Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi


  • John SellarsEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_239-1


The ancient philosophy of Stoicism found both admirers and critics during the Renaissance. Early humanists such as Petrarch and Coluccio Salutati admired many aspects of Stoic philosophy, based on their reading of Cicero and Seneca. Seneca attracted much humanist attention and was the subject of biographies and commentaries. However Stoicism also had its critics, from Lorenzo Valla, adopting an Epicurean point of view, to Marsilio Ficino, defending his own Platonic position. The recovery and translation of Greek authors such as Diogenes Laertius and Epictetus expanded knowledge of the Stoa. Whereas early humanists associated Stoicism with Cicero and Seneca, later generations returned Zeno and Chrysippus to center stage. Seneca remained important, even after the correspondence with St Paul was dismissed as spurious, and attracted the attention of Erasmus, Jean Calvin, and Justus Lipsius. It was with Lipsius that the fortunes of Stoicism changed dramatically. His De constantia founded what has come to be called Neostoicism, while his two Stoic handbooks published in 1604 brought together for the first time more or less all the surviving evidence for Stoic philosophy. His contemporaries Michel de Montaigne and Guillaume Du Vair presented Stoic ideas in the vernacular and reemphasized the practical orientation of Stoicism. The early seventeenth century saw a flurry of scholarly studies by Adam Bursius, Caspar Scioppius, and Isaac Casaubon alongside those of Lipsius. Throughout the period, a continual theme was the compatibility of Stoicism with Christianity; by the end of the period, they were firmly disconnected, paving the way for eighteenth-century presentations of Stoicism as a form of materialism and atheism.


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The ancient philosophical school of Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium c. 300 BCE, and the school developed under his successors Cleanthes and Chrysippus. By the first century BCE, the Athenian school was no more, but its ideas were already well known in Rome. The works of the Athenian Stoics fell out of circulation in late antiquity, making Cicero’s extended discussions of Stoic ideas in his philosophical works the earliest and most important record of early Stoic philosophy.

At Rome Stoicism attracted numerous adherents, of whom Seneca was probably the most significant, along with a number of others with whom he was acquainted, including Cornutus, Lucan, and Persius. Around the same time, Musonius Rufus lectured on Stoicism in Rome, and his most famous pupil, Epictetus, went on to found a philosophical school in Nicopolis, where his pupil Arrian recorded his lectures. Epictetus was an important influence on Marcus Aurelius, whose notebook reflections composed most likely in the 170s stand as the latest Stoic text to survive.

The Stoics identified God with Nature (or with the pneuma permeating Nature) and God’s providence with fate, which they characterized as the order of causes in Nature. The human soul, they suggested, is a fragment of the divine pneuma in Nature and essentially rational. They dismissed the emotions of delight, lust, distress, and fear as the products of mistaken judgements and taught their eradication. They advocated a life in harmony with Nature guided by virtue, which they defined as a soul in excellent condition. Only virtue is inherently good, they held, and its opposite, vice, the only thing inherently bad. External goods and states of affairs may be preferable or non-preferable depending on whether they contribute to one’s self-preservation, but they cannot contribute to one’s happiness, for which virtue is the only necessary and sufficient condition.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

In the Latin West Stoic ideas were known primarily via the works of Cicero, Seneca, and Church Fathers such as Lactantius, Jerome, and Augustine. Further sources of information included Boethius, Calcidius, and Aulus Gellius. In the twelfth century, before the explosion of interest in Aristotle in the thirteenth, philosophers such as Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury engaged with Stoic ideas drawn from these sources. Although in principle it would have been possible to recover Stoic ideas on a fairly wide range of philosophical topics, in practice the focus tended to remain in the realm of ethics. The most noteworthy examples of philosophers engaging seriously with Stoic ethical ideas were Peter Abelard (in his Collationes) and Roger Bacon (in his Moralis philosophia). In both cases Seneca and Cicero were unsurprisingly the main sources of information and inspiration.

Renaissance engagements with Stoicism continued in this vein, at least at the beginning. It would be some time before the full range of ancient evidence for Stoic ideas became readily available, and not until the sixteenth century that the most important Greek sources were put into print. Although the important account of Stoic doctrine in Book VII of Diogenes Laertius’s Vitae philosophorum had been translated into Latin c. 1433 and first printed in 1472, the Greek text did not appear in print until 1529. Similarly, the Enchiridion of Epictetus was translated into Latin in 1450 and 1479 and first printed in 1497, but the Greek text did not appear in print until 1529. Arrian’s Dissertationes Epicteti, upon which the Enchiridion was based, were first printed in 1535, and Marcus Aurelius’s notes to himself were printed in 1559. Other key sources in Greek included material contained in works by Stobaeus, Plutarch, Philo, Sextus Empiricus, Galen, and the Greek commentators on Aristotle (in particular, Alexander of Aphrodisias and Simplicius).

Debates about the compatibility of Stoic ethics with Christian teaching, as well as about Seneca’s relationship with Christianity (shaped by Jerome’s assessment of him and his supposed correspondence with St Paul), continued well into the sixteenth century. Those debates culminated in Justus Lipsius’s attempt to reconcile Stoic and Christian teaching in his De constantia of 1584. The gradually increasing body of knowledge about ancient Stoicism was also transformed by Lipsius when he drew it all together for his two sourcebooks of Stoic philosophy printed in 1604. Lipsius’s scholarship marks a definite rupture with the medieval and early Renaissance reception of Stoicism. Later discussions of Stoicism by authors such as G. W. F. Leibniz and Pierre Bayle would not have been possible without the work of Lipsius, upon which they relied for their knowledge of Stoicism as a philosophical system.

