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.

Renaissance Stoicism, like Familism, was not a philosophy of mere expediency. The changes and chances of war and of confessional rivalry encouraged the belief that permanent values could be located only within the mind. The Stoic scorns those external circumstances of prosperity and affliction, war and peace, health and sickness, praise and blame, which, falling within the province of fortune, are beyond the control of virtue, and are therefore inherently neither good nor evil. In the words of Guillaume du Vair, who after Lipsius was the most influential exponent of Renaissance Stoicism, ‘the use is all in a thing, and everything is as it is used good or bad.’ Or as Lipsius’s friend, the distinguished Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, puts it, ‘to the good man, all things are good.’

Or as Hamlet puts it, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. Hamlet has plainly imbibed Lipsian philosophy at Wittenberg. Stoic values are among the themes of the play, and in Hamlet’s ‘tables’, the notebook where he thinks it meet to set down pregnant Senecan aphorisms, an early 17th-century audience would have recognised his Stoic credentials. He greets us with a Stoic apologia. Beneath his inky cloak, the trappings and the suits of woe, he has that within which passeth show. We might take him for a Puritan – until we recall the early Stuart Earl of Arundel, that sober-suited devotee of Seneca, or remember Lipsius’s insistent distinction between ‘true and inward virtue’ and ‘outward show’. Virtue was to be achieved by the victory of reason over the passions, by that sovereignty of reason which Horatio urges Hamlet to sustain. In Du Vair’s words, we become ‘free and happy’ when we overcome ‘troubles and perturbations of the mind’, but we ‘renounce our liberties’ when we ‘serve our passions’. So Hamlet wants to be given that man that is not passion’s slave, whom he will hold in his heart of hearts. Tested by adversity, subjected to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (the strumpet fortune, whose ‘privates’, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are teased by Hamlet for their un-Stoical dependence on her), Hamlet asks Stoic questions about the nobility of suicide, and mixes Stoic metaphors when he wonders whether to take arms against a sea of troubles. With a Stoic’s grasp of the insignificance of death, he does not set his life at a pin’s fee.

T.S. Eliot, in his essay on ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, glumly predicted that ‘a stoical or Senecan Shakespeare is almost certain to be produced’ sooner or later, and then sought to forestall his appearance. Eliot’s view of Stoicism (‘the permanent substratum of a number of versions of cheering oneself up’) is not one that Lipsius, or Shakespeare, would have understood. Insofar as he was arguing that Shakespeare’s plays cannot be discussed as if they were mere bodies of ideas, Eliot was so obviously right that it is now hard to believe that anyone could have thought him wrong. Yet we miss a dimension of Hamlet if we neglect the intellectual issues which it explores, and which troubled even those who, like Shakespeare, had small Latin and less Greek. Stoic ideals are examined and ultimately found wanting. Hamlet knows that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the Stoic philosophy of his friend and fellow scholar Horatio (who makes his suicide bid more as an antique Roman than a Dane). He learns the limitations of the godlike reason he has so searchingly tested. Yet if he transcends Stoicism, it has left its mark on him as on his generation.

The educational programme at Wittenberg is likely to have been a stern and revolutionary one. Lipsius told Montaigne in 1588 of his scorn for ‘external and polite kinds of study’, and for ‘every kind of knowledge that is not directed by prudence and judgment to the end of teaching the conduct of life’. The dark political skies of the late Renaissance demanded an end to the frivolities of logic-chopping and word-play. The whipping-boy of the Stoics, as of Erasmus earlier, was Ciceronianism: not the philosophy of Cicero, much of which the Lipsians approved and absorbed, but the slavish and enervating imitation of flowery Ciceronian prose. In its place they introduced the Attic or Baroque prose which was to be so brilliantly illuminated by Maurice Croll in the opening decades of this century. Although Croll’s arguments have been refined by George Williamson and other literary scholars, their significance has not been grasped by historians, who miss the connection between style and content so well understood by Lipsius’s supporters and opponents alike.

