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The Lives of the Philosophers

Aaron Garrett
Boston University

Jahrbuch für Recht und Ethik Band 12 (2004)

ABSTRACT

We often judge past moral philosophers in terms of our present normative theories and
moral categories. This essay traces a different type of moral philosophy -- common
throughout the seventeenth century -- that stressed philosophical sects, the importance of
an exemplary life and practices for attaining such a life. The rise and fall of this
framework is considered in the works of four philosophers: Justus Lipsius, Benedict
Spinoza, Pierre Bayle, and David Hume.

O. Introduction

One of Spinoza’s great legacies as a philosopher was the principle of interpretive


parsimony he used throughout the Tractatus-Theologico Politicus. Briefly stated the
principal asserts that an interpreter ought not assume a text or a person to be rational
unless there is warrant to do so, and in absence of clear warrant one ought either accept
that the text or person asserts an irrational or semi-rational doctrine (if one has warrant
for holding this) or come to no conclusion at all.1 Spinoza wielded this principle with
particular force against Scripture. As opposed to his predecessor Maimonides who
assumed Scripture to be an inexhaustible well of philosophical truths, Spinoza argued that
careful reading warrants only the judgment that Scripture contains a few simple moral
principles and many stories by and about ignorant desert peoples, reflecting their difficult
circumstances, and the political aspirations of their leaders who used Scripture as a means
to mystify their authority for political purposes. Unlike Maimonides, or his own
contemporaries, Spinoza argued that Scripture should be read with the same degree of
skepticism that we apply to Roman history, with Tacititean reserve. We ought no more
believe that Moses saw God and God made him ruler of the Hebrew theocracy than we
ought to believe Livy’s claims about the origins of Rome. 2But unfortunately in the 17th
century questioning Scripture was far more dangerous than questioning Livy’s tales of
Romulus and Remus.

1 Spinoza does not really explicitly state this principle, but it is clearly at work in his scriptural
hermeneutics. For example “[T]o interpret Scriptural miracles and to understand from their accounts how
they really took place, one must know the beliefs of those who originally related them and left us written
records of them, and one must distinguish between these beliefs and what could [my emphasis – AG] have
been present to their senses” (Benedict Spinoza,Theological-Political Treatise, Samuel Shirley (trans.)
[Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998], 83 [Chapter 6]).
2 This seems to follow from the following: “If Scripture were to describe the downfall of an empire in the
style adopted by political historians, the common people would not be stirred, whereas they are deeply
affected when all is described in poetical language and referred to God, as is customary in Scripture.”
(Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, 81 [Chapter 6]).
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So Spinoza certainly knew that the principle of interpretive charity far too often becomes
the charity to interpret texts and persons until they are just as we would like them to be,
or as best fits our plans. Charity devolves far too quickly into an authoritarian principle
and he who interprets most cunningly is the philosophical and political victor. Most of us
live in liberal first world societies, and so we tend to view the principle of charity as akin
to toleration, one ought to give a text or a speaker the maximum benefit of the doubt just
as one ought to recognize the inalienable rights and needs of others. But Spinoza lived at
a time, following upon the Religious Wars and amid the crises of the Dutch Republic,
when it was apparent that unchecked charity in scriptural interpretation could allow
craven politicians to bring a fairly liberal society into faction and violence. Perhaps,
unfortunately, we live in times where Spinoza’s stance seems more and more reasonable.
.
I am mentioning this principle because I wish to suggest that we ought to use such a
principle of parsimony far more than many of us do in understanding 17th century moral
philosophy. In other words the principle of charity when interpreting 17th century moral
philosophy often leads us to assume that 17th century philosophers are doing the same
sort of philosophy that we and our contemporaries do. This is far more than we ought to
assume since by assigning what we take to be good reasons for their philosophical
positions and by interpreting others as rational in ways we take to be proper we often fail
actually to understand the philosophers we are studying. Just as a philosopher like
Maimonides could find all sorts of moral arguments in Scripture, so we can find proto-
Utilitarian justifications and ingenious anticipations of emotivism in the dead and
hallowed.

The primary focus of my paper is to talk about an important organizing idea in 17th
century moral philosophy that we tend to miss when we interpret 17th century moral
philosophers too “charitably”, the idea of a well-lived life and that moral philosophy
provides therapeutic practices for living a life well. To this end my paper will be divided
into four sections. In the first section I will discuss some general problems in interpreting
early modern moral philosophy. In the second section I will briefly turn to an early
modern philosopher I consider paradigmatic, Justus Lipsius, for these aspects of 17th
century philosophy. In these two sections I will try briefly present the idea that the
normative first principle for many seventeenth century moral philosophies was not the
sort of thing we usually recognize as a normative first principle – sociability, or the
categorical imperative, or the principle of utility, or what have you – but rather the idea of
a school with a set of practices organized around an exemplary individual or an
exemplary life. This was derived both from the ancient schools and the tradition of
Imitatio Christi. In the third section I will finally discuss how Spinoza transforms some of
the Lipsian doctrines in important ways. The main point I will be making is that in the
mid-seventeenth century philosophers like Spinoza began the skeptical task of altering
the idea of the normative life according to their changing needs. In the concluding section
I will briefly discuss Pierre Bayle and Hume, and the ways they attempted to undermine
the ideal of a normative life in moral philosophy.

