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The Pervasive Influence of Stoicism in the Early Modern Period

Diamond Yao By Diamond Yao Published on December 25, 2015

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 “Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day” (Zusak, 250). While this quote, pulled from the award winning 2005 novel The Book Thief, might seem fairly modern, the attitude behind it is centuries old. In fact, never yielding after a provocation is a core tenet of one of the most influential philosophies of the ancient world: Stoicism (Seneca, 103). Born in the Eastern world (Grant, 271), Stoicism was recognized as a major force in the Roman empire by the second century before Jesus Christ (Grant, 274). Its rational and practical nature attracted many ancient Roman personalities, such as the historian Livy (Walsh, 356) and the politician Cato the Younger (Salmon, 204). However, it would be extremely misguided to narrow the reach of Stoicism to the Greco-Roman world in which it took root. The aim of this work will be to show that Stoicism has also left a significant imprint on an entirely different subsequent historical time frame: the early modern period. But before elaborating on the various ways (literary, political, ideological) in which this philosophy influenced that era, it is of prime importance to first understand the guiding principles behind Stoicism.

Stoicism’s main tenet was the independence of the individual from any external circumstances (Grant, 269). It emphasized the importance of accepting these circumstances with equanimity and stressed the pursuit of virtue as its highest objective (Grant, 270). For instance, Seneca, one of the leading Stoic philosophers of the Greco-Roman world, extolled virtue by characterizing it as “free, inviolable, unmoved, unshaken, so steeled against the blows of chance that she cannot be bent, much less broken” (Seneca, 61). Individuals who could face this kind of adversity with resolution and dignity, such as Ulysses and Hercules, were considered to be the highest exemplars of virtuousness and wisdom (Seneca, 51). In fact, Seneca firmly believed that “the power of wisdom is better shown by a display of calmness in the midst of provocation” (Seneca, 59) and that “the provocations thereto of unthinking people - which only the unthinking can give - should be ignored, and the honours and the injuries of the common herd be valued both alike” (Seneca, 103). 
 Another defining feature of Stoics was their pride in their ability to use their free will to find the most efficient methods possible to solve their problems by not letting what they deemed to be white noise, such as human feelings and fate, cloud their judgement (Seneca, 48). Seneca compared this heroic ability to rise above emotional turmoil and difficult circumstances to a mountain with a “lofty summit which rise[s] so far beyond the reach of any missile as to tower high above all fortune” (Seneca, 48). This belief in a free will that could rise above misfortune and fate seemed to be a collective attitude that developed as a reaction against the rising fatalistic Hellenism of the time (Grant, 270). For this reason, Stoicism seems to have had a particularly large impact in politically unstable societies, such as war-torn England before the ascent of King James I to the English throne (Salmon, 203).

After the devastating Thirty Years War, Jacobean England turned to Stoicism for hope and multiple Stoic texts were either freshly written or translated from ancient sources during that time (Salmon, 203). Lipsius was a particularly important figure for the transmission of that philosophy in post Thirty Years War Europe (Salmon, 200). He wrote two texts that used Stoic philosophy as pieces of advice to help Europe cope with the consequences of the war and govern itself better (Salmon, 203). One of them was De Constantia, a tract that was intended to provide solace amid the wars and political instability of the time (Salmon, 203). It was derived from the Stoic philosophy of Seneca and Epictetus (Salmon, 203). The other was Politics, a pragmatic guide that advised prudence as the best course of action for governments (Salmon, 204). It used Tacitus’s and Seneca’s ideas (Salmon, 204). Lipsius’s pioneering work would influence several translators of Stoic philosophers, who often discussed his ideas in their work, and who, in many cases, provided the first English translations of seminal Stoic texts (Salmon, 200). For instance, Thomas Lodge’s English version of Seneca’s prose work, a major influence on Jacobean Neostoic philosophy, adapted several sections of Lipsius’s work in his own translation (Salmon, 199-200). Wheare, another translator of Seneca’s moral essays, went even further and quoted Lipsius directly in his own work (Salmon, 200). Unsurprisingly, other people quickly started using this new flood of Stoic texts for their own purposes. Among them was Sir Francis Bacon.

