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Gottfried Leibniz

Gottfried LeibnizAKA Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Born: 1-Jul-1646
Birthplace: Leipzig, Germany
Died: 14-Nov-1716
Location of death: Hannover, Hanover, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Die Neustädter Kirche, Hanover, Germany

Gender: Male
Religion: Lutheran
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Mathematician, Philosopher

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Co-Inventor of calculus

German philosopher, mathematician and man of affairs, born on the 1st of July 1646 at Leipzig, where his father was professor of moral philosophy. Though the name Leibniz, Leibnitz or Lubeniecz was originally Slavonic, his ancestors were German, and for three generations had been in the employment of the Saxon government. Young Leibnitz was sent to the Nicolai school at Leipzig, but, from 1652 when his father died, seems to have been for the most part his own teacher. From his father he had acquired a love of historical study. The German books at his command were soon read through, and with the help of two Latin books -- the Thesaurus Chronologicus of Calvisius and an illustrated edition of Livy -- he learned Latin at the age of eight. His father's library was now thrown open to him, to his great joy, with the permission, "Tolle, lege." Before he was twelve he could read Latin easily and had begun Greek; he had also remarkable facility in writing Latin verse. He next turned to the study of logic, attempting already to reform its doctrines, and zealously reading the scholastics and some of the Protestant theologians.

At the age of fifteen, he entered the University of Leipzig as a law student. His first two years were devoted to philosophy under Jakob Thomasius, a Neo-Aristotelian, who is looked upon as having founded the scientific study of the history of philosophy in Germany. It was at this time probably that he first made acquaintance with the modern thinkers who had already revolutionized science and philosophy, Francis Bacon, Cardano and Campanella, Kepler, Galileo and Descartes; and he began to consider the difference between the old and new ways of regarding nature. He resolved to study mathematics. It was not, however, until the summer of 1663, which he spent at Jena under E. Weigel, that he obtained the instructions of a mathematician of repute; nor was the deeper study of mathematics entered upon until his visit to Paris and acquaintance with Huygens many years later.

The next three years he devoted to legal studies, and in 1666 applied for the degree of doctor of law, with a view to obtaining the post of assessor. Being refused on the ground of his youth he left his native town forever. The doctor's degree refused him there was at once (November 5, 1666) conferred on him at Altdorf -- the university town of the free city of Nuremberg -- where his brilliant dissertation procured him the immediate offer of a professor's chair. This, however, he declined, having, as he said, "very different things in view."

Leibnitz, not yet twenty-one years of age, was already the author of several remarkable essays. In his bachelor's dissertation De principio individui (1663), he defended the nominalistic doctrine that individuality is constituted by the whole entity or essence of a thing; his arithmetical tract De complexionibus, published in an extended form under the title De arte combinatoria (1666), is an essay towards his lifelong project of a reformed symbolism and method of thought; and besides these there are our juridical essays, including the Nova methodus docendi discendique juris, written in the intervals of his journey from Leipzig to Altdorf. This last essay is remarkable, not only for the reconstruction it attempted of the Corpus Juris, but as containing the first clear recognition of the importance of the historical method in law. Nuremberg was a center of the Rosicrucians, and Leibnitz, busying himself with writings of the alchemists, soon gained such a knowledge of their tenets that he was supposed to be one of the secret brotherhood, and was even elected their secretary. A more important result of his visit to Nuremberg was his acquaintance with Johann Christian von Boyneburg (1622-1672), formerly first minister to the elector of Mainz, and one of the most distinguished German statesmen of the day. By his advice Leibnitz printed his Nova methodus in 1667, dedicated it to the elector, and, going to Mainz, presented it to him in person. It was thus that Leibnitz entered the service of the elector of Mainz, at first as an assistant in the revision of the statute book, afterwards on more important work.

The policy of the elector, which the pen of Leibnitz was now called upon to promote, was to maintain the security of the German empire, threatened on the west by the aggressive power of France, on the east by Turkey and Russia. Thus when in 1669 the crown of Poland became vacant, it fell to Leibnitz to support the claims of the German candidate, which he did in his first political writing, Specimen demonstrationum politicarum pro rege Polonorum eligendo, attempting, under the guise of a Catholic Polish nobleman, to show by mathematical demonstration that it was necessary in the interest of Poland that it should have the count palatine of Neuburg as its king. But neither the diplomatic skill of Boyneburg, who had been sent as plenipotentiary to the election at Warsaw, nor the arguments of Leibnitz were successful, and a Polish prince was elected to fill the vacant throne.

