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W. E. B. DuBois

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The Monadology and Other Philosophical Writings

by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (Freiherr von)


His Boyhood.

On June 21, 1646, two years before the close of the Thirty Years' War, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was born at Leipzig. His family was of Bohemian origin; but his ancestors for several generations had lived in Saxony and Prussia, and his father was a Professor of Philosophy in the University of Leipzig. Leibniz was only six years of age when his father died; and, though in his early years he had the training of a pious mother, she also passed away before he had completed his University studies. The boys of Leipzig in Leibniz's time appear to have been brought up on 'the picture-book of Comenius and the little Catechism' (Luther's); but the soul of Leibniz already sought stronger meat, and having found in the house an illustrated copy of Livy, of which he could not thoroughly understand a single line, he managed to get a tolerable idea of its contents, supplementing his scanty Latin by a study of the pictures and some judicious guessing. As an indirect result of this precocity, his father's library was thrown open to him, and he wandered at will from volume to volume, finding (as was ever characteristic of him) some good in all1.

1 'It is characteristic of me to hold opposition (Widerlegeri) as of


Providence or Fortune seemed to say to him, Tolle, lege; and it is significant for the philosophy to come that he turned first to the Ancients, to Cicero, Quintilian, Seneca, Pliny, Herodotus. Xenophon, Plato, the historians of the Eoman Empire, and the Fathers of the Church. Of these he tells us that 'he understood at first nothing, then gradually something, and finally enough'; but unconsciously his mind was coloured by their style and thought, 'as men walking in the sun have their faces browned without knowing it,'and under their inspiration he made it the rule of his life ever to seek clearness in speaking and a useful purpose in acting (in verbis claritas, in rebus urns). Thus at fourteen years of age he was counted by his fellows a prodigy of learning and ability, and already his reading of Logic and intense determination towards clearness of thought and speech had led him to ideas which were afterwards developed into the suggestion of a logical Calculus and an 'Alphabet of Concepts' as means to the discovery of truth '.

University Life.

At fifteen years of age Leibniz became a student at the University of Leipzig, and about the same time he became

little account, exposition (Darlegeri) as of much account, and when a new book comes into my hands I look for what I can learn from it, not for what I can criticize in it.' Schreiben an G. Wagner (1696) (E. 425 b; G. vii. 526).

1 'Before I reached the school-class in which Logic was taught, I was deep in the historians and poets ; for I had begun to read the historians almost as soon as I was able to read at all, and in verse I found great pleasure and ease; but as soon as I began to learn Logic I found myself greatly excited by the division and order of thoughts which I perceived therein. I immediately began to notice, so far as a boy of thirteen could, that there must be a great deal in it. I took the greatest pleasure in the Predicaments' (i. e. the Categories) 'which came before me as a muster-roll of all the things in the world, and I turned to "Logics" of all sorts to find the best and most detailed form of this list. I often asked myself and my schoolfellows to which Predicament and also to which sub-class this or that thing might belong.' Schreiben an 6. Wagner (E. 420 a; G. vii. 516).

acquainted with the works of some of the modern philosophers, beginning with Bacon's Be Augmentis Scientiarum. At this time also, as he himself tells us, he read with interest the works of Cardan and Campanella and the suggestions of a better philosophy in Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes. But he was no 'reading-machine, all wound up and going.' He thought for himself: he read in order to 'weigh and consider.' And thus in after-years he recalls how, when he was fifteen years of age, he walked alone in a wood near Leipzig, called the Rosenthal, to consider whether or not he should retain in his philosophy the 'Substantial Forms' of the Scholastics'. Although his favourite teacher at Leipzig was Jacob Thomasius, a Professor of Philosophy, deeply versed in ancient and scholastic learning, the private reading of Leibniz at first prevailed in his thought and he turned from the older philosophies to ' mechanism ' and mathematics. The 'Substantial Forms' were for the time set aside, to reappear, transmuted, in later years. His scholastic studies, however, bore fruit in the earliest of his published writings, a graduation thesis with the significant title Be principio individui, in which he defended the Nominalist position. Intending to devote himself to the profession of law, he went for a year (in 1663) to Jena, where the mathematician, Erhard Weigel, was lecturing on 'the Law of Nature,' or what we should now call Jurisprudence in general. Doubtless the influence of Weigel tended to confirm Leibniz's mathematical bent, and he still continued his study of history. In 1666 the University of Leipzig, ostensibly on the ground of his youth, refused to give him the Doctorate in Law; but his thesis, Be casibus perplexis in jure, was immediately accepted by the University of Altdorf (near Ntirnberg), where he declined the offer of a professorship. Thus ended his connexion with Leipzig.

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