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Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz_Portrait

Famous Hanoverians

Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz (1 July 1646 – 14 November 1716)

Many people who live in Hanover have little knowledge of the various fascinating and important individuals who have either originated or lived this city. One such person was Gottfried Leibniz

  Garry Paton | 11.01.2019

Some of these individuals consist of scientists, politicians, artists, kings and rock stars. In these article, only a short selection of types is given, just to emphasize that for a small town, Hanover certainly has produced some really interesting people!

This article about Gottfried Leibniz is the opener in a series over the next few weeks designed to arouse your interest in the many famous Hanoverians and to encourage you to continue your search via the Internet and libraries.

The Absolute Polymath

Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz (1 July 1646 – 14 November 1716)

The dictionary definition of a polymath is 'a person of great learning in several fields of study'. Therefore, Leibniz is categorically the absolute polymath. With regard to his prodigious life, one doesn't ask, 'what did he do' but appropriately, 'what didn't he do'. He was an expert in physics, philosophy, law, mathematics, biology, medicine, geology, psychology and linguistics.

Leibniz was born on the 1 July 1646 in Leipzig. His father died when Leibniz was only six years old and he was subsequently raised by his mother. His father had been a professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Leipzig, to which, Leibniz inherited his father's vast library. This resulted in the young Leibniz by the age of 12 having an excellent literacy in Latin with already a deep knowledge of philosophy and theology. In April 1661, he enrolled and completed his bachelor's degree in Philosophy by December 1662 at the age of 16. He further studied and obtained his master’s degree in Philosophy by February 1664. He further obtained his bachelor's degree in Law by September 1665. At the young age of 19, he had already accumulated an impressive academic performance.

Leibniz departed from Leipzig after he was unable to obtain his Doctorate in Law from the University of Leipzig, attributed to a probable decision from the university that he was too young for such an undertaking. He enrolled in the University of Altdorf, where he eventually obtained his Doctorate by November 1666. Leibniz however decided against further pursuing a career in Law, to which, his life is a fascinating story of intellectual research and endeavour.

Differentialrechnung von G. W. Leibniz
The integration calculus
Differentialrechnung von G. W. Leibniz
The integration calculus

He was in legal service to the Elector of Mainz, Johann Philipp von Schönborn, from 1666 to 1676, initially as legal assistant, then later promoted to diplomatic role. Then he decided to move to Paris in 1672, where he met the Dutch physicist and mathematician Christiaan Huyguens, to which he was able to learn and subsequently contribute immensely to both subjects. It was in 1675, when he first used integral calculus for the first time to find the area under a graph. Every time a high school student uses the ‚∫’ from the Latin word summa to integrate or the ‚d’ for differentials, there is a reminder of Leibniz. Leibniz may have been the first computer scientist, in that he was probably the first to document the binary numeral system (base 2). With respect to physics, he argued that space, time and motion are relative, not absolute, in contrast to Newton and in effect anticipating Einstein.

While in legal service to the Elector of Mainz, he was required to visit the English government early in 1673. By this time, Leibniz had created his mechanical calculating machine, the 'Stepped Reckoner' which could perform all four functions of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. This was exhibited to the Royal Society who were so impressed that they promptly made him a member.

Later in 1673, Leibniz was offered the post of counsellor to John Frederick of Brunswick and it was not until 1676 that Leibniz finally arrived in Hannover. He was further promoted to Privy Counsellor of Justice in 1677. Leibniz remained in this position for the remainder of his life, with the House of Brunswick tolerating and actively supporting his various intellectual pursuits. He was a close associate and friend of the Electress Sophia of Hannover (1630 - 1714) and her daughter, Sophia Charlotte of Hannover (1668 - 1705). One particular task that was required of him from the Elector Ernest Augustus was to write an effective history on the House of Brunswick, thereby affirming the House it's dynastic position with respect to the multitude of provincial monarchies that were prevalent in Germany at this time. His patrons were probably looking for a short, explanatory genealogy book. However, Leibniz, being the studious and meticulous person that he was, never actually completed the project during his lifetime, so distracted that he was with his other intellectual pursuits. When the accumulated material he had collected on his research on the House of Brunswick was finally published in the 19th century, it filled three volumes!

Leibniz´ Grab in der Neustädter Kirche
Leibniz´ grave in the "Neustädter Kirche" in Hanover
Leibniz´ Grab in der Neustädter Kirche
Leibniz´ grave in the "Neustädter Kirche" in Hanover

Leibniz died in Hannover in 1716. The end of his life is a somewhat depressing affair. His funeral was ignored by the then appointed George I and associates, refusing to attend probably on account of their signifiant disappointment with their lack of published family history. Leibniz's philosophical ideas were chastised and ridiculed by the influential philosopher of the time, Voltaire. Subsequent critical study from the early 19th century, especially from Betrand Russell and Louis Couturant, emphasised Leibniz's contribution to philosophy, especially with respect to formal logic, symbolic thought and reasoning. Also, during the latter part of his life from 1711, Leibniz was continuously accused of plagiarising Newton's work with regard to deriving differential and integral calculus, despite evidence to the contrary. Therefore, for a considerable time his contributions to physics and mathematics was routinely ignored in Europe.

As a person, Leibniz appropriated some significant rational and socially responsible views to society. He advocated ecumenism, the reconciliation of both the Catholic and Lutheran churches, attempting to remove Christian sectarianism that had caused so much strife and bloodshed throughout Europe. He contributed to the setting up of a coherent medical training programme with an emphasis of improving public health and preventing disease epidemics. He proposed tax reforms and a national insurance program and wrote many articles on the fair balance of trade. in 1677 he proposed the idea for a European Confederation governed by a council or senate, somewhat predicative of the modern European Union. Leibniz was without a doubt a person ahead of his time, whose ideas and idealism are only recognised significantly later.

Leibnizhaus in der Altstadt von Hannover
Leibniz´ house in the Old Town of Hanover
Leibnizhaus in der Altstadt von Hannover
Leibniz´ house in the Old Town of Hanover

As an individual, Leibniz during his life appears to have been popular, who shared a wide circle of correspondence with friends, admirers, scientists and intellectuals. He is commonly described as a person who was friendly, well-mannered with humour and imagination. To emphasise how busy his life was, here is an extract from a letter he wrote to Vincent Placcius in 1695:

"I cannot tell you how extraordinarily distracted and spread out I am. I am trying to find various things in the archives; I look at old papers and hunt up unpublished documents. From these I hope to shed some light on the history of the House of Brunswick. I receive and answer a huge number of letters. At the same time, I have so many mathematical results, philosophical thoughts, and other literary innovations that should not be allowed to vanish that I often do not know where to begin"

Sadly, Leibniz’s original house in Hannover was destroyed in 1943 during the Second World War. However, the house was rebuilt in 1983, copying the original design and is located next to the Historisches Museum Hannover.

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