A greater danger threatened Germany in the aggressions of Louis XIV. Though Holland was in most immediate danger, the seizure of Lorraine in 1670 showed that Germany too was threatened. It was in this year that Leibnitz wrote his Thoughts on Public Safety, in which he urged the formation of a new "Rheinbund" for the protection of Germany, and contended that the states of Europe should employ their power, not against one another, but in the conquest of the non-Christian world, in which Egypt, "one of the best situated lands in the world", would fall to France. The plan thus proposed of averting the threatened attack on Germany by a French expedition to Egypt was discussed with Boyneburg, and obtained the approval of the elector. French relations with Turkey were at the time so strained as to make a breach imminent, and at the close of 1671, about the time when the war with Holland broke out, Louis himself was approached by a letter from Boyneburg and a short memorial from the pen of Leibnitz, who attempted to show that Holland itself, as a mercantile power trading with the East, might be best attacked through Egypt, while nothing would be easier for France or would more largely increase her power than the conquest of Egypt. On February 12, 1672, a request came from the French secretary of state, Simon Arnauld de Pomponne (1618-1699), that Leibnitz should go to Paris. Louis seems still to have kept the matter in view, but never granted Leibnitz the personal interview he desired, while Pomponne wrote, "I have nothing against the plan of a holy war, but such plans, you know, since the days of St. Louis, have ceased to be the fashion." Not yet discouraged, Leibnitz wrote a full account of his project for the king, and a summary of the same evidently intended for Boyneburg. But Boyneburg died in December 1672, before the latter could be sent to him. Nor did the former ever reach its destination. The French quarrel with the Porte was made up, and the plan of a French expedition to Egypt disappeared from practical politics until the time of Napoleon. The history of this scheme, and the reason of Leibnitz's journey to Paris, long remained hidden in the archives of the Hanoverian library. It was on his taking possession of Hanover in 1803 that Napoleon learned, through the Consilium Aegyptiacum, that the idea of a French conquest of Egypt had been first put forward by a German philosopher. In the same year there was published in London an account of the Justa dissertatio of which the British Government had procured a copy in 1799. But it was only with the appearance of the edition of Leibnitz's works begun by Onno Klopp in 1864 that the full history of the scheme was made known.

Leibnitz had other than political ends in view in his visit to France. It was as the center of literature and science that Paris chiefly attracted him. Political duties never made him lose sight of his philosophical and scientific interests. At Mainz he was still busied with the question of the relation between the old and new methods in philosophy. In a letter to Jakob Thomasius (1669) he contends that the mechanical explanation of nature by magnitude, figure and motion alone is not inconsistent with the doctrines of Aristotle's Physics, in which he finds more truth than in the Meditations of Descartes. Yet these qualities of bodies, he argues in 1668 (in an essay published without his knowledge under the title Confessio naturae contra atheistas), require an incorporeal principle, or God, for their ultimate explanation. He also wrote at this time a defense of the doctrine of the Trinity against Wissowatius (1669), and an essay on philosophic style, introductory to an edition of the Antibarbarus of Nizolius (1670). Clearness and distinctness alone, he says, are what makes a philosophic style, and no language is better suited for this popular exposition than the German. In 1671 he issued a Hypothesis physica nova, in which, agreeing with Descartes that corporeal phenomena should be explained from motion, he carried out the mechanical explanation of nature by contending that the original of this motion is a fine aether, similar to light, or rather constituting it, which, penetrating all bodies in the direction of the earth's axis, produces the phenomena of gravity, elasticity, etc. The first part of the essay, on concrete motion, was dedicated to the Royal Society of London, the second, on abstract motion, to the French Academy.

