Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Leibniz's Endgame and the Ladies of the Courts

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Leibniz's Endgame and the Ladies of the Courts

Article excerpt

It is symptomatic of the neglect that Leibniz suffered following his death on 14 November 1716 that neither the Royal Society of London, to which he had been unanimously elected as a Fellow some forty-three years earlier in 1673, nor the Berlin Academy of Sciences, which he had helped to found in 1700-deigned to commemorate his death with an official publication or memorial address.1 But early in 1700 Leibniz had also been elected a foreign member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris; and on 13 November 1717, nearly a year to the day after Leibniz's death, the Academy's secretary, Bernard Fontenelle, read before that body a eulogy that he had prepared for Leibniz. Very near the end of his long oration Fontenelle came at last to make the following, remarkable observations: Leibniz, he told his audience,

conversed freely with persons of all sorts-people of the court, artisans, laborers, soldiers. There are scarcely any among the uncultivated who cannot teach something to the most learned man in the world, and in every case the wise man is educated even more when he gives due consideration to the uneducated. he also conversed often with women and did not count the time as wasted that he gave to their conversation. With them he completely shed the character of the savant and philosopher; characters [that are] yet nearly indelible and whose slightest traces they [i.e., women] perceive very clearly and with much disgust. This ease of communicating made everyone love him.2

This is an extraordinary passage, especially when one considers that it was presented as part of an official address to a body such as the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris at the beginning of the eighteenth century, that is, exclusively male, finely educated, and decidedly upper crust. It insinuates volumes about the prejudices abroad in Leibniz's and Fontenelle's own day, but it also speaks volumes both in favor of Leibniz for his behavior toward those whom Fontenelle called "1'ignorant" and "les Dames," and in favor of Fontenelle himself for taking the pains to pass this information along to an audience that might not have been expected to give it a very sympathetic hearing.

What Fontenelle reported was in any case true. Among male philosophers of his day Leibniz did have many more than his share of female friends. Being a familiar at the courts of the dukes of Brunswick and the imperial court in Vienna, Leibniz no doubt had more opportunities than most to make the acquaintance of highly-placed, talented, and well-educated women. But that cannot be the whole story, given the sheer number of long-lasting personal and intellectual liaisons that he forged with women. There had to be, one suspects, a special and mutual attraction between Leibniz and the women of the courts he frequented; and they had, one suspects, to have actively sought each other out. Part of the explanation is doubtless to be found in the extreme cultural dimorphism that existed between men and women of the courts in the seventeenth century, especially in the Germanic courts. The education of princes and noblemen tilted heavily in the direction of the military arts and "real politik" and that of princesses and ladies toward the fine arts-music, languages, and literature, often including philosophy and theology. While princes and noblemen road horses, hunted, planned and fought wars, negotiated terms of settlement, and conducted their almost obligatory dalliances with mistresses, those princesses and ladies who were of a serious turn of mind found more than enough time to read, write, reflect, and converse-all of which Leibniz did very well indeed. Common interests, while perhaps a necessary condition of the friendships that Leibniz formed with the ladies of the courts, could not have been sufficient for them. What must have been unusual about Leibniz, as Fontenelle's testimony suggests, is that unlike many of the men in the circles of the courts, he actually listened to what the ladies had to say, took them seriously, and willingly shared with them, without condescension, many of his own most profound thoughts. …

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