I recently read an astonishing book, The Courtier and the Heretic, which I’d bought on the assumption it was a philosophical biography of Spinoza and Leibniz. I love philosophical biographies (and should write about them at some point) but this turned out to be something rather different. It was more of a psychobiography of Leibniz within which Spinoza played a starring role, offering a Nietzschean analysis of Leibnizian philosophy as a ‘confession’ of its author’s inner strivings. The book offers an astonishingly vivid picture of Leibniz as “the Great Gatsby of his time, always believing in the green light in the distance, the ever receding destination of all our efforts” (pg 301). But what really gripped me was his account of Leibniz’s omnimania:
The number of projects that Leibniz managed simultaneously was almost always an order of magnitude greater than eight. When an idea flared in his kinetic mind, he would grab it like a torch and run until the next bright light caught his eye, and then he would add that one to the bundle in his arms, too, dropping a few others in his haste and so leaving behind a trail of smoldering visions. In the 120 volumes’ worth of material in the Leibniz archives, there are without doubt hundreds of sparkling inventions that have yet to be catalogue, let alone realized. He wrote about everything, to everybody, all the time. If Spinoza was the quintessential monomaniac – ruthlessly compressing a lifetime of insights into a single, adamantine volume – then Leibniz may be aptly described as an “omnimaniac”. (pg 91)
This raises the obvious question: what other omnimaniacs can we identify in the history of ideas? I can imagine a fascinating historical study looking at the social, cultural and biographical conditions which give rise to this. These are like extreme instances of those identified in the Hedgehog and Fox distinction.