Transcript: 392. John Sellars on Lipsius and Early Modern Stoicism

John Sellars returns to the podcast to discuss Lipsius' work on Seneca and the early modern Neo-Stoic movement.

392. John Sellars on Lipsius and Early Modern Stoicism

Posted on 12 March 2022

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

We were just talking about the fact that as we're doing this interview, it's almost exactly 10 years to the day since your last appearance on the podcast about the Roman Stoics, which went up on February 19th, 2012, and we're now recording this in the middle of February 2022. So thank you for coming back. 

Oh, no, I'm very pleased. It's amazing how much ground you've covered in the last decade. It'll be interesting to see where you are in another decade's time. 

That's for sure. I'll interview you in 10 years from now, so you have to make sure to acquire a specialism on something in, maybe, the 19th century. Okay, but today we're not going to be talking about that. We're going to be talking about the early modern reception of Stoicism and especially Lipsius. Before we come to him, can you tell us something about what was known about Stoicism in the Renaissance prior to Lipsius? 

In fact, if we start a little earlier, if we think about the Middle Ages in Europe, I guess the most important sources for Stoicism were the works of Seneca and Cicero. These were both in Latin; they both circulated widely. And there were a few other sources: someone like Augustine, for instance, makes a very wide range of passing remarks about Stoicism, some positive, some negative, and those were, of course, influential. But for detailed accounts, Cicero and Seneca were key. Seneca in particular was very important because there was a correspondence with St. Paul that people thought was genuine (obviously, they don't anymore), and he was praised by St. Jerome. So Seneca was regarded very highly. And if we think about the very early Renaissance, figures like Petrarch or Salutati, their image of Stoicism was really shaped by these Latin sources. It’s once we get into the 15th century that we see things start to develop, we see Greek texts become available in Italy for the first time. And I guess the most important of these is going to be The Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, which is translated into Latin in the 1430s and then becomes really widely accessible. And there's one really quite interesting figure in this period that's worth mentioning, I think, a humanist called Francesco Filelfo. He spent time in Constantinople; he learned Greek; he read Diogenes Laertius, Sextus Empiricus, and Plutarch - a number of key sources for Stoic ideas. And Filelfo's book OExile contains extended translations from Sextus Empiricus into Latin that report ideas from Zeno and Chrysippus, the early Greek Stoics. I mean, it's almost plagiarism by modern standards, he just lifts passages from Sextus and translates it. But what's interesting about Filelfo as a kind of a watershed moment, I think, is when he talks about the Stoics, he's talking about Zeno and Chrysippus, whereas up until that point when people talked about the Stoics, they were primarily thinking of Seneca and Cicero. So they were beginning to rediscover the Greek Stoic around this time. And then as the 15th century continues and into the early 16th century, we get a range of other Greek texts become available in Italy in particular. So the commentaries on Aristotle get printed. These contain various important bits of technical information about Stoic philosophy. Diogenes Laertius is eventually printed in Greek. In fact, it's only really by about the middle of the 16th century, around the time that Lipsius is born, that the full range of sources that we're familiar with for Stoicism are all fully available. 

Do you think that that'sthe main reason for the rise of what is sometimes called neo-Stoicism towards the end of the 16th century? Or was there some other reason why this was a good cultural moment for the revival, or for a revival, of Stoicism? 

Yes, that's a good question. I mean, the 16th century is fairly turbulent, certainly in Northern Europe. I mean, if we think about the religious wars in France and the Low Countries, there's a lot of adversity going about. And so one reason why people might have been interested in Stoicism at this time is because it offered some kind of consolation for adversity. And I think that's certainly one of the reasons why Lipsius was drawn to it. Another thing you see, in fact, is a really striking interest in Seneca in particular in the 16th century. There are lots and lots of editions of Seneca's works. So for instance, Erasmus edits the complete works of Seneca twice! He does it once, he's not very happy with the job he does, so he produces a second edition about a decade later. A number of other humanists in this period: Marc-Antoine Muret also edits an edition of Seneca; the first work by Calvin is an edition and commentary on a work by Seneca, the Dei Clementia. So for whatever reason, there is a huge interest in Seneca at this time. 

Do you think one reason for the interest in the Stoics is that they were determinists who believed that the divine providential oversight of the universe predestines everything to happen by a kind of inevitable fate, and that that resonated well with what Protestants were saying?

