Guillaume du Vair

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Guillaume du Vair (March 7, 1556 – August 3, 1621) was a French author and lawyer who popularized Stoicism during the Enlightenment. After taking holy orders, he worked as a legal functionary for most of his career, serving in a number of important government posts, and in 1616, becoming Lord Chancellor and Bishop of Lisieux. A supporter of Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV), he made his name as an orator with such speeches as Exhortation à la paix (An Exhortation to Peace, 1592).

Guillaume du Vair’s influential treatises on religion and philosophy were strongly influenced by Stoicism. His writings include the treatises De la Sainte Philosophie (Sacred Philosophy) and De la Philosophie morale des Stoïques (The Moral Philosophy of the Stoics), translations of Epictetus and Demosthenes, and the Traité de la constance et consolation ès calamités publiques (1593; translated into English as A Buckler against Adversitie in 1622), which applied the philosophy of Stoicism to the Christian faith. His doctrines were adopted by François de Malherbe and other philosophers such as Pierre Charron and Blaise Pascal.


Guillaume du Vair was born March 7, 1556, in Paris. After taking holy orders, he worked as a legal functionary for most of his career. However, from 1617 till his death he was Bishop of Lisieux. His earned his reputation as a lawyer, a statesman and a man of letters. In 1584, he became counsellor of the parlement of Paris, and as deputy for Paris to the Estates of the League he pronounced his most famous politico-legal discourse, an argument nominally for the Salic law, but in reality directed against the alienation of the crown of France to the Spanish infanta, which was advocated by the extreme Leaguers. King Henry IV of France acknowledged his services by entrusting him with a special commission as magistrate at Marseille, and made him master of requests.

In 1595, Vair published his treatise De l'éloquence française et des raisons pour quoi elle est demeurée si basse (French Eloquence and the Reasons Why It Has Become So Abased) in which he criticized the orators of his day, adding examples from the speeches of ancient orators, in translations which reproduced the spirit of the originals. He was sent to England in 1596 with the marshal de Bouillon to negotiate an alliance against Spain; in 1599 he became first president of the parlement of Provence (Aix-en-Provence); and in 1603 was appointed to the sea of Marseille, which he soon resigned in order to resume the presidency. In 1616 he received the highest promotion open to a French lawyer and became keeper of the seals. He died August 3, 1621, at Tonneins (Lot-et-Garonne).

Thought and Works

Background: Modern Stoicism

Stoicism, which had influenced the early development of Christian doctrines and institutions, was restricted during the Middle Ages mostly to the resolution of social and political problems. During the Renaissance, a renewed appreciation for the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome brought about a re-emergence of Stoic thought in logic, epistemology and metaphysics, as well as a more profound exploration of Stoic ethical and political doctrines. Justus Lipsius (1547 – 1606), a Flemish scholar and Latin humanist, produced the first restatement of Stoicism as a Christian philosophy. His treatises De constantia (1584), Politicorum sive civilis doctrinae libri V (1589), Manuductio ad Stoicam Philosophiam (1604), and Physiologia Stoicorum (1604) were well known, and considerably influenced the development of Renaissance thought.

Guillaume du Vair’s influential treatises on religion and philosophy were strongly influenced by Stoicism, and helped to make Stoic moral philosophy popular. Stoic themes were evident in Pierre Charron’s (1541 – 1603), De la sagesse (1601; Eng. trans., Of Wisdome, 1608); and in the Essais (1580; Eng. trans. 1603) of the Skeptic Michel de Montaigne. The writings of Lipsius influenced Francis Bacon’s philosophy of science, and the political theories of Charles-Louis, baron de Montesquieu (De l'esprit des lois, 1748; Eng. trans., The Spirit of Laws, 1750).

Du Vair and Stoicism

Like other political lawyers of the time, Du Vair studied philosophy. He first came to prominence with his oration on the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, and was highly regarded both as a speaker and a writer. A supporter of Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV), he made his name as an orator with such speeches as Exhortation à la paix (An Exhortation to Peace, 1592).

Philosophers such as Justus Lipsius had already attempted to amalgamate Christian and Stoic ethics, but du Vair undoubtedly played an important role in disseminating Stoic ideas. The most famous of his treatises are La Philosophie morale des Stoiques (The Moral Philosophy of the Stoics), translated into English (1664) by Charles Cotton; De la constance et consolation ès calamités publiques (1593; “On Constancy and Consolation in Public Calamities,” Eng. trans. A Buckler, Against Adversitie, 1622), which was composed during the siege of Paris in 1589, and applied the Stoic doctrine to present misfortunes; and La Sainte Philosophie (Sacred Philosophy), in which religion and philosophy are intimately connected.

His other writings include translations of Epictetus and Demosthenes. In his important work De la constance et consolation ès calamités publiques (1593) he applied the philosophy of Stoicism to the Christian faith in a manner which was very appealing in those troubled times.

Pierre Charron drew freely on these and other works of Du Vair. Ferdinand Brunetière points out the analogy of Du Vair's position with that afterwards developed by Blaise Pascal, and sees in him the ancestor of Jansenism. The French moraliste tradition of the seventeenth century drew heavily from his thought.

Du Vair had a great indirect influence on the development of style in French, for in the south of France he made the acquaintance of François de Malherbe, who conceived a great admiration for Du Vair's writings. The reformer of French poetry learned much from the treatise De l'éloquence française, to which the counsels of his friend were no doubt added.

Du Vair's works were published in folio at Paris in 1641. A number of his philosophical works were translated into English during the seventeenth century.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Du Vair, Guillaume, and G. Michaut. 1945. De la sainte philosophie. Philosophie morale des stoïques. Paris: J. Vrin.
  • Du Vair, Guillaume. 1951. The moral philosophie of the Stoicks. Rutgers University studies in English, no. 8. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
  • Radouant, René. 1970. Guillaume Du Vair; l'homme et l'orateur, jusqu'a la fin des troubles de la ligue, 1556-1596. Genéve: Slatkine Reprints.
  • Sapey, Charles Alexandre. 1971. Etudes biographiques pour servir á l'histoire de l'ancienne magistrature française Guillaume du Vair, Antoine le Maistre. Genève, Slatkine Reprints.
  • Schneewind, J. B. 1990. Moral philosophy from Montaigne to Kant an anthology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521353610
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved July 18, 2017.

General Philosophy Sources


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