1. The Context of 17th Century Moral Philosophy

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If you ask an average American moral philosopher to give a map of the most basic and
prevalent positions in normative ethics they will likely give you a threefold division that
they would present to their undergraduate students: consequentialism, deontology, and
virtue ethics. And they might add that the best know exponents of each of these positions
are Mill, Kant, and Aristotle respectively. In America these three are the core of the
historical portion of an “Introduction to Ethics” class and the three basic positions often
provide reference points for contemporary moral philosophers. Not that any moral
philosopher would say that these are the only positions. Rather consequentialism,
deontology and virtue ethics provide an orienting map on the basis of which one then
makes more subtle evaluations, like a tourist guide that provides a starting point for a
more in-depth evaluation of a city and a quick tour for those on tight schedules.

Such maps have pedagogical value but they are damaging for the historian of philosophy
since they tend to exclude philosophers who are uneasy fits or to ask philosophers as well
as historians of philosophy to “normalize” the positions of thinkers who do not easily fall
into one or another category. This is both for ease of explanation and for institutional
reasons. In order that the historian of some more out of the way region of philosophy can
more easily explain to her or his colleagues who may not be familiar with the figure why
they ought to be, it helps to ask: Was Locke a utilitarian? Did Pufendorf have a proto-
Kantian theory of duty? Is Hume a virtue ethicist? In each case seventeenth and
eighteenth century philosophers are interpreted through categories appropriate for
interpreting a much later (or earlier) philosopher with different contexts and problems.
This is not to say these sorts of questions are not valuable, they can be very valuable. Nor
is it to say that this problem is eliminable. It is always present, even when interpreting
philosophers who wrote in the same time and place. And there are certainly any number
of points of continuity between 17th century philosophical practice and contemporary
interests, although the continuities may not always be the one’s we think are evident.

But these sorts of questions, unfortunately, tend to represent philosophers and their
philosophies in ways remote from how the philosophers could have actually understood
themselves. Take the question: “Was Hume a virtue ethicist?” Hume discusses virtues at
length in the Treatise and the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and at
important points clearly directs his arguments against Aristotelian doctrines.3 But the
virtues are only salient in re judgments of character and within a life more broadly
construed. Furthermore in Hume’s moral philosophy it is difficult or impossible to say
what the ultimate normative theory is that backs his moral philosophy: he invokes utility,
the centrality of good motives for judging an act moral, and of course virtues in different
contexts. So Hume’s “virtue ethics” would either have to be a fusion of all the above
theories or more likely something very different from any of them.

This is part of the reason why many moral philosophers find it difficult to think about 17th
century moral philosophy at all, and there is a tendency in the history of moral
philosophy to jump from Thomas Aquinas to Hume with a brisk stop at Hobbes and
perhaps a few others. The kind of normative map that I just have described is built around
normative and meta-ethical issues barely recognizable to most 17th century moral
3 See particularly An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Appendix IV.

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philosophers and unsurprisingly many had ways of mapping their normative positions
often at odds with the trisection so familiar to us. Many 17th century moral philosophers
also had very different global conceptions of what moral philosophy is and what it is
supposed to do. Let me briefly discuss a few of the obvious distinctions.

During and following the religious wars many moral positions were oriented positively
and negatively towards particular religious creeds or towards bridging numerous
confessions. This held not just for such extreme positions, like Locke’s suspected
Socinianism or Spinoza’s atheism, but more moderate one’s as well. Consequently
philosophers had very subtle senses of the religious consequences of moral and
metaphysical positions. Some, like Leibniz tried to use a metaphysically backed moral
philosophy to provide a bridge among the confessions. Others toiled to provide moral
principles that were neutral or inert to interpretation as implying a specific confessional
doctrine. It is exceedingly difficult f or us today to develop the subtle nose with which the
controversialist sniffed the air, seeking a hint of heterodoxy, but it is a crucial context for
understanding 17th century philosophers.

Positions were also often determined by teaching curriculums ancient and modern, an
issue I will not go into but which has been argued by many scholars to have influenced
the form of much moral philosophy. And philosopher’s positions were oriented toward
other philosophers: there were Cartesio-Hobbesians, Scoto-Cartesians and hosts of other
hybrids. These hybridizations point to a very important feature of early modern
philosophy in general, and early modern moral philosophy in particularly, that the
eclecticism intrinsic to these fusions was in many ways the norm. This extended well
back into the sixteenth century, and holds even for philosophers taken to promulgate
clear, unified position. For example we think of Suarez as a Thomist but he was in fact
deeply eclectic.

