Blair Worden

Neostoicism is neither as difficult nor as remote a subject as it may sound, although to grasp its full importance we would need a keener sense than most of us have of the pressing relevance of Classical Antiquity to the thought and values of Renaissance Europe. The term is given by historians to the cult of Stoic ethics – especially of Senecan ethics – at the courts and universities of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Against the grim background of protracted civil war in the Netherlands, in France and in Germany, Neostoicism offered a philosophy of fortitude and consolation not merely to intellectuals but to princes and statesmen. It was a philosophy for laymen, who found in pagan literature a restorative retreat from the conflicting ideologies of Calvinist Geneva and Tridentine Rome.

The leading light of Neostoicism – and the central figure of Gerhard Oestreich’s strange book – was the Flemish philologist Joest Lips, known to his international audience as Justus Lipsius. Born near Brussels in 1547, he grew to maturity amidst the breakdown of Burgundian civilisation in the Low Countries. Destruction, rebellion and religious war were the experiences which shaped his philosophy. Lipsius is little-known today, partly no doubt because he wrote in Latin, partly perhaps because a post-Freudian generation is easily put off by the Stoic mistrust of the body, of instinct, of the irrational. Yet he was probably the most widely read and influential thinker of his time. Kings and cardinals queued and competed for his company. Philip II of Spain made him historiographer royal. Rubens, his devoted pupil, painted him as the modern Seneca; and it was through the medium of Lipsius’s edition and commentary that Seneca reached a wide European audience. Lipsius’s own version of Stoic philosophy, Of Constancy in Evil Times, published in 1584, was an international best-seller.

Not that constancy was a conspicuous feature of his career. Joseph Hall, ‘our English Seneca’, remarked that Lipsius was as constant as a chameleon. This mattered, for the true Stoic wishes to be judged by his life as much as by his writing. Stoic philosophy is a guide to conduct, and the philosopher, the man best-equipped to live well, should educate by his example. Lipsius contrived to hide some of his vacillations by rewriting his letters for publication, a deft editorial feat which transformed whining self-pity into manly resolution. But he could hardly disguise the mutability of his religious allegiances. Educated by Jesuits, he switched to Lutheranism in 1572, when a professorship at Leiden offered him an escape from his troubled homeland. By 1575 he was back in his native Belgium, a Catholic once more, now with a nagging Catholic wife on whom he was to blame his subsequent inconstancies. Four years later, when civil war presented fresh inconveniences, he moved north and adopted the Calvinism of his new home at Leiden. He stayed there for 15 years. Then, in 1591, believing that the war was about to catch up with him yet again, and finding that the hitherto lax Dutch authorities were taking a disconcerting interest in his theological record, he made the return journey to Louvain and to Catholicism. The Jesuits did not let him loose again. In his last years he embarrassed even Catholics by lending his authority to miracles which had been reported in Flemish villages. In 1606, on his deathbed, the test which any self-respecting Stoic must pass, he renounced the ‘vanities’ of pagan philosophy in favour of the Cross, and asked that his prize possession, his furred robes, be placed at the altar of the Church of St Peter in Louvain.

To posterity, the awesome contemporary reputation of Lipsius’s writing may seem curiously inflated. The admiration aroused by his textual work was often uncritical. His philosophical treatises strung together Classical texts much as Protestant preachers strung together Biblical texts. The Ancients did much of his thinking for him. When he did risk originality, he crystallised the muddles and hesitations of his age. Perhaps that is what cult figures are for. There is a certain mischievous pleasure in watching Lipsius adroitly fudging two of the moral issues which most exercised his contemporaries: 1. What are the proper ethical constraints upon political behaviour? 2. How is God’s omnipotence to be reconciled with free will, moral choice and the existence of evil? Believing that politics have a conventional moral purpose, Lipsius cannot swallow Machiavelli whole. Yet he knows that if order is to be restored in Europe, and if the clergy are to be kept down, then princes will need techniques of statecraft incompatible with the pieties they profess. His solution is a half-hearted Machiavellianism justified by the principle of the golden mean: deceit is permissible in moderation. The problem of the intervention of divine providence in earthly affairs is wished away by hypotheses which require us at one moment to believe that God’s purposes are knowable, at the next to understand that they are inscrutable.

Yet Lipsius did not owe his renown solely to the inconsistencies of his thought and of his behaviour. In any case, his changes of religious profession had a respectable intellectual sanction. For in Stoicism, the philosophy of internal virtue, external creeds and institutions have no innate value. The state’s demands for outward religious conformity, which are legitimate tests of political loyalty, are adiaphora, ‘things indifferent’, and can be cheerfully accepted. Outward nonconformity is, at best, fruitless egoism. This doctrine, which would have been music to the ears of Elizabeth I, had some distinguished adherents. The period of Lipsius’s life and influence is the period of the external conservatism and internal radicalism of Montaigne and of Bacon. It is also the period of the Family of Love, the heretical sect with which Lipsius was associated and which justified dissimulation as a means of outwitting clerical inquisitors.

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