That may have been a reason for Calvin's interest. If I remember rightly, there's a passage somewhere in Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, where he makes reference to novi stoici, to new Stoics but it's a critical remark about these new Stoics. So I'm not sure whether Calvin's interest in predestination was closely drawing on Stoic ideas. There's a sense in which, because those issues were so much in the air during this period, it actually made it quite difficult for people interested in Stoicism. So I'm not sure it was a reason why people became interested in Stoicism, but it became a hot topic of discussion whenever people were engaging with Stoic ideas. That might be the best way to put it. 

So maybe more that it shaped the reception of Stoicism, than inspired the reception of Stoicism. 

Yes, I think so. That's a good way of putting it. 

Let's come to Lipsius, then. As you've just said it sounds like a lot was known about the Stoics by the time Lipsius comes along. I mean, you've got Erasmus editing Seneca, right? So what remained to do? I mean, what was Lipsius' contribution to Stoicism? Why is he so strongly associated with the neo-Stoic movement?

There are a number of things he does. There are three or four key books that Lipsius produces that are closely associated with Stoicism. So let me run through them quickly to kind of put them all on the table for us. So the first one is a book he writes in 1584, De Constantia, not really a work of Stoic scholarship, but a very practically oriented book about how one might draw on Stoic ideas in order to live a good life, how to cope with adversity, those sorts of questions. A very influential book, reprinted countless times throughout the 17th century, translated into all of the major European languages. It has a huge impact. That's his first book, very much a response to the turmoil of the religious wars raging at that time. Then much later, at the very end of his life, he publishes his own big scholarly edition of the works of Seneca. This is published in 1605, which is the year before he dies in 1606. And that's very much the crowning achievement of his career, we might say. 

And is that a big improvement on what Erasmus had done? 

I think so, yes. Just sort of anecdotally, you often see Lipsius's name in the apparatus of modern critical editions of Seneca as if a number of his emendations were accepted. And I think, I don't recall off the top of my head, but a number of the early editions of Seneca included quite a few works that we now think are spurious. And I don't think there are so many of those in Lipsius's edition. I think a lot of that had been worked out during the course of the 16th century. 

Right. Okay, so sorry to interrupt. So you've got On Constancy, you've got his edition of Seneca, and the third one would be? 

The third one, or the third and fourth, are a pair of handbooks on Stoicism that he writes. He publishes them in 1604, so the year before his big edition of Seneca. And he presents them very much as guides to help us in our interpretation of Seneca's texts. So one of them is called the Handbook of Stoic Philosophy, and the other one's called the Physics of the Stoics. And in these books, he gathers together all of the fragments, the testimonia, all of the doxographical material about the early Greek Stoics, and puts it all together in one place and organizes it by topic. In effect, he produces the first source books for Stoic philosophy that have existed. As we were saying earlier, there's a sense in which at that moment, all of the material is available, and it's possible to do that in a way it wouldn't really have been very easy to do, say, 100 years earlier. And so by producing those source books, he really gives us our first map of what early Greek Stoic philosophy looked like. 

One of the things you've looked at in your work on Lipsius is his take on something I just mentioned, which is the Stoic theory of determinism. And it's often thought that Lipsius changed his mind about this, or either changed his mind about what the Stoics said, or changed his mind about whether what the Stoics said was acceptable. I mentioned this briefly in the previous episode and mentioned that you actually have argued that his reading of the Stoics remains consistent. But could you say a little bit more about that? 

Yes. It's quite complicated. I'll try and run through it all. So in the De Constantia, Lipsius is trying to present Stoicism in a positive light as this useful source for consolation in the face of difficulties. And along the way in this work, which is a dialogue, there's a discussion about fate, and about whether one can embrace the Stoic attitude towards fate. And the kind of headline argument that we find in the dialogue identifies Stoic fate with what is called violent fate, the idea that fate is in some way imposing itself upon us. So it undermines human free will, but also potentially undermines God's ability to act as he wishes. There's a sense in which God is in some way constricted by fate. And so there's a real concern that that's not a view that can be accepted at this time. So Lipsius is effectively saying Stoicism is great, but on this issue of fate, we might need to modify it a bit, and we need to modify it in a way that will bring it in line with Christian doctrine, although whatever Christian doctrine was in this period is obviously quite difficult to pin down because we've got lots of competing voices. And then the result of this slightly compromised version of Stoicism is often labeled neo-Stoicism. I mean, in the scholarly literature, that label is often thought to describe this 16th century revision of Stoicism to make it compatible with Christianity. 

