Justus Lipsius, Godfather of Christian Neostoicism by Max Longley

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Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) can be considered the founder of Renaissance and early modern Neostoicism (or Neo-Stoicism). Not only did he give the fullest account of ancient Stoicism which had been given since the classical age, he inspired a generation of readers and students with the philosophy. He sought to reconcile the teachings of the pagan Stoics with Christianity. Like his hero and model Seneca, Lipsius came in for his share of criticism for not living up to his own Stoic ideals.

Justus Lipsius (his name is a Latinization of his Dutch name, Josse Lips) was born in 1547 in Overijse in modern Belgium. He studied in Cologne with the Jesuits, but his parents withdrew him and he went to the University of Louvain (Leuven) near his birthplace. He studied the Latin classics and became a well-respected philologist through Latin works published at a young age.

Spanish forces under the infamous Duke of Alba were wreaking havoc in the area, and Lipsius decided it was time to pack his bags. During a couple of unsettled years he came back to Louvain to obtain a degree in law and promptly left again. After an unsatisfying stint with the Catholic Emperor in Vienna, he ended up in Jena, Germany. There, for a couple of years, Lipsius taught at the university in that Lutheran city. On certain formal occasions he gave public addresses for the university in which he praised the Lutherans and denounced the Catholics. His main focus, though, was on his scholarship. He sparked jealousy among faculty colleagues, but – in a pattern which would follow throughout his career – he attracted students who became attached to him and his ideas. This was the beginning of a network of former students, many of whom became influential, with whom he corresponded and who spread his ideas. Lipsius married at this time but never had children – his paternal solicitude was spent on his students.

During a sojourn in Cologne (where he met his wife), Lipsius published a new edition of Tacitus, the Roman historian. The latter publication helped cement his reputation in the international “republic of letters” – the community of humanist scholars throughout Europe who shared a common devotion to classical learning which – they hoped – transcended religious and national barriers.

Lipsius made another move in 1578, this time to a new University at Leiden, in Holland. Holland was one of the rebellious Dutch provinces fighting to be free of Spain, and the University of Leiden was founded amid the good wishes of the rebels. Not only was Lipsius appointed to a professorship, he served several terms as rector, indicating how valuable an acquisition the renowned scholar was to university just finding its feet in a beleaguered republic.

Shortly after he was established in Leiden, he became seriously ill, and composed a prayer asking God to strengthen him as he faced possible death. He recovered and published a book on the subject of constancy – this time constancy in the face of war and turmoil, not personal ills. The book, De Constantia (Concerning Constancy), sold quite well. Inspired by the ideals of the Stoic authors Lipsius had studied, this small Latin book defended a Christian humanist form of the Stoic ideal.

“I have always set my sails wholly toward the one haven of a tranquil mind,” wrote Lipsius (Constancy, 13). He boasted that he was the first to write about “consolation in public disasters” (Constancy, 13). Lipsius also added what might seem a disclaimer – he was writing this book for himself, for his own “well-being.” The implication seems to be that while Lipsius knows the value of constancy, he hasn’t yet been able to obtain it and needs to urge it upon himself (Constancy, xix-xx, 13).

De Constantia is in the form of a dialogue. The good lines are given to an older scholar, Charles Langius of Liège, whose fictional persona imparts wisdom to the Lipsius character. Lipsius puts himself in the book as a young man fearful for the fate of his beloved Netherlands and seeking consolation in his distress.

 The Langius character gives Stoic advice to the young man – “you must not flee your country, Lipsius, but your emotions.” (Constancy, 19) “Constancy I here designate an upright and unmoved vigor of mind that is neither uplifted nor cast down by outward or chance occurrences.” (Constancy, 27, 29, emphasis in original)

Langius argues that Lipsius is not motivated by a pure idealistic concern for the fate of his country, but by a more specific concern about the personal consequences of the war in the Netherlands. If his is a truly disinterested humanitarianism, why isn’t Lipsius also concerned about wars in other, more remote countries? In fact Lipsius should consider his citizenship to be in “the entire world” (Constancy, 43), in good Stoic cosmopolitan fashion. Of course Lipsius should love his particular country – die for it if necessary – but he shouldn’t have a passionate attachment and misname it patriotism, giving his country the reverence owed to God and his parents. Indeed, Heaven is man’s “true ancestral country” (Constancy, 55).

