|The Four Philosophers|
Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) was a northern European Humanist, born in a village just outside Brussels, in what is now Belgium. He held a number of University posts, in Jena, Leiden, and Leuven, and his moves between these institutions involved changes in his professed faith that raised a few contemporary eyebrows. He was first and foremost a scholar of Latin literature, but with wide interests in all things Roman. He was prolific author, publishing with the famous printer Christopher Plantin of Antwerp, whose printing house survives as a museum. Lipsius often spent time in Antwerp with a group of intellectuals based there, including the brother of Peter Paul Rubens, Phillip Rubens. Rubens painted Lipsius a couple of times, most famously in ‘The Four Philosophers’ and later he would contribute engravings to editions of Lipsius’s works.
Lipsius’s most famous philosophical work is his De Constantia of 1584, a work in part inspired by Seneca’s De Constantia Sapientis. Around the same time he also wrote a work called Politica (1589), although wrote is perhaps too strong a word as it is modelled on a commonplace book, and takes large numbers of quotations from other authors, arranging them into the form of an argument. Its proto-Hobbesian thesis is that peace and order ought to take priority over individual freedom. This work, and Lipsius’s wider interests in politics, was in part inspired his reading of Tacitus, whose works he had edited in 1574. Lipsius seems to have read Tacitus as a political philosopher and Lipsius saw him as a natural companion to Seneca, for Tacitus often refers to Roman Stoics in his histories and so offers evidence of Roman Stoicism in practice.
Lipsius would also go on to edit the works of Seneca, completing the task right at the end of his life in 1605, the year before he died. The year before that, 1604, he published two other philosophical works, both devoted to Stoicism, his Manuductio, or Handbook of Stoic Philosophy, and his Physiologia Stoicorum, or Physics of the Stoics. Both of these works, which form the first modern attempt to offer a systematic account of Stoicism, were very much conceived as companion pieces to the edition of Seneca and were designed to help readers understand the philosophical background to Seneca.
Beyond these four more or less philosophical works, Lipsius also published studies of ancient literature, a work on ancient crucifixion, an illustrated study of Roman amphitheatres, and a history of libraries. He also published his correspondence, emulating his beloved Seneca and earlier Humanists such as Petrarch and Ficino.
As I have noted, Lipsius’s De Constantia was inspired in part by Seneca’s De Constantia Sapientis. At least that is where he probably found inspiration for his title. The content of De Constantia is closer in its concerns to Seneca’s De Providentia. It was conceived in part as a philosophical antidote to what Lipsius calls the ‘public evils’ then afflicting northern Europe in the form of religious wars that were particularly disruptive in the Low Countries. The work takes the form of a dialogue in two books, set ten years in the past, between a younger Lipsius and Charles de Langhe, or Langius, who was Canon of Liège. Langius takes the role of the elder wiser figure, dispensing advice and guidance to the younger Lipsius. This naturally raises questions about the attribution of ideas, for although Lipsius is the author of the whole piece, the majority of the substantial claims made in the dialogue are not made by the character Lipsius.
The work has a very clear structure. It begins by describing the virtue of constantia or steadfastness and goes on to offer four arguments or remedies against public evils that will help us to cultivate this virtue, all outlined in 1.13 and then developed throughout the rest of the work. The four arguments are that public evils are i) imposed on us by God (1.14), ii) the product of necessity (1.15-22), iii) in fact profitable or good for us (2.6-17), and iv) neither particularly grievous or unusual.
It is during the course of the second of these arguments that Lipsius offers a discussion of the Stoic theory of fate. This comes as part of an attempt to get clear about the nature of fate that involves drawing distinctions between four different conceptions outlined at 1.17: mathematical, natural, violent, and true. The argument is superficially clear but it may also have deeper complexities. The superficial thrust of the argument is to claim that Stoic fate is an example of violent fate, and a Christian ought not to accept any version of violent fate. So, if we want to reconcile commitments to Stoicism and Christianity then we must modify Stoic fate on four points (outlined at 1.20) in order to bring it into harmony with true fate. The Stoic ‘errors’ are i) to make God subject to fate, ii) they deny the possibility of miracles, iii) they deny all contingency, and iv) they deny free will. On these four points Stoicism must be modified.
