Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

23

THE 'NATURE OF GOD'
CONTROVERSY (1710–1720)

By the early eighteenth century the widening perception of Spinozism as the prime and most absolute antithesis and adversary of received authority, tradition, privilege, and Christianity had generated a psychological tension evident throughout the academic world and 'Republic of Letters', not unlike the intellectual and ideological paranoia regarding Marxism pervading western societies in the early and mid-twentieth century. To label someone a 'Spinozist' or given to Spinozist propensities was effectively to demonize that person and demand his being treated as an outcast, public enemy, and fugitive. Conversely, for an academic, court savant, official, man of letters, publisher, or ecclesiastic to be publicly decried as a 'Spinozist', or privately rumoured to be such, constituted the gravest possible challenge to one's status, prospects, and reputation, as well as standing in the eyes of posterity. Often enough there was only one riposte powerful enough to counter such a threat to one's position and well-being, though it might require some ingenuity to render it plausible: to accuse one's accusers of 'Spinozism'.

Just such an imbroglio erupted at Groningen in 1:702. For decades the town's university had been the scene of acrimonious exchanges between Cartesians and antiCartesians as well as Cocceians and Voetians.1 In 1698 a prominent younger member of the teaching faculty, the distinguished Swiss mathematician and scientist from Basel, Johann Bernouilli (1667–1748), visited Burchardus De Volder, the leading scientific thinker at Leiden, to confer about the prevailing state of philosophy and science. Bernouilli taught at Groningen in the years 1695–1705, always placing great emphasis on the central role of mathematical 'reason' in the New Philosophy, but at the same time wavering somewhere between Descartes and Leibniz.2 Bernouilli and De Volder agreed that Cartesianism was fatally flawed, and could not be revived, and on the importance of finding solutions yielding a robust and enduring general system of philosophy. On this occasion, Bernouilli urged the merits of Leibniz's metaphysics, but De Volder, as the younger man reported to Leibniz by letter, objected that bodies can not conceivably be constructed from infinitely small monads, so far as he could judge, because these must either be extended or not. If extended they are not

1 Steenbakkers, 'Johannes Braun', 203–3.

2 Sierksma, G. and Sierksma, W., 'Johann Bernouilli', 128, 131–1.

-436-

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