Seneca’s Religious Foundation.
Before we begin, we will present the reader with the dismissive judgments passed by a newer school of history on Stoicism, the starting point of Seneca, for examination.
1. Recent judgments on Stoicism.
One of the signs of the impending imperialism that dominates our present time is a fraction of historiography that devotes itself to glorifying the founder of classical imperialism with a kind of emotional fervor. The distance that Caesar’s contemporaries kept from him and his work serves as the standard by which the extent and value of their judgmental power is measured for this historiography. Devotion or resistance determines the judgment of supporters or opponents. The historian becomes an advocate for an institution and argues the case of their ideal with the irritability of an official defender.
Thus, in Mommsen’s “Roman History,” which began the literature of this kind when the newer imperialism received a boost from the year 1848, Cato was dismissed with the epithet of a “stubborn and half-mad” man. Since the dagger, with which Cato sought to save himself from Caesarism and whose point threatened the heads of the dictator’s successors, was consecrated by the wisdom of the Stoics, they too get their share of criticism, and they appear in the aforementioned work as “the grandiloquent and tedious Roman Pharisees.” Their moral preaching is reduced to “terminological babble,” and their principles of life are reduced to “hollow concepts.”
In the mildest terms, we might call this language the language of first enthusiasm, with which the discoverer of a new aspect of a person or institution seeks to protect it from desecration. However, German literature has already produced a brilliant explanation of the laws that determined the transition of the Roman Republic to autocracy. We recall the stimulating discussions that Friedrich Buchholz published in his “Philosophical Investigations on the Romans” (Journal for Germany, volumes 5 and 6, Berlin 1816), particularly in the sections on civil wars and on Augustus and Tiberius, under the influence of Napoleon’s dictatorship. Buchholz provided a very fine example of his understanding of Roman Caesarism in his explanation of the tragic suicide of Coccejus Nerva, the chancellor and friend of Tiberius (New Monthly Magazine for Germany, volume 5, Berlin 1821).
After such sober and fundamental preliminary work, the excitement with which Mommsen treats the opponents of the Roman dictatorship, which was only maintained through the Praetorian weapons for centuries, has no greater value than the literary value. It is comparable to the speeches delivered by French opponents of imperialism to satisfy their hatred of the Napoleonic regime, addressed to the memory of Augustus and his friends.
Therefore, Mr. Schiller did his writing on Nero a disservice by following entirely in Mommsen’s footsteps in his portrayal of such important figures of the Neronian era as the Stoics. This outstanding philologist does acknowledge Stoicism, insofar as it was cosmopolitan in nature, as a preparation for the ways of Christianity, but he cannot let this concession stand purely, as he also presents the teacher of the nations as a strange character who stood opposed to his time and cut himself off from his surroundings with his exaggerated imaginations. In his envious mood, he does not realize that his criticism also affects Christianity itself, which already pulsated in its cosmopolitan predecessor, and that it remains incomprehensible how this impractical eccentric could have prepared the ways of the future.
“For example,” says Mr. Schiller in his writing on Nero, “the two main features of Stoic ethics are ideal selflessness, which is expressed in the statement, ‘only virtue is a good, everything else is meaningless,’ and the rule of reason. The rigid application of both these principles had caused Stoicism to face many struggles and, most importantly, had made it impossible for it to have an impact on the masses. Life is not an ideal.”
One might think that for a historian, the fact that a spiritual force had faced many struggles due to its lofty demands would not diminish its value. He is there to present and explain its efforts. Christianity, too, had to face many struggles before it gained popularity and recognition. It also presented the world with an ideal and asserted it with rigidity, and it had the same impact on the masses as Stoicism, which Mr. Schiller did not see because he was unaware that Christianity was nothing other than Stoicism transformed.
“If a moral system wants to have an impact on society,” Schiller continues (p. 592-595 of his writing), “it must not only consider heroes but also ordinary people.” However, Christianity, which did not work in vain, demanded heroes of holiness and renunciation, and it enforced its rigid demands because Stoicism and Cynicism had educated it as a nursery of heroism.
Christianity explicitly declared that it wanted to go beyond the realm of ordinary people. Nothing else is implied in the question (Matthew 5:46-47) of whether its faithful do something “extra” if they only love each other and are kind to each other, and whether the same is not also done by tax collectors or (as I have shown in my Berlin edition of the “Critique of the Gospels,” 1851, volume 2, page 128, as proven by the original text we still have) by prostitutes. The call to the rich man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor demands heroes who rise above the level of ordinary life. Only extraordinary audacity could understand and follow the saying, “if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.”
Our historian speaks of the “high-flying doctrines of the Stoics and the foolish paradoxes and exaggerations” that they burdened their followers with. However, the author of one of the New Testament letters, in which we will demonstrate the incorporation of Stoicism, was not ashamed to be a fool before the world and praised the virtue of divine foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:25).
Mr. Schiller sees in Stoicism “the strongest development of cosmopolitanism that we have encountered thus far (except for Seneca), however it is also the announcement of the decline of Romanism.” This “however” sounds like a sighing “unfortunately” and suggests regret, while the historian has to demonstrate his sympathy for the declining and ascending figures of power in the study of the laws that determine the change of world domination.
Charles Merivale expresses a similar sentiment when he speaks of the “harmful” baggage that the Romans acquired from their Greek teachers in the section of his work on Cicero’s incorporation of Greek philosophy. “Looseness of moral principles and religious indifference,” writes the author of Roman imperial history, “had their charms for the masses, while the noble teachings of philosophy were appreciated only by the refined and educated minds in the ideas of justice and natural law.” Aside from the fact that the Socratic, Cynic, and Stoic principles of justice and goodness were brought to the Greek masses through the plays of Euripides and the masters of the new Attic comedy, then to the Roman theater and the Latin audience, and finally preached by the Roman Cynics in the streets of Rome, the complaint about the indifference of the masses towards philosophy’s influence on the altars of the ancient gods is of little use to the historian’s task. The altars of Jupiter Capitolinus had to be abandoned if the Roman masses were to turn to the new God.
Schiller’s work on Nero suffered greatly, according to the author, because he followed Mommsen’s interpretation of the Stoic philosophy, which led to unfair treatment of important Stoic figures in the Neronian era. The author argues that it is unfair to judge a philosophy negatively simply because it has faced many challenges, as the historian’s role is to present and explain these struggles. The author notes that Christianity, too, faced many challenges and presented an ideal that was just as rigid as that of the Stoics, yet it was able to spread because Stoicism and Cynicism had prepared a school of heroes for it. The author also argues that it is not appropriate for a historian to express regret or disappointment at the downfall of one empire or philosophy in favor of another, as his job is to present and explain the laws that determine the rise and fall of civilizations.
The fate of Stoicism and Christianity is closely linked to that of the Roman state and society. Both destinies are one and the same. Seneca’s morality is based on his understanding of the political situation in Rome. The tone of his speeches is influenced by the emotions aroused in him by the civil wars up to the time of Augustus and the phases of the imperial period. The way he philosophizes and the resignation with which he orients himself in the political changes of the last hundred years form a single intellectual work. But before we present this work, we will take a look back at the most significant Roman precursor to Seneca, a man who also worked for the future of Christianity.
2. Review of Cicero.
Here we encounter Herr Mommsen again, who presents to us the man whose name will always be associated with that of Caesar and who will remain the subject of a comparison weighing the merits of both men, as a monster of mediocrity and insignificance. (By the way, with words that we will find again in Schiller’s characterization of Seneca below!)