At Paris Leibnitz met with Arnauld, Malebranche and, more important still, with Christian Huygens. This was pre-eminently the period of his mathematical and physical activity. Before leaving Mainz he was able to announce an imposing list of discoveries, and plans for discoveries, arrived at by means of his new logical art, in natural philosophy, mathematics, mechanics, optics, hydrostatics, pneumatics and nautical science, not to speak of new ideas in law, theology and politics. Chief among these discoveries was that of a calculating machine for performing more complicated operations than that of Pascal -- multiplying, dividing and extracting roots, as well as adding and subtracting. This machine was exhibited to the Academy of Paris and to the Royal Society of London, and Leibnitz was elected a fellow of the latter society in April 1673. In January of this year he had gone to London as an attaché on a political mission from the elector of Mainz, returning in March to Paris, and while in London had become personally acquainted with Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, with whom he had already corresponded, with Boyle the chemist and Pell the mathematician. It is from this period that we must date the impulse that directed him anew to mathematics. By Pell he had been referred to Mercator's Logarithmotechnica as already containing some numerical observations which Leibnitz had thought original on his own part; and, on his return to Paris, he devoted himself to the study of higher geometry under Huygens, entering almost at once upon the series of investigations which culminated in his discovery of the differential and integral calculus.

Shortly after his return to Paris in 1673, Leibnitz ceased to be in the Mainz service any more than in name, but in the same year entered the employment of Duke John Frederick of Brunswick-Lüneburg, with whom he had corresponded for some time. In 1676 he removed at the duke's request to Hanover, travelling there by way of London and Amsterdam. At Amsterdam he saw and conversed with Spinoza, and carried away with him extracts from the latter's unpublished Ethica.

For the next forty years, and under three successive princes, Leibnitz was in the service of the Brunswick family, and his headquarters were at Hanover, where he had charge of the ducal library. Leibnitz thus passed into a political atmosphere formed by the dynastic aims of the typical German state. He supported the claim of Hanover to appoint an ambassador at the congress of Nimeguen (1676) to defend the establishment of primogeniture in the Lüneburg branch of the Brunswick family; and, when the proposal was made to raise the duke of Hanover to the electorate, he had to show that this did not interfere with the rights of the duke of Württemberg. In 1692 the duke of Hanover was made elector. Before, and with a view to this, Leibnitz had been employed by him to write the history of the Brunswick-Lüneburg family, and, to collect material for his history, had undertaken a journey through Germany and Italy in 1687-90, visiting and examining the records in Marburg, Frankfurt-am-Main, Munich, Vienna (where he remained nine months), Venice, Modena and Rome. At Rome he was offered the custodianship of the Vatican library on condition of his joining the Catholic Church.

About this time, too, his thoughts and energies were partly taken up with the scheme for the reunion of the Catholic and Protestant Churches. At Mainz he had joined in an attempt made by the elector and Boyneburg to bring about a reconciliation, and now, chiefly through the energy and skill of the Catholic Royas de Spinola, and from the spirit of moderation which prevailed among the theologians he met with at Hanover in 1683, it almost seemed as if some agreement might be arrived at. In 1686 Leibnitz wrote his Systema theologicum, in which he strove to find common ground for Protestants and Catholics in the details of their creeds. But the English revolution of 1688 interfered with the scheme in Hanover, and it was soon found that the religious difficulties were greater than had at one time appeared. In the letters to Leibnitz from Bossuet, the landgrave of Hessen-Rheinfels, and Madame de Brinon, the aim is obviously to make converts to Catholicism, not to arrive at a compromise with Protestantism, and when it was found that Leibnitz refused to be converted the correspondence ceased. A further scheme of church union in which Leibnitz was engaged, that between the Reformed and Lutheran Churches, met with no better success.

Returning from Italy in 1690, Leibnitz was appointed librarian at Wolfenbüttel by Duke Anton of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Some years afterwards began his connection with Berlin through his friendship with the electress Sophie Charlotte of Brandenburg and her mother the princess Sophie of Hanover. He was invited to Berlin in 1700, and on the 11th July of that year the academy (Akademie der Wissenschaften) he had planned was founded, with himself as its president for life. In the same year he was made a privy councillor of justice by the elector of Brandenburg. Four years before he had received a like honor from the elector of Hanover, and twelve years afterwards the same distinction was conferred upon him by Peter the Great, to whom he gave a plan for an academy at St. Petersburg, carried out after the tsar's death. After the death of his royal pupil in 1705 his visits to Berlin became less frequent and less welcome, and in 1711 he was there for the last time. In the following year he undertook his fifth and last journey to Vienna, where he stayed until 1714. An attempt to found an academy of science there was defeated by the opposition of the Jesuits, but he now attained the honor he had coveted of an imperial privy councillorship (1712), and, either at this time or on a previous occasion (1709), was made a baron of the empire (Reichsfreiherr). Leibnitz returned to Hanover in September 1714, but found the elector George Louis had already gone to assume the crown of England. Leibnitz would gladly have followed him to London, but was bidden to remain at Hanover and finish his history of Brunswick.

