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  • Leibniz, China, and the Problem of Pagan Wisdom
  • Daniel J. Cook (bio)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’ mature years coincided with the first major European encounter with the thought and civilization of China. From the 1660s onward, many European thinkers and theologians were especially fascinated with this pagan culture. Although Christendom had previously encountered the pagan traditions of Greece and Rome, they had been incorporated into European thought since the origins of Christianity. From the time of the Church fathers, Christendom had developed various strategies to appropriate and reform classical philosophical thought for its own purposes. Leibniz echoes this Christianizing attitude when he says that “the doctrine of Plato concerning metaphysics and morality is holy and just. . . .”1

China represented a challenge to Christendom in that it was seen as an advanced civilization with its own highly developed belief system, which differed markedly from any of the Abrahamic religions. Whereas the ancient Greeks were long gone, Chinese wisdom threatened the monopoly of religious truth that the Christian West believed it possessed.2 “Freethinkers” would argue—as indeed they already had—that one could be ethical and civilized without believing in a Christian God. Joachim Bouvet—a French Jesuit serving in the court in Beijing and Leibniz’ main correspondent on matters Chinese—warns him that if their venerated texts are not somehow “sanctified,” there will be a living example of a highly civilized country being completely atheistic.3

Various solutions were offered to explain how pagans gained the wisdom thought to have been revealed exclusively to the Jews and Christians.4 Leibniz is the only major Western philosopher who attempted in various ways to accommodate the pagan wisdom of the Chinese to prevailing European philosophical and theological beliefs. His goal was to demonstrate that, when properly interpreted and reformed on the basis of reason, their relevant pagan texts were compatible with his own philosophy, that is, a natural theology that was in turn compatible with a Christian belief system. The implications for his lifelong ecumenical and irenic goals are clear.

In his treatment of pagan wisdom, we see strong testimony to Leibniz’ belief in humankind’s intellectual ability to arrive at the basic truths of monotheism without compromising the singular truth and location of the Judeo-Christian revelation. Leibniz held to the literal biblical view that all of humanity originated with Adam. This monogenetic view of all humankind contributed to his basic belief in the natural ability of certain individuals of all eras to arrive at the same natural theology, that is, [End Page 936] those rational truths concerning the nature of God and the human soul. Justin Smith has argued that this contributed to Leibniz’ belief in the intrinsic equality of all peoples, though there may be great cultural and intellectual differences among them.5

Leibniz sought a path that could recognize the equality (let alone the superior mores that he thought Chinese society embodied) of pagan wisdom but at the same time support the unique and supreme nature of Christianity’s doctrines and mysteries. He believed that the superior scholarship and methodology developed by the Christian tradition to convert Jews could be used to this end. His European and Christian hubris on this point is apparent:

It is not absurd for discerning Europeans . . . to see something today which is not adequately known by the Chinese erudites, and to be able to interpret their ancient books better than the erudites themselves. Who does not know in our own day that Christian scholars are much better interpreters of the most ancient books of the Hebrews than the Jews themselves? . . . This is even more likely concerning doctrines more than twenty centuries removed from the Chinese, who are quite possibly not as equipped with the interpretive aids as we, informed about Chinese literature, and especially aided by European methods.”6


Unlike many of his contemporaries, who spurned classical learning, Leibniz, both temperamentally and philosophically, never ceased stressing the importance of classical texts. Arguments that appealed to ancient learning and wisdom should be attractive to Leibniz not only on purely intellectual grounds, but for polemical reasons as well. For example, he suggested to Bishop Huét that deepening our study of ancient pagan sources (especially...


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