A prominent English philosopher, scientist and statesman, Bacon referred to Stoicism frequently in his prolific output (Salmon, 214). For instance, in The Advancement of Learning, a book on how to best learn new things, Bacon likened laziness to a Stoic virtuous moral flaw by accusing “any man [who is] laborious in reading and study and yet idle in business and action” (“Advancement of Learning” 185) of having “some weakness of body or softness of spirit, such as Seneca speaketh of” (“Advancement of Learning” 185). In his essay Of Simulation and Dissimulation, Bacon referred to Tacitus to argue that for a man to have “penetration of judgement” (“Of Simulation and Dissimulation” 263), he had to master “arts of state, and arts of life, as Tacitus well calleth them” (“Of Simulation and Dissimulation” 263). Bacon also expanded his political ideas about how to best cope with revolts with frequent references to Tacitus (“Of Seditions and Troubles” 285-289). This sheer omnipresence of Stoicism within the written output of Jacobean England shows how influential Stoicism was within that society. But the philosophy’s full reach in England, however, extended far beyond the scope of these written texts.

In fact, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the structure of the English government and the centralized state was heavily influenced by Neo-stoic thought (Salmon, 207). Many people who were associated with Robert Devereux (the Earl of Essex, a noble that fell out of Queen Elizabeth I’s favour) and Prince Henry were interested in Neostoicism (Salmon, 207-208) and liked to compare their situation within English politics with the situation of 1st century Rome under Tiberius (Salmon, 201). In particular, Savile’s translation of Tacitus’s Histories and Greneway’s translation of the Annals and the Germania were particularly influential in these political circles (Salmon, 210). For instance, Sir John Hayward, a member of Essex’s retinue, became one of the most notorious followers of Tacitean political philosophy (Salmon 211). Other members of the Essex house, such as Fluke Greville, Henry Wotton (Salmon, 208) and Robert Dallington (216), were also influenced by Stoicism to varying degrees. England, however, was not the only Stoic country during the early modern period (Salmon, 207).

In fact, the Spanish writer Garcilaso de la Vega used ancient Roman exemplars in a Stoic manner in his Elegies, two poems about the situation in Spain at that time (it was war-torn between Hapsburg sympathizers and Castilian republicans) (Graf, 1327). The first elegy of the literary work was heavily infused with neo-Stoicism (Graf, 1321). A prime example of this phenomenon was found in the manner the character of Don Bernardino was idolized as a model of heroic virtue amidst a political struggle beyond his control (Graf, 1321). The Scipios, symbol of wartime ideals, were exemplars on which Don Bernardino was based in the first elegy (Graf, 1321). However, the disillusionment and skepticism associated with constant warfare and the ideology of world domination was heightened in the second elegy, where its neo-Stoic bent was even more accentuated (Graf, 1322). This was reflected in the uncertainty and personal heartbreak experienced by Garcilaso’s own self in the elegy (Graf, 1322), which, when conflated together, embodied how Stoicism was an easy target for imperialism (Graf, 1327). In fact, when faced with very limited alternatives, the Stoics would choose resignation by self annihilation since they believed in determinism, which made them very easy to subjugate for conquerors (Graf, 1327). The prevalence of Stoicism in this work of literature makes it clear that this philosophy was a major ideological belief of the time in many European countries.

Stoicism has had a vast impact on the early modern period. It reached a peak of followers during the 16th and 17th century in Europe (Freehafer and Miner, 1180-1181). The various Stoic influences on the intelligentsia of Jacobean England and the Stoic motifs in Garcilaso de la Vega’s Elegies are only two of numerous other examples of the huge imprint left by Stoicism during that era. Stoicism has survived throughout the ages and allowed millions of people to govern better, think better, learn better and stay better grounded during crises, effectively making it timeless and still used today in some form.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. “Of Seditions and Troubles” in The Works of Francis Bacon. London: W. Baynes and Son; , 1824. 283-290. Print.

Bacon, Francis. “Of Simulation and Dissimulation” in The Works of Francis Bacon. London: W. Baynes and Son; , 1824. 263-266. Print.

Bacon, Francis. “The Advancement of Learning” in Essays, Advancement of Learning, New Atlantis, and Other Pieces (eds Richard Foster Jones). New York: The Odyssey Press, 1937. 171-235. Print.

Freehafer, John and Earl Miner. “Stoicism and Epicureanism in England, 1530-1700” Modern Language Association 88 (1973): 1180-1182

Graf, E.C. “From Scipio to Nero to the Self: The Exemplary Politics of Stoicism in Garcilaso de la Vega’s Elegies” Modern Language Association 116 (2001): 1316-1333

Grant, Frederick Clifton. “St. Paul and Stoicism” The Biblical World 45 (1915): 268-281

Salmon, J. H. M. “Stoicism and Roman Example: Seneca and Tacitus in Jacobean England” Journal of the History of Ideas 50 (1989): 199-225

Seneca. “De Constantia” in Seneca Moral Essays (translated by John W. Basore, Ph.D.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958. 48-106. Print.
Walsh, P.G. “Livy and Stoicism.” The American Journal of Philology 79 (1958): 355-375.

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. Victoria: Picador, 2005. Print.

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