Leibniz on God and Religion

A Reader

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Editor(s): 
Lloyd Strickland
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2016.
     368 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472580627.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Some philosophers are difficult because they write massive texts which take months to read. Kant, it seems, wrote one huge volume after another, and there is no way to engage his religious thought without mastering at least three of them. Hegel is no better: I keep his lectures on religion on my shelf to frighten children. However, these magnum opus addicts have the merit of putting all their arguments in the same place. The Critiques may be frightful, but after reading them I know more or less what I need to know about Kant’s philosophy. The work is long, but the path is clear.

Leibniz presents a completely different set of problems for the newcomer. Instead of heavy books, we find scattered articles, literally thousands upon thousands of pages of letters, articles, essays, discourses, notes, incomplete systems, unfinished volumes, all of these spanning topics from natural science to genealogy, theology, etymology, logic, history and so on. To compound these difficulties, Leibniz must not only be translated, but also transcribed: his handwriting is notoriously difficult to fathom.

 Like C.S. Peirce, Leibniz’s work is systematic, but he presents no single system: instead his thought is presented as a series of interventions in ongoing controversies and disputes, and is adjusted depending on the context in which it appears. Since Bertrand Russell’s Critical Exposition of The Philosophy of Leibniz (Cambridge, 1900) it has been popular to assume that Lebniz has two systems, a public one amenable to orthodoxy, and a private one more amenable to rationalism. However, even the most cursory reading of Leibniz reveals that, at least where religion is concerned, the esoteric/exoteric division is untenable: Leibniz is almost painfully irenic, and is more than happy to adjust any specific (and always necessarily inadequate) presentation of his thinking in order to achieve harmony. Harmony and the perfection that accompanies it are much more important to him than any particular point.

This scattered presentation and ecumenical willingness to compromise present considerable difficulties for anyone who wishes to read Leibniz without becoming an expert. We are at the mercy of editors, and Lloyd Strickland’s On God and Religion does a great service for religious studies scholars in that he collects many valuable texts which bear directly on religion—many previously untranslated—in a reasonably sized and well organized volume. It forms a nice companion volume to his other reader: The Shorter Leibniz Texts (Bloomsbury, 2006).

There is very little here to surprise someone acquainted with Leibniz: Leibniz is an almost compulsively holistic thinker, and nothing here violates the picture of him painted by contemporary philosophy departments. But many details are filled in, concerns that bear directly upon the study of religion are directly treated, and several nagging problems I have had with Leibniz’s work were addressed (if not put to rest) by this text. Each essay is introduced with a concise passage or two by the editor, who places each in the context of Leibniz’s other writings. Strickland’s commentary is mercifully spare, and the reader is left to interpret as he or she sees fit.

No book review is complete without a few critiques, however minor.  I have some small concerns with the introduction: Strickland rightly notes that Leibniz grants God a central place in all of his work. The question is, of course, what “God” means here, and what work God does for his philosophy as a whole. There is something torn in this text, which vacillates between Leibniz’s natural theology (which “originates from the seeds of truth embedded in the mind by God” [114]) and Leibniz’s various projects aimed at healing the rift between Lutheranism and Catholicism. There are several texts that seek to demonstrate the infallibility of the Catholic church which are of great interest, and struck me as rather odd, considering that Leibniz himself was a Lutheran (even if his church attendance was apparently spotty).

Strickland is explicit that he sees Leibniz as being guided by theology, because religion “improve[s] the human experience” (1). This is what he claims binds together Leibniz’s “three signature projects in theology”: a Catholic apologetics, an attempt to (re)unify the church, and his doctrine of optimism. It strikes me that the first two are perhaps projects, but the third is a principle. This corresponds to the unacknowledged, and occasionally confusing split between the volume’s selections. At the risk of an untenable division, those interested in understanding Leibniz’s interest in historical Christianity will be interested in the two projects; those interested in understanding the importance of Leibniz’s natural theology for understanding his philosophical systems will be interested in the principle. It is possible that the inclusion of some of Leibniz’s exchange with Des Bosses might have remedied this seeming bifurcation (but this might be wishful thinking).

This is my only real difficulty with the book: at times it seems it should be entitled Leibniz on God and Christianity. A focus on Christianity is to be expected with a Lutheran philosopher, but I would have liked to have seen more of his writings on Judaism, Confucianism, and other religious formations. The “Non Christian Religions” section is by far the shortest, at eleven pages, four of which are dedicated to (a very interesting) review of Seder Olam, sive Ordo Seculorum, a Latin work possibly of Christian provenance. This paucity is unfortunate, if only because of Leibniz’s importance for Jewish philosophers (such as Moses Mendelssohn and Herman Cohen) and because Leibniz’s encounter with Chinese thought nicely illuminates the “trauma” and interest felt by European philosophers when they encountered a culture that was easily seen to be as sophisticated as their own.

However, these concerns are easily overlooked. I would cheerfully recommend Strickland’s volume to scholars interested in philosophy of religion, church relations, German religious thought, and, of course, Leibniz’s thought. Not only does it fill in many gaps left open by the standard Leibniz collections, it was a genuine pleasure to read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dustin Atlas is Assistant Professor at the University of Dayton.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lloyd Strickland is Reader in Philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University. His publications include Leibniz Reinterpreted (2006), Shorter Leibniz Texts (2006), Leibniz and the Two Sophies (2011) and Leibniz's Monadology (2014), and he has published numerous articles in journals such as British Journal for the History of Philosopy, Religious Studies, Annals of Science and Archiv für geschichte der philosophie.

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