Innovative Aspects

The early Renaissance interest in ancient Latin texts brought renewed attention to Stoicism. The most important early figure was Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304–1374). Petrarch’s knowledge of Stoicism was little different from that of his medieval predecessors and was drawn mainly from Seneca and Cicero. If there was a difference, it was in his approach to the material. His particular interest in Roman antiquity and his practical philosophical outlook combined to make him take these authors far more seriously than most scholastic philosophers tended to do. In De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia, Petrarch dismissed Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as a dry textbook of moral theory, admiring instead Cicero, Seneca, and Horace for their inspiring ethical maxims (Petrarch 2003, 315). His broadly Socratic approach to philosophy, seeing it as the art of living well, made him especially interested in the sorts of Stoic therapeutic practice found in works such as Seneca’s Epistulae and Cicero’s Tusculanae disputationes. This is most evident in his largest philosophical work, De remediis utriusque fortunae (Petrarch 1554, 1991), written in the 1350s. In this text, he offers a series of remedies for both good and bad fortune: in Book I “Reason” (Ratio) debates with “Joy” (Gaudium) and “Hope” (Spes) in order to temper happiness with or desire for a whole series of apparent goods, from good health to fame after death, while in Book II “Reason” debates with “Sorrow” (Dolor) and “Fear” (Metus) about the apparent evil of things such as ill health, poverty, bereavement, and death. These four categories of emotion which “Reason” tries to subdue are taken from Cicero’s account of the Stoic analysis of emotions in Tusculanae disputationes III.24–5 where delight (laetitia) and lust (libido) are defined as a belief in something good, either present or future, and distress (aegritudo) and fear (metus) are defined as a belief in something bad, either present or future. The dialogue form into which this Stoic division is cast was, like the title of the work, inspired by a short treatise entitled De remediis fortuitorum which was thought to be by Seneca (but is now dismissed as spurious). While the content of Petrarch’s various remedies draw on a wide range of sources, the overall structure and aim is firmly Stoic (see further Panizza 1991).

The influence of Stoicism can also be seen in Petrarch’s Secretum, written in 1347. In this dialogue between Augustine (“Augustinus”) and Petrarch himself (“Franciscus”), Augustine takes the role of an older and wiser teacher who offers Petrarch a Christianized brand of Stoic-inspired psychotherapy. He argues that the younger Petrarch’s current unhappiness is ultimately his own fault but that it is also within his own power to escape from it. Augustine states that “virtue alone makes the mind happy” (Secretum I.3.1; Petrarch 2016, 16–17), and so we should not be disturbed by external events and objects, echoing fairly standard Stoic doctrine. He goes on to suggest that only a Stoic life in accord with reason will cure the young Petrarch of his current distress. Once again Petrarch the author draws on Cicero’s Tusculanae disputationes III.24–5 for the ensuing Stoic analysis of the emotions, which are presented as the principal impediment to a rational life.

Given that Augustine is the central character in the dialogue, reflecting his place as the preeminent influence on Petrarch, the discussion also includes a number of non-Stoic doctrines, where Petrarch carefully Christianizes his Stoicism: the soul, for instance, is said to be contaminated by the body (Secretum I.15.1; Petrarch 2016, 56–7) and must escape its grossness in order to ascend to heaven (Secretum I.8.3; Petrarch 2016, 34–5). The young Petrarch alludes to Augustine’s own doctrine of grace, claiming that he can hope for nothing from himself, only from God. While Augustine acknowledges the role of grace, he continues to insist that Petrarch’s troubles remain entirely within his own control (Secretum II.1.1; Petrarch 2016, 64–5). However, the final conclusion of the work owes more to Augustinianism than it does to Stoicism: the way for Petrarch to overcome his love for a woman (Laura) is ultimately not through Stoic rational psychotherapy but rather by replacing that passion with a healthier one, namely, the love of God (Secretum III.5.2; Petrarch 2016, 166–7).

In both De remediis utriusque fortunae and Secretum Petrarch drew heavily on Cicero; he was also an avid reader of Seneca. He admired Seneca’s writings but had doubts about the man, brought on in part by reading Suetonius’s life of Nero. In his letter addressed to Seneca (Familiares XXIV.5; Petrarch 2005, III:322–5), written in 1348, Petrarch praised Seneca as the greatest moral philosopher and claimed to read him every day. However he also questioned Seneca about his relationship with Nero and what Petrarch took to be various errors in judgement. Petrarch was disturbed by this mismatch between Seneca’s philosophy and his life, which, in the hands of harsher critics, might have been seen as hypocrisy (see further Ker 2009, 314–17).

While Petrarch’s works drew widely on the Latin sources for Stoicism available to him, he did not attempt to defend or champion Stoicism directly. By contrast, his contemporary and sometime Greek teacher Barlaam of Seminara (c. 1290–1348) wrote a short text outlining Stoic ethics and explicitly defending it from Peripatetic criticisms. Barlaam’s Ethica secundum Stoicos (Hogg 1997) can probably lay claim to being the earliest surviving example of Stoic scholarship. In it Barlaam claims to draw on a wide range of Stoic sources, although he does not name them.

The work is divided into two books. Book I responds to the question “what is happiness?” and locates it in virtue and virtuous actions, arguing against the Peripatetic view that happiness requires other things beyond virtue. Book II asks the question “in what things does happiness consist?” and argues that it consists in having one’s soul in a good condition, free from emotional disturbances. Here Barlaam argues against the Peripatetic doctrine of the moderation of emotions. It is within this context that he outlines a distinction between different degrees of emotional disturbance that may record an element of Stoic doctrine otherwise unknown (Hogg 1997, 9). It is possible that he may have had access to Stoic material now lost during his time in Constantinople. The ideal state of mind is constancy (constantia). This requires three things: true judgement about goods and evils, mental equability, and a beneficent will (Ethica II.5; Hogg 1997, 116). The worst possible state of mind happens when their three opposites are present: false judgement, mental darkness, and a maleficent will (Ethica II.7; Hogg 1997, 117). In between these extreme states, there are six further grades of emotional disturbance, formed by different combinations of the absence or presence of these three factors. Immediately after presenting this otherwise unknown material, Barlaam then presents the well-known account of four types of emotional disturbance recounted in Cicero (outlined earlier) and explains how these two accounts fit together. Barlaam’s treatise is relatively unknown but stands as one of the few technical discussions of Stoic ethical theory from this period.

