Triumph of the Will (or, Everything Old Is New Again)


In the New Yorker this week, Jonah Lehrer writes about a psychological study suggesting that self control, or the ability to delay gratification, more strongly correlates with long-term success than intelligence, and that we’d do well to inculcate this trait in children. Some of the more progressive schools in the country, public and private, are working to do this, but it’s tough going. Our consumer culture seems to be ever pushing us to instantly fulfill even our smallest desires. It wasn’t always thus. Reading the article I could not help but think back to Peter Paul Rubens, whose Jesuit education was very much directed at instilling intellectual discipline. Although the Baroque is commonly understood as a time of extraordinary excess (and no painter was more excessive than Rubens), for the most part that excess was reserved for those at the very top of the social pyramid. For everyone else—that is, those subject to royal excess—it was a period of intellectual stoicism. Wars were fought on whim. Harvests ran thin. People died young. It was a tough, bitter world, and popular philosophy was aimed at helping people cope. The foremost thinker of the era was Justus Lipsius, a man largely forgotten today, who advocated a form of stoicism—”constancy” was his term—in the face of adversity. Rubens admired him enormously, and had a close personal connection; his older brother, Philip, was Lipsius’s protege. In the image above, Philip, holding a pen, sits at a table next to his stone-faced mentor, with a bust of Seneca, their stoic forebear, in a niche above. Rubens himself stands at the left—a rare self-portrait. The fourth man is Jan van den Wouvere, another Lipsius acolyte, and close friend to the Rubens brothers. This was a memorial portrait; both Lipsius and Philip Rubens were recently deceased, which accounts for the dour face on the painter. I suspect he would have scored quite highly in the study that is Lehrer’s subject, for Rubens was a man of immense will power, and this certainly contributed to his considerable success not just as a painter but as a businessman and diplomat. Rubens was expert at delaying his personal satisfaction, but even better at giving it to others.

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