O think me worth thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.
–John Donne, from “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”

What is the Christian to do when faced with secular thought that speaks truth to a disillusioned age, when even religious leaders seem impotent? How, when systems of control seem so absolute as to ape the ancient notion of an impassive fate, do we keep rational hope alive?

Michael Warren Davis, recently writing in Crisis Magazine, discussed the influence of Stoicism on Russell Kirk and the assimilation of its principals into his own post-conversion thought.[1] This is a timely meditation, both for the imminent uncertainty of the COVID-19 response and the greater post-2016 political milieu. Since the election, there has been no shortage of popularizers, operating largely from internet platforms, touting the wisdom of the Stoics as therapy for contemporary social ills and anxieties. One need only type the words “stoic” and “Trump” into a Google search to see a political pattern among such popularizers. Movements like Modern Stoicism offer, through social media, a community of adherents, playing the surrogate for religion among the nones. Indeed, the notion of a philosophy replacing religion was explored in Tom Wolfe’s stoic-influenced novel A Man in Full, in which organized Christianity is largely irrelevant. The main characters, instead, become adherents of the “Church of Zeus” from which they ditch the world of ruthless ambition and moral compromise. Doing so was certainly for the betterment of their souls. As such, one cannot discount the very real wisdom earned by the Greco-Roman Stoics and their Cynic forbearers through the trials of slavery and political intrigue. Christians would be remiss in failing to engage the lived wisdom of its expositors, whose lives mirrored the martyrs of the early Church in their steadfast contempt of the world.

Therefore, as with the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle before them, we must do what the Church has always done. As all that is good, true, and beautiful belongs to God, we must baptize and appropriate the catholic (universal) wisdom of the stoa. Though its adherents were either ignorant or hostile to early Christianity, much precedes and complements the wisdom tradition of the Church in their writings. Fortunately, a forgotten Flemish philosopher already completed this task of appropriation during the sixteenth century in a book called De Constantia (“On Constancy,” 1584).

Justus Lipsius was a classicist navigating a climate of growing religious division in the Netherlands. Initially, he attempted to remain neutral. Caught in the middle of the battle between the Church and the rising power of Protestantism, he sought refuge in the works of Roman history and those of his favored philosopher, Seneca the Younger. Eventually, he affirmed his Catholicism in a Jesuit chapel in Spain and embraced the supremacy of the Church. His political views reflected the patrimony of Philip II, and in certain respects, his Politicorum Libri Sex (1589) prefigured T.S. Eliot’s After Strange Gods in its emphasis of religious unity over pluralism. Given the strife of his era, this is not at all surprising, though it may also suggest a hint of self-repudiation for his previously irresolute commitment to creed.

One student of Lipsius was Philip Rubens, brother of great Counter Reformation painter Peter Paul Rubens, who included Lipsius in his 1615 portrait The Four Philosophers.[2] A bust of Seneca can be spotted behind the quartet, and it is to this particular Stoic’s eclectic interpretation of philosophy that Lipsius owes most.

On Constancy is thus a baptism of pagan Stoicism. Lipsius, a humanist (in a thoroughly Catholic sense), leveraged the received wisdom of the great Stoic thinkers as a guide through the Scylla and Charybdis of war and schism that plagued the Low Countries. He used his Socretean interlocutor, Charles Langius, to clarify the truths of Hellenic philosophy in light of Christian revelation.

Langius defines constancy as “immovable strength of the mind, neither lifted up nor pressed down with external or causal accidents.”[2] Constancy is rooted in divinely gifted reason, a “true judgment of things human and divine.”[3] It is thus an extension of faith and the application of the sapientia described in Ecclesiasticus and related Biblical Wisdom literature. It is the lesson taught to St. Peter by Our Lord when he calmed the storm. Or, as Langius tells Lipsius, “let showers, thunders, lightnings, and tempests fall round about thee, thou shalt cry boldly with a loud voice, I lie at rest amid the waves.”[4] The philosopher is not immunized to the ravaging effects of nature on the flesh, but Christ’s victory over death assures the soul of its own final conquest.