Langius warns Lipsius not to be angry over public disasters, which are “dispatched and licensed by God.” Who is Lipsius – “[a] man, a shadow, dust” – to question God? (Constancy, 57, 63). God’s decrees will be carried out even against men who dare to resist them. Do not expect to be exempt from worldly trouble – mortality is characteristic of the whole created world. Even heavenly bodies can perish. Astronomers had recently found a supernova in the Cassiopeia constellation, which contradicted the previously-received wisdom about the permanence and stability of the heavens (Constancy, 67, 69). Change and death was everywhere in creation – even the heavens could not escape. One must meet this reality with firmness of mind. (Seneca, echoing earlier astronomical theories, claimed that “[t]he higher part of the universe” was “free from all disorder,” just like men’s minds should be (Seneca, “Anger,” 23)).

The universe is governed by “a firm and determined necessity of events” – said De Constantia – eternally foreknown by God (Constancy, 75). The “determined necessity” is Fate. Here, though, Lipsius was navigating difficult philosophical and theological waters. There was a widespread impression that Stoics taught the doctrine – heretical to Christians – that God was Himself bound by the same Fate which governed the universe (indeed, that God was in the universe). Stepping carefully through this minefield, Lipsius cited two false interpretations of fate – Astrological and Violent – and the true version of fate, which he simply called True Fate.

Astrological fate – man’s life being governed by the stars – was easily dismissed. Violent Fate was equally wrong – it was the blasphemous idea of a Fate so powerful that it controlled God himself as well as the voluntary choices of human beings. Some Stoic writings seemed to teach this unacceptable version of fate, while other Stoic writings taught “sounder” doctrines and did not run into the extremes of Violent Fate. Whatever his actual interpretation of Stoic ideas, Lipsius wanted to distance himself from the stereotypes which connected Stoicism to Violent Fate. Stoics had sought to defend “the majesty and Providence of God,” and if some of them had wandered into error, it was from their laudable zeal to free mankind from the vicissitudes of Fortune (Constancy, 79, 81, 83).

Then Lipsius came to True Fate, in its proper Stoic (and Neostoic) conception. True Fate does not bind God; it comes from God. It is “the eternal decree of Providence, which can no more be taken away from things than Providence itself.” God creates Fate while still leaving room for human free will: “He saw; He did not compel. He knew; he did not determine. He predicted; he did not prescribe.” Yet our free will comes in strict limits – “So it is in this fatal bark [ship] that bears us all along: our wills are permitted to run one way or another, not to turn the ship from its course or stop it.” (Constancy, 91, 93)

 Accepting Fate, not fighting against it, was key to constancy and tranquility. “There is no other escape from Necessity than to will whatever it compels” (Constancy, 97). But that is no excuse for fatalism – you should still help your country in its extremity – it might do good or might not, but the result is beyond one’s control.

Another thing which helps us to constancy is to examine the nature of what we believe to be evils. Events which seem on the surface to be the wrath of an angry God may instead be intended by God as “medications.” God can inflict such seeming evils directly – as with earthquakes and plagues – or he can make use of human instruments who believe they are doing evil but unknowingly work good ends – as with wars and oppression. Whether direct or indirect, these apparent evils are intended for good.

How can seeming evils be for our good? For one thing, God may be acting like a tough gym coach (a good Stoic metaphor) to “train” people in “endurance and virtue.” Toughened up by misfortune, men will be better able to endure the blows of Fortune. And the sight of good men enduring affliction will be a source of inspiration to others.

