In his Politica (1589), Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) presents his political philosophy as a carefully constructed cento, ostensibly addressed to emperors, kings, and princes but, in reality, to other learned humanists who could activate the associations and deliberate on the alluded context. This essay focuses on Lipsius' allusions to Lucretius in his controversial fourth book. Approaching the Politica from this rhetorical strategy reveals Lipsius' engagement with controversial ideas that argue for a justification of power and law from utility and contract rather than from reason or nature.
Scholars have struggled to find a 'systematic strategy of interpretation' (Waszink 1997: 255, Moss 1998) behind the density of allusions in Lipsius' Politica; they have attempted to untangle Lipsius' voice from his 'patchwork' of classical authors, to attribute new meaning to the recontextualized quotations in Lipsius' political theory, or to read the many quotations as a mere compilation of extracts that showcase his learnedness and give authority to his assertions. While ambiguity of meaning lay Lipsius open to criticism from his contemporaries, like Dirck Coornhert, who did not understand the medical context of Lipsius' use of ure, seca, "burn and cut off" (Politica 4.4, Cicero Philippics 8.5.15) and instead accused Lipsius of endorsing the ideology and methods of the Spanish regime, nevertheless, his true audience, those 'learned in Latin' (sermonis Latini bene peritus) would recognize his allusions and contemplate their implications. For some of his more radical ideas, Lipsius could disavow its association and implied meaning if necessary.
Lipsius makes four allusions to Lucretius' De rerum natura (DRN) in Politica 4 (4.1, 4.12, twice in 4.13). Book Four contains the most radical ideas of Lipsius' philosophy, as it breaks from the theory of virtue and prudence set out in the previous books to discuss 'proper prudence,' which is not tied to precepts or certain rules but to the experience and practice of government, and it is in book four where Lipsius defends Machiavelli against his detractors (4.13). Two of Lipsius' allusions to Lucretius are from the anthropology in DRN 5 (1136-37, 1233-35). Both quotations are in contexts that reaffirm Lipsius' belief in the hidden nature of causes and the flawed nature of humanity (4.1, 4.12). Interestingly, Lipsius' last two allusions are to Lucretius' rhetorical strategy of using the honey-rimmed cup to administer his bitter philosophy (DRN 1.939, 941), which Lipsius employs in the context of justifying deceit to accomplish a good end (4.13). All of the allusions to Lucretius can be read without knowledge of their contexts in the flow of Lipsius' exposition, but knowledge of their contexts throws his political philosophy in a more subversive light (Wilson 2016: 259-61, cf. Waszink 1997).
Imagining the Future through the Past: Classical and Early Modern Political Thought