A complex set of relationships with Stoicism can be found when turning to Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), a key figure in the development of Florentine humanism. Early in his intellectual development, Salutati adopted a broadly Stoic position inspired by his reading of Seneca. He knew both the prose works and the tragedies but thought they were the work of two different authors (Epistolario III.8; Salutati 1891–1911, I:150–55). In his letters, he commended a range of broadly Stoic ideas, even if he did not always mention the Stoics by name (Witt 1983, 63–5). In his most substantial work, De laboribus Herculis, inspired by Seneca’s Hercules Furens, Salutati openly championed Stoicism above all the other ancient philosophical schools for coming closest to true virtue (Salutati 1951, 1:311). Elsewhere he defines nobility as the product of virtue rather than high birth (Ullman 1963, 73), implicitly endorsing the Stoic claim that true goodness comes only from virtue and echoing the famous Stoic paradoxes discussed by Cicero.

Yet he was also sensitive to the need to qualify his admiration for Stoicism in the light of Christian teaching. Like Barlaam, Salutati identified the distinctively human good as a life guided by virtue. However, unlike Barlaam, he denied that this was completely within one’s control, suggesting in a letter of 1369 that a good life required not only virtue but also the grace of God (Epistolario II.18; Salutati 1891–1911, I:110). This moderate, Christianized brand of Stoicism echoes the views of Petrarch, with whom Salutati corresponded in the same year.

Later in life Salutati became critical of Stoicism, openly acknowledging the shift from his earlier views. After the death of his son in 1400, a well-meaning correspondent, Franceso Zabarella, sent a letter of consolation based on the Stoic principles which Salutati himself had previously embraced. But in the wake of bereavement, he no longer found these arguments convincing and responded with a lengthy attack on this attempt at Stoic consolation (Epistolario XII.4; Salutati 1891–1911, III:456–79; Kraye 1997, 179–91). He challenged the claim that because only virtue is good and vice is evil, death is not an evil. Although morally death is not evil, it remains a genuine evil because it is the privation of the goodness of life. Salutati draws on Aristotle for support, calling him “the prince of philosophers,” while castigating the “cold-heartedness and unattainable logic of the Stoics” (Salutati 1891–1911, III:463; Kraye 1997, 182). The various forms of Stoic philosophical consolation reported by Cicero do nothing to soothe the mind; only the passage of time can heal it. Salutati’s firsthand experiences of grief had taught him some hard lessons. His dismissal of Stoicism in this late letter appears to have been an attack primarily on the sort of Stoic therapeutics outlined by Cicero in the Tusculanae disputationes. Cicero was himself skeptical of the efficacy of the cold and technical way in which the early Stoics presented their views (Tusculanae disputationes IV.9; De finibus IV.7). Salutati’s earlier enthusiasm for Stoicism, by contrast, relied more on the rhetorical presentation of their ideas in Seneca, whom he had often praised as the greatest of moral philosophers (e.g., Epistoloraio II.2; Salutati 1891–1911, I:57, cf. Ullman 1963, 87).

In his admiration for Seneca, Salutati was by no means alone. Seneca’s reputation during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance was shaped in large part by Jerome’s judgement in his De viris illustribus, which was often reproduced in manuscripts containing Seneca’s works (Ker 2009, 182). Although brief, Jerome’s remarks implicitly affirm the authenticity of the correspondence between Seneca and St Paul and comment on the virtuous character of Seneca’s moderate life (continentissimae vitae fuit). Interest in Seneca’s life increased in the wake of Boccaccio’s discovery at Monte Cassino of a manuscript preserving the Annales of Tacitus; if Jerome had described Seneca as a pagan equivalent of St Paul, Tacitus presented his death as a heroic martyrdom on a par with that of Socrates. Boccaccio drew on both of these accounts in his commentary on Dante’s Divina Commedia, written in 1373–1374. There, Dante had placed Seneca in Limbo as an unbaptized pagan (Inferno IV.141). Boccaccio tried to rescue Seneca from this fate by arguing that the correspondence with St Paul suggested that the apostle saw Seneca as a Christian and that Jerome confirmed this judgement. The newly discovered testimony of Tacitus showed that Seneca’s death was not really suicide but an execution ordered by Nero, although one carried out by Seneca’s own hands. Not only that, the pool in which Seneca opened his veins became, on Boccaccio’s reading, a baptismal font in which Seneca was baptized before his death (Boccaccio 2009, 234–5). Thus, Seneca could be saved. A number of writers elaborated on these matters and wrote their own lives of Seneca, the most important of whom were Gasparino Barzizza, Sicco Polenton, Giannozzo Manetti, and Paolo Pompilio (Panizza 1977, 317; see further Panizza 1984).