Adversities can also be sent by God as punishment. The people of the Netherlands had been too greedy and too pleasure-loving. God sent the war as a punishment for abusing His gift of liberty and by indulging in “license.” Lipsius (through Langius’ mouth) used the metaphor of the Persians who reportedly punished prominent offenders by whipping their robes and turbans (after removing them from their owners). By analogy, a person’s body and property could be compared to his turban and robes – “external things.” When God punishes us by attacking our persons or our wealth, He “does not touch us.” (Constancy, 135, 137). This metaphor was based on old Stoic doctrine on the irrelevance of externals.

With some trepidation, Lipsius ventured into another reason for constancy – the Stoic idea that everything God permits to happen is for the good of the universe as a whole, even if it seems harmful to an individual who forms a part of that universe.

Lipsius added some consolations for the seeming impunity and success of the wicked. The wicked always get punished, through internal pangs of conscience, through external punishment, or certainly through the eternal punishment which awaits unrepentant evildoers.

On Constancy then gave a brief discussion to the Stoic idea that it is our opinions of public events, not the events themselves, which generally cause us distress. Then Lipsius proceeded to give his version of reassurance to those enduring the war in the Netherlands: things weren’t as bad as they used to be. Citing histories of Greece and Rome, as well as Josephus’ history of the 1st-century Jewish Revolt, Lipsius gave casualty figures for wars, plagues, massacres, plundering, and excessive taxation of ancient times, which were greater than the losses suffered by the people of the Netherlands. Lipsius also invited contemplation of the evils of slavery in the classical world, rejoicing – prematurely, as it happens – that such a scourge did not exist in Christian lands. (One wonders how Lipsius would have addressed the modern reader, in light of the atrocities of the twentieth century.)

Lipsius’ Constancy was an international bestseller, getting translated into several languages. Dirck Coornhert, a civil-law notary and indefatigable religious controversialist, offered to bring out a Dutch translation, but Coornhert withdrew from the project when he wasn’t satisfied with Lipsius’ position on free will (the two men were close in their opinions, but not close enough for the very particular Coornhert). Lipsius found another Dutch translator. Illustrating the cross-border nature of the humanist project, an edition of Constancy was published in Spanish-occupied Antwerp. Readers elsewhere in Europe found the book spoke to their needs.

Lipsius carried out an extensive correspondence with intellectuals throughout Europe, both on the Catholic and Protestant sides of the religious divide. He published extensive editions of his correspondence, perhaps in emulation of Seneca who also published his “private” letters. To some of his Catholic correspondents in the southern Netherlands and Liège, Lipsius began dropping what could be seen as hits about coming back to Catholicism, and back to his youthful haunts in the now-Spanish southern Netherlands. His correspondents were eager to win him back to the Catholic faith, though one correspondent – Laevinius Torrentius, future bishop of Antwerp – was worried about conflicts between Stoicism and Christian orthodoxy. Torrentius pointed to the Stoics’ approval of suicide and alleged denial of life after death. Lipsius replied to criticism like this in later editions of Constancy, protesting that Christians could make use of the good parts of ancient philosophy. “I shall act as a philosopher, but a Christian philosopher” (Constancy, 5).

Then Lipsius embarked on another project which also produced a bestseller, Politicorum sive civilis doctrinae libri sex, or Politica for short. He also wrote a book on military affairs. The intended audience for these books were rulers – and their advisors and would-be advisors – in the centralized states then emerging in Europe. Lipsius dispensed a mixture of cynical advice and good-government prescriptions for a well-run state. Recommendations included well-trained citizen-armies (in lieu of ill-disciplined mercenaries of the sort who rampaged through the Netherlands during the war). Lipsius also envisioned popularly-elected “Censors” – modeled after the Censors of the ancient Roman Republic – who would issue non-binding public rebukes to people with bad moral habits. The censors would also double as tax assessors. Rulers were solemnly advised to hold to the same high moral standards which the censors would expect of the people – princes had to set a good example.