The author of the Roman History” cannot express strongly and vividly enough his contempt for the “dreadful emptiness of this writer who is as voluminous as he is unimportant” when he discusses Cicero. He finds him to be a “journalistic nature in the worst sense” in everything he has attempted as a writer, calls him a shortsighted egoist as he passes through the warring factions of his time, and even accuses him of being a superficial and heartless human being.
“The heartless Caesar dressed in purple,” says Cicero in his writing “On Divination,” thus making the same accusation on both sides.
As we delve into this topic, we are far from wanting to indulge in counter-accusations and bring the dictator down to the level of Mommsen’s moral philosopher. We only want to seek the rights of both men in the confusion of their mutual historical works.
Cäsar also had something of a journalist’s nature. He wielded the pen for his cause and let others write for him. His successors from his house wrote poetry, history, and memoirs, and knew how to attract poets and historians to glorify their person and family. Imperialism has always been literary; only Alexander, on his turbulent flight, had not yet had time to cultivate an official literature and was limited to lamenting that no Homer, like Achilles, could be found for him. The Napoleons increased the literary character of imperialism, writing Moniteur articles, brochures, and memoirs, and, when they constructed the universal machine of leaflet and newspaper production, continued Caesar’s journalistic work.
The alleged superficiality of Cicero’s writing has no reason to feel remorse in the face of the uncertainty of Caesar’s power structure. Hermann Schiller explains the failure of Caesar’s, also admired by Mommsen, ingenious design of monarchy from the fact that after the dictator’s death, execution was left in the hands of “men who appeared mediocre next to the genius of the first emperor.” These men after the great founder would have had no sense for the “ideal trait” of Caesar’s idea of combining monarchy with popular freedom, and yet completely misunderstood the “pleasant clarity and unambiguous form” that the sacrifice of the Ides of March had given his work. Indeed, Caesar’s design would have had the error, due to his genius nature, that it was specifically the military monarchy that should be combined with popular freedom, and the disaster of the following time came from the “incomprehensible delusion with which his successors perpetuated this error and held it as an ‘official lie’.”
However, with every ascending imperialism, the princely powers (in Rome, that was the Senate) are mediated and, under the guise of recognition and protection, are kept as a council of co-regents, i.e., as a federal council, but are suppressed under the pretext of the democratic task of the emperor. The imperial absolutism of Caesar and his successors thus took on the form of the “official lie”, as Schiller puts it, that in the name of democracy, he armed himself with the tribunician power against the federal council, but took away its old organization of consultation and legislation and instead offered it the benefits of plunder and robbery until he took over its daily sustenance. This transformation of citizens into a beggar population already began under Caesar, and he himself had to establish the military monarchy as a warlord and judge over war and peace to control the Senate and maintain peace among the masses.
This was the Caesarist organization admired by modern historians, which, after a two-hundred-year struggle between emperor and senate, was just good and strong enough, following its military character’s intensification, before which the other offices accumulated on the emperor paled, to defend the Latin races against the onslaught of the Germans and to save up inspirations for later times. And furthermore, the Latins of Italy and the Latinized peoples of Spain owed their ultimate salvation only to the absolute emperors of Byzantium and the Arabs.
Despite all this, both Romans, whom Mommsen can only elevate in order to bring the other down, had a heart large enough to embrace and process the highest affairs and questions of the world in their time. Caesar recognized that the peoples who had been subjugated by the weapons of the Republic could no longer be treated as the private affair of a city and its families, and he withdrew them from the whims and exploitation of the Roman parties, to which he dealt a death blow. Cicero proclaimed a morality to the world born in the civil wars that went beyond the interests and particular law of the victorious city. “He who asserts,” he writes (De Offic. 3, 6), “that we must take into account our fellow citizens but not strangers, is separating the universal connection of mankind, which is founded on charity, generosity, kindness, and justice.” While Caesar created the apex from which the interests of peoples could be cultivated and taken away from the greed of Roman patricians, Cicero’s mind was focused on the “natural society” of humans (ibid. 1,16) and on the eternal law which was neither “conceived in the minds of men, nor derived from a popular resolution, but governs the whole world through wise commandments and prohibitions” (De Legib. 2,4). He was monarchic in the sense that he sought to grasp the “highest and ultimate” after the example of the Greeks, “to which all rules of virtuous living and right action must refer” (De Summo Bono 1,14), and included “the whole world in a union, to which the gods and the humans related to them belong” (De Legib. 1,7.8).
