Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.23

R. V. Young, Justus Lipsius' Concerning Constancy. Medieval and Renaissance texts and studies 389.   Tempe:  ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies), 2011.  Pp. xxx, 214.  ISBN 9780866984379.  $63.00.  

Reviewed by Nicholas A.E. Kalospyros, University of Athens (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

By providing readers of humanistic literature with a new English translation and at the same time a new edition of the Justus Lipsius’s principal philosophical work De Constantia Libri Duo (Two Books Concerning Constancy), first published in 1583 (though dated 1584), R.V. Young has provided a new opportunity for acquaintance with the intellectual movement that has come to be known as Neostoicism. With this work, Lipsius became famous in subsequent centuries for the revival of Stoic philosophy as a practical antidote to public evils.

Young, a scholar of John Donne and the English Metaphysical poets, has produced an elegant translation in a classical English style. He is right in giving the reader a constant idea of his admiration of the challenging standard of Lipsius’ work: "it may also be regarded as the last great monument of humanist Latin prose, a work on the border between literature and philosophy, emulating the elegant style of ancient masters. As if the author were conscious of his belatedness, the tone conveyed by his work is considerably more subdued and oblique than the uninhibited ironic exuberance proffered in different ways by his two most notable predecessors" (xvii) –that is Thomas More in his Utopia and Desiderius Erasmus in his Praise of Folly. In an almost parallel way to that of these two predecessors addressing the political and religious abuses of their epoch, the central theme of De Constantia seems to be an essential garment for the case of integrity against a political environment unremittingly producing degeneration. By embracing ancient doctrines that reinforce Stoic ethics in a garment approvable by a Christian audience and by embodying strict Calvinist elements together with Jesuit arguments about free will, De Constantia enhanced the Baroque scholarship and poetry. The recurring theme that public evils are the product of a society needing spiritual reformation through wisdom and constancy (products of philosophical reflection that can bring true peace of mind) is carefully considered by the editor of text.

The Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius’ (1547–1606) work,1 whose title was borrowed from Seneca’s dialogue De Constantia Sapientis and which was immensely popular through numerous editions (also translated into English four times between 1594 and 1670),2 is divided into two books. It is a no doubt fictional conversation in the form of a dialogue between Lipsius and his friend Langius (Charles de Langhe, Canon of Liège) during the course of a trip to Vienna that Lipsius actually undertook in 1572. The dramatic character Lipsius reflects upon the nature of public evils (mala publica) and is guided by Langius, his older and wiser friend. The result of Lipsius’ treatment of Stoic apatheia (emotionlessness) as an appropriate antidote to contemporary religious and political passions and of his investment in the transformation of Stoic fate into Christian divine providence turned out to be an irrefutable brand of Neostoicism that could suitably engage in Christian doctrines and enlarge the frame of Renaissance reading set through the Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas and the Platonism promoted by Marsilio Ficino’s contribution to philological studies. Then, Neostoicism could be engrafted in Christian ethics. Of course, Lipsius’ treatise should not be read as if it were a systematic treatment of the subject of consolation literature focusing on Stoic ethics. Introduced in chapter iv of the first book and defined as “an upright and unmoved vigor of mind that is neither uplifted nor cast down by outward or chance occurrences”,3 in Young’s characteristic translation (pp. 27-29), constantia forms the central concept in Lipsius’ work. Therefore, his terminological position makes De Constantia rather a manual of practical everyday psychology, which acquired a leading position in European thought both in its original Latin version and in translations into a wide range of vernacular European languages.

Any philological edition aspiring to fulfil the requirements of reading such an “influential and characteristic work of northern humanism” (p. xvii) must include: (i) a sound text next to the history of the printed text, (ii) a functional translation of the original text, and (iii) either a commentary or a corpus of complementary footnotes. Young chose to imbue his short introduction (pp. xvii-xxx) with the necessary information concerning the bibliographical background and to let the largest part of his book reflect the mature scholar Justus Lipsius. He bases his translation upon the 1605 Antwerp edition of De Constantia, which is the last published during the author’s lifetime and probably represents his final intended text. Although he acknowledges the need to consider further variants and readings and to ignore some Renaissance printing conventions, the translator provides us with a sound facing-page Latin text and “a translation that is both readable and faithful to the original text of an important work of Renaissance humanism that has been unduly neglected through want of an accessible translation” (p. xxvii). A few misprints have crept in, mainly of Greek words inserted in the form of quotations from classical literature, such as ἀυάγκης instead of ἀνάγκης (p. 78).

I would like to draw attention to two examples of Young's technique of rendering philological Latin. The passage “Cuius pias & felices copias quoniam satis explicui: producam & inducam agmen alterum, quod est sub Necessitatis vexillo” (Book I, c. xv) is translated thus: “Since I have sufficiently deployed those reverent and auspicious forces, I shall marshal and advance a second column under the banner of Necessity”. The second passage, the versed prayers to God for constancy (at the end of Book II, after c. xxvii), shows how to render a poem in dactylic hexameters —at least for the ambitious reader of Renaissance Latin: “I am not hindered by earthly cares; and neither fleeces / Dyed with a magical drug nor the glitter from red gold / Has dazzled me. Only the charm of the knowing Muse/ …”.

Since Young uses the twofold solution of integrating Lipsius’ marginal notes with the commentary in the footnotes, and of placing Lipsius’ translation of Greek quotations into Latin in brackets right after their quotation, he has produced an edition of Renaissance scholarship that should gratify a demanding audience of modern scholars. Young probably intended “to enhance the reader’s comprehension and appreciation both by identifying the learned author’s numerous references to classical literature and by setting the work in the context of sixteenth-century history and the humanist movement” (p. xxviii). Without the burden of meticulous citations to classical literature and of analytical mythological implications, which could be subject to criticism by pedantic scholars, the translator’s “commentary” in a series of footnotes clarifies Lipsius' text.

I sincerely recommend Young’s translation as an introduction to reading Lipsius’ manifesto of promulgating post- Senecan philosophy as a solution to the public calamities which the Flemish scholar and his contemporaries were enduring: “It is the self that must be changed, or at least strengthened against the danger of disintegration or degeneration in the face of a political environment that is unremittingly hostile to human dignity and integrity” (p. xvii).

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xxv
Introduction xxvii
Text and Translation xxvii
For further reading in English xxix
To the Reader: A Preliminary Word on Behalf of my “Constancy” 2
To the Noble and Generous Magistrates and to the Council and People of Antwerp I, Justus Lipsius, make this Dedication and Offering 8
To the Reader: On My Plan and Purpose in Writing 10
Book I (chs. 1-22) 16
Book II (chs. 1-27) 103
Index 209


1.   On his personality see A. Gerlo, ed., Juste Lipse (1547-1606), Travaux de l’Institut Interuniversitaire pour l’étude de la Renaissance et de l’Humanisme IX, Brussels: University Press, 1988.
2.   Cf. the former edition Two Bookes of Constancie Written in Latine by Iustus Lipsius, Englished by Sir John Stradling, Edited with an Introduction by Rudolf Kirk, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1939 (reprint. of an English translation first published in 1594). The new edition by John Sellars (Bristol Phoenix Press, 2006) includes a lightly revised version of Stradling’s translation, along with a new introduction, notes and bibliography.
3.   Those interested in the Stoic notion of constancy should consult J. Lagrée, ‘La vertu stoïcienne de constance’, in P.-F. Moreau, ed., Le stoïcisme au XVIe et au XVIIe siècle, Paris: Albin Michel, 1999, pp. 94-116. ​

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