As it turned out, the most inflammatory part of the Politica concerned religion. Princes, wrote Lipsius, should require their subjects to adhere outwardly to the ceremonies of the religion of the country (but princes could not themselves redefine the content of a country’s traditional religion). Religious dissenters would be free to dissent in private so long as they externally conformed. For those who publicly advertised their dissent from the established religion, and tried to convert others to their dissenting views, the government’s response – using a phrase from Seneca – should be to “burn, cut” (ure, seca) to preserve the body politic. To Lipsius, open religious diversity in a country promoted sedition and war – a mainstream opinion in that era. In the Dutch Republic, for example, Calvinism was the established religion and the public practice of Catholicism was banned. In the southern (Spanish) Netherlands only Catholicism was allowed.

Evidence suggests that Lipsius’ own religious behavior was consistent with the ideas he preached. Lipsius was probably a member of the Family of Love, a religious sect popular among humanists. Members of the Family of Love – at least the branch Lipsius seems to have belonged to – believed in a minimalist, slimmed-down version of Christianity while holding no religious ceremonies of their own. Sect members attended worship service in the established church of whichever country they happened to live in. This not only sheds light on Lipsius’ Politica but on the ease with which he seemed to take on the official religious coloration of the different countries he lived in.

There were also Stoic precedents for the sort of public religious conformity Lipsius preached and practiced. As a youth, Seneca recalled in a letter to his friend Lucilius, he (Seneca) had adopted vegetarianism for philosophical reasons only to give it up at his father’s insistence, for fear of being mistaken for a follower of some banned foreign religion.

The religious discussion in the Politica provoked Dirck Coornhert. The self-taught Coornhert knew Latin, but unlike Lipsius wrote in Dutch for the public. Like Lipsius, Coornhert deplored the religious divisions of his time, but unlike Lipsius, Coornhert proposed the then highly-controversial solution of avoiding any persecution of Christians (or even of atheists).

In a book strongly denouncing the religious sections of the Politica, Coornhert tore into Lipsius. What had the Leiden scholar meant by the government upholding the traditional religion of the country – did he mean Catholicism? Wouldn’t Lipsius’ reasoning have justified the Spanish Inquisition in burning Protestants at the stake? This was not a theoretical question since the Spanish had shown themselves willing to do that very thing with Dutch Protestants, helping to provoke the revolt of the Dutch Republic. Lipsius’ reference to burning didn’t help matters. Was Lipsius sympathetic to the Republic’s Spanish enemy, which was at the time inflicting defeats on the Republican forces?

Coornhert was a celebrity in the Dutch Republic (if not necessarily a popular celebrity), and his attacks on Lipsius’ patriotism built up public pressure for an answer. Lipsius replied contemptuously to Coornhert – in Latin, of course – showering the impudent critic with insults and explaining that “burn, cut” was a medical metaphor, not an endorsement of the Spanish Inquisition. Private conscience must be respected, but no well-governed country could endure public religious dissent.

The authorities of Leiden and Holland feared that the conflict with Coornhert might prompt Lipsius to leave Leiden University, striking a blow at the prestige of the young institution and the endangered Republic in which it was situated. Officials denounced Coornhert and wooed Lipsius to stay, but it was too late. Lipsius obtained a medical leave of absence from Leiden, and in Easter 1591 he showed up at the Jesuit College in Mainz, Germany, and reconciled himself with the Catholic Church. Lipsius later said that his departure from Leiden was on account of “religion and honor” (religio et fama), referring to the fight with Coornhert.

Lipsius went back to the University of Louvain in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands and joined the faculty. He remained interested in the work of an exiled Spanish theologian who wanted to reconcile Catholics and Protestants. However, Lipsius was now identified with the Catholic cause – he proclaimed that he had never stopped being Catholic even while he was in Protestant lands (he denied authorship of the embarrassing anti-Catholic orations in Jena which his enemies dug up).

His health remaining a concern, Lipsius and a friend went to the mineral springs in Spa, near Liège. They fled from an incursion of soldiers from the Dutch Republic, now an enemy country due to Lipsius’ change of allegiance. Lipsius and his friend were able to leap over walls and fences and got away from the republican troops. (Perhaps Lipsius had been working at a literal gymnasium as well as a spiritual, Stoic one?)

