Saw Coraline Saturday evening. Plenty of ridiculous tour-de-force animation set-pieces (in 3D yet) all strung together roller-coaster-style by a nugatory story that (as dark_of_night noted (because I never notice these things)) cribs from Pinocchio. Really, the story was quite disappointing. I mean let's face it: C's parents are, in fact, dicks. So I think the message of the movie is "Just suck it up and suffer, because this is the best of all possible worlds."
Or maybe it isn't, but at least that allows me to segue into Leibniz...
I finished The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart, which details the meeting between Leibniz & Spinoza that took place in the Hague in 16-somety-thing. Or rather it doesn't, since we really have very little idea what happened (I can imagine someone writing quite the eggheaded play on the subject). So the book provides biographies of both men and their philosophical systems, and the way in which they intersect, primarily by Leibniz formulating philosophical ideas in (angry) reaction to Spinoza.
[Speaking of Leibniz, I had cause to blog about his pre-established harmony about a year ago. Not that it is very relevant to the present issue, but it took me so long to find that entry that I feel compelled to link to it.]
Anyway, I found the book quite interesting, though it seems clear that the author's sympathies lie with Spinoza. Well, what the heck, so are mine, so that's not problem.
Spinoza was certainly an odd character. He was excommunicated (cherem) from his Jewish community for his rather unusual views. Of course, once you're no longer a Jew, it doesn't turn you into a Christian. So most of Europe considered him 'that dirty atheist Jew', while the Jews would have complained (had anyone cared what they thought): "Stop calling that dirty atheist a Jew!"
Spinoza, for his part, denied being an atheist. To set the record straight, he laid out his ideas of God in his anonyymous (though soon traced to him) work Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Despite his protestation of theism, his book had almost the opposite effect, for his views were even more horrible that anybody thought. He denied the immortality of the soul, free will, an interventionist god, etc. etc., and he was suspected of kicking puppies. Actually, that last is quite wrong, for it appears Spinoza was unfailingly ethical.
Anyway, I find it interesting that Spinoza is one of the first to really call for a secular government (probably influenced by the freethinking freetrading Dutch cities where he lived.)
Leibniz, on the other hand, seems to have been practically a charlatan. Chasing after nobles for patronage and money spent on boondoggles (like never-successful windmill-driven mining apparatus and never-written genealogies). He also strikes me as rather a sophist in many places, making arguments not because he believed them, but because they suited his purpose. For instance, he contrived an argument to show that belief in transubstantiation is not necessarily irrational. Being Protestant, he didn't believe transubstatiation, nor did he prove that it was true... but he hoped (perhaps) that this proof that it wasn't automatically false would help re-unify the Church. This was one of his political aims, though again it does not seem to stem from any particular belief of his that there is One True Church, but rather that society would be better off if there were One Church.
Stewart does a great job showing to what extent Leibniz' philosophical works were a reaction to Spinoza, and that Leibniz felt pulled towards Spinozism and worked his philosophy in a last ditch effort to avoid Spinozism. Indeed again, one gets the sense that Leibniz may not have believed his own ideas, but they were preferable to the Spinozan alternative. As Bertie Russell observed of Leibniz' unpublished notes: "Here, as elsewhere, Leibniz fell into Spinozism whenever he allowed himself to be logical; in his published works, accordingly, he took care to be illogical."
I appreciate that Stewart includes as an afterword a sketch of how his idea about the interplay between Leibniz and Spinoza compares to the 'standard' history of philosophy. It somewhat allays the suspicions I had that Stewart was twisting things to make the story better. I'm inclined to think the truth falls more on Stewart's side, but what do I know?