Another common and deeply eclectic, way of orienting positions in moral philosophy
was, in relation to the ancient philosophical schools and their descendants: primarily
Stoics, Sceptics, Platonists, Epicureans, and the many syncretic Peripatetics. This use of
the ancient schools as an orienting device with which to describe early modern positions
was pervasive, essential to how philosophers understood their own philosophies and
those of their opponents was as pervasive as, and functionally quite similar to, the
trisection I discussed a moment ago. So for example, the description “moderate Stoic”
would have made much more sense as a description of Frances Hutcheson to both to him
and to his contemporaries than our “consequentialist” or “virtue ethicist”. For built into
expressions like “utilitarian” or “consequentialist” are guiding assumptions that what
orients a normative position are the ultimate means of justifying a given act or rule as
what a moral person ought to do. In other words, consequentialism as a normative
position concerns what sort of acts or rules have normative warrant, those that bring
about the best consequences. But for Hutcheson, and many others, this was not what
ultimately individuated a normative position. Rather in the “school” way of thinking
reference to the ancient schools allowed early moderns to, sometimes earnestly and
sometimes polemically, organize philosophies as structured ways of life with long
lineages and historically interconnected doctrines. The role of the moral philosopher was

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to impart a way of life derived from this heritage to young people and provide a standard
to shoot for in trying to lead such a life. And this idea of moral philosophy as providing a
particular life path and set of examples was the basis for the normative elements of the
theory, not vice-versa as is familiar to us. In general I suggest that it makes sense to views
much early modern philosophy as eclectic life plans for dealing with the discord of early
modern Europe and organized around the sort of axes I have just described, as providing
ethics or mores, ways of disposing oneself, in order to cope with these circumstances.

Like the sectaries they were often built around ideal lives. So to use Hutcheson as an
example again, he belonged to a circle of moderate Protestants in Dublin that had as its
moral and aesthetic exemplar Lord Shaftesbury and pursued the Shaftesburian ideals of a
modernized ancient virtue. Not that it was only modernized Stoics who stressed schools,
although it seems particularly common among them. There were Cambridge Platonists
for example, and even Sceptics like Bayle and Hume who attacked the idea of a
philosophical school built around an ideal life (whether that of Hutcheson, or
Shaftesbury, or Spinoza) accepted this model at least in order to criticize it. Bayle’s
Historical and Critical Dictionary can be profitably viewed as an enormous and
cosmopolitan repository of types of ideal lives (and many non-ideal lives) for
consultation, and a thoroughgoing criticism of the superiority of any one of them, or even
of the match between biography and philosophical doctrines (which I will discuss in a
moment). It functions as a vast anti-school anyone can enter. But still the model he is
criticizing and takes to be prevalent informs much of the content of the Historical and 
Critical Dictionary: there are articles on Zeno, Epicurus, Sextus Empiricus , etc.. Hume of
course used the ancient schools to present the divisions between types of philosophers
throughout his work, in particular in a famous quartet of essays dedicated to the
“Epicurean”, the “Stoic”, the “Platonist” and the “Sceptic’. But throughout his work, and
in particular in these essays, his presentation is extremely eclectic, to the point that he
himself sometimes appears Sceptic, sometimes Epicurean and sometimes Stoic (if never
Platonist).

Consequently even for Sceptics (and Montaigne provides another helpful example) this
sort of vision of moral philosophy as different schools built on the ancient schools and
providing curricula and practices for living was important for philosophical self-
understanding. What is the Discourse on Method but a life-orienting tract in the sense I
have outlined, very careful to avoid religious controversy and offering a complimentary
neo-Stoic moral theory to its account of life altering scientific method? Consequently as I
have said when we look for normative orientations in early modern philosophers, we
ought look just as much toward the unfamiliar as the familiar, sideways as much as
backwards and forwards. In the following three sections I will discuss the formation of a
new “school” by Lipsius, taken over from the ancients but invested with new meaning,
the drastic transformation of some of the ideals of the school in Spinoza, and its criticism
by Bayle and Hume.

2. Lipsius

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Justus Lipsius made an enormous impact on seventeenth and eighteenth century


philosophy through his editing of Tacitus and Seneca and through his original works – the
absolutist defense Politicorum sive Civilis Doctrinae Libri Sex and above all De
Constantia (Of Constancy), one of the very most popular works of the period, which went
through more than fifty editions, was translated into all of the major European languages
and had the dubious if not altogether uncommon distinction of both being condemned by
Calvinists and placed on the Index. He was the main philosopher who synthesized
Christianity and Stoicism into a palatable amalgam for seventeenth century tastes, and
self-consciously distinguished providentialist Christian neo-Stoicism from ancient
necessitarian Stoicism. This was aided by the fact that although he was trained by Jesuits,
and publicly confirmed his Catholicism, he accepted the faith wherever he settled and
consequently presented his philosophy in a way that was neutral to sectarianism.

De Constantia is a dialogue between Lipsius and a wise Neo-Stoic friend, Charles


Langius, who functions as the Neo-Stoic teacher and exemplar of the school, the sort of
ideal I have been discussing. Lipsius opens De Constantia with a moving description of
the butchery that the religious wars brought on Europe, and his own horror encountering
this butchery as he traveled across Europe in an abortive attempt to escape it. Lipsius was
of course writing before the Thirty Years War, consequently the resonance of De
Constantia to a 17th century audience would be if anything stronger than to a 16th century
audience. In order to diminish the grip of the recent turmoil and to show that the recent
religious wars are one among many horrors, and by no means the worst, To illustrate the
pervasiveness of violence, Lipsius provides a “deep sea of examples” of “crueltie and
butcherlie slaughters” including an extraordinary table of the quantities of Jews killed in
a seven year period before the birth of Christ, an account of the recent Spanish conquests
4

of Peru and Mexico and even tyranny in the animal world. This parade of cruelty
amplifies the Stoic message: we must not seek stability in this world, or view ourselves as
special, but instead attempt to diminish the impact of the external world by making our
minds constant. This theme would only have been stronger for those who could
remember (or knew those who could remember) the fantastically violent years of the
early 17th century.