Still seeking relief in his illness, Lipsius visited Halle, where there was a shrine to the Virgin Mary. He believed that his prayers for healing had been successful, and he expressed his gratitude in a couple of ways. He hung his silver pen, with which he had allegedly written his great works, in the church of Halle near the shrine. A dedicatory poem accompanied the pen, immodestly listing the subjects he had written about with the pen – “promot[ing] Constancy,” “civic affairs,” “military matters,” “ancient times” – and he prayed that instead of winning “fleeting fame,” he gain “everlasting joy and life.”

Lipsius’ second tribute to the Virgin was a book about the healing miracles wrought at the shrine of Halle over several centuries, along with another book about miracles at another Marian shrine.

Was Lipsius’ conspicuous public piety merely a ruse? Was he still following the precepts of the Family of Love, hinted at in the Politica, of outward conformity to the official religion of whatever place he lived? Or had he developed a devotion to the Virgin Mary which brought in him a more sincere attachment to the Catholic Church? He certainly paid a price for his exhibitions of Catholic piety, in the form of personal attacks and backbiting. The English Stoic Joseph Hall was only one of many Protestants who mocked Lipsius for supposedly deserting philosophy for Catholic “superstition.”

His new allegiance also brought him new opportunities. In addition to accepting the post of royal Historiographer for the Spanish crown, he turned down offers of public office. He persuaded the Catholic censors to let him publish a revised edition of the Politica, agreeing to strengthen the emphasis on suppressing false religious opinions.

Now that his works could legitimately circulate in the Catholic world, Lipsius acquired a new audience among ruling-class Spaniards. Many ministers and ex-ministers of the crown either borrowed from the lessons of Politica or corresponded with Lipsius about court corruption. Lipsius wrote to a Spanish diplomat who was seeking a peace deal with England, the Dutch Republic’s ally. Lipsius hoped that a resolution of the Netherlands war was in the offing; in fact, Spain simply made a separate peace with England and pressed on with the war against the Dutch Republic.

During this time, Lipsius was preparing two final, monumental works. In 1604 came a comprehensive summary of the Stoic philosophy drawn from the available ancient sources. This became the most authoritative work on the subject until the twentieth century. As in Constancy, Lipsius tried to save as much of Stoicism as he could from Christian condemnation. Like Torrentius, he deplored the seeming Stoic obsession with suicide. On the subject of divine providence, however, Lipsius had overcome the reservations he expressed in Constancy and found that the Stoic and Christian conceptions of God and fate were compatible.

A year before his death, in 1605, Lipsius came out with an edition to Seneca’s prose works – again setting the standard for quite some time.

On his deathbed, Lipsius dedicated his fur-lined coat to Our Lady of Halle (“what old woman’s superstition is this?” privately fumed a Protestant fellow-scholar). Another deathbed scene was recounted by Lipsius’ executor, a friend – and of course former student – named Johannes Woverius. According to Woverius, someone sought to comfort Lipsius with Stoic philosophy, and Lipsius supposedly said “these things are vain,” then pointed to a crucifix as the real source of consolation. A couple other accounts of Lipsius’ death omit this alleged incident.

One final element of Lipsius’ legacy came after his death. The celebrated painter Peter Paul Rubens made a portrait representing Lipsius, in his fur-lined cloak, sitting alongside a couple of his philosophical companions and former students – the painter’s brother Philip and Woverius. Peter Paul Rubens (standing) is also in the picture, as is a bust of Seneca in an alcove above Woverius’ head. Rubens entitled his painting “The Four Philosophers.”

How can one write about constancy while continually switching from one religion, and one political allegiance, to another? Had he possessed modern analogies with which to justify himself, Lipsius may have compared himself to a surfer managing to stay atop his board in the face of wave after wave of fate. Through various political vicissitudes, he kept from falling off by skillfully shifting his position. This gave him the space to carry out his great project: imparting the wisdom of the ancients – especially the Stoics – to a world particularly in need of such wisdom. Lipsius’ students often became statesmen or public figures who were in a position to carry their teacher’s principles from the academy to the real world. At the end, it is possible that Lipsius was internally convinced of the truth of Catholicism as well as accepting it ni public, but this cannot be known for certain.

