Meditation on Past Evils: A Neostoic Spiritual Exercise


A post written for the Stoicism Today blog. Now published in Stoicism Today: Selected Writings II (2016). These comments draw on a fuller account of Lipsius and spiritual exercises available here 

Much has been written about the Stoic idea of premeditation on future evils: pre-rehearse potential bad events so that if they come you are better prepared to deal with them and, if they don’t, be all the more grateful for your good fortune. But what about past evils? Is there anything to be gained from reflecting on evils that have already happened? 

In the sixteenth century Justus Lipsius thought there was. Lipsius was a Humanist and committed to Stoicism His On Constancy of 1584 is a dialogue about how Stoicism might help people then caught in the middle of horrific religious wars. He went on to produce an important edition of the works of Seneca in 1605 and published with it two volumes that, for the first time, tried to bring together all the surviving evidence for the early Stoics, in 1604. In the history of Stoicism he is probably the most important figure after the ancient Stoics. 

Lipsius’s On Constancy is an attempt to offer remedies for public evils, that is suggestions to help people trying to cope with adverse situations out of their control. One of his remedies tries to show that the public evils then afflicting people are, when put into an appropriate historical context, neither especially grievous nor unusual. Lipsius the Humanist thinks that the study of history can offer us therapeutic benefit. What follows is somewhat brutal, but that is part of the point. Lipsius recounts the death tolls of wars recorded in ancient historians. In the wars of the ancient Jews 20,000 died at Caesarea, 13,000 at Scythopolis, 2,500 at Ascalon, 2,000 at Ptolomais, 50,000 at Alexandria, 10,000 at Damascus, and so on and on. He then turns to Greek and Roman history. Drawing upon the ancient historian Procopius and other sources, Lipsius continues with graphic descriptions of ancient plagues and famines, of which just one gruesome example from a famine should be enough: ‘Two women (I quake to speak it) killed seventeen men in the night by treachery and did eat them; at length they themselves were slain by the eighteenth, who perceived the matter.’ 

Cruelty is nothing new either, Lipsius says, citing examples from the historian Valerius Maximus. Lipsius draws on his impressive knowledge of ancient history and literature to furnish us with numerous examples to support his claim that public evils such as civil war, tyranny, famine, and plague are by no means limited to the present age. All of these public evils are constant features of history and so we should not be surprised to find them in our own time. Indeed, it would be truly miraculous if our own time were exempt from such events. All countries and all ages have had their share of public evils; so must our country and our age. 

This strategy involves a version of an idea known as ‘moral distance’. This is the idea that we tend to care more for those things closer to us than those far away, and it is traditionally credited to David Hume. Our natural sympathy for those closest at hand, it is suggested, is a distortion that we must overcome when making moral judgements. Lipsius’s version is different though: his aim is to show that moral distance can distort our perception of public evils, making our own immediate troubles appear much more significant than they actually are. If we step back and consider those evils within a wider historical context we shall see that in fact they are neither especially grievous nor unusual. This shares something with what Pierre Hadot called ‘the view from above’, but in this case proposing a wider historical perspective rather than a wider geographical view. 

Lipsius was not wrong when he said that all ages have their share of public evils. For us the Holocaust has come to be seen as the archetypal example, and for good reason. Reflecting on horrific events from the past such as the Holocaust is important for a number of obvious and well-known reasons: some things should never be forgotten. For Lipsius this sort of reflection on past evils can also be a chilling way to put our current troubles into stark perspective.

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