And what would that mean exactly? Would that mean that God foreknows what we'll do, but we still do these things freely so they're not really determined? Is that the idea? 

I think the idea is that fate doesn't constrict us in any way, and it doesn't constrict God in any way. 

Oh, so fate is like for the rest of nature or something, but free individuals, free individual humans and also God stand outside that. 

That's right. Yeah. 

Okay. That's certainly not a Stoic view. So you can see why scholars don't like that as a reading of Stoicism. 

I'll come back to that in a moment because that's what I want to challenge. But 20 years later, when Lipsius writes his handbooks of Stoic philosophy, I mentioned a moment ago, in particular, one called The Physics of the Stoics, he tackles this question of fate again. He revisits the problem and he says, this time, that if we read the ancient sources carefully, we'll see that in fact, there isn't really a problem at all, that the image of the Stoics as proponents of some kind of violent fate that constricts us is simply mistaken. And the key move here that Lipsius makes is he cites a passage from St. Augustine from the City of God, in which Augustine discusses the Stoic account of fate. And Augustine says that really all we've got here is a quibble over terminology: the Stoics identify fate with Providence - rather than read that as saying that Providence is in some way restricted by fate, which would be problematic, we can simply say that fate is just another word for God's Providence, for God's Will, and the theological problem then just kind of dissolves. So with Augustine on his side as this unimpeachable authority, Lipsius can argue that the Stoics are just fine as they are, and it's no problem for a good Christian to embrace Stoic ideas - we don't need to adapt it and modify it in any way. That makes it look as if Lipsius changes his mind in that 20 year period. And I've argued that perhaps he didn't change his mind at all. Why? Well, I think the key is we go back to De Constantia and look at it very carefully. We'll note a number of things which will complicate the story a little bit. First of all, as I said a moment ago, it's a dialogue between two characters. Lipsius presents himself as this young man looking for advice, and then there's an older character called Langius, and most of the content is put into Langius's mouth, not Lipsius' own mouth. So that's one thing we need to kind of pay attention to. And Langius gives us four reasons why Stoic fate is problematic: God is subordinate to fate, he claims; there's a kind of a rigid fixed order of causes in nature; by making everything necessary, they destroy the idea of the possible; and all of this undermines human free will. These are all the problems with Stoic fate Langius says in the dialogue. But there are a number of reasons why we might want to pause before we accept this as Lipsius's considered view. So on the issue of whether God is really subordinate to fate, Lipsius himself in the dialogue has already argued that that's a misrepresentation of the Stoic view. The Stoics never believed that in the first place. Both sides agree there's a fixed order of causes set down by God, there's not really a dispute there. And on human free will, Lipsius elsewhere in De Constantia outlines the Stoic compatibilist view, which shows that human choices in fact contribute to the outcome of events rather than being constrained by some kind of violent fate. And in fact, Langius himself doesn't say that the Stoics deny free will. He just says that they seem to. So there are all sorts of strange subtleties going on. And also Lipsius, the author, makes Lipsius, the character in the dialogue, say at one point that he doesn't even understand what the difference between the two positions is supposed to be. What's really going on? It looks to me as if Lipsius felt that it was prudent to distance himself from Stoic fate for whatever reason, perhaps because it had some unfortunate reputation, perhaps because of all these debates about Predestination. So he wanted to distance himself a bit. But in the dialogue, he gives us all the resources, if you like, for thinking that in fact, the Stoics don't have this problem whatsoever, it's just a public image problem on their part. 

So the violent fate reading of the Stoics would always have been an incorrect interpretation of them? And even early on, Lipsius understood that? If that's right, that would actually really illustrate something you mentioned before, which is that the debate over predestination is more something that's affecting the way people handle Stoicism rather than leading them to be interested in Stoicism in the first place. 

Yes, I think so. It also challenges the very idea of neo-Stoicism, because if Lipsius really thinks that for the most part, Stoicism can simply be accepted, there might be some other modifications that we might come to in a moment. But if he thinks for the most part it can be accepted, particularly on this issue of fate, then there isn't so much a strange modified form of Stoicism, because we can in fact combine these things in a way that doesn't involve too much violence to Stoic thinking.

Okay. Actually, that is the next thing I was going to ask you, though. Even if you think the fate doctrine isn't the problem, surely there are other problems for a Christian who wants to be a Stoic, neo or otherwise. For example, the Stoics are materialists. They don't believe in an immaterial soul. They think that God is material as well and is pervading the cosmos. They also seem to think that it's possible for humans to be happy and good and virtuous under their own resources, using natural reason. So in the Stoic idea of the perfect sage they're always arguing that it is possible for someone to be a sage and, of course, they never say that God has to intervene and give Grace. How did Lipsius and in fact other Stoics at the time, these so-called neo-Stoics, handle these potentially problematic aspects of Stoicism? 

