Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who has the reputation of being perhaps the last universal genius, is the man after whom the Leibniz Association is named. A good choice, especially as the Leibniz Association incorporates the very quality of universality that has become the hallmark of scholars.
Born in Leipzig on 1 July 1646, Leibniz studied in Leipzig and Jena and was awarded a doctorate in both laws – canon and civil law – by the University in Altdorf near Nürnberg for a thesis on unusual legal cases. Even though in public perception his legal expertise was eclipsed by his achievements in other disciplines, jurisprudence was to accompany him throughout his life. His collection and edition of international legal documents played a significant role in his work as a political consultant, too: the claims to rank and power of the Guelph Dynasty as well as the Viennese court rested on his expertise.
In 1676, after several years' residence in Paris and trips to London, Amsterdam and The Hague, Leibniz accepted a position as court librarian in Hanover. The town was to remain the centre of his life until his death, even though, by the standards of his time, he continued to travel very extensively throughout Europe, fostered an international correspondence reaching as far as Beijing and aspired to and accepted offices in other countries. From 1691, one of these offices was the directorship of the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, where he created the first alphabetical catalogue, and suggested that an extension should be built.
Leibniz worked intensively on mathematics. Parallel to Isaac Newton, he wrote ground-breaking work on calculus, including the sum symbols that are still valid today. He developed a binary system called "dyadics", which made it possible to represent any number with zeroes and ones – the concept which was later to become the basis of computer language. He also built a calculating machine and spent decades trying to perfect it.
A practical man, Leibniz urged the Hanoverians to establish a fire office, basically fire insurance, and repeated his suggestion at the court in Vienna with an eye to the entire empire – in both cases, in vain.
Leibniz was a pioneer of wind energy, even though his attempt to use windmills to drain the Harz ore mines failed. His engineering activities produced the endless chain used in ore mining, plans for a submarine, a stepped drum for calculating machines, and many other inventions.
Leibniz was one of the great philosophers of his time. His reflections produced the monad theory whilst his musings on religion found expression in one of his relatively few printed books, the “Theodicy.” Leibniz also coined the much cited – and fiercely debated – phrase, “the best of all possible worlds."
In terms of religious policy and religious studies, he sought to unite Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as merge Reformed and Lutheran Protestants – an effort which, however, was sometimes dominated by political expediency. For example, Leibniz advised a daughter of the Guelph Dynasty that she should convert from her faith for the sake of an auspicious marriage.
Leibniz studied languages, collecting linguistic samples from all over Europe. He sought to invent a universal language and sometimes tried to promote the German language, although he mainly wrote in Latin, often in French, and only rarely in German.
The Court Councillor from Hanover was a tireless source of inspiration, an advisor and also a diplomat. He sought contact with the influential men of his time, with the Emperor in Vienna, the Czar; even, though in vain, with the Emperor of China, and of course, with the members of the Guelph Dynasty. Writing the latter's history was to become his great, unfinished official duty and mission in life. As an historian, he also set new standards in indexing and analysing sources.
Leibniz convinced the Elector of Brandenburg to establish a Society of Sciences, and in July 1700, he was appointed the first president of what was to evolve into the Academy of Sciences with its motto "theoria cum praxi." These initiatives were a continuation of his earlier endeavours to organise science. Whilst still in Paris, he had suggested establishing a Cabinet of Curiosities or, as we would call it today, a research museum, a "theatrum naturae et artis." Leibniz even had ideas on how to fund research.
Although Leibniz' written correspondence virtually spanned the globe – and, because of his correspondence with a Jesuit in Beijing, his countrymen even considered him an expert on China – he also cherished personal conversations, especially with Prussia's first Queen Sophie Charlotte and her mother Sophie, Electress in Hanover. He was a frequent and welcome guest both at Charlottenburg and Herrenhausen.
Leibniz' thinking, questioning and research were revolutionary, but his personality was not. He never questioned the feudal order of his time, even though he was casual in the performance of his duties to the point of disobedience, and did not shy away from intrigue or disloyalty in the pursuit of his goals. But the fact that Leibniz also had his flaws does not diminish him; it only makes him more human. One might therefore sympathise with Leibniz' greed for both titles and riches. In his final years, he obtained the title of Russian Privy Councillor from Peter I as well as Privy Councillor at the Imperial Court in Vienna. Although his attempts to become a member of the nobility were in vain, he would sometimes slip a fictitious “von” in front of his signature. He regularly fought, or had friends, patrons and acquaintances fight on his behalf, for a regular salary beyond the annual remuneration of 1,000 thalers he received in Hanover. At a time when there were no collective wage agreements or guaranteed retirement benefits, he seems to have worried about his pension, yet when he died at his home on 14 November 1716, he left a considerable fortune. The universal scholar also left countless documents and books, including about 20,000 letters, which were wisely transferred to the Royal Library immediately after his death and have thus been preserved in their entirety. To this day, the collected works of Leibniz have not been fully edited.
Eike Christian Hirsch: Der berühmte Herr Leibniz, Beck Verlag, Munich 2000
Reinhard Finster / Gerd van den Heuvel: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, rororo, Reinbek 1990
"This man alone has brought as much honour to Germany as Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes combined brought to Greece."
From Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie (Volume 9, 1765), the epoch-making work of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution