Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.12

Mark Morford, Stoics and Neostoics: Rubens and the Circle of Lipsius. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991. Pp. xviii + 246; 45 illustrations. $42.50. ISBN 0-691-04081-8.

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

If we recall the acerbic complaint of Seneca (ep. 108.23), 'itaque quae philosophia fuit facta philologia est', we can then see the programmatic assertion in Justus Lipsius' proud variation on that theme: 'Ego e Philologia Philosophiam feci.' Buried deep in our educational systems (and going back, I would argue, at least to the late antique theoreticians of the 'liberal arts') is the grammatocentric claim that expertise in the manipulation of the written word is either a high or the highest form of the pursuit of wisdom, that to know what is written and to study it closely and assiduously is to know what it is essential to know. This claim is a remarkable one, whose tendentiousness becomes visible in an age when the primacy of the written word begins to be transformed. How far it is nevertheless true and how far philology retains a philosophical value in a post-literate age are essential questions for our profession. This elegant and nuanced portrait of one of our powerful and multivalent ancestors has lasting value in its own right, but with its specific focus and its lack of grandiose claims for what it shows, it affords the thoughtful reader an important opportunity to reflect on the nature of our changing profession. This is what good work in the history of scholarship should be like: modest, unassuming, rich, and deeply suggestive.

The point of departure is a painting: The Four Philosophers of Rubens, which hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence. In its scene, the scholar, philosopher, and controversialist Justus Lipsius appears seated and teaching with two of his mature students, Johannes Woverius and Philip Rubens, at his side. Standing beside them is the painter Rubens himself, in but not quite of the picture. Mark Morford's rich and fascinating study pursues the painting's hints through the life and thought of Lipsius, then comes back to the implications of Lipsius' influence on the work of the painter Rubens. This is easily the fullest and most rewarding study of Lipsius, and at the same time an important contribution to the interpretation of Rubens. The subtitle speaks of a circle, but it might have been more pedantically correct to speak of an ellipse, with Lipsius and Rubens as the foci.

Lipsius is one of our great forebears, who left behind major editions of Seneca and Tacitus. In an age when classicists were obsessed by models of classical style, he had the courage to write a silver1 rather than Ciceronian prose and to incur scorn for what others thought a faux pas. One fresh gift of this book is to make it possible for those of us who live in an age when silver writers are usually interpreted with a species of special pleading to enter briefly an atmosphere in which the silver wisdom was genuinely and heartily preferred: the ancient texts themselves are refreshed and made more intelligible as we pay heed to Lipsius' studies.

But like many men, he had a misshapen sense of his own contribution (he thought that his derivative and ephemeral Politica would be read as long as the Latin language lived), and he was anything but a universal cynosure. Scaliger scorned him as a thief of emendations, and many were taken aback by his repeated change of religious stripe, from Catholic to Protestant and back to Catholic. A cynic would argue that, for his devotion to Stoic ideals and his trimmer's ability to justify any volte-face, he wa s a worthy reincarnation of his ambiguous master Seneca.

The Lipsius we encounter most readily is an artificial construction, his own greatest work of art. There are 4300 letters to and from him that survive (publication in progress), but he carefully arranged for the publication of six 'centuries' of 100 each, and a seventh was prepared by him and published posthumously. Morford reminds us of the importance of letter-writing in that world (he lived in the age when the first forerunners of our newspapers were being created), but the letters that Lipsius took care for us to read are as careful and deliberate as anything by Seneca and far more cautious than Cicero's effusions. So in the end, after meticulous and illuminating exposition, Morford is still resigned to admit (133) that "We have traced Lipsius' self-portrait over many years of his life, yet the man still eludes us." He was meant to.

This book requires and rewards an active reader, who will reflect on and compare the categories of thought and action that construct Lipsius' life. It remains tied to sixteenth century categories, and for all that this might seem to give it an old-fashioned cast actually has the effect of pushing us more firmly back into the time of which Morford writes.