So how did Lipsius understand moral philosophy against this backdrop? In response to
the strife around him Lipsius wandered from country to country in an attempt to cure
his malaise:

As they that beholden with a fever, do toss and turn themselves unquietly,
and often change their beds through a vaine hope of remedie: In like case
are wee, who being sicke in our mindes doe without any fruite, wander
from one countrey to another…. [but] It is the mind that is wounded, and
4 “The whole summe… besides an innumerable company not spoken of amounteth to. 124000. What saist
thou Lipsius? Dost thou cast down thy eyes at this? Nay rather lift them up: And see whether thou dare
again compare that hath bene through out all Christendome these many yeares, with the miserable
desolations of this one Iewish nation,” Rudolf Kirk and Clayton Morris Hall (ed., intro., and notes), Justus
Lipsius: Two Books of Constancie (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1939), Chapter II:xxiii, p.
186. This is a modern reprint, with critical apparatus of Sir John Stradling’s skillful 1594 translation of
Lipsius’ De Constantia, initially published 1584.

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all this external imbecilitie, dispaire, & languishing, springeth from this
fountaine, that the mind is thus prostrated and cast downe. 5

Lipsius’ ailment clearly needed therapy, and his friend Langius’s response to his request
for aid was characteristically Stoic in the colloquial sense:

I am a Philosopher not a Fiddler: my purpose is to teach, not to entice: to


profit, not to please you: To make you blush rather than smile: And to
make you penitent not insolent. The school of a Philosopher is as a
Physicians shop (as Rufus once said) where we go for health not pleasure. 6

In this passage moral philosophy is presented as a therapy in analogy with medicine and
disanalogy with music, in particular a medical therapy for dealing with the present
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disruptions of religious and political violence, although not for quelling it. The therapy is
presented as having its confirmation not in its elegance or beauty or even truth, but rather
in its efficacy:

The physician does not dally nor flatter: but pierces, pricks, razes and with
the savory salt of good talk sucks out the filthy corruptions of the mind. 8

In this passage Lipsius is advocating neo-Stoicism and its prescribed therapy. But the idea
more generally of moral philosophy as a form of efficacious therapy to make one’s life
more pleasant was prevalent far beyond Stoicism, think for example of Mandeville’s
Epicurean use of the language of the physician. And Lipsius’ own presentation of Neo-
9

Stoicism is highly eclectic in his choices of wise counsel from the ancient schools. De
Constantia is full of erudite quotations from classical authorities, many of them Stoics,
but the first quote in the work is from Lucretius! Consequently, although Lipsius’
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philosophy was steeped in ancient Stoicism, it was a highly eclectic Stoicism.

As noted above for Lipsius moral philosophy was a therapy, like a medical therapy, for
dealing with the fluctuating early modern world. The therapy had three interrelated
elements, the latter two of which pointed toward differences between the modern and the
ancients schools (beyond the differences in context and in eclecticism I have already
stressed): an organizing principle, particular therapeutic techniques, and a moral
exemplar embodying the organizing principle and the therapeutic techniques. Lipsius’
organizing principle was, of course, constancy: “a right and immoveable strength of
mind, neither lifted up or pressed down with external or causal accidents”. He
emphasized that the most effective path to constancy was reason, given that reason is
5 Lipsius, De Constantia, I:ii 73-74.
6 Lipsius, De Constantia, Chapter II:x, p. 92.
7 Given the Platonic relationship between music and moral therapy in the Republic, Lipsius’ overt stress on
the disanalogy might be an attempt to separate his school from Platonism
8 Lipsius, De Constantia, Chapter II:x, p. 92.
9 F. B. Kaye (ed.), Bernard Mandeville: The Fable of the Bees (Oxford: Clarendon, 1929), I:2-3.
10 Not that Lipsius approved of Epicureanism as a school, or what he called “the new sect of Garden
masters.” See Lipsius, De Constantia, II:ii, 133-4.

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divine (like God from whence it derives) “resolute and immoveable in good purpose.” In
other words reason stabilizes individuals just as Divine reason is stabilizing of all things.
In De Constantia it is clear that Lipsius is offering constancy not as one virtue among
many but rather as a principle for organizing one’s life in the wake of the endless external
accidents and disasters endemic to humankind. Other virtues are sought as consequences
of or means to constancy.

For the most part Lipsius’ arguments for the cultivation of constancy do not seriously
deviate from ancient Stoicism. But he is still careful to make sure that the derivative
virtues do not conflict too much with Christianity. So he tempers his criticisms of pity,
which are fully consistent with Epictetus, by allowing for the importance of mercy. 11

And he supplements constancy with a brief account of internal and external punishment,
which included divine punishment (in contradistinction from the ancient Stoics). But,
notably, it Lipsius does not punishment as the primary source of obligation as it would
have been in a natural -law theory. Instead, the internal punishments provided support for
the development of constancy, and the external punishments. Constancy was
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consequently not one virtue among others but a principle for organizing one’s life given
the horrors of the external world.

The main techniques offered by Langius for attaining constancy were meditation on the
unknowability of providence and on history, in order to see that one’s sufferings were
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not quite as important or unique as one might think. This sounds consistent with the
therapies offered by Epictetus and Seneca, but Lipsius was careful to stress free will and
the need for those seeking constancy to meditate on God’s providential purpose as behind
and beyond the order of necessary natural causes. In other words Lipsius took over
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traditional Stoical techniques but altered their content to suit the new context – religious
sectarianism, free will, and providentialism. And, to a far greater degree than the ancient
Stoics, Lipsius stressed that disastrous external circumstances such as religious wars drew
one to Stoicism to begin with. Any technique that helps us to acquire constancy is a good
technique, including perhaps some taken over from other schools.

Finally, Lipsius found his ideal example of constancy in Langius, a man who had learned
all of the therapeutic lessons and whom we readers should imitate in order to be as
unperturbed by external providence as possible. There was certainly nothing distinctively
modern about offering exemplars. Exemplars were essential to the ancient schools. Nor
need one offer an exemplar who was a founder of the school, Cicero used Cato the Elder
as his exemplar in De Senectute. But it is notable that Lipsius offers not an ancient figure
but a Flemish friend Charles Langius, that his exemplar is a modern gentleman like
himself dealing with troubles familiar to the audience. Langius was a modern bourgeois
with modern bourgeois troubles. There is nothing in this that would contradict ancient
11 De Constantia, 98-99.
12 Lipsius, De Constantia, II:xiv, 164-66.
13 In the concluding sections of De Constantia, Lipsius compares the current troubles in the “Low-
countries” to other far more horrifying examples of cruelty (De Constantia, 181).
14 Lipsius criticized Seneca for claiming that the same necessity “bindeth” man and God (De Constantia,
115). For Lipsius providence was the consequence of an eternal decree, and both superior to and
independent of natural and mathematical necessity (De Constantia, 117).

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Stoic doctrine – there were numerous Stoic sages and there was no reason why a modern
couldn’t be as successful in attaining constancy as an ancient. But the very fact that a
modern is the exemplar signals an important difference.

Where would this sort of philosophy fit on the normative map I described initially?
Lipsius emphasizes virtues and the cultivation of constancy, but the constancy is not
cultivated for itself, it is cultivated in order to successfully deal with an unhappy and
entrapping world. So it is not really a virtue ethics. It is consequentialist, but in a trivial
way. None of this quite fits though. It is very much an early modern moral philosophy –
albeit of a certain type – a therapeutic eclectic process of cultivating oneself in relation to
ideals and exemplars within the particular constraints of early modern Europe.

3. Spinoza

Now let’s turn to Spinoza. The Tractatus-Theologico Politicus, and the central books of
the Ethics concerned with the passions and how to have a happy powerful life, were
framed in the mid 1660s, during the Anglo-Dutch War. Consequently they had their
genesis in circumstances similar to the one’s Lipsius described in De Constantia., where
Spinoza first unveiled his plan to attack the prejudices of the theologians and defend the
freedom of philosophizing by writing a Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in a letter to his
friend Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society. In a prior letter Oldenburg
had remarked that “[t]here will be wickedness as long as there are men” , a remark he
intended as a maxim to keep the horrors of the Anglo-Dutch war at bay (in manner
similar to Lipsius’ counsels in De Constantia).
While basically agreeing with Oldenburg’s statement, Spinoza added:

I will expect news of what they have done recently, when the warriors are
sated with blood, and rest in order to renew their strength a little. If the
famous scoffer were alive to day, he would surely die of laughter. These
disorders, however, do not move me to laughter nor even to tears, but
rather they incite me to philosophizing, and to the better observation of
human nature. I do not think it right for me to laugh at nature, much less to
weep over it, when I understand that men, like the rest, are only a part of
nature, and that I do not know in what way each part of nature agrees with
the whole, and in what way it coheres with the rest; and I find that it is
only through this defective cognition that I perceive some parts of nature,
and then only in part and mutilated, and furthermore these parts agree little
with our minds philosophically, all of which had seemed to me before to
be vain, disordered, and absurd. 15

Like Lipsius, Spinoza is suggesting a method for dealing with war and violence in
contrast to other less efficacious responses. When confronted with the horrors of the sort
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that were prevalent from the mid-sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century

15 Abraham Wolf (ed. & trans.), The Correspondence of Spinoza (London: Allen and Unwin, 1928), Letter
XXXI.

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one can respond by crying and bemoaning one’s condition. Or one can laugh at the
foibles of men, a response that it appears Spinoza associated with Democritus and
perhaps Epicureanism more generally. But, in both cases one is erroneously looking at
the horrors of the world as made for our benefit. And these responses are ultimately
enervating, we end up either sad or condescending and thus we end up in either case with
destructive passions.

Instead Spinoza counsels “now I let everyone go his own way. Those who wish can by all
means die for their own Good, as long as I am allowed to live for truth.” Like Lipsius,
Spinoza offers meditation on natural necessity as a therapeutic technique for coping with
a violent world and freeing oneself from external causes. But rather than meditating on
the mysterious character of the divine plan Spinoza concentrates solely on our
understanding of natural causes. In this Spinoza sides with the ancient Stoics as against
Lipsius, denying free will and providence and centering his therapy on natural necessity.

But, of course there is a crucial divergence from the ancient Stoics as well, Spinoza’s
version of natural necessity is of a piece with a Baconian idea of science and a (mostly)
Cartesian physics, and so is an eclectic mixture of Stoic doctrine, modern scientific
methodology and modern physical theory. In other words, when Spinoza said he
preferred to “live for truth,” “truth” should be understood in relation to the scientific
theories and scientific methodologies of his contemporaries. Furthermore, Spinoza
emphasizes that the consequence of this meditation on natural necessity is that we ought
to try to better understand human nature! This is a striking claim, that a Stoical therapy
with similarities to both the ancient Stoics and Lipsius would spur a science of man or a
scientific psychology.

The therapy is a spur to a science of man precisely because it does not assume a
mysterious providential God but only natural necessity. Since, as opposed to Lipsius,
there are no mysterious secrets of providence or divine punishments but the same natural
necessity everywhere, we can reorganize our understanding on this basis. A central
component of the process is recognizing which of natural causes we can access and
which we cannot. And since Spinoza’s account of natural necessity is consistent with a
Baconian/Cartesian scientific picture, we can look at man as one natural object among
many and understand human nature and human psychology as we would bodies, lines and
planes. This adds an additional therapeutic process obviously present neither in Lipsius
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nor the ancient Stoics. As meditation on disasters results in the desire to know our “part
of nature” naturalistically, the practice of this naturalistic science of man is itself morally
therapeutic in that it allows us to organize our mores, the ways we interact with others,
and our desires for happiness in ways that rid us of false anthropocentric orientations
which make us prey to misfortune and harmful external causes.

16 Spinoza owned Lipsius’ edition of the works of Seneca, which included a lengthy introductory essay --
“Manductio ad Philosophiam Stoicorum” – outlining ancient Stoic doctrines and Lipsius’ criticisms of
them.
17 This is the substance of the “Preface” to Part III of the Ethics, where Spinoza works out his naturalistic
psychology.

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And where Lipsius emphasizes constancy Spinoza emphasizes a related but slightly
different term fortitudo (Ethics IIIP59). Spinoza divided fortitudo into animositas – a sort
of combination of tenacity and self-command – and nobilitas or the ways in which we aid
other men and join them in friendship. As with Lipsius’ constantia, fortitudo follows from
the stabilizing character of reason. Furthermore, both philosophers emphasize these
virtues not in order to enter into a discussion of virtues of character, but instead to show
that they are the lynchpin of a certain successful way of conducting one’s life. For
Spinoza if one has fortitudo, one will be more powerful. But whereas Lipsius’ constantia
is a mostly a solitary organizing principle, Spinoza’s fortitude has an explicitly social
component nobilitas. Nobilitas according Spinoza leads free men to seek the company of
one and other, be grateful to one another, and form communities. These communities are
not political communities --which are also beneficial for free men (Ethics IVP73) -- but
rather associations where those who have the virtue of fortitudo interconnect with others
free men in order to be more rational, through exchanging ideas, and more powerful
through uniting as a group. So elective associations and groups are not just their to
disseminate the teachings of the schools, they are part of the life of the free man. It
appears then that in describing the free man Spinoza is describing the ideal, fully rational
philosophical school or sect as essential to being a free man. In other words, as opposed
to Lipsius’ De Constantia, Spinoza’s moral theory captures and describes the ideal of the
edifying sect itself, but in a manner mostly neutral to specific sect doctrines: to seek
sects, exemplars, and moral principles is part of human nature when rendered with
sufficient scientificity.

So where Lipsius actually gave a concrete exemplar -- Langius -- Spinoza’s philosophy is


devoid of such personalized examples. The free man has certain (highly schematic)
psychology centered on fortitudo – that Spinoza describes in Parts III and IV of the
Ethics, and particular cognitive capacities (to reason), the desire to understand these
capacities, and is powerful, happy, and free in Spinoza’s sense. But the free man himself
is the generic ideal behind the many schools, who associates with other free men of
different sorts into groups. In other words, Spinoza in his desire to know human nature
spurred on by the violence around him and meditation on natural necessity developed a
naturalized psychology that described a generic free man, but offered no particular
exemplars. This seems to have been a conscious decision on his part, in line with his
critique of teleology. Actual exemplars – Langius, Zeno, Spinoza himself – would have
distinctive individuating features above and beyond the generic psychology Spinoza
describes. In his stridently anti-teleogical way Spinoza seems to be seeing, be your own
exemplar by actualizing your own generic and specific nature as much as possible. Do
not measure yourself by another specific individual, or if you do only insofar as they
manifest generic traits. Make actual your own determinate essence.

In Spinoza, then, we see the sort of model found in Lipsius but redescribed or, more
accurately, contextualized, within a naturalistic psychology in line with an anti-teleogical,
anti-anthropocentric new science while at the same time showing the general
psychological reality of schools, and their importance for morals. It is no longer a
particular individual or a particular school, but the free man is still the organizing and
normative principle in Spinoza’s “moral philosophy”.

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4. Bayle

I want to now consider a further chapter in this account of the moral school, moral life
and moral exemplar. I have alluded to Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary
previously, and one of the very most famous articles was his account of Spinoza. When
18th century philosophers discussed Spinoza they often did so with Bayle’s article in
mind. Indeed many of Spinoza’s critics and advocates never actually read Spinoza’s
Ethics or Tractatus, but all had read Bayle. As a consequence Spinoza was misrepresented
as a materialist and “atheista hideosa” throughout the 18th century. Even Hume, who was
enormously widely read seems only to have read Bayle’s article on the basis of which he
discussed Spinoza’s hideous materialist hypothesis in the Treatise. What was so notable
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about this article? It wasn’t just that Bayle presented Spinoza’s as a materialist and
condemned him for this at some length. Nor was it solely that he presented Spinoza’s
ideas in a far more readable prose than Spinoza’s own. There are two further reasons for
the article’s influence.

First, Bayle presented Spinoza as having given systematic voice to a timeless materialist
school doctrine. Bayle saw the school of materialists as having adherents in all times and
places Spinoza was thus offered by Bayle to an ordinary late 17th century audience in the
manner in which they would most readily be able to consume his philosophy: the leader
of a timeless sect. Although Spinoza likely understood himself as drawing out the
systematic metaphysical core which underlay an eclectic mixture of Cartesianism,
Hobbesianism, Neo-Stoicism (and in some places Neo-Epicureanism), as a consequence
of Bayle’s article, late 17th century and 18th century readers viewed Spinoza as the modern
scientific exemplar of scientific atheism which had been espoused in less perfect form by
Chinese, Indian and ancient Greek philosophers. Most of the article is taken up by
19

Bayle’s attempts to refute Spinoza’s metaphysics, which Bayle had clearly thought
through very deeply. 20

It seems indisputable that Bayle thought Spinoza’s metaphysical doctrines terribly wrong.
And it also seems very likely that Bayle considered Spinoza’s moral philosophy, insofar
as it was rooted in the metaphysics, ridiculous in comparison with a more ordinary theory
with a divine lawgiver, punishment and reward, and an afterlife. 21

18 Cf. David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, Peter Nidditch (ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978),
2nd ed., 240-4.
19 Pierre Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary (London, 1738) 2nd ed. V:199-203 (Des Maizeaux
Translation).
20 As an example of how darkly ironic Bayle’s comments can be: “Let us remember, that he cannot deny
that some modifications are angry with others, put them to torture, make their torments last as long as ever
they can, send them to the gallies for life, and would make that punishment last for ever, if the death of one
party or the other did not prevent it.,” Pierre Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary, 217 Note T.
21 “The common hypothesis if compared with that of the Spinozists in things that are clear, has a greater
evidence: and if it be compared with the other in things that are obscure; it appears less opposite to the light
of reason and besides, it promises us a infinite happiness after this life, and procures a thousand comforts in
this: whereas the other gives us no prospect of a future happiness, and deprives us of confidence in our
prayers, and the advantage we may accept from the remorses of our neighbors: and therefore the common

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At the very least there is little question that Spinoza’s basic moral picture was differed
fundamentally from Spinoza’s.

Yet in spite of these fundamental disagreements in the content of moral philosophy and
its normative justification, Bayle wrote:

Those who have been acquainted with Spinoza, and the peasants of the
villages where he lived a retired life for some time, do all say that he was a
sociable, affable, honest, friendly, and a good moral man. This is strange;
but after all it is no more surprising than to see men live an ill life, though
they are fully persuaded of the truth of the Gospel. 22

Bayle further amplified this in a note:

He never swore; He never spoke disrespectfully of God; he went


sometimes to hear sermons, and exhorted others to go constantly to
church. He did not care for wine, good cheer, or money… He minded
nothing but study in which he spent the greatest part of the night. 23

Over the course of the entry Bayle finds only one moral flaw in Spinoza which he feels
has warrant: arrogance. But otherwise Bayle goes out of his way to stress Spinoza’s
24

praiseworthy life conduct extending the infamous argument in the Miscellaneous


Reflections on the Comet that a society of atheists, however absurd their beliefs, was not
only possible but could also be perfectly harmonious and moral. Bayle’s portrait of
25

Spinoza as leader of the atheistical sect only strengthens the disjunct between the
doctrines espoused by the exemplar of a sect and the ensuing moral conduct. Spinoza
himself had already argued in the TTP that the ignorant were capable of acting in
perfectly morally decent ways even if the doctrines that backed their moral beliefs were
false. But Bayle showed in the “Spinoza” article that there could be a thoroughgoing
cleavage between a moral life and a happy virtuous life. And this is a means of attacking
the idea of “school” itself, and the idea of exemplar that went with it.

