The Renaissance Christian Stoics

Following up on my reading of Seneca and Epictetus, the Stoic writers of the first century, I came across the school of Christian Stoicism which enjoyed a brief vogue in the late Renaissance. Its most important proponent was the Flemish Catholic humanist Justus Lipsius (1547-1606). In addition to political and literary treatises, his landmark work was the neo-Stoic volume De Constantia (“On Constancy”), published in 1584. Though largely overlooked today, Lipsius was considered the greatest Renaissance scholar of the Low Countries after Erasmus. The French cleric, Guillaume du Vair (1556-1621) introduced Lipsius’ neo-Stoicism to French readers.

So much for the trivia. But why would Stoicism enjoy an important, if fleeting, rebirth in Western thought? The Aristotelian humanists were often obsessed with theory that was devoid of any practical outlook. Similarly, the neo-Platonists could be esoteric and noncommittal. Such pendantry was hardly satisfying to men caught amid the religious and political strife of the 16th century who wanted a philosophical creed with meat. Stoicism, with its noble sense of resignation and self-control, seemed a likely answer. Thus du Vair argues, against the skeptics, ethical conduct must be practicable as well as desirable: “if this were not so, it would be impossible to achieve the end, and rather than being man’s good, virtue would turn out to be his torment.”

Stoicism was in many ways complimentary to Christianity. According to Lipsius, “no sect of [pre-Christian] philosophers avowed more the majesty and providence of God, nor drew men nearer to heavenly and eternal things.” At the same time, many humanists felt obliged to correct Stoicism’s fatalism, insisting on the role of divine providence, and adapted the views of the ancient writers to Christian sensibilities.

In the long run Stoicism failed to re-emerge as a major philosophy because it lacked a strong metaphysical foundation. Yet, as a practical guide to everyday virtue, it remains highly effective. In his treatise The Moral Philosopy of the Stoics, du Vair provides useful admonishments. If we are injured by others we should turn such experiences to our own advantage rather than let our passions get the better of us. Such experiences “show us our weaknesses and infirmities.” So if “a man speaks ill of you, you may counsel thus with yourself: doubtless this is an evil man” but then “examine whether that which he says is true, either in whole or part, and correct that fault in yourself, lest by chance you give some other man occasion to say as much, or more, about you. For, I ask you, what better revenge can a man take on his enemies than to profit from their evil doing?”

Du Vair also tell us that

Truly there is no greater nor more profitable wisdom in this world than patience in enduring the folly of other men. This is so because, as so often happens, when we are unable to endure their foolishness, we make it ours and receive great harm thereby.

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Stoicism. Bookmark the permalink.