The Courtier and the Heretic Book Review

History and philosophy are convoluted and disorderly. Though people desperately try to order and categorize the major events that shape them into coherent categories and timelines, the truth is that it is not truly possible. This is because the fields of history and philosophy are focused primarily on the human beings first, and then their contributions, rather than other fields that focus on the contributions and briefly touch on the people behind them. Humans are not orderly, they contradict themselves, and more than anything else appear highly duplicitous, and as a result, so are the fields of history and philosophy. Writing a book exploring these two things, no matter how much effort one puts into making every element appear orderly and linear, will undoubtedly reveal cracks and anomalies that make the project not as seamless as one would like. Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic however, deals with the messiness of philosophical history in its own unique way. Rather than desperately attempting to stitch together pieces that may or may not fit one another, Stewart weaves the history of two philosophers into an engaging narrative that explores their histories, rather than a cold analysis that provides their details. The stories of Leibniz and Spinoza (the titular courtier and the heretic respectively), are told in great detail separately from one another until they eventually converge into one as their fated confrontation is discussed. The duality of their lives and the many differences between the two men that include their appearance, thought process, and integrity are made abundantly clear; with a central theme being the tension between their true beliefs along with the fear of being associated with them and how they dealt with that. Although the lens in which Stewart views the philosophers (Leibniz in particular) may feel a tad coloured with bias at times, and the level of focus on certain pieces of history may not be ideal, the human nature of this subject is properly accommodated  in a compelling narrative that is both informative and interesting.

The Spinoza described by Stewart is a bit of a roguish figure, a rebel unconcerned with the trappings of the gaze of others. A man who is self-assured in his own brilliance and someone Stewart insists is responsible for shaping modern philosophical thought. To put it loosely, he is the dark hero of this piece, a man from which the historical narrative revolves around. The life he leads is one from the shadows, with his supporters (Spinozists) sharing it with him in their secret support of his works. Banished by his Jewish community, Spinoza was made out to be the number one enemy of the public, often being accused of being a great corruptor of innocent minds. He was feared by his enemies, envied by his followers, and admired by friend and foe alike, Spinoza was truly a larger than life individual. In the narrative that Stewart formulates at least, this is because of his fearlessness. This is not to be confused with foolishness, as he never truly oversteps his bounds to the point where he found himself in a prison cell like other contemporaries of his. The contempt many had for him came as a result of what others saw as his atheistic philosophies that were interpreted to dismiss miracles as fallacious. Because Spinoza’s God was nature itself, something he believed to be bound by logic and reason, he was met with scorn and backlash. This is because Spinoza tapped into a fear associated with the legitimacy of religion. He knows the material of the bible extremely well as he was made to study it from a young age, but due to his belief in the Cartesian maxim “That nothing ought to be admitted as True, but that which has been proved by good and solid reasons”, he “ruled out most of the Bible” according to Stewart. Spinoza created fear in detractors, and that led to backlash and that backlash was met by Spinoza with supreme confidence in himself, as he considered himself someone with a more complete and whole understanding of religion than others. His philosophy based on virtue born of reason and understanding created an inner calm that formed such a dominating and charismatic persona that Stewart was effectively able to project to the reader. The same could not be said for his rival Leibniz and his portrayal.

Leibniz, in stark contrast to Spinoza, seemed to be ruled entirely by fear in Stewart’s narrative. He appeared as someone who was often intellectually dishonest (even going as far as to selectively feign ignorance on Spinoza), was often siding with the majority, generally only tackled challenges he knew he could overcome, and was fairly opportunistic. The most significant example of Leibniz being controlled by fear would be the case Stewart makes for him being secretly a Spinozist, but too afraid of the political risks to admit it and thus leading him to compensate with faux hatred of him and his ideas. Reading through, it is very clear that Leibniz is the subservient one in his relationship with Spinoza, often being shaped and influenced by the man’s ideas and theories, while failing to pose any sort of real challenge to him or his thoughts in return. Stewart even goes as far as to theorize that some of Leibniz’s character flaws associated with his deep-seated need for approval arose as a result of his father’s death when he was at the young age of six. Because Leibniz had a close relationship with his father, it is a fair conclusion to make, however it veers far too much into speculative territory. Especially in the case of Leibniz, Stewart tends to go too far in painting a picture to fit his historical narrative.