Absolutely. There are a number of other potential problems, as you say. On the issue of say, pantheism, for instance, Lipsius, I mean, he's a scholar primarily, right? He's a humanist, he's a scholar. So he wants to understand the Stoics on their own terms. When he examines what the Stoics have to say about pantheism, he looks at all of the sources. He can see that the Stoics present the world as a living animal that has a soul and that they identify this soul with God. And so he presents their ideas on their own terms. But then he'll add a kind of note at the end and say “Well, of course, that can't strictly speaking be true. Maybe what we ought to say is that God has created a soul that he's put into the world, not that God is the soul. And I take it that brings it quite close to a sort of Platonic view, right? He'll then make these little sort of adjustments, if you like, but doesn't seem overly exercised by this. I mean, I guess there's that whole narrative, “Well, these were pagans writing before the truth was revealed. So obviously, they made a few slips along the way. I mean, I think implicitly, there's that kind of idea working in the background. 

And he's always more happy to put a Christian spin on whatever he can find than to really dig into the possible problems where there's going to ultimately be a flat contradiction between Christianity and Stoicism. But he's trying to get the reader to be interested in Stoicism, right?

That's right. If primarily you're reading someone like Seneca or Epictetus, the references to God can very easily be read as if they're references to a personalist God. It's only when you start to really dig around in all of the fragments for Zeno and Chrysippus that you start to get the details of their pantheistic worldview and how that really works. And Lipsius is one of the first people to really start digging that material and finding it. But I think his view of Stoicism has very much been shaped by his reading of Seneca, and you can read Seneca and really see a personalist God come through as people had for centuries during the Middle Ages. 

Actually, I wanted to ask you about that. So the name of Seneca has come up numerous times as someone who these humanists were interested in editing and re-editing and re-re-editing indeed. And we've already said that Lipsius's favorite Stoic is Seneca. He's the Stoic author who Lipsius quotes from the most often and whose text he worked on most carefully. Why is he so much more interested in Seneca than the other Roman Stoics for whom we have complete extant work? So we have the so-called Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, we have the Discourses and the Enchiridion, or Handbook of Epictetus. Is he interested in Seneca more than he's interested in them just because they wrote in Greek and he's happier working in Latin than in Greek, or is there more to it than that? 

I think it would be fair to say he is primarily a Latin humanist. Tacitus and Seneca are his two key points of reference, and obviously Cicero is there as well. So I think, yes, he had that natural preference for Latin literature, we might say. He certainly read Epictetus and he mentions Epictetus a few times and quotes from him. But I'm going to hazard a guess and say that he read Epictetus relatively late in his intellectual development and so there's a sense in which Seneca had already informed his outlook from a younger age, and Epictetus offered a few nice examples, some corroborating evidence, but it wasn't really the inspirational source for him. And as for Marcus Aurelius, the Meditations hadn't been long published at the time when Lipsius was working, and when they were first published, they were published under the title, De Vita Sua, On His Own Life, and they were published alongside Marinus's biography of Proclus. So it's been suggested in the literature that early readers may have assumed that this was just an autobiography. This was Marcus Aurelius writing on his own life. 

Maybe they even thought Marcus was some other obscure Platonist, or I guess they probably knew he was a Roman Emperor, right? 

Yeah. I mean, they knew he was a Roman Emperor and there were passages in some of the histories which say he was interested in Stoicism. But if you read that title and think it's an autobiography and then you open Book One of the Meditations, you will see Marcus talking about various members of his family who've influenced him. And if you read that and you think, okay, this is just an autobiography, you might not even get that much further through the book. There's not a lot of explicit Stoic doctrine in Marcus Aurelius, although if you already know all of the Stoic doctrine, you can see how Marcus is using Stoic ideas. So I don't think Marcus Aurelius made a huge impression on him, perhaps for those reasons. 

So more generally, the big picture of Lipsius's project is he's primarily a Senecan expert, and then he reads the other Roman Stoics to the extent that he reads them all at all, and the earlier Greek Stoics through the lens of Seneca. And he probably also reads Seneca through the lens of Christianity. That's the overall picture?

