Hidden History

Gottfried Leibniz, the 300 Year-Old China Hand5 min read

A scientist, sinophile and bridge between east and west – Matthew Ehret

Many people would be surprised to discover that Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), a German polymath and logician best known for his discovery of Calculus, was one of the most important sinophiles of the 17th century, whose writings were instrumental in bringing the idea of Chinese culture and civilization to Europe.

Leibniz recognized the value of Chinese culture after an extensive study of Confucian texts provided to him by Jesuit scientists in Beijing. Inspired by the moral and practical philosophy that kept this ancient civilization alive (while European societies suffered nearly constant warfare), he created a journal called Novissima Sinica (News from China) in 1697. The journal was followed by an organizing effort across Eurasia to bring about a vast dialogue of civilizations, driven by the pursuit of scientific discovery and economic development.

In the first issue of the Novissima Sinica, Leibniz wrote:

“I consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation and refinement should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two extremes of our continent, in Europe and in China, which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite edge of the Earth. Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement, so that as the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out their arms to each other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of life. I do not think it an accident that the Russians, whose vast realm connects Europe with China and who hold sway over the deep barbarian lands of the North by the shore of the frozen ocean, should be led to the emulation of our ways through the strenuous efforts of their present ruler [Peter I].”
Portrait of Leibniz by Christoph Bernhard Francke (Wikicommons)

Leibniz’s program of cross-continental dialogue had begun in earnest a generation earlier, with the Jesuit followers of Matteo Ricci in China. During the rites controversy, they had scared powerful factions in the Catholic Church who feared the idea that one could be both Confucian and Christian at the same time. As a scientist, astronomer, linguist and musician, Ricci believed that in pursuing scientific truth and creativity, all hearts are edified to a higher state of being – which reflected in Ricci’s mind the essence of Christianity. After the Qing dynasty came to power in 1644, the collaboration with Jesuit scholars continued and the Kangxi emperor, himself an astronomer and poet devoted to learning, gave the missionaries carte blanche to evangelize and teach across China – a feat never before accomplished. The Kangxi emperor even employed Western painters such as Giuseppe Castiglione to create new schools of painting, synthesizing eastern and western aesthetics, and the Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest headed the Beijing Observatory. Yet Leibniz’s enthusiasm for the Chinese was not shared, and regressive forces in the Catholic Church chose to make a scandal out of the rites which Confucians undertook to honor their ancestors, exclaiming that this was equivalent to worshiping pagan gods.

In his Novissima Sinica, Leibniz defended the rites and sacrifices paid to ancestors and the Emperor, noting that these sacrifices and honors were merely spiritual modes of honoring the past and present in order to do good for the future. He also claimed that the Chinese had independently discovered theological concepts which were identical to those discovered independently in the Christian cultural matrix: Li (the principle/truth of Heaven) and Shangdi (or Xang ti in his spelling: God). He wrote:

“They sacrifice to this visible Heaven (or rather to its King) and revere in profound silence that Li which they do not name, because of the ignorance, or the vulgarity of the people, who would not understand the nature of the Li. What we call the light of reason in man, they call commandment and law of heaven. What we call the inner satisfaction of obeying justice and our fear of acting contrary to it, all this is called by the Chinese (and by us as well) inspirations sent by the Xang ti (that is, by the true God). To offend heaven is to act against reason, to ask pardon of heaven is to reform oneself and to make a sincere return in word and deed in submission one owes to this very law of reason. For me I find all this quite excellent, and quite in accord with natural theology.”

Observing the breakdown of relations between east and west due to conservative religious elitists pushing the rites controversy, while Europe fell ever more deeply into religious wars, Leibniz wrote that the time is coming when Europe will need the Chinese to act as missionaries to teach practical and natural religion: “Certainly the condition of our affairs [in Europe], slipping as we are into ever greater corruption, seems to be such that we need missionaries from the Chinese who might teach us the use and practice of natural religion, just as we have sent them teachers of revealed theology.”

By 1704, Pope Clement IV issued a decree proclaiming that anyone in China wishing to practice Christianity had to entirely renounce the ancestral rites, causing the entire 150 year Jesuit mission to crumble to pieces. Soon, only a handful of the most valuable missionaries were permitted to stay in Beijing, while the rest of China was made off limits to them. The plan for a direct European-Asian alliance of cultures fell apart. But that didn’t stop Leibniz.

Always looking for another way to foster European-Chinese connections, Leibniz focused his energy on Czar Peter the Great, writing to the Russian leader in 1712 to try and curry favour. After years of failed attempts, the dam finally broke and Leibniz was granted an audience with the Czar. It must have gone well, for he toured Russia with the Czar later in 1712, and was appointed a member of the Russian government, with the title of Privy Councillor, overseeing scientific academies and infrastructure projects to unite Russia as a modern nation, as well as advising the Czar on mathematics and science, and reforming the Russian judicial system, which Leibniz said made him feel like “Solon of Athens”.

The last tract Leibniz was writing on his death bed, in 1716, was titled Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese. Now that Russia and China are co-operating again, and presenting a joint challenge to the Western order, some of Leibniz’s world views and approaches to realising them seem prophetic, for better or worse. ∎

Header: Title page of Novissima Sinica (public domain).