The earliest of these, Gasparino Barzizza (1360–1431), wrote not only a biography of Seneca but also a commentary on the Epistulae morales and on the correspondence with St Paul. Although his commentaries on Seneca never made it into print, his biography was often included in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century editions of Seneca’s works, although shortened and either anonymously or mistakenly attributed to Polenton (Panizza 1977, 337). These works were the by-product of lecturing on Seneca at the University of Padua, sometime between 1407 and 1421. In his biography of the Stoic, Barzizza followed Boccaccio in claiming that Seneca was baptized moments before death but then went one step further by claiming that the mixture of Seneca’s own blood with the water constituted baptism by blood, i.e., martyrdom (Panizza 1977, 323–4). In the introduction to his commentary on the Epistulae morales, he praises Seneca as preeminent among ancient philosophers for guidance about how to put theory into practice (Barzizza 1977b, 352), comparing him with Socrates. Seneca’s moral philosophy offers both medicine for the soul and spiritual guidance which is second to that of no other ancient author (Barzizza 1977b, 352–3). Indeed, Seneca’s preeminence above all other Greek and Latin authors is precisely because his philosophy is focused on practical questions about how to live well (Barzizza 1977a, 349). Toward the end of his career, Barzizza shifted his attention to Cicero at the expense of Seneca, but this did not indicate a turn away from Stoicism conceived as a practical guide to life. Among other Ciceronian works, he lectured and wrote on De officiis and presented Cicero as a Stoic (Panizza 1977, 303–4).

In the case of Giannozzo Manetti (1396–1459), we find a life of Seneca paired with a life of Socrates, explicitly modelled on Plutarch’s parallel Greek and Roman lives (Manetti 2003, 166–7). For Manetti, Seneca is the prince of Latin philosophers (Manetti 2003, 164–5) and the greatest moral philosopher (Manetti 2003, 244–5). He was a friend of St Paul and the author of not only those works now attributed to Seneca but also a range of other writings since judged to be spurious (such as the De quattuor virtutibus, by Martin of Braga), as well as the rhetorical works by Seneca’s father. Manetti drew on a wide range of pagan and Christian authors for his biography, from Plutarch and Tacitus to Lactantius, Jerome, and Augustine. He explicitly presents Seneca as a Stoic, whose views he champions over those of the other philosophical schools, and he even suggests that Seneca was the master and leader (magister et princeps) of the Stoics (Manetti 2003, 266–7). Manetti also defended Seneca against criticisms of his behavior, such as his great wealth, by showing that possession of a mere “indifferent” does not contradict Stoic doctrine (Manetti 2003, 270–1). This focus on the practical value of Seneca’s philosophy alongside sustained defenses of his actions by Barzizza, Manetti, and others highlight the way in which many of those drawn to Stoicism in this period approached it, not as an abstract theoretical system but rather as a philosophical way of life. However, elsewhere Manetti was skeptical about the benefits of Stoic consolation (McClure 1991, 100–3).

Seneca’s fortunes were to change, however, in the wake of the much closer attention paid to his texts. For humanists such as Petrarch, Salutati, and Manetti, the name “Seneca” was associated with a collection of moral essays and letters, a whole series of shorter pieces including the correspondence with St Paul, rhetorical works, and a collection of tragedies. While some thought the moralist and tragedian were different people, it was some time before the rhetorical works were identified as the work of Seneca’s father. Central in all this was inevitably the question of the authenticity of the correspondence with St Paul. The first person to challenge its status was Leonello d’Este in the 1440s, probably inspired by the humanist Guarino Veronese. He may have been preempted by Lorenzo Valla in a now lost work written in the 1420s (Panizza 1977, 334–6).

Valla himself had little time for Stoicism. In his dialogue De voluptate (first completed 1431, expanded as De vero bono in 1433, and eventually re-titled De vero falsoque bono), he compared Stoic and Epicurean views regarding pleasure and virtue. Ultimately Valla opted for a Christianized form of hedonism, but along the way he outlined and criticized the Stoic position. Despite claiming to follow Nature, the Stoics attempted to reform it, by trying to overcome our completely natural emotions (Valla 1977, 72–3). Moreover, their remedies against misfortune fail to help. The antidote to grief is not resignation but rather a healthy dose of its opposites: delight, pleasure, and cheerfulness (Valla 1977, 140–1). Stoic virtue does not cultivate happiness; instead, like the head of Medusa, it turns people into marble. For Valla, pleasure and suffering are necessary parts of a human life, and Stoicism fails to accept this basic fact. Elsewhere, in his Retractatio totius dialecticae, Valla describes Stoic doctrine in terms which might commend it to a Christian reader: the sect held that the world was made by God for the sake of men and that human souls survive after death (Valla 2012 I:100–3). Both of these claims involve a partial reading of the ancient evidence, to say the least, and for Valla merely show that some of the time some pagan philosophers get some things right.

The humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459) is remembered for his long-running literary dispute with Valla. He also disagreed with Valla about the value of Stoicism. In his dialogue De vera nobilitate, composed around 1440, he has his friend Niccolò Niccoli champion the Stoic claim that true nobility derives from virtue rather than external goods (§69; Poggio 2002, 30). Stoic themes also appear in Poggio’s De varietate fortunae (1447) and De miseria humanae conditionis (1455). His friend, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), grappled with similar topics in his own dialogues, especially the way in which virtue might offer some kind of protection against the vicissitudes of fortune (Kircher 2012, 111–64). In this, both Poggio and Alberti followed Petrarch in turning to Stoicism and, in particular, Seneca for philosophical consolation (on Alberti see further Schöndube 2011).

