Dispersed and Distracted

Jonathan Rée

  • Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography by Maria Rosa Antognazza
    Cambridge, 623 pp, £25.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 80619 0

When Queen Anne died in August 1714, the news was received with excitement in the medieval town of Hanover in Lower Saxony. Under the terms of the Act of Settlement of 1701, Anne’s death meant that Georg Ludwig, the stolid local duke, was about to become the next occupant of the English throne. A month later he was on his way to London with his German-speaking retinue, ready for his coronation in October and a new life as the first King George of Great Britain and Ireland.

But one of the most venerable members of his household had been left behind in Hanover, feeling rather sorry for himself. Geheimrat Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had joined the Hanoverian court under the last duke but one, and apart from occasional absences in Vienna and Berlin, had been supplying the family with legal and political advice for almost 40 years. On state occasions, he still liked to turn out in style; but he was now in his late sixties, and when he draped his arthritic frame in the sumptuous formal dress of an age long past, he was said to look more like a jester than a learned servant of the court. The rest of the time, he preferred to keep to his private quarters, cosseted in fur stockings, felt socks and fur-lined gown, and coiffed with a long dark wig. He would work day and night, surrounded by towers of books and manuscripts, taking meals on his own at irregular hours, and napping at his desk when he was tired. His masters might get exasperated with his serene self-absorption, but he continued to bring credit to the house through his reputation as a philosophical virtuoso, and they still valued his opinions and took pleasure in having him at their elbow as a personal ‘living dictionary’. He distinguished himself from other men of letters, moreover, by keeping himself clean and sweet-smelling and retaining a wistful sense of humour. ‘I have never,’ he reflected, ‘been so old as I am now.’

Soon after his appointment as court counsellor in 1676 Leibniz had been asked to trace the pedigree of the Hanoverian clan through the house of Brunswick and back to the royal dynasty of Guelfs. But his archival investigations ran into a series of unlucky delays. In the first place, he had to apply himself to technical problems at the family’s silver mines in the Harz mountains, working on geological surveys and experimental designs for wind-powered lifts and water-pumps. In the end his efforts came to nothing – he blamed the intransigence of the miners – but seven years were lost to the project before he could return to his researches in family history. By that time his conception of the task had grown. He had persuaded himself that the Guelf line needed to be traced all the way back to the origins of the Holy Roman Empire, and that the story would be incomplete without two preliminary discourses, one on the history of the earth as a whole, the other on the origins of the nations of the world as evidenced by their languages. The more work he put in on his assignment, it seems, the more remained to be done.

Georg Ludwig eventually lost his patience. ‘Leibniz is nowhere to be found,’ he complained in 1703, ‘and if anyone wants to know why, he always claims to be working on his invisible book.’ The invisible book was more than thirty years overdue by the time the court decamped to London, but Leibniz excused himself on the grounds that he had recently completed three preparatory volumes, comprising medieval legal documents about the Guelfs and Lower Saxony, while making steady progress with his supplementary studies in geology and etymology. Indeed, he suggested that his newly crowned employer might wish to reward his diligence with a promotion: ‘the king would not misuse the honour and the salary,’ as he put it in a plaintive letter from Hanover, ‘if he were to appoint me to the post of Historiographer of Great Britain.’ George demurred: his elderly retainer should not at present entertain any thoughts of joining the British court, and had better not stir from Hanover till the Origines Guelficae was finished and printed and bound; afterwards, of course, he could ‘hope for everything’. In the event the king’s bluff was never called: Leibniz remained in Hanover, working on the family genealogy, till his lonely death two years later at the age of 70; and it turned out that when he laid down his pen for the last time, he had still only got as far as 1005.

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