 Thanks in large part to Lipsius, Neostoicism was a flourishing movement in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Then some philosophers re-examined Lipsius’ claims that Stoicism and Christianity could be harmonized. Unlike Lipsius, these philosophers decided that the Stoic conception of God was not adequate and that the philosophy did not allow for the immortality of the soul. Influential Christian philosophers dismissed Stoicism as practical atheism, similar to the “pantheism” of Spinoza. The French philosopher Diderot praised Stoicism for the same reason – a kiss of death from the Christian standpoint since Diderot was considered one of the forerunners of the anti-Christian French Revolution. When Stoicism had another revival in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, many of the new Stoics likewise downplayed the theistic elements of the philosophy.

Works Consulted

  • Marisa Bass, “Justus Lipsius and his silver pen,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes LXX (2007), pp. 157-194.
  • Christopher Brooke, “How the Stoics Became Atheists,” The Historical Journal, 49, 2 (2006), pp. 387-402.
  • Theodore G. Corbett, “The Cult of Lipsius: A Leading Source of Early Modern Spanish Statecraft,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1975), pp. 139-152.
  • David Halsted, “Distance, Dissolution and Neo-Stoic Ideals: History and Self Definition in Lipsius,” Humanistica Lovaniensia, Vol. 40 (1991), pp. 262-274.
  • Theo Hermans, “Miracles in translation: Lipsius, Our Lady of Halle and two Dutch translations,” Renaissance Studies Vol. 29 No. 1 (2015), pp. 125-142.
  • Jill Kraye, “’Απάθεια and Προπάθειαι in Early Modern Discussions of the Passions: Stoicism, Christianity and Natural History,” Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 17, No. 1/2 (2012), pp. 230-253.
  • Halvard Leira, “Justus Lipsius, political humanism and the disciplining of 17th century statecraft,” Review of International Studies, (2008), 34, 669-692.
  • Lejay, Paul. “Justus Lipsius.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 4 Jun. 2020, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09280b.htm.
  • Justus Lipsius (R. V. Young, editor and translator), Justus Lipsius’ Concerning Constancy (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011).
  • Jan Machielsen, “Friendship and religion in the Republic of Letters: the return of Justus Lipsius to Catholicism (1591),” Renaissance Studies Vol. 27 No. 2 (2011), pp. 161-182.
  • Mark Morford, Stoics and Neostoics: Rubens and the Circle of Lipsius (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  • John Sellars, “Stoic Fate in Justis Lipsius’s De Constantia and Physiologia Stoicorum, Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 52, No. 4 (2014), pp. 653-674.
  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Margaret Graver and A. A. Long, translators), Letters on Ethics to Lucilius (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017),429-30.
  • Lucius Annaeus Seneca (John Davie, editor and translator), “On Anger,” in Dialogues and Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 18-52.
  • Gerrit Voogt, Constraint on Trial: Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Religious Freedom Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2000).

Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician, For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War, and numerous articles in print and online.

5 thoughts on Justus Lipsius, Godfather of Christian Neostoicism by Max Longley

  1. John Bonnice says:

    I’m wondering why Prof. Jason L. Saunders biography of Justus Lipsius was not consulted or not used?

  2. Igor Novokreshchenov says:

    Thank you for such a thorough article on Lipsius. I find him and his contribution to Stoicism often overlooked.

  3. TODD VOSS says:

    Thank you. I will link to this article in our Stoic Christian FB group. I also note for anyone interested the prolific John Sellars has edited (updating the English translation) and written a preface for a recent edition of De Constantia.

  4. […] characteristic of the Neo-Stoics I’ve profiled in pieces previously published (on Joseph Hall, Justus Lipsius, and George Mackenzie) is that they often seemed more interested in peacemaking than were many of […]

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