Seneca was not the only Stoic whose works survived the end of antiquity. The gradual process of rediscovering Greek texts during this period brought to light a work by another Roman Stoic: the Enchiridion of Epictetus. This short text was translated into Latin by Niccolò Perotti (1429–1480), probably in 1450, and again later by Angelo Poliziano (1454–1494) in 1479. In both cases Epictetus was read in the light of the Neoplatonic commentary on the Enchiridion by Simplicius of Cilicia. Perotti translated the preface of Simplicius’s commentary alongside the Enchiridion and may have intended to translate the entire commentary by papal commission (Oliver 1954, 25). Poliziano made use of the commentary to supplement his defective Greek manuscripts of the Enchiridion and had significant recourse to it when interpreting the text as well. In both his dedicatory letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici and a letter in defense of Epictetus written to Bartolomeo Scala, Poliziano follows Simplicius in making a connection between Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Plato’s First Alcibiades. One of Scala’s criticisms of Epictetus and other Stoics, repeated in his Dialogus de consolatione, was that they denied the value of the body (Scala 2008, 94–5). Rather than challenge this claim, Poliziano follows Simplicius in arguing that, like Plato, Epictetus held that a human being essentially consists of a rational soul and that the body is merely an instrument of the soul. Poliziano goes on to draw a number of other parallels with Platonic doctrines concluding that although Epictetus does not state these himself, the Enchiridion takes them all as given. Throughout the letter Poliziano calls Epictetus a Stoic; but the aim of the letter as a whole is to show that this Stoic is in many respects a Platonist. As he puts it, “our Stoic fights boldly, using Platonic arguments as his shield” (Garin 1952, 924; Kraye 1997, 198). In short, someone committed to Platonism can comfortably embrace the Enchiridion, even though its author happened to be a Stoic. While both translators admired Epictetus (Perotti calls him nobilissimus philosophus; Oliver 1954, 68), neither had wider interests in Stoicism.

In one respect this interest in Epictetus expanded the range of Stoic material available to readers, adding a newly translated Greek Stoic text to the familiar Latin ones. However, in another respect it did not; for Epictetus was, like Seneca, a late Roman Stoic whose works focused on practical ethical guidance. It is true that readers of Cicero could learn much about Chrysippus and the doctrines of the Hellenistic Stoa, but a fuller picture of early Stoicism would require access to a much wider range of Greek doxographical sources. One person who had access to such sources was Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), who spent a number of years in Constantinople, became proficient in ancient Greek, and brought Greek manuscripts back to Italy. It has been suggested that his consolatory dialogue De exilio was modelled on Cicero’s Tusculanae disputationes and perhaps Seneca’s works of consolation (Filelfo 2013, ix). What is most striking, however, about Filelfo’s work is that his Stoics are not Seneca and Cicero, but rather Zeno and Chrysippus; and the Stoic doctrines which he discusses are ones that we now associate with the Greek founders of Stoicism rather than its later Roman exponents. Following his sources, he also tells us the titles of the works by Zeno and Chrysippus from which his quotations come. In fact, he follows his sources very closely, and a number of the passages where he discusses Stoic doctrine in detail are more or less translations of sections from Sextus Empiricus (cf. De exilio I.227–9 with Adversus mathematicos XI.190–4; De exilio 2.95–106 with Adversus mathematicos XI.22–38; De exilio III.23–6 with Adversus mathematicos XI.3–17). Filelfo supplements this heavy reliance on Sextus with material from Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch’s Moralia.

Given that the topic of the dialogue was exile, Filelfo was especially interested in the Stoic attitude toward external circumstances. This led him to recount the Stoic theory of “indifferents” (adiaphora) more than once (De exilio II.112–13; Filelfo 2013, 260, and De exilio III.23–5; Filelfo 2013, 324–6). The early Stoics (veteres Stoici) are aligned with followers of Christ (Christi imitatores), both being unconcerned with material goods. The (Stoic-Christian) wise man who possesses virtue wants for nothing, and so is always serene in the face of the vicissitudes of fortune (De exilio III.69–70; Filelfo 2013, 362). Filelfo draws on Stoic, Cynic, and Christian praise of poverty as part of a polemic against the material excesses of the Medici.

It was relatively easy for authors like Filelfo to point to common ground between Stoic ethics and Christian teaching. It was much harder, however, to reconcile Stoic physics and metaphysics with the doctrines of the Church, a point noted by Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) in the opening chapter of his Theologia Platonica (Ficino 2001–2006). Ficino’s project in this work was to demonstrate, by the use of reason, the immortality of the soul, belief in which he took to be foundational for human happiness. His broadly Neoplatonic metaphysics involved a hierarchy of five levels of being: body, quality, soul, angel, and God, with the human soul located at the center and holding nature together (Theologia Platonica I.1; Ficino 2001–2006, I:16–17). The ancient atomists limited themselves to belief in just the first of these levels. The Stoics and Cynics do a little better by acknowledging the existence of an active quality or power within nature, reaching the second level, but they too fail to admit the existence of an immutable human soul (Theologia Platonica I.1; Ficino 2001–2006, I:14–15; cf. II:124–5). The Stoic soul, immanent within matter, is subject to division and change and as such is irredeemably corrupted (Theologia Platonica I.3; Ficino 2001–2006, I:28–9). The Stoics also identify this soul within nature with God, a claim that Ficino rejects because it makes God dependent on the matter that he supposedly permeates (Theologia Platonica IV.1; Ficino 2001–2006, I:258–9). Although Ficino’s remarks on Stoicism are brief, they are important because they form one of the first attempts to articulate the fundamental incompatibility between Stoic and Platonic-Christian metaphysics.

Ficino’s Platonist attempt to demonstrate the immortality of the soul on rational grounds was challenged a few decades later by the Aristotelian Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525), who argued in his De immortalitate animae that it was impossible to offer such a proof. Although Pomponazzi was a committed Aristotelian, he also made use of Stoic arguments. In response to the concern that denial of the immortality of the soul would remove the possibility of postmortem punishment and so undermine virtuous behavior, he argued along Stoic lines that virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment (De immortalitate animae 14; Pomponazzi 2012, 180–1). He also pointed to Seneca as an example of someone who held the soul to be mortal while remaining morally upright, motivated by the Stoic doctrine that “virtue alone is happiness, and vice misery,” and pursuing only those external goods which serve virtue, while avoiding those which hinder it (De immortalitate animae 14; Pomponazzi 2012, 202–5). In a later work Pomponazzi was more explicit, stating that there is nothing disadvantageous to agreeing with the Stoics that the soul is mortal (Pomponazzi 2004, II:892–5).