The new prose was urgent, sharp, pointed, terse, epigrammatic. Its models were Tacitus and Seneca. Brevity was the soul of wit. The ideal sentence was a ‘maxim’ which, like the precepts bestowed by Polonius on Laertes, was designed to be set in the memory, as an automatic defence against moral self-betrayal. This was Baconian prose, to be chewed and digested: the prose of strong lines and of colliding or only half-connecting thoughts, which leads to the conceits of Metaphysical poetry. It came under fire from the start. The first target was Lipsius’s teacher Antoine Muret, the pioneer of anti-Ciceronianism. Expelled from France for sodomy and Protestantism, Muret was welcomed to Rome by the Papacy and learned while there to conform outwardly to the Counter-Reformation. He even suspended his literary principles to produce an ornate Ciceronian tribute to the perpetrators of the Massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572. Eight years later, however, he provoked uproar with a series of lectures which repudiated Ciceronian in favour of Tacitean prose. In the ensuing controversy, the survival of civilisation seemed to hang on the shape of its sentences. A Jesuit stated that the authority of Ciceronian prose, Aristotelian science and Catholic religion would stand or fall together. The fear was not unreasonable, although there were Protestant Ciceronians and Aristotelians too. Roger Ascham thought anti-Ciceronianism a threat to the Protestant Church of England. ‘Ye know not what harm ye do to learning,’ he protested, ‘that care not for words, but for matter.’ To which Hamlet’s response would have been: ‘Words, words, words.’ Like his mother, he wanted more matter with less art.

While Ciceronians and churchmen saw the new prose as subversive, princes welcomed it. The Stoics, looking to rulers to heal the wounds of Europe, were willing to suspend their own constitutionalist inclinations and to give their blessing to absolutism. In this they resembled Bodin, so tender of constitutional liberties before St Bartholomew, so committed to indivisible sovereignty after it. With Montaigne, Lipsians believed that oratory had flourished in the dangerous times of Athenian and Roman liberty, when wisdom had yielded to the giddy passions of the fickle multitude. The new prose was designed, not for popular or representative assemblies, not for Demos, but for courts and cabinets, for an élite of princes and courtiers, who alone were qualified to embody reason and to withstand the shifting winds of opinion. Did not the decline of free institutions and the rise of the new monarchies, asked Muret, make it appropriate for the 16th century to seek its political language in the Imperial Rome of Tacitus rather than in the Republican Rome of Cicero? The obscurity and sophistication of Tacitean prose, he thought, had the added advantage of ‘excluding the view of the vulgar’. Here is another signpost to Metaphysical Poetry, with its self-conscious addiction to difficulty.

No doubt Lipsian prose, in its turn, became an object of servile imitation, although the models were good ones, and if we do not consciously follow good literary models we may unconsciously follow bad ones. The eventual defeat of the Senecan and Tacitean mode was the achievement of the scientists, who had at first welcomed its energy and its anti-Aristotelianism, but who viewed with increasing dismay its commitment to the alliance of reason and imagination. Lipsian prose, pointing inward towards the experience of the writer, lit up the moment of creation when an idea was inseparable from the language of its expression. The scientists, distrusting passion, demoting experience below observation, favoured the plain, rational prose of the Royal Society and of Locke.

Sooner or later we shall have to come to the book under review, but not quite yet. Instead we shall turn to a question which may have troubled the reader who is still with us. When is a Stoic a Neostoic? The traditional answer is, when he is a Christian. The early Church had absorbed so much of Stoicism that the two traditions are not always distinguishable. There have been many examples of peaceful coexistence. Did not the Christian Stoic Boethius write about providence in terms compatible with both philosophies (terms, indeed, strikingly similar to those in which Lipsius treats the subject)? And did not Calvin, in his early, humanist phase, write a model translation of Seneca’s Of Clemency? In some ways, Renaissance Stoics were closer to Christianity than to their Greek ancestors, whose cosmological and metaphysical ambitions they had largely shed. The principal debt of Lipsian philosophy is not to Greek or to early Roman Stoicism but to the later, more narrowly ethical version of Seneca and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. This was less a system of ideas than an attitude of mind: an attitude which, when spiced with a dash of Platonism, could be made to look almost identical to the Platonist interpretation of Christianity.

