GOTTFRIED WILHELM LEIBNIZ
G. W. Leibniz was born on July 1, 1646, in Leipzig. His father, a scholar and a professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Leipzig, who apparently began to teach Leibniz as a small child, died when Leibniz was only six years old. Leibniz seems to have been largely self-taught, teaching himself Latin at the age of seven. Gaining admittance to his late father's library, he concentrated especially in the Church Fathers and in the Latin classics. Leibniz attended university from age fourteen to age twenty-one, first at the University of Leibzig and then the University of Altdorf, graduating with degrees in law and in philosophy. He was soon recognized as a talented young man of great promise and was offered a position on the faculty at the University of Altdorf. He declined the offer, choosing instead public service. Under the patronage of Baron Johann Christian von Boineburg, Leibniz entered the service of the Elector of Mainz and occupied a number of positions in Mainz and nearby Nuremburg. There he stayed until he was sent to Paris in spring 1672 on diplomatic business, a trip that deeply affected his intellectual development.
In Paris from 1672 to 1676 Leibniz made the acquaintance of such intellectual luminaries as Christian Huygens, who became his teacher and introduced him to other philosophers and scientists, such as Arnauld and Malebranche. It was in Paris that he laid the foundations for his work in calculus. Before Leibniz returned to Germany, in December 1676, he stopped in England and in Holland, where he met Spinoza. Both Boineburg and the Elector of Mainz had died while he was in Paris. Leibniz returned to the court of Hanover as a counselor, where he settled for the rest of his life.
Although recognized today as one of the leading philosophers of all time and one of two founders of calculus (with Newton), Leibniz was not popular in his own time. Newton accused him of stealing his invention of calculus (we know now that the two geniuses invented it independently, Leibniz publishing his work first in 1684, Newton in 1687), and many of his contemporaries (including the prestigious Royal Society) belittled his work. Bertrand Russell has written the following in this regard:
Leibniz was one of the supreme intellects of all time, but as a human being he was not admirable.
He had, it is true, the virtues that one would wish to find mentioned in a testimonial to a prospec-
tive employee: he was industrious, frugal, temperate, and financially honest. But he was wholly
destitute of those higher philosophic virtues that are so notable in Spinoza. His best thought was
not such as would win him popularity, and he left his records of it unpublished in his desk….
It was the popular Leibniz who invented the doctrine that this is the best of all possible worlds
(to which F. H. Bradley added the sardonic comment, “and everything in it is a necessary evil”);
it was this Leibniz that Voltaire caricatured as Doctor Pangloss.1
1 Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), p. 581.