The contrast between the views of Ficino and Pomponazzi is worth underlining and offers a window into wider debates about Stoicism both then and since. For Ficino, Stoicism is compromised by its metaphysics because human happiness ultimately depends on the existence of an immortal soul. For Pomponazzi, by contrast, Stoic ethics stands autonomously and remains attractive independent of one’s view about the nature of the soul. Not only that, the fact that it is possible to combine this with belief in the mortality of the soul shows that Stoic materialism and other positions like it ought not to be rejected simply on moral grounds. On this Pomponazzi prefigures later debates about the possibility of a virtuous atheist. With regard to Stoicism, both philosophers present opening positions in what was to become a long-running debate about the interdependence of ethics and physics in the Stoic system.

Elsewhere Pomponazzi himself engaged with other parts of the system. In his De fato, de libero arbitrio et de praedestinatione (published posthumously in 1567), he defended Stoic determinism against the criticisms of the ancient Peripatetic Alexander of Aphrodisias, arguing that the Stoic theory was more consistent and coherent than either the Aristotelian position or the Christian doctrine of divine providence (Pomponazzi 2004, 1:414–17; with Kraye 2016). His use of material from a Greek Aristotelian commentator like Alexander (even though in a Latin translation by Gerolamo Bagolino, 1516) marked a step forward in the recovery of ancient sources of information about Stoic doctrine.

Despite these small advances, in the early sixteenth century, Seneca remained the most famous of the Stoics and a key point of reference. Works of his had already been printed over 70 times by 1501 (Goff 1964: 555–8). A number of figures engaged with his works in various ways, producing editions and writing commentaries. The most important of these were Erasmus, Calvin, and Lipsius, although Celio Secondo Curione and Marc-Antoine Muret might also be noted.

Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1467–1536) edited Seneca’s works twice, in 1515 and 1529. Unhappy with his work the first time around (or, to be more precise, the work of his collaborator), he decided to prepare a second edition (Erasmus 1906–1958, VIII:26–7). This did not, however, indicate unconditional admiration for his subject. Although he was drawn to Seneca by the value he placed on Jerome’s endorsement (Erasmus 1906–1958, II:53), Erasmus had no desire to save Seneca in the way that Boccaccio and Barzizza had tried to do. Seneca was not a Christian and ought not to be read as if he were one. Notwithstanding Jerome’s view, Erasmus rejected the authenticity of the correspondence with St Paul, based in part on a stylistic comparison with Seneca’s other works. It was still included in both of his editions of Seneca but with a preface discussing its dubious status added in 1529 (Erasmus 1906–1958, VIII:40–1). The earlier Renaissance image of a Christianized Seneca was no longer tenable, and this inevitably had an impact on the wider reception of Stoicism.

In his own works, Erasmus had no qualms about criticizing Stoic doctrine and the idealized image of the Stoic sage. In Praise of Folly (written in 1509, publ. 1511), for instance, he ridiculed the Stoic’s negative attitude toward the emotions, suggesting instead that emotions can act as guides and incentives to morally good behavior. The image of the Stoic sage is “a kind of marble statue of a man, devoid of sense and any sort of human feeling” (Erasmus 1979, 106). Although there remained valuable moral guidance in the works of a Stoic like Seneca, it was important to reject those doctrines which conflicted with Christian teaching. Erasmus’s contribution to the reception of Stoicism in this period was effectively to unpick the attempts by some Italian humanists to smooth over the differences between Stoic and Christian thought. This formed an important step forward toward the recovery of ancient Stoicism on its own terms.

A similar move can be seen in the work of Jean Calvin (1509–1564), although this time more concerned with Stoic physics rather than its ethics. Calvin’s intellectual career began with an edition of and commentary on Seneca’s De clementia, published in 1532. In his preface, he defended both Seneca’s style and his philosophy from his recent critics. In the realm of ethics, Seneca reigns supreme (potissimum regnat); in Roman philosophy and literature, he stands second only to Cicero; and reading his works gives one both profit and delight (Calvin 1969, 10–13). However, Calvin’s most important engagements with Stoicism came later, and the topic of Stoic fate preoccupied him throughout his subsequent works. In particular, he repeatedly distanced his own view of divine providence from the Stoic position in order to undermine the charge that he himself was a Stoic. Calvin argued in the Institutio Christianae religionis that his own doctrine differed from Stoicism in that he did not share the Stoic view that there existed a necessity in nature connecting all things (Calvin 1539, 265). Instead he insisted that God was master of all natural events. In fact, this view differed little from Seneca’s own position (cf. De beneficiis VI.23.1), especially as interpreted by Augustine (in De civitate Dei V.8). This is especially clear in his De aeterna Dei praedestinatione of 1552, where Calvin repeats the view of Seneca that God “always wills the same thing, and this is the praise of his constancy” (Calvin 1552, 934). His repeated polemics against Stoic fate were necessary precisely because his own position was so close to theirs (although on other topics, such as the emotions, he was more critical; see, e.g., Institutio Christianae religionis III.8.9; Calvin 1961, 708–11). His argument was not so much with Stoicism as it was with a contemporary image of the Stoics which downplayed their commitment to divine providence. Either way, Calvin’s contribution to these debates about Stoic physics and theology, focused on precise differences between Stoicism and various forms of Christian doctrine, marked another step toward grasping Stoicism on its own terms.