He acted indecisively and often without guidance in the time of dissolution and pushed the cult of his own personality to the extreme. He devoted himself with equal enthusiasm to the memory of his consulship, as well as to self-observation of his crushing defeats, his melancholy and his own torment. He had to pay harshly for this cult and his vacillations through the literary perpetuation of his changing portrait, although, as the first among those who, in their confessions, exposed their weaknesses and errors to the judgment of others, through this openness, he increases sympathy for his irritable nature before the fair tribunal of posterity. Nevertheless, the cult of the Caesars could not permanently subjugate this personality that fluctuated in delusions, and it felt itself to be something so great and valuable that it had to perish rather than sink into mere leveling under the Caesars.
Cicero wrote his works on the new world morality during the dictatorship of Caesar and then in the meantime until Octavian concluded the triumvirate against the optimates.
Before the break between Caesar and Pompey, Cicero had already expressed his conviction in his work “de Republica” that “the Republic, lost through the vices of its members, not through any accident, only existed in name.” But after the “complete loss of the state,” he declared (de Offic. 3, 6) that one could only be “in a state of war” against the tyrants and in the work “de Divinatione” (2, 2) he called the written philosophical address to the popular assembly the “only worthy” occupation left to him and the service he could still offer to his fellow citizens.
According to the testimony of the elder Pliny (Hist. Nat. 7, 31), Caesar wrote about his philosophical opponent: “The laurel of his triumphs is all the more glorious because it means having extended the limits of Roman genius more through the goods of the mind than through the empire.” With this statement, Caesar acknowledged the personality that survived imperialism in the self-awareness of its own dignity, and also the ruling spirit of his opponent’s language, which, with its periodic structure, was suited to the intellectual material of the time. As the victor, he could exercise this generosity. Cicero, the politically defeated, who rallied to the formation of a world community directed towards the highest ideals and sought his own salvation, had not yet been able to rise to the recognition that the democratic leveling of parties and peoples was necessary for the triumph of his world morality and that Caesar’s beggarly mob provided him with the substance for his spiritual community.
But soon the impulses of Cicero and an increased influx of Greek wisdom had so worked on Rome that a Spaniard, to whom Rome’s ancient memories were not dear to his heart, could come and use the leveled ground of the capital as the right place for his community foundation. That was Seneca.
3. The Teachers of Seneca.
Rome and the world had gained a new deity through the Battle of Actium. Rome had never seen a power like Augustus possessed after his victory over Antony. In the early days of his reign, he was the very embodiment of shrewd calculation and ruthless disregard for human life, as evidenced by his founding of the Triumvirate. However, he had become a master of moderation. He himself was inclined to see his peace work as the fulfillment of a divine mission, looking back on his life and success, and the people were no less inclined to revere the conqueror of the civil wars and peacemaker as a messenger from heaven and the personification of Rome’s power. Even the converted opponents in Rome adorned their submission to the victor with the elevation to divine providence, and poets such as Virgil celebrated the divine Caesar’s offspring under the guise of Aeneas as the founder of the empire and renewer of the imperial cult, or hailed him, as did Horace, as the earthly representative of the supreme Jupiter.
According to the expression of Valerius Maximus (Prologue to Tiberius), Rome had placed the Caesars as the mediators between heaven and earth to the peoples, before the Christians appeared preaching about their mediator and anointed one. Hence, in the course of the next centuries, the division of the world between the worshippers of both incarnations, a struggle that lasted as long as the political power of Rome was in decline. The Christian incarnation triumphed when the Emperor turned away from Rome and laid down at the feet of the crucified one the halo with which his office as Roman high priest and mediator had marked him.
