home in Oxford University, Studies in the Enlightenment are well and truly global.

-JM