During the last thirty years Leibnitz had been busy with many matters. Mathematics, natural science, philosophy, theology, history, jurisprudence, politics (particularly the French wars with Germany, and the question of the Spanish succession), economics and philology, all gained a share of his attention; almost all of them he enriched with original observations.

His genealogical researches in Italy -- through which he established the common origin of the families of Brunswick and Este -- were not only preceded by an immense collection of historical sources, but enabled him to publish materials for a code of international law. The history of Brunswick itself was the last work of his life, and had covered the period from 768 to 1005 when death ended his labors. But the government, in whose service and at whose order the work had been carried out, left it in the archives of the Hanover library until it was published by Pertz in 1843.

It was in the years between 1690 and 1716 that Leibnitz's chief philosophical works were composed, and during the first ten of these years the accounts of his system were, for the most part, preliminary sketches. Indeed, he never gave a full and systematic account of his doctrines. His views have to be gathered from letters to friends, from occasional articles in the Acta Eruditorum, the Journal des Savants, and other journals, and from one or two more extensive works. It is evident, however, that philosophy had not been entirely neglected in the years in which his pen was almost solely occupied with other matters. A letter to the duke of Brunswick, and another to Arnauld, in 1671, show that he had already reached his new notion of substance; but it is in the correspondence with Antoine Arnauld, between 1686 and 1690, that his fundamental ideas and the reasons for them are for the first time made clear. The appearance of John Locke's Essay in 1690 induced him (1696) to note down his objections to it, and his own ideas on the same subjects. In 1703-04 these were worked out in detail and ready for publication, when the death of the author whom they criticized prevented their appearance (first published by Raspe, 1765). In 1710 appeared the only complete and systematic philosophical work of his lifetime, Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme, et l'origine du mal, originally undertaken at the request of the late queen of Prussia, who had wished a reply to Bayle's opposition of faith and reason. In 1714 he wrote, for Prince Eugene of Savoy, a sketch of his system under the title of La Monadologie, and in the same year appeared his Principes de la nature et de la grâce. The last few years of his life were perhaps more occupied with correspondence than any others, and, in a philosophical regard, were chiefly notable for the letters, which, through the desire of the new queen of England, he interchanged with Samuel Clarke, sur Dieu, l'âme, l'espace, la durée.

Leibnitz died on the 14th of November 1716, his closing years enfeebled by disease, harassed by controversy, embittered by neglect; but to the last he preserved the indomitable energy and power of work to which is largely due the position he holds as, more perhaps than any one in modern times, a man of almost universal attainments and almost universal genius. Neither at Berlin, in the academy which he had founded, nor in London, where his sovereign had gone to rule, was any notice taken of his death. At Hanover, Eckhart, his secretary, was his only mourner; "he was buried", says an eyewitness, "more like a robber than what he really was, the ornament of his country." Only in the French Academy was the loss recognized, and a worthy eulogium devoted to his memory (November 13, 1717). The 200th anniversary of his birth was celebrated in 1846, and in the same year were opened the Königlichsächsische Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften and the Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften in Leipzig and Vienna respectively. In 1883 a statue was erected to him at Leipzig.

Leibnitz possessed a wonderful power of rapid and continuous work. Even in traveling his time was employed in solving mathematical problems. He is described as moderate in his habits, quick of temper but easily appeased, charitable in his judgments of others, and tolerant of differences of opinion, though impatient of contradiction on small matters. He is also said to have been fond of money to the point of covetousness; he was certainly desirous of honor, and felt keenly the neglect in which his last years were passed.

Father: (d. 1652)

    University: BA, University of Leipzig (1663)
    University: University of Leipzig (studied 1663-66, refused doctorate based on age)
    University: PhD, University of Altdorf

    Royal Society 1673
    Risk Factors: Gout

Author of books:
De Arte Combinatoria (1666, mathematics)
Hypothesis Physica Nova (1671)
Nova Methodus pro Maximis et Minimis (1684)
Discours de Métaphysique (1686)
De Rerum Originatione (1697)
De Ipsa Natura (1698)
Nouveaux Essais sur L'entendement Humaine (1705)
Théodicée (1710)
Monadologia (1714)
Annales Imperii Occidentis Brunsvicenses (1843-46, history)

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