The opening of the first book is a lamentation by Lipsius of the widespread war and uncertainty affecting Europe. Lipsius’ instinct is to flee, as if the human problem of suffering and evil is purely external. Langius harangues the folly of the narrator, echoing Seneca’s Letter XXVIII to Lucillius, in which the Roman writes:

All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile. And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company. You have to lay aside the load on your spirit. Until you do that, nowhere will satisfy you.[5]

Langius likewise compares Lipsius’ inner sorrow at the state of his country to a “dart of affections,”[6] carried internally even beyond the borders of conflict. We are, in turn, called to account for the anxieties that infect our daily civic and social lives. We feel small and hopeless in the face of the power struggles in the media, on Capitol Hill, and within the Church. What is the appropriate response? Do we flee our country? Do we abandon the Church? Do we withdraw into the “Option” of our fancy? Lipsius, through the mouth of Langius, exhorts: “Above all things it behooves thee to be constant; for by fighting many man has gotten the victory, but none by flying.”[7] This idea of “fighting” is tied to the Stoic conception of duty, conceived of as a soldierly life of rigorous moral discipline. As Christians we have civil and religious obligations to which we hold fast even in the worst circumstances—a scandalized Church, a hostile secular culture, innumerable temptations. To hold fast to our duties and obligations is the foundation of constancy. In an age of irony and cultural self-effacement, we are called to assertion.

Where to begin? First, we have to look inward. In a 1937 talk, T.S. Eliot differentiated the Christian outlook from the pagan by this point: The Christian looks not merely towards some external evil or “other,” but acknowledges the inherent evil within—the result of our fallen nature—in need of conversion.[8] We are called to prayer and penance, and only then can we assert ourselves, publicly profess our faith and traditions and refuse to apologize for them. The Creed does not begin by what we fear, nor what we oppose, but by what we believe: the truths we are willing to die for.

Lipsius is particularly relevant, for those of us undergoing the long defeat, in his conception of public and private evils, and their use by God in His divine plan to cure the individual soul, “be it by razor or fire.”[9] Readers familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of the eucatastrophe will be edified by this work. By all appearances, the great evils of the world today make us question the Will of God and the necessity of suffering by so many souls. And yet we question these things from a narrow context, unable to see the great transformations and works of mercy that result from the most devastating hardships. Most importantly, the great fluctuations and upheavals of society and the world remind us that our final home is not here. This life is a pilgrimage. We cannot idolize the nation, the race, or place, knowing that these things are subject to change and decay which began before our births and will continue after death. It is the inherent instability of the city of man contrasted with the eternal City of God.

Much of the second book of On Constancy describes the penitential benefits that derive from supposed calamities, evils natural and moral. Though God does not author evil, he uses wicked men as his instruments to purge and purify. So too does he allow the destruction of nations and empires, which inevitably decay under the weight of corruption and idolatry. By undergoing these trials, “It does strengthen us, for that the same is, as it were, our schoolhouse wherein God trains up his servants in constancy and virtue.” As were the martyrs, so too are we called to suffer as witnesses to our faith and to grow by the crucible of the Via Dolorosa. No matter the foul state of politics, the errors of hierarchs, or the fires, floods, and plagues of nature; we are called to remember our final end and purpose. Though we cannot control the world around us, we can examine ourselves in good faith and prepare for the last things.

Accordingly, the final purpose of obtaining constancy is not merely therapeutic. Constancy is not about happiness or numb tranquility. Constancy is preparedness for the return of the Lord who comes like a thief in the night:

The soldier in camp, having a sign of marching forward given him, takes up all his trinkets, but hearing the note of battle lays them down, preparing and making himself ready with heart, eyes, and ears, to execute whatsoever shall be commanded. So let us in this our warfare follow cheerfully and with courage withersoever our general calls us.[11]

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Notes:

On Constancy can be read in two parts (here and here). It will be left to the discerning reader to determine its further usefulness to the Christian today.

[1] Michael Warren Davis, ” ‘Be Strong, Fear Not’: The Case for Christian Stoicism,” Crisis Magazine, May 7, 2020.

[2] Peter Paul Rubens, Philip Rubens, Justus Lipsius, Joannes Wolverius.

[3] Lipsius, De Constancia, Part I, Ch. IV.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lipsius, De Constancia, Part I, Ch. VI.

[6] Seneca, Letters from a Stoic. NY: Penguin, 2004. p. 75.

[7] Lipsius, De Constancia, Part I, Ch. II.

[8] Lipsius, De Constancia, Part I, Ch. III.

[10] T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture. NY: Harcourt, 1949. p. 75.

[11] Lipsius, De Constancia, Part I, Ch. VII.

[12] Lipsius, De Constancia, Part II, Ch. VIII.

[13] Lipsius, De Constancia, Part I, Ch. XIV.

The featured image is “Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius” (1844) by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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