The Machiavellian Stoic – Kaspar Schoppe by Max Longley

One common 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 the people around them. When it comes to Kaspar Schoppe (1576-1649), we initially seem to have encountered an exception. In his era, Schoppe was famous not as a peacemaker, but as a Catholic Counter-Reformation controversialist, supporting the Catholic powers in the Thirty Years War. Yet when we look at his life as a whole – his efforts to promote a Stoic-based curriculum, his reform initiatives within the Catholic Church, and his peaceable attitude at least toward some Protestants (broadening that view during his later career), we get a more rounded picture.

Kaspar Schoppe was born in Oberpfalz in Franconia, Germany, a religiously and politically divided country at the time, when the Reformation was dividing Europe. The Schoppe family was Lutheran and raised him in that faith. Young Kaspar studied at the German universities of Altdorf, Heidelberg and Ingolstadt, learning the works of the classical Latin authors. He was helped in his scholarly career by one Conrad Rittershausen. He published philological studies about some classical authors, earning early fame in the great republic of letters which was trying to keep itself afloat amid the religious turmoil.

Yet there seemed no avoiding the religious question, at least for the youthful scholar. On a visit to Prague in 1597, he converted to the Catholic faith. He had been visiting a member of the Imperial court and was convinced by some books in the library. Then Schoppe moved to Rome, acquainting himself with intellectual circles in the Papal city.

In a letter to Conrad Rittershausen, who had remained Lutheran after Schoppe joined the Catholics, Schoppe described a scene he had witnessed in Rome: The burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, the pantheistic philosopher. Frequently quoted by historians, this description actually had a purpose – Schoppe wanted to reassure Rittershausen that burning Bruno was not a precedent which the Church would use against Lutherans. Schoppe believed that, unlike Bruno, the Lutherans were not fundamentally at odds with Church doctrine. Though they disagreed on some points, from Schoppe’s perspective, Catholics and Lutherans were religiously close to each other.

Although he wanted to achieve advancement in Rome, Schoppe sabotaged his own career with an outspokenness and a heedlessness of backlash which the old frank-speaking Stoics might have appreciated. Critical of what he considered abuses in the Church, and unwilling to shut up about it in his conversations with others, Schoppe probably damaged his prospects for commissions and employment from Church patrons. Instead, Schoppe turned to the secular Catholic powers of his time – Spain and the German Empire – and got assignments writing propaganda for the Imperial and Spanish rulers promoting their version of the Catholic. Payment was sometimes erratic and slow in coming, but Schoppe earned his keep with a flood of short, and often very popular books, covering topical subjects from a Catholic perspective and with biting satire.

In his off hours, as his work took him to different parts of Italy and Europe, Schoppe worked on a manuscript heavily criticizing the Jesuit order and its methods of education. Schoppe believed the Jesuits had far too much influence in the Church, an influence which, Schoppe thought, they wielded to bad effect. Yet precisely because of this influence, Schoppe couldn’t get his full critique published. He published, in 1606, an excerpt from his larger anti-Jesuit project – a plan for Catholic education to be oriented toward the Stoic philosophy. This was itself an implicit critique of the Jesuits, who based their curriculum on the philosophy of Aristotle, whose school had been a rival of the Stoics in the classical era.

The book, Elementa Philosophiae Stoicae Moralis, was not a thorough scholarly analysis of the whole Stoic philosophy, such as Justus Lipsius had published two years before. “Schoppe supported the idea of Stoic education; he defended it against criticism that Stoicism was un-Christian” The Stoics agreed with the Christians “in many points.” Though he stumbled in his technical Stoic philosophical terminology, he made the basic point that the ideal Stoic sage might indeed be subject to emotions. The key was to overcome unwholesome passions and strive for a sage-like mastery of them, in contrast to an Aristotelian system which channeled the passions without seeking to extirpate them.

Another of Schoppe’s projects may not seem on the surface to be quite so Stoic. Schoppe wanted to revive the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, the political philosopher from Florence who had been criticized as an alleged advocate of atheistic ruthlessness in politics – especially in his famous work The Prince. All of Machiavelli’s works had been placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden books. To Schoppe, restricting the full circulation of Machiavelli’s works may have prevented casual readers from misunderstanding him, but now it was time to issue a corrected edition of Machiavelli to let the world benefit from the author’s genius. A serious and attentive reader, argued Schoppe, would realize that Machiavelli was putting forward ways by which rulers could govern a community to promote the general happiness.

Schoppe wrote a manuscript defending Machiavelli against alleged misrepresentations. In Schoppe’s retelling, the infamous Florentine had not recommended that rulers be tyrants, but that they be enlightened sovereigns. On the subject of taxes, for example, Schoppe said rulers should make the impositions fair and bearable, should be cautious about spending the money raised, and should be transparent with the public about the need for the taxes. With policies such as these, a ruler could avoid earning the hatred and contempt of his people, which could be precursors to dangerous revolutions. One could certainly see a Stoic attitude here, given the Stoic commitment to public service. Since he was promoting the idea of rulers governing well, for the sake of enlightened self interest, Schoppe could claim that he was acting consistently with the Stoic commitment to uplift the human race.