5. Conclusion

hypothesis is to be preferred to the other.” One might rightly say that this comment does not argue for the
truth of a a moral theory rooted in a divine lawgiver. True enough. But Bayle’s response would be that
Spinoza’s theories are false, discomforting and useless, a divine command theory at worst false.

22 Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary, 206


23 Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary, 206 Note I
24 This was for Bayle an important flaw, and undercut Spinoza’s constancy. Bayle is particularly scathing
concerning the (false) report that Spinoza on his deathbed refused to see a minister for fear that when
confronted with death he might have a failure of nerve. “Can there be a more ridiculous and extravagant
vanity, and a more foolish passion for a wrong notion of constancy?” (Philosophical Dictionary, 216, Note
S).
25 Pierre Bayle, Oeuvres Diverses (Hague, 1727), III.1 §103 (pp. 109-110) [Georg Olms Verlag reprint
1966, with Introduction by Elizabeth Labrousse, 4v.]

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In this essay I have tried to show how 17th century moral philosophy was organized
around very different issues and categories than those central for and employed by
contemporary moral philosophers. In particular morals sometimes took the form of a
more or set of life practices and plans built around a school and a teacher. In Lipsius,
Spinoza, and Bayle I have tried to show how the early modern philosophers took over the
language of the ancient schools but made it their own. Lipsius Christianized and
providentialized Stoicism, made it relevant for the religious chaos surrounding him and
provided a moral exemplar that his audience could easily recognize. Spinoza wedded
Stoic techniques to early modern scientia and created something very new, while at the
same time reflecting on the idea of school and exemplar itself, building a generic version
into his own moral theory. And Bayle, through the person of Spinoza (as well as many
others) challenged an assumption shared by the schools and many religious creeds, that
there is continuity between school doctrines and beliefs and the moral life. This is a broad
framework for thinking about morality, and a set of broad attendant issues, that goes
unrecognized when we insist on viewing morality solely through a contemporary lens.

As a final note I would like to briefly consider a short essay by David Hume entitled “Of
Moral Prejudices”. It first appeared in 1741, nearly 75 years after Spinoza’s death and
more than 150 years after the publication of De Constantia. The essay is divided into two
distinct sections. In the first section Hume presents the modern Epicureans – perhaps
Mandeville – modern Stoics – perhaps Hutcheson – criticizing the former for being
impractibly perverse and the latter impractibly rigorist. Hume states that he prefers the
maxims of Eugenius (a fictional philosopher) and proceeds to exposit his doctrine.
Eugenius studied philosophy in his youth and “nothing was ever able to draw him from t,
except when an Opportunity offer’d of serving his Friends, or doing a pleasure to some
Man of Merit.” When he was thirty he married the “beautiful Emira” with whom he had
26

several children until her untimely death. Eugenius loved Emira deeply, continued to
honor her birthday, see her face in his children’s faces and requested that “whatever Part
of the World he shall happen to die, his Body shall be transported, and laid in the same
Grave with her’s.” In the story of Eugenius Hume is clearly holding common ordinary
27

life and common ordinary sentiments as against the dogmatism of the schools and
creating his own timeless everyman as exemplar, with ordinary sentiments as guide.

The second part of the essay is a letter written from a friend to Hume, which Hume
28

states “contains such an Instance of a Philosophic Spirit, as I think pretty extraordinary,


and may serve as an Example, not to depart too far from receiv’d Maxims of Conduct and
Behaviour, by a refin’d Search after Happiness or Perfection.” The letter describes a
young noblewoman who stayed single despite many marriage proposals in order to
preserve autonomy. When she did decide, eventually, that she wished to have a son she
found a beautiful young man and contracted a marriage. Unfortunately the man was not
as rational as he was beautiful and so he chafed at being a kept man and at his mistresses’
rational and philosophical temper. She eventually tired of him, gave him an annuity and

26 Eugene F. Miller, ed., David Hume: Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund,
1985), rev. ed., 541.
27 Ibid.
28 Hume, Essays, 542-44.

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sent him on his way. Spurned he sued for his sons in the law courts and as of the time of
the posting of the letter the outcome was undecided.

This second story is compatible with the first in an obvious way – the normal romantic
love of Eugenius resulted in a happier life than the noblewomen who tried to fully
rationalize the natural passions between the sexes. But despite this Hume does not stress
the sadness of the noblewomen, merely the way that her attempt to live an extraordinary
life was tested by the natural passions of others. In other words her difficulties in
untypical life lay with the passions of others once she decided to pursue her own natural
passions and have a child. So the moral is that someone living an atypical life will always
encounter others with perfectly normal passions, and this will make such a life difficult.
The resultant criticism of the picture championed by Lipsius and “naturalized” by
Spinoza is as devastating Bayle’s. But where Bayle attacked the congruence of the beliefs
of a sect and the moral life, Hume attacked the possibility of living an exemplary
philosophical life at odds with the common life. However much we seek to imitate
philosophical exemplars and lead philosophical lives, our natural passions will draw us to
others, and their standards, exemplars, and practices, the standards, exemplars, and
practices of common life, will necessarily become our own – whether we like it or not.

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