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.

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