However, this struggle against Caesarism and against the divine radiance of its representatives had already begun long before Christianity appeared. Indeed, the course of victory had already been opened.
The trailblazer was Greek philosophy. The efforts of Augustus to renew the old cult were impeded in Rome itself by the convergence of Greek, oriental, and African elements, which flowed towards the capital and brought their own worship practices. Both high and low among the natives were seized by the charm of foreign cults and surrendered to their foreign services. High and low, from the palaces to the streets, were accessible to the preaching of the philosophers who taught the culmination of Greek wisdom: introspection, renunciation of the world, and turning away from the externals of temple rites.
The same Virgil who celebrates the piety of the Caesaric renewer of religion in his Aeneas, has woven one of the brightest passages of his poetry with the praise of the Stoic world-soul (Aeneid. 6, 724 ff.) and in his poem on agriculture (Georg. 2, 490-496), he is so carried away by his admiration for the Epicurean explanation of the world and the Latin proclaimer of Epicurus’ greatness and divinity that he glorifies with the words of Lucretius “the unbending spirit of the happy man who has recognized the origin of the world, before the authorities of the people and the purple of kings”. And the same Horace who sings the praises of Augustus as the one closest to Jupiter, dedicates one of his most moving poems to “the just and steadfast man whom neither the unlawful command of the mob, nor the menacing face of the tyrant, nor even the mighty hand of Jupiter can shake”.
Augustus himself followed in Cicero’s footsteps and wrote an exhortation to philosophy (exhortatio ad philosophiam), which he read to his trusted friends. He had his own philosopher in Areus, a Stoic from Alexandria, as was the custom among the greats since the time of the Scipios. Livia also turned to him for comfort after the death of her son Drusus (Seneca, ad Marciam, cap. 4). Augustus had him in his retinue when he entered Alexandria after the Battle of Actium, and in his speech to the Alexandrians announcing forgiveness for their support of Antony, he mentioned Areus as one of the reasons for his clemency (Dio Cassius 51, 16). These same spiritual leaders were also responsible for the spiritual needs of the elite in other palaces and houses. Former teachers of new theories, they had become practical spiritual guides, directors, comforters in times of misfortune, and confessors. They accompanied the victims of Caesar’s tyranny to their deaths, giving them their final words of comfort. Canus Julius, who received his death sentence from the Emperor Caligula with gratitude and died with calm and composure, was accompanied on his final journey by “his philosopher” (Seneca, de Tranquill. c. 14). Thrasea took the Cynic Demetrius, as if he were his spiritual guide, into the room where he opened his veins, and kept his eyes fixed on him during the agony of his slow death (Tacit, Annal. 16, 35).
To gather oneself, work on one’s own improvement, suffer, endure, and die had become the goal of life.
The later evangelical word, “One thing is needful” (Luke 10:42), had long been the saying of the time. “Press with all your might towards the one thing, and leave the back-and-forth talk and the drawing of conclusions and the other trifling of vain acumen,” writes Seneca (Epistle 108). “We want to work towards the one thing, so that we are not surprised by the fleetingness of time” (ibid.).
The one thing on which the first masters of the Stoics insisted was the inner peace of the soul. The Socrates of Plato had preceded them in this concern for the soul. On the way to “Protagoras,” he asked the young friend who was expecting wonders of wisdom from the sophist whether he had also thought about the danger he could bring to his soul, the most beautiful jewel on which all happiness and unhappiness of life depended. This care for the soul had become so widespread in the early days of the Roman Empire that the dialectical and logical investigations of the Stoics, which had fallen into disrepair, were held in contempt. Seneca expresses the mood of his time when he mocks the logical instructions of the Stoic school. “Is this how one walks towards the stars?” he asks, thinking of the “dialectical trifling” of the school. