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  • On Boccaccio's Debt to Stoicism
  • Michael Papio (bio)

An examination of remnants of Stoic thought that could be teased from Boccaccio's works may at first blush seem easy. After all, Stoicism was one of the principal doctae religiones of the ancient world and adherents to the philosophy (or those presumed to be) include Vergil, Cicero, Seneca and Servius. However, this task presents three problems that are difficult to mitigate. First, most of what we know about the Stoa comes from fragments (and medieval thinkers knew even less); second, their unique ideas were unattributable in many cases because they had been influenced by Aristotle, were inherited from Platonism or were accessible in a modified form in works of Neoplatonists1; and third, everything Boccaccio knew of the Stoics had been acquired in Latin, not Greek.2 He mentions the "setta" four times: once equating it quite directly with "filosofia morale" in the case of Seneca's studies with the (semi-)Stoic Sotion (Esp. 4.lit.336); once (by way of the Third Vatican Mythographer to whom Boccaccio refers as Alberic) to explain that the Stoics had an aversion to carnal pleasure (Genealogie 3.22.18); a third time in an inexact reference to the doctrine of pneuma (Gen. 9.8.1);3 and, lastly, suggesting incorrectly—in my reading—that the Stoics were precursors to Plato.4 In other words, although Boccaccio [End Page S-152] did not know enough about Stoicism to be able to disentangle its tenets from those of other ancient philosophies, he had unquestionably given most of them serious consideration as the personal reflections of some of his favorite authors. Excellent work has been done on the Stoics' medieval reception, and much of it examines a host of characters whom Boccaccio knew well,5 but our author is unfortunately never mentioned. In the few pages that follow, it is my intention to point out, albeit briefly and with no claim to comprehensiveness, a small number of Stoic themes that in my opinion were significant to Boccaccio, whether he knew where they came from or not.

The Stoics themselves established three fundamental areas of inquiry: logica, ethica and physica (φύσις), and we would do well to divide our quick study accordingly. Stoic logic seems to have left no unambiguous traces in Boccaccio's works, but their moral philosophy affected him deeply, especially through the writings of "Seneca moralis."6 It seems fair to say that Boccaccio understood Seneca's ethical values and respected them, especially because he viewed them as being largely compatible with Christian constancy, which—although Boccaccio probably did not know it—was not a coincidence.7 Jerome and Augustine had studied Seneca, as Boccaccio knew, and spoke more highly of him than others. Boccaccio quotes freely from Seneca (the tragedian) in the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta and from Seneca (the moralist) even during the period in which he was writing the Decameron.8 It is not difficult to imagine Natan (Dec. 10.3) as ἐλεύθερος in his generosity, King Carlo (10.6) as an eventual example of ἀπάθεια, recalling Augustine's De civitate Dei,9 and, of course, Griselda herself as a paragon of ἀταραξία (10.10).

These cases of admirable behavior are hardly out of place in the giornata dedicated to those who, like the Stoics' ideal sage, have acted "magnificamente," but it is uncertain whether Boccaccio would have accurately considered them instances of Stoicism or something more along the lines of a sort of "secular" hagiography. At any rate, it is clear in historical retrospect that Stoic ideas about ethics (in addition to several other important subjects) dovetail nicely with a series [End Page S-153] of notions derived from the New Testament.10 It is also interesting to note that Barlaam of Seminara (d. 1348), with whom both Petrarch and Leontius Pilatus studied, had underscored constancy in his treatise known by its Latin title Ethica secundum Stoicos as a defining characteristic of Stoicism, using beatitudo as a synonym of εὐδαιμονία: "we know that the blessed man is always constant, yet all perturbations are enemies of constancy; thus, the blessed man avoids them and, in so doing, loses no virtue."11 Virtue, he explains, "is an...


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