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  • Stoic Fate in Justus Lipsius’s De Constantia and Physiologia Stoicorum
  • John Sellars (bio)

1. lipsius and the neostoic project

justus lipsius (1547–1606) has been credited as the founder of Neostoicism,1 doing for the ancient Stoics what Marsilio Ficino had done for Platonism before him and what Pierre Gassendi would do for Epicureanism after.2 Like Ficino and Gassendi, Lipsius’s project involved making a group of pagan ancient philosophers palatable to a contemporary Christian audience. Elements of Stoic philosophy had been admired by later thinkers throughout the middle ages and early renaissance,3 especially elements of their ethics, and the sympathetic reception of the Stoic Seneca was aided by the circulation of a series of letters thought to be between Seneca and St. Paul.4 However, when it came to their physics matters became more complicated. High-minded sentiments about virtue and indifference toward possessions were one thing, but a thoroughgoing determinism that appeared to [End Page 653] deny free will, miracles, and even limit the will of God were quite another. As the recovery of ancient literature during the renaissance (combined with the birth of printing) brought an increasing range of ancient doxographical sources into wider circulation,5 Christian admirers of Stoicism found themselves increasingly faced with this sort of uncomfortable doctrine that they could not so easily embrace.

As just such an admirer, Lipsius set out to present to his contemporaries a version of Stoicism that faced this problem head on. He did so in his De Constantia of 1584,6 a work that proved so popular that it went through numerous editions and was translated into all the major vernaculars.7 In this work, taking the form of a dialogue in two books, Lipsius presents Stoicism as an antidote to the vicissitudes of fortune. In particular it is an attempt to come to terms with Lipsius’s own experience as a victim of the turbulence of civil war. The horrors produced by such conflict he names “public evils” (mala publica).8 However, as a Stoic, Lipsius is committed to the claim that these external events are strictly speaking neither good nor evil in themselves,9 and the task of De Constantia is to offer arguments designed to undermine the emotional impact of such events. He does so by offering four arguments about the nature of such public evils: (i) they are imposed on us by God; (ii) they are necessary and the product of fate; (iii) they may in fact be profitable to us; and (iv) they are in fact neither grievous nor unusual.10

There is, however, a potential tension between the first and second arguments: public evils are imposed by God but they are also necessary. If they are necessary, [End Page 654] then is God necessitated to impose them? If so, is God’s omnipotence in some way constrained by necessity? It is the claim that public evils, along with all other events, are necessary and the product of fate that creates the problem, and in order to address it, Lipsius produces a taxonomy of different conceptions of fate during the course of his second argument concerning public evils.11 Although professing to admire the Stoics, during the course of this taxonomy Lipsius outlines the Stoic theory of fate but goes on to distance himself from it, outlining a number of ways in which what he calls “true fate” (verum fatum) differs from the Stoic position.12 In short, Lipsius appears to claim that the Stoic theory of fate is problematic for a Christian and consequently can only be held after a series of modifications. The modified position that Lipsius presents, under the heading of “true fate,” is often taken to constitute his own distinctive “Neostoicism.”13

Twenty years later, Lipsius returned to the same issue but appeared to offer a quite different account.14 In 1605, the year before he died, Lipsius published his magnificent folio edition of the prose works of Seneca, containing a life of Seneca, introductions to each of Seneca’s works, along with a detailed commentary.15 As companion pieces to this edition, Lipsius also published the year before, in 1604, two volumes offering a comprehensive...