Philosophy in a time of tribulation – Part 1

'About Fortitude in General Disaster ' by Justus Lipsius

Philosophy in a time of tribulation – Part 1

Keep your distance! 

Hold on and be steadfast!

Do not travel unnecessarily! 

Obey the quarantine rules! 

Stay healthy and safe!

 These are slogans we have been facing over and over again during this time of crisis.  But is there anything new under the sun?

Our ancestors from the past also lived in a world that was regularly visited by many disastrous and fearsome epidemics; leprosy, the plague, dysentery, smallpox, to name a few.  They also endured shutdowns of communities, public inns, markets etc, and restricted travel, whenever such epidemics broke out.  When a leper for instance, walked the streets, he did not carry a mobile phone with an app, but was identified by having to wear a special cloak and hood.  Then others were warned to keep some distance, which was certainly not restricted to one and a half meters.

As a safety measure, there were rules such as those imposed on the crews of ships returning from a distant voyage, not allowing them to disembark for a few days to ensure they did not bring unwanted diseases back with them.  In Venice Italy, this was a mandatory 40 days, a quaranta, from which originated the word ‘quarantine’.  Forty was also a significant spiritual number associated with the idea of reflection, solitude, as for instance when Jesus spent forty days in the desert, as well as being a number signifying the fullness of experience that ushers in a new spiritual life.

During his turbulent life, the Dutch scholar Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), wrote a book entitled About Fortitude in General Disaster  [2], in which he talked about staying in harmony with oneself during times of crisis.  This book has remained in print in Europe ever since, and is once again showing its relevance due to its content.  Lipsius often refers back to the stoicism of the ancient philosophers who preached the practice of neutrality and fortitude amidst the vicissitudes of life such as illness and disaster.

Keep your distance:  For Lipsius, this was keeping an ‘inner’ distance from your own primary feelings, realizing what you can or cannot change, and acting in accordance with that awareness in peace, resignation and non reaction.

Steadfastness:  In the view of Lipsius, steadfastness is a correct and essential spiritual attitude necessary to confront positively every possible calamity created by external or accidental circumstances, as it will safeguard the individual from falling into overconfidence or depression.

The true mother of fortitude is resignation and humility; that is to endure without complaint what happens or overtakes a person. Supported by proper judgment, it is the only ground in which the sublime tree of fortitude is rooted.

Do not travel unnecessarily:  Travel is counterproductive.  According to Lipsius:

Mental illness does not diminish by travelling, but makes it worse.  It is the spirit in us that is sick, and for that one has to find a cure through philosophy and fortitude.  (…)  Do you want to change the land and the air?  Rather, change your inner self, which you have subjected to your passions that have then withdrawn you from the lawful authority of reason.  Change mentally, not by locality, and make sure you are different and not elsewhere.

Yes Lipsius was a great stylist.  His book deserves to be on many a bedside table again, if only to save that beautiful word ‘tribulation’ from oblivion.

Stay healthy:  Lipsius does not directly refer to this phrase, but rather implies it as an expedient wish, as a resultant imperative.  Pythagoras also addressed this concept on a deeper dimension.  For the students of his mystery school in Crotone, ‘stay healthy’ was a greeting given at every meeting, whose  inner meaning was –

take every moment of the day to remember that you are of divine origin.

Stay healthy, dear reader.


To be continued in part 2



[1] This column was published in the journal LOGON Netherlands year 1, 2020, nr. 3, 41

[2] Justus Lipsius, Over standvastigheid bij algemene rampspoed, Baarn 1983




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Date: November 27, 2020
Author: Dick van Niekerk (Netherlands)
Photo: Olga Boiarkina

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