One of the principle flaws with this work would be the overabundance of purposeless and self-confessed unverifiable anecdotes that Stewart uses to help construct his narrative. Besides the scores and scores of historical facts and trivia surrounding these two men are the anecdotes constantly being thrown at the reader that are intended to build character. Spinoza was reserved in the classroom while Leibniz was desperately trying to be the focus, Spinoza’s father met with this person, Leibniz’s father met with that one, Spinoza’s father was middle class, Leibniz’s father married three times, and many more pieces of information similar to that are scattered everywhere. A moderate amount is necessary for world building, but Stewart goes too far in this regard and that comes with significant consequences later in the book. The entire book is meant to build up the fated confrontation between these two men, but unfortunately due to the limited information anyone has on the fated meeting it comes across as underwhelming with a bit too much speculation for one to be comfortable with; and the excessive amount of buildup and information before hand is made even more tedious as a result of this. Finally, the most problematic element of the overabundant background information dispensed throughout the book is the fact that much of it just is not interesting whatsoever. At times, readers will be left wondering why Stewart would chose to include things that he did which served absolutely no purpose in building the world he intends to show us or explaining the philosophical elements of his book. Spinoza being far more physically attractive than Leibniz is information readers could have done without.

Another issue present in this work would be the apparent bias Stewart seems to have against Leibniz. Down to even their physical appearances, posture, and gracefulness, Spinoza is constantly being contrast with Leibniz in every way imaginable. Where Spinoza is described as beautiful, Leibniz is put down as odd looking, where Spinoza is charismatic, Leibniz is awkward, and where Spinoza has passion and poise, Leibniz is groveling and graceless. Illustrating the differences between these two men on its own is necessary, but too often is the impression left that Stewart’s portrayal of Leibniz is coloured with a personal bias. This is not to say that Leibniz is not recognized as the universal genius that he was, but those praises seem more perfunctory than anything else. The issue that arises with shining a light on every conceivable personal failure that Leibniz has in comparison to Spinoza is that it takes away focus from what should be the most important one: Leibniz’s fear that led to his duplicitous nature that ultimately led to his unsatisfactory life. Instead, by the end of the seventeenth chapter (which chronicled the end of his career), Leibniz comes across as a childish man who was never truly worth Spinoza’s time in the first place. Reading of what Stewart describes as his “incessant petitions” and a detailed account of his countless excuse making and the ire he drew from his contemporaries really damages the perception one can have of Leibniz, and as someone who is integral to the journey the reader is taken on, that is unfavourable. Spinoza being shunned by his colleagues for his radical ideas was important, and Stewart gave that the focus it deserved, reading of Leibniz annoying his colleagues into submission in great detail perhaps was not the best use of the book’s pages.

By the end of the book, the message still remains clear. Spinoza’s philosophy is something that allowed him to find dignity and inner peace even after being banished and shunned by many of his peers. The diatribe directed at him was portrayed by Stewart as something that was no match for his own philosophy. The belief that seeking to improve one’s own understanding of existence is virtue and persevering in existence is what one should strive for is what gave Spinoza a clear understanding of himself and his place. In contrast, Leibniz is someone who could never entirely be true to himself and as a result is portrayed as someone constantly fretting about appearances, recognition, and in the end, never truly finding a place. A living contradiction, Leibniz was constantly trapped between his own charitable and idealistic philosophy, and his inability to fully trust any actual human being in practice. This left him more lost than Spinoza ever was, even as an outsider.

Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic takes the history of two very different people who happened to have one extended meeting, and transforms it into a sprawling tale that spans decades, carries some historical relevance, and conveys a significant message by the end. Especially in regards to Spinoza, everything he does feels truly important. He is almost mythical in the way he is described by Stewart, and you feel this grand figure come alive in the pages of this book. While Stewart may go too far into detail in illustrating Leibniz’s flaws, a powerful lesson can be drawn from the lives of these men that go beyond even their philosophies. The strength to truly express one’s ideas against even the harshest of critics is a simple but very relevant message, and the fact that Stewart was able to draw that from the loosely tied histories of these two men is remarkable. For that reason, and the fact that it can be read as if it were a very well written narrative about the lives of two men, The Courtier and the Heretic is a recommended read for those interested in the philosophies, and a very accessible one for those who are not.


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