A common reading of all this suggests that Lipsius is proposing a Christianized revision of Stoic fate and that this Christianized version of Stoicism lays the foundation for what has come to be known as Neostoicism, a new philosophical position distinct from Stoicism proper due to these revisions. Thus Neostocis are not proper Stoics. Depending on your point of view that might be bad if what you are expecting is proper Stoicism, or good if you value originality and innovation.
However it is possible to raise doubts about this way of reading what is going on here. The first point to note is that all of this is put into the mouth of Langius, not Lipsius himself. The second, more significant, point is that the differences that Langius points to between Stoic fate and true fate don’t really stand up. Not only that, there are various hints in the text that suggest that Lipsius the author was well aware of this fact. These hints suggest that while others might present Stoic fate as an instance of what he calls violent fate, in fact Lipsius was well aware that this was an unfair caricature of the Stoic position. If this is right, and Lipsius was aware of this, then he was also aware that in fact Stoic fate didn’t need amending at all. If that’s the case then why did he not simply come out and say that Stoic fate has been misrepresented by others? Why did not defend it explicitly?
As it happens that’s what he did do twenty years later when he revisited the question of Stoic fate in his Physiologia Stoicorum. Many commentators have not unreasonably assumed that Lipsius shifted his view in the intervening period, perhaps due to a better grasp of Stoic philosophy, but if the hints do show that Lipsius was well aware of all this already in De Constantia then no real shift takes place. But that stills leaves the question of the complex and confusing presentation of Stoic fate in De Constantia.
(I have discussed some of this in more detail in my forthcoming paper ‘Stoic Fate in Justus Lipsius’s De Constantia and Physiologia Stoicorum’.)
Outline of Contents of De Constantia
1.1-3 Introductory: Lipsius travels to escape public evils. Langius says evils are the product of one’s opinions and in order to escape evils one must change one’s mind, not one’s location.
1.4-7 Constancy introduced. The antidote to the affections produced by public evils is Constancy. This is the product of Reason, in contrast to Inconstancy, which is the product of Opinion.
1.8-12 Three enemies of Constancy are Dissimulation (1.8-10), Piety (1.11), and Pity (1.12).
1.13 Four arguments outlined concerning the nature of public evils:
i) they are imposed by God (1.14);
ii) they are the product of Necessity (1.15-22);
iii) they are profitable to us (2.6-17);
iv) they are neither grievous nor unusual (2.18-26).
1.14 First argument: Public evils are imposed by God (i.e. the product of Providence).
1.15-22 Second argument: Public evils the product of Necessity (i.e. Fate/Destiny).
Four kinds of Fate (1.17):
iii) Violent (all 1.18);
iv) True (1.19).
Four points on which True Fate differs from Stoic Violent Fate (1.20):
i) Stoic fate subordinates God to necessity
ii) Stoic fate proposes an eternal order of natural causes
iii) Stoic fate denies possibility / contingency
iv) Stoic fate inflicts a violent force on our will
Conclusion of the discussion of Fate (1.21-22).
2.1-3 Interlude concerning Langius’ garden; not a place for Epicurean pleasure but rather for Stoic reflection.
2.4-5 Warning against merely discussing Constancy; one must become wise, not merely learned.
2.18-26 Fourth argument: public evils are neither grievous nor unusual. Proved by Reason (2.19). Proved by Comparison (2.20-26). Comparisons with wars, plagues, and cruelty from antiquity. What would be truly uncommon would be a human life completely devoid of all trouble.
2.27 Summary: Constancy can overcome sorrow but will require repeated training in order to transform one’s state of mind.