These debates about the relationship between Stoicism and Christianity and about the precise nature of Stoic fate were to become important themes in the work of Justus Lipsius (1547–1606). Like Erasmus and Calvin, Lipsius is also remembered for his editorial work on Seneca. In his case, however, it came at the very end of his career and stood as a final monument to a long-standing fascination with Stoicism. Lipsius was one of the few people during the Renaissance (or any other period since antiquity) to identify himself openly as a Stoic. Yet he also remained a Christian and grappled with the ongoing issue of the extent to which the two worldviews might be reconciled. He first tackled this in his De constantia, published in 1584. This consolatory dialogue drew on Stoic material to offer remedies for emotional disturbances caused by external events. It opens with the Stoic claim that human suffering is ultimately the product of our judgements rather than external events. It goes on to offer arguments against the existence of external evils: they are imposed by God; they are the product of necessity and fate; they, in fact, benefit us; and they are neither grievous nor unusual (Lipsius 1584, 38). Much of this draws inspiration from Seneca, especially the claim that apparently evil events are, in fact, good for us, which repeats a line of argument developed in Seneca’s De providentia. The most philosophically significant part of Lipsius’s dialogue is the discussion of fate, in which he both drew on and distanced himself from the Stoic theory of fate, just as Calvin had done half a century earlier. Lipsius’s explicit line is that Stoic fate ought to be modified in the light of Christian doctrine before it can be embraced. The problem with the Stoic position is that it subordinates God to fate, insists on an eternal succession of natural causes, denies contingency, and inflicts a violent force on our will (Lipsius 1584, 65). However, the details of Lipsius’s account suggest that he thought there was no great dispute between the Stoic and Christian views of fate and that the Stoic position could be embraced unaltered (Sellars 2014, 657–63).

Twenty years later, in 1604, Lipsius revisited the topic, and this time was unequivocal in his embrace of Stoic fate. Central to the discussion was a problematic passage in Seneca’s De providentia (5.8) which seemed to imply that God was himself bound by fate. Drawing on other passages in Seneca, along with the authoritative judgement of Augustine, Lipsius argued that the Stoics do not subordinate God to fate; rather, fate is the expression of God’s will. And if fate is inevitable even for God, it is only because his perfection means he never changes his mind (Lipsius 1604b, 31–2). Although Seneca is sometimes clumsy in the way he expresses this, there is nothing in the Stoic theory which requires modification. Any apparent conflict is, as Augustine put it, merely a verbal difference (De civitate Dei V.8).

This second, more decisive, discussion of Stoic fate appeared in Lipsius’s Physiologia Stoicorum, printed in 1604, and one of a pair of volumes devoted to Stoicism published that year. The Physiologia Stoicorum and its companion the Manuductio ad Stoicam philosophiam (Lipsius 1604a, b) were both conceived as aids to the study of Seneca, whose complete works Lipsius was editing at the same time (and published a year later in 1605). In these two volumes, he gathered together the ancient evidence for Stoicism from a wide range of Greek and Latin sources, arranged it by topic, and added his own interpretive commentary (see further Saunders 1955). It was in these two books that for the very first time a reader could access more or less all the ancient evidence for Stoicism as a philosophical system in one place. This marked a watershed in the recovery of ancient Stoicism in the Renaissance.

All of Lipsius’s works were written in Latin and intended for scholars. At the same time that he was preparing these, other writers attracted to Stoicism were among the first to present Stoic ideas in the vernacular. One of the earliest of these was Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), who was an avid reader both of works by Roman Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus) and of texts which were rich sources of information about early Stoicism (Cicero, Plutarch). His reading of Stoic material was certainly an important influence on him, but he never became an advocate of Stoicism as Lipsius had been. Even so, the impact of Stoicism can be seen throughout his Essais. In Essai I.14, for instance, he took as his theme the saying of Epictetus that people are troubled not by things but by their judgements about things (Enchiridion 5). He argued in support of the Stoic claim that death, pain, and poverty are not evils in themselves by appealing to the diversity of human opinion on these topics: some people embrace death or pain for the sake of a higher ideal; some people are happier without riches than they are with them, including himself. Although he briefly granted the Epicurean claim that pain is the worst thing which can happen to someone, he went on to qualify this by saying that the only reason we think this is because we overvalue the body and neglect the importance of the soul when assessing our well-being (de Montaigne 1962, 56–7). He cited with approval from Cicero’s account of the Stoic theory of emotions in the Tusculanae disputationes (III.71) the claim that grief lies not in nature but in our opinion (de Montaigne 1962, 61). When denying the value of riches, he quoted from Seneca (Epistulae LXXIV.4) while also drawing on his own experience. His conclusion presented a straightforwardly Stoic view: each person’s ease or indigence (l’aisance et l’indigence) depends on their opinion. External goods such as health, fame, and wealth only have the value we give to them. Fortune does us neither harm nor good, and it is our soul that is the only cause of our happiness or unhappiness (de Montaigne 1962, 67). Although Stoicism is never mentioned by name in his discussion, he knowingly drew on Stoic texts in order to develop his argument. However, the final arbiter for Montaigne here and elsewhere is how well something accords with his own experience. He presented Stoic ideas with approval only to the extent that they agreed with his own.

The Frenchman Guillaume du Vair (1556–1621) stood somewhere in between Lipsius and Montaigne. He shared with Lipsius a philosophical commitment to Stoicism, with Epictetus taking the place of Seneca as the major influence. Like Montaigne, he wrote in the vernacular; and he translated Epictetus’s Enchiridion into French for the first time (1585, published 1591). His work De la constance et consolation es calamitez publiques, published in 1594, offered a vernacular counterpart to Lipsius’s De constantia. In the present context, his most important work was his Philosophie morale des Stoïques of 1585. This work, Du Vair says in the opening letter to the reader, was his attempt to present the same material as in his translation of Epictetus but taken to pieces and rearranged in a more systematic fashion (Du Vair 1945, 61). The result is more organized but far from technical; and Du Vair runs through the central doctrines of Stoic ethics concerning the role of external goods, the emotions, and the importance of living in accordance with reason, virtue, and nature.