Stoics thought that if Christians would concern themselves with good conduct rather than with theology, tension between Christianity and Stoicism could be avoided. But the doctrinal developments of the Reformation were bound to heighten the points of difference. Stoicism subscribed to reason rather than to faith, to the innate goodness rather than the helpless depravity of man. It also subordinated God to nature, a position from which Lipsius beat a nervous and clumsy retreat. He and Du Vair (who was to become a bishop) acknowledged the clear superiority of Christian doctrine. They claimed (like Thomas More before them) that they were only praising pagan behaviour in order to shame Christians into leading better lives. They assembled carefully selected texts from Classical Stoicism to show that their philosophy was wholly compatible with orthodox Christianity. But these were outward concessions, strategic not substantial. The striking feature of Renaissance Stoicism is not any adaptation of Classical thought to Christian needs but, on the contrary, the wholesale transplantation of pagan ideas to the Christian present. At its core, despite the Jesuit pressure on Lipsius to amend his teaching, Renaissance Stoicism owes nothing to revelation or to redemption.

That might not have dismayed the laity, but it displeased the clergy. The width of the gap is indicated by the smug reflections on Stoicism of Joseph Hall, who was to be Milton’s opponent in the contest over episcopacy. If there was one Calvinist clergyman whom the Stoics might have expected to call their own, it was Hall. He cultivated the Senecan style, and observed that ‘never any heathen wrote more divinely’ than Seneca: if Seneca ‘could have had grace to his wit, what wonders might he have done!’ Like the Stoics, Hall assumes that men can reform themselves by a manageable process of adjustment: there is no call for a radical disavowal of the old Adam. Like the Stoics, too, Hall believes that happiness can be attained in this world, which need not be a vale of tears. Yet experience showed (although Hall did not deign to say what experience) that earthly felicity was not available to ‘the unregenerate mind’: ‘it can be none but a divine power, that can uphold the mind against the rage of many affections’ – ‘not Athens must teach this lesson, but Jerusalem.’

So the traditional equation of Neostoicism (which is, after all, only a term of convenience) with Christianised Stoicism obscures the tensions which survived. Oestreich’s book proposes a new definition. To him, ‘what clearly distinguishes Neostoic philosophy from its classical model’ is ‘a call for activity and perseverance ... Will, reason and discipline become from now on the dominant values of the age. Energy and rational severity are set against misericordia, simple, passive compassion, as prerequisites in life.’ These new values, Oestreich believes, were translated into a concrete programme in an influential work of Lipsius to which historians have paid insufficient attention, his Six Books of Politics, published in 1589. There Lipsius, ‘the philosophical father of the modern state’, ‘proclaimed the modern state, based on order and power’. Neostoicism, ‘the ideology of the powerful, centralised state’, aimed ‘to increase the power and efficiency of the state by an acceptance of the central role of the army’.

These claims are incessantly repeated, but never argued or even clearly explained. I doubt whether Lipsius would have recognised his own ideas in them. Renaissance Stoicism was no more unambiguously ‘active’ than Classical Stoicism was unambiguously ‘passive’. Lipsius’s Stoicism, like Roman Stoicism, offered dignity to political defeat or retirement. It is in the Politics that Lipsius reproduces the famous passage of Seneca’s Thyestes, that touchstone of Stoic poetry in England from Wyatt to Marvell, where ‘the slippery height of the court’ is renounced in favour of the ‘pleasant ease’ and ‘quiet leisure’ of obscurity. The passage is quite in keeping with the general tone of the Politics.

We can certainly identify a more ‘active’ strain in Lipsius’s thought, but if we call it Neostoicism we need to keep a clearer head than Oestreich does. As he acknowledges, the chief influence on the Politics is not Seneca but the other writer whom Lipsius brought alive for the late Renaissance, Tacitus; and Tacitus, one is reduced to pointing out, was not a Stoic. The merger of Seneca and Tacitus, inhabitants of the period of Roman history which Lipsius, like Muret, believed to be akin to his own time, is the distinctive feature of Lipsius’s political thought, as it is of his prose. In the Renaissance, Tacitus was often a polite word for Machiavelli, in whom we indeed find the dynamic view of politics which preoccupies Oestreich. The tensions and the complexities of the relationship between Senecan and Tacitean thought in the 16th and 17th centuries are a marvellous subject. They need a more sensitive approach to the content and the context of Lipsius’s thought, and a more informed acquaintance with his readership, than we can find amidst the oblique anachronisms of Oestreich’s hunt for the origins of Prussian militarism.

The pity of it is that behind this book there lie the makings of a good point. Oestreich is right to search for the emotional basis of the Baroque monarchies, whose support and authority, as he remarks, cannot be adequately explained in the conventional terms of abstract political thought. Seventeenth-century absolutism was the creation of iron-willed statesmen, ‘Puritans of the right’ like Cardinal Richelieu, whose identification of the state with reason, and of rebellion with disorderly passion, sounds like a projection of Stoic philosophy into the public weal. Is there a connection between Lipsian thought – which, Oestreich observes, was promulgated by the occupants of a series of chairs of politics founded in the early 17th century – and the rise of disciplined bureaucracies and armies?

It is the military developments that interest Oestreich most. The fifth book of Lipsius’s Politics, the section on warfare, which Lipsius believed to break important new ground, does seem to have been studied by contemporary statesmen. The Renaissance contribution to the art of war consisted largely of a revival of Roman techniques and of Roman discipline, subjects on which Lipsius was the most eminent authority of his time. The evidence connecting Lipsius with the military reforms of Maurice of Nassau and of the Orange household, reforms which in any case have come to seem less revolutionary than they did, has always looked suggestive but fragmentary, and Oestreich cannot add significantly to it. Much of Lipsius’s advice consists of platitudes about military organisation and morale for which experienced generals would hardly have needed to turn either to Lipsius or to Antiquity. Even so, Lipsius’s insistence on military discipline as ‘the chief glory and establishment of the empire’, and his Livian argument that ‘soldiers ought to be fearful to behold, not engraved with gold and silver, but covered with iron,’ suggests that a historian who answered Oestreich’s questions in a scholarly way might throw light on the development of the crack armies of the 17th century, and on the regimes which they served.

Instead, we are treated to heady claims for the importance of Oestreich’s subject, accompanied by rootless sub-Weberian pronouncements about rationality and bourgeois values, by wistful tributes to the influence on generals and statesmen of scholars ‘working at their desks’, and by less than Stoical complaints about the failure of Oestreich’s fellow historians to acknowledge his work – an injustice which might win more sympathy but for the apparent omission of long-established authorities from his own reading. The curiously formulated claim, essential to his thesis but nowhere supported, that ‘the famous Lipsian style’ was ‘bound’ to ‘captivate the select circle of officers educated in the classics, a class which was so important in this warlike age’, is silently elevated fifty pages later to the conclusion that the ‘Neostoic philosophy’ of action, constancy, self-control and obedience ‘instantly appealed’ to ‘the commanders and their officers’.

The book contains some bald statements which cannot be pursued in English libraries, and which may have hidden substance to them. The indications, however, are not encouraging. Grandiose statements which can be easily checked prove to rest on sand. There is, for example, the supposed debt to Lipsius of Hobbes, a claim which rests principally on two assertions. The first runs: ‘Hobbes, in his preface to Thucydides, stated that his opinions on history were largely formed by Cicero, Lucian, and the Notae to the Politics of Lipsius.’ Hobbes stated nothing of the kind. He merely cited those authors’ favourable estimates of Thucydides in support of his own judgment. The second assertion is: ‘The idea that freedom of thought is the privilege of a small minority links Hobbes, in the opinion of K. Thomas, with the Neostoics.’ Thomas’s point is quite the reverse: that Hobbes believed the political judgment of the poor to be no less sound than that of the rich, and that this unusual position distinguished him from, among others, the Neostoics, who confined wisdom to an élite. And what are we to make of a book about the intellectual history of Early Modern Europe which maintains that ‘the strict Calvinist ... favoured the idea of popular sovereignty,’ and, on the next page, calls Bodin a Calvinist?

Neostoicism and the Early Modern State is a substantially revised version of a book which was published in Germany in 1969, and which is here rounded out with a series of loosely connected articles. Oestreich did not live to complete the revision, and we cannot be certain that he would have taken responsibility for the text which has now emerged, in a language not his own.