For example, a pervasive and animating theme of the book is the place of amicitia in Lipsius' life. Lipsius was fond of creating a magisterial household, or contubernium, where teacher and students lived on intimate terms of daily contact; we can reconstruct the daily round, monastic in its austerity but humanistic in its content (readings from the classics, exercises in Latin composition, etc.), of the typical Lipsius household. Now a contemporary reader, examining such a network of relationships, asks questions that our predecessors would not have asked. So the ideal is one thing (26): 'Thus Lipsius introduces an important element in his theory of contubernium: the teacher, who has advanced towards sapientia, loves his students because they are his friends and therefore leads them towards wisdom and virtue.' But how then do we read this account of Lipsius' relations with Rubens scholarly brother Philip (40): 'Lipsius genuinely admired Philip's intellect and character, and his letters during Philip's absences are quite pathetic in their longing for his return. Yet it is strange that Lipsius never once mentioned Peter Paul Rubens, whom he very probably had met in person, and one may reasonably wonder if there was not an element of jealousy involved. As for Philip's own affection for Lipsius, it was expressed in a more restrained manner. That his admiration and gratitude were deep and sincere cannot be doubted, yet if we compare his Latin letters and poems to Lipsius with his more freely expressed love for Peter Paul, the restraint is undeniable.' A contemporary reported (50n127) that Philip became 'non ut discipulus, sed ut filius Lipsio ... coniunctissimus', and Lipsius himself published a letter in which he expresses his longing for Philip's presence with a fragment of Theocritus in both Greek and Latin: 'os plenum tu mellis habes'. The contubernium is a single-sex establishment, and the intense charge of feeling with which it is accompanied, is at least suggestive; but if we do not find Lipsius' own category of amicitia satisfactory (one that our age is curiously reluctant to embrace), we are probably still not in a position to offer more than reductive and inadequate alternate readings.

The pervasive intellectual theme of the book is the conscious appropriation of ancient doctrines by Lipsius in the service of Neostoicism. In the age of 'Pagan Christianity' (Peter Gay's phrase), the intersection of religion, philosophy, pragmatics, and old texts is a tangle not easily unthreaded. The editing of Stoicism by Christian experience is palpable: so Lipsius (27): 'nam in exemplum nati sumus, atque etiam auxilium: iuvare nos, tum alios, & aestimare unius corporis membra esse. magnus hic orbis est, sed una civitas. conspiremus in mutuos usus, & ad hanc rem a pueritia aptemur.' Every word has its Stoic roots, but the selection and arrangement suggests one who has been brought up in Christian contexts. Accordingly, we may be cautious in agreeing with Morford's summary view (170), 'His deathbed renunciation of Stoicism did not weaken the effect of his Neostoic teachings. It was his Stoic doctrines that were influential, not his Catholic confession.' Lipsius was more complicated than that, complicated in ways we have never been good at describing, for even in this post-Christian age too many scholars of all persuasions unthinkingly accept the profoundly theological proposition that to be a Christian is necessarily to be something quite different from a 'pagan' or non-believer; the historian often has a hard time finding empirical verification for that proposition.

But if Lipsius is a rich and contradictory character, Rubens offers a larger and still more entrancing canvas. After a palmary description of L.'s work on the editions of Seneca and Tacitus (well presented for the non-specialist, without leaving the classicist feeling -- as summaries of scholarly work for the non-specialist often leave him -- as if somebody has short-sheeted the bed), the last chapter sketches the role of Lipsian Neostoicism in the life and works of Rubens. The consequent reading is a venturesome one, and will doubtless be accused of overreading; but even if that be allowed, the great service of this chapter is to prevent any one else from ever under-reading Rubens's philosophical roots again. No single line of investigation ever explains a Rubens, but the doctrinal and ideological line is one that connoisseurship kept art historians from appreciating until recently, and the contribution of Morford here is considerable. And Morford is well aware of the shades of gray (222-3): 'The Four Philosophers anticipated the development of Peter Paul Rubens' philosophy of life in portraying him separated from the group at the table. So long as Philip was alive Peter Paul was directly involved with Stoicism. After Philip's death he kept up close friendships with Lipsius' contubernales, Woverius and Moretus, but his life took him further and further away from the confines of Lipsius' Stoicism.'

Tracing those ambiguities with clarity and sensitivity makes this a fine book. It belongs in a distinguished line of recent biographical studies in early modern history, where we have seen the old-fashioned 'Life and Times' re-invented with freshness, vigor and clarity. It reminded this reader of such favorites as J. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, S. de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell, and O. Paz, Sor Juana. Its method is philological, its aims disconcertingly modest, its results philosophical in the best sense.


  • [1] For the history of taste, hear Lipsius on the excellences of Tacitus: 'non adfert ille vobis speciosa bella aut triumphos, quorum finis sola voluptas legentis sit, non seditiones aut contiones tribunicias, agrarias frumentariasve leges, quae nihil ad saeculi huius usum; reges ecce vobis et monarchas, et velut theatrum hodiernae vitae.' Historians today are likely to have a higher opinion of Livy than that, and with the Kremlin emptied of its courtiers, Tacitus and all the imperial historians who followed him have less to tell us about the theatrum hodiernae vitae.