Modern scholars have often labelled the revival of Stoicism in this period “Neostoicism,” in order to indicate the ways in which it differs from ancient Stoicism (see, e.g., Oestreich (1982); Morford (1991); Lagrée (2010)). It is often claimed that “Neostoicism” differs from “Stoicism” by involving various amendments to Stoic doctrine intended to make it acceptable to a Christian audience. The founder of “Neostoicism,” on this account, was Lipsius. Yet, as we have seen, Christianized versions of Stoicism were commonplace well before Lipsius, and the details of his account of Stoicism are on the whole faithful to the ancient Stoa. Even so the label is well established and is often applied to Lipsius, Du Vair, and a number of others indebted to Stoicism in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Lagrée 2010, 20–1). Among these one might mention Pierre Charron (1541–1603), Francisco de Quevedo (1580–1645), and Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). These Neostoics all drew on and adapted Stoic ideas within a broadly Christian context just as others had done in the preceding centuries. If there was a difference, it was simply a reflection of the quite different cultural contexts in which early and late Renaissance readers of Stoicism were working: late fourteenth-century Italy was not the same as early seventeenth-century Northern Europe.

Impact and Legacy

Lipsius’s Stoic handbooks were published in 1604, followed by his edition of Seneca in 1605; he died the following year. That decade also saw the publication of a number of other early works of Stoic scholarship. In Poland, Adam Bursius produced a comprehensive study of Stoic epistemology and logic in his Dialectica Ciceronis…maxime ex Stoicorum sententia (Bursius 1604). In it he covered topics from the definition of logic and its place in the Stoic system, through epistemology (aisthêsis, katalêpsis, sunkatathêsis), to modal logic and Stoic syllogisms. Although presented as a commentary on passages from Cicero, Bursius made full use of a wide range of Greek and Latin sources in his discussion, including Diogenes Laertius, Plutarch, Galen, and the Greek commentators on Aristotle. Bursius’s volume formed a natural complement to Lipsius’s handbooks on Stoic ethics and physics published in the same year, although it was probably far less well known. In the following year, Isaac Casaubon published his celebrated edition of the Stoic poet Persius (Casaubon 1605) which included a vast commentary discussing many aspects of Stoic doctrine. Caspar Scioppius’s Elementa philosophiae Stoicae moralis (Scioppius 1606) was printed the year after. Scioppius, a German humanist who corresponded with Lipsius, argued for the educational benefits of Stoic moral philosophy, in an attempt to reform Catholic education and, in particular, to challenge the Jesuits’ Aristotelian curriculum. Echoing Petrarch, he contrasted Aristotelian moral theory, which merely teaches what goodness is, with Stoic practical philosophy, which trains people to become good. Stoic philosophy is not contemplative but rather, like music and medicine, is an art which must be put into practice. As such, mastery of this art will require not only the study of philosophical doctrines but also mental exercises (Scioppius 1606, 18r). He also claimed that Stoicism was, in fact, more compatible than Aristotelian doctrine with Christianity. For these reasons, Stoicism ought to be preferred over Aristotle when looking for a foundation for a moral education (see further Kraye 2008). Just a few years later, Daniel Heinsius praised Stoicism in his oration “De Stoica philosophia” (Heinsius 1612, 131–92). This text was not really a contribution to Stoic scholarship but rather simply an exhortation to Stoic wisdom. Nevertheless, it reflected the increased interest in Stoicism at the beginning of the seventeenth century (Santinello 1993, 131). By this time, then, all the relevant Greek and Latin sources for Stoicism were available in print, and there was a small but expanding body of secondary literature offering readers a guide through the intricacies of the Stoic system. At the same time, the popularity of works by Lipsius, Du Vair, and Montaigne continued to remind readers that Stoicism also offered very practical guidance about how to live.

The most important legacy of the Renaissance interest in and recovery of Stoicism was the confirmation that Stoic philosophy and Christian doctrine were ultimately incompatible. The foundations for this were laid by philological work on the texts of Seneca by many hands, eventually separating out Seneca from his father, identifying the moralist with the tragedian, and dismissing a whole range of minor works as spurious. Most important was the rejection of the supposed correspondence between Seneca and St Paul. The recovery of ancient biographical accounts of Seneca which were not always flattering challenged the medieval image of Seneca as a proto-Christian saint. The matter was finally brought to a head, however, by a shift in focus from the later Roman Stoic moralists to the doctrines of the Athenian Stoics Zeno and Chrysippus. With all the available evidence more or less to hand, increasingly sifted and sorted, it became clear to readers that despite all the talk of God and providence, the Athenian Stoics were, like their contemporaries the Epicureans, materialists. When they spoke of God, they simply meant Nature. Although they talked about providence, this was simply another name for mechanical fate. As the seventeenth century progressed, “Stoic” became a term of abuse used against philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (by Bramhall; see Bramhall and Hobbes 1656, 195) and Spinoza (by Vico 1744, 1:116). Earlier concerns also persisted: philosophers drawing on the Augustinian tradition such as Blaise Pascal and Nicolas Malebranche were highly critical of Stoicism, attacking Epictetus and Seneca respectively for claiming that human happiness is within the power of the individual, without the grace of God. By the eighteenth century, Stoicism had become a form of atheism (Brooke 2012, 127–48) and an example of modern paganism (Gay 1966, 295–304). The great Enlightenment philosophe Denis Diderot admired both Seneca for his pagan virtue and Stoicism for its materialism and atheism. All of this would have been impossible without the philological labors and philosophical debates that took place during the Renaissance.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyKing’s College LondonLondonUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jill Kraye
    • 1