When he couldn’t get the censors’ approval to publish his book defending Machivelli by name, Schoppe wrote another book which defended what he considered Machiavelli’s principles, without mentioning the M-word. This book also failed to get the censors’ approval. His experience with the censors inspired Schoppe to produce a couple more manuscripts going after the censors themselves. The Catholic system of press censorship, argued Schoppe, was in the hands of clerics who lacked up-to-date knowledge of the intellectual and scientific trends of the time. Censorship ought to limit itself to keeping books free of theological or moral error. To Schoppe, this meant that what we would call scientific research was outside the competence of Church censors.

Political science, Schoppe assumed, was a branch of scientific research and should likewise be free from censorship. Not coincidentally, Schoppe had friends in common with the scientist Galileo, who was also lobbying in Rome so he could do research independently of Church supervision. Schoppe and Galileo met on at least one occasion – Galileo appreciated Schoppe’s support even though Schoppe, a philologist and writer rather than an astronomer, did not fully understand Galileo’s scientific ideas. Schoppe’s anti-censorship books naturally didn’t get the censors’ approval.

At this time, Schoppe was of course not famous for the books he didn’t publish, but for the books he did. If his unpublished works showed his vision of reforming the Catholic Church from within – and perhaps leading his former Lutheran coreligionists to unity – his numerous published propaganda books were more aggressive. His propaganda publications, often bestsellers, promoted the Catholic side in international politics. One widely-selling book tore into King James I of England, an intellectual ruler who aspired to lead European Protestants and who wrote polemics against Catholics. In his own book, Schoppe publicized an incident where one of King James’ diplomats committed an unfortunate gaffe. In an attempt at humor, Sir Henry Wotton had written that “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” – which in English has the double meaning of residing abroad and telling lies abroad. But in Wotton’s attempt at a Latin rendition of the joke (as given by Schoppe, “Legatus est Vir bonus, peregre missus ad mentiendum Reipub. causa”), the humor didn’t translate, and Schoppe cited the joke as evidence that James’ emissaries were liars – even while James himself accused Catholics of lying and equivocation. The publicity given to Wotton’s remark got Wotton into Bartlett’s and Schoppe into physical danger. Schoppe was assailed on the streets of Madrid by thugs sent from the English embassy. The assailants were under orders to cut off Schoppe’s ears and nose, but they failed to pull that off and only managed to mildly wound him instead.  

As the continent plunged into the blood-soaked Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Schoppe kept writing books for his royal patrons defending the Catholic side. Consistent with his irenic attitude toward Lutherans, Schoppe focused his anti-Protestant polemic on the Calvinists, who were more radical than the Lutherans and – at least in Schoppe’s telling – were conspirators whose machinations had started and prolonged the war. With the knowledge he picked up in diplomatic circles, Schoppe penned remarkably accurate – if partisan – analyses of the unfolding events. The Calvinists fought back in kind, citing Schoppe’s work as indicating Catholic designs against European Protestantism.

Schoppe also wrote some political advice for his patron, Emperor Ferdinand II, who had reconquered Bohemia during the war, addressing how to keep Bohemia, with its Czech Protestant population, pacified. Schoppe suggested policies which, though seeming harsh, might be considered mild by comparison with the options rulers had on the table in that era. Bohemia should be made more German by settling more Germans there and adopting German as the official language. The Protestant pastors should be banished in hopes that the ordinary Protestant population would voluntarily return to the Catholic Church. With the religious unity provided by Catholicism, and with cultural unity restored by a common German language, civic peace could reign. Like the other Neo-Stoics we have seen, Schoppe emphasized harmony and social peace rather than full freedom of religion.

Later in life, like many Europeans exhausted by the constant religious warfare, Schoppe came out for a peaceful religious settlement to unite Europe’s Christians. This didn’t happen, and the old controversialist died in 1649, a year after the Thirty Years War had finally come to an end.

Works Consulted

  • Gábor Almási, “Machiavellian Propaganda and Advice after the Bohemian Revolt: The Case of Kaspar Schoppe,” Acta Comeniana, 30, LIV, 2016, p. 89-117.
  • _____, “Rehabilitating Machiavelli: Kaspar Schoppe with and against Rome,” History of European Ideas, 42.8 (2016), p. 1-24.
  • 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), p. 230-253.
  • Ingrid D. Rowland, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic (University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  • Winfried Schleiner, “‘A plott to have his nose and eares cutt of’: Schoppe as Seen by the Archbishop of Canterbury,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, New Series / Nouvelle Série, 19.4  (1995), p. 69-86.
  • _____, Scioppius’ Pen against the English King’s Sword: The Political Function of Ambiguity and Anonymity in Early Seventeenth-Century Literature,” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, New Series / Nouvelle Série, 14.4 (1990), p. 271-284.
  • Alexander Schmidt, “Irenic Patriotism in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century German Political Discourse,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 53, No. 2 (2010), p. 243-269.

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.



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