Yes, I think that's a fair assessment. And another thing to bear in mind as well is that these two really important handbooks that Lipsius produces explicitly - I mean, it's mentioned in the subtitle - are books to help explain Seneca. Now if you want to understand Seneca, you might want to go back and understand what all of the early Greek Stoics were doing beforehand, and you want to know what Zeno and Chrysippus and others were up to. But you're not going to look at Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in order to understand Seneca because they were writing later. So they're not part of the background to Seneca, quite literally, for chronological reasons. 

Right. So he's not just the lens, he's also the point of the whole project in a sense. 


Let's broaden out now in conclusion and talk a little bit about the way that Stoicism then spreads through philosophy in the decades after Lipsius. Obviously this could be like a long story because even Kant, for example, is interested in responding to the Stoics. But maybe you can just spend a few minutes telling us about how Stoicism spreads out in the 17th century and maybe the role of Lipsius in that development. 

Sure. Seneca continues to be really popular in the 17th century. People like Descartes and Malebranche are reading Seneca and responding to some of his ideas. In France in particular, there's another figure often referred to as a neo-StoicGuillaume Du Vair, who translates Epictetus into French and writes a couple of handbooks. So we see a slightly different tradition of Epictetan-inspired neo-Stoicism in France in the 17th century. Someone like Pascal writes about Epictetus as well. So that kind of broadens things out a little bit. Someone like Leibniz, very interested in questions about fate and providence in the Theodicy, he reads Lipsius' handbooks and draws on them as his source of inspiration. In that sense, Lipsius' texts become really important as a point of reference for subsequent discussion of Stoic ideas. And I mean, right through to the 18th century in something like Diderot's great Encyclopedia, again, Lipsius' works are still being cited as standard points of reference. It's really not until we get to the modern scholarly handbooks of Stoic fragments in the late 19th century that they're really superseded as the one place where you can go and find all of these bits of information gathered together in one place. 

Is the thing that really attracts these 17th century figures like Descartes and Malebranche, the Stoic ethical theory? So the idea of self-control? I'm thinking of like a work like Descartes' work on the Passions of the Soul or something like that. Are they really focusing on what you might also think was the real contribution of Roman Stoicism, which is this idea about having a completely rational grip over your own life and accepting whatever fate throws your way. Is that what they're interested in or are they interested in Stoicism as a system, which Lipsius was to some extent? 

Someone like Descartes is certainly very interested in that idea - Stoicism as offering ideas about how to live a good, happy life. In his correspondence with Elizabeth of Bohemia, they talk about this. Others are interested in that same issue, but are much more skeptical. So figures like Pascal and Malebranche are very critical of Stoicism. Epictetus is attacked for his pride and his arrogance, picking up an issue that you mentioned earlier, the pride and arrogance in believing that just through the use of his own reason, he can achieve happiness here and now without God's Grace. So it's a contentious issue and you'll find figures on either side of the debate. In terms of interest in the systematic nature of Stoic philosophy, we really see that pick up in the early 18th century. And someone like Brooker's big history of philosophy written in the 1740s really tries to understand Stoic philosophy as a system. One of the things that happens at that point is the pantheism, the materialism, potentially the atheism - not quite - but these sorts of issues are being discussed through a careful study of all of the fragments of the early Greek Stoics, something that Lipsius has really made possible through his handbooks. There's a real challenge to the idea that Epictetus and Seneca are kind of potentially good Christians or friends to good Christians. And that personalist language about God that we find in the works of those Roman Stoics is suddenly really pushed to one side and rejected: “You can't trust these guys when they talk about God. Really they've got this really quite dangerous pantheist philosophy that no good Christian could possibly accept. And in the debates about Stoicism in this period in the early 18th century, Stoics are often talked about side-by-side with Spinoza. And there's a sense in which the reception of Stoicism gets tied up with the reception of Spinoza's philosophy, which also makes a number of very similar claims and is deeply controversial for these sorts of reasons as well. 

Yeah, being associated with Spinoza nowadays might be a compliment, but back then it was not. 


Okay, so that's a look ahead. And actually one of the thinkers that we just mentioned briefly there was Immanuel Kant, who is famous for having executed what he called a Copernican turn in his philosophy when he introduces his new style of idealism. And that's what we're about to do in the podcast because we will in fact be turning to Copernicus next, he’s the figure we'll be focusing on in the next episode. So I will thank John Sellars very much for coming back on the podcast after such a long hiatus. 

Well, thanks very much for having me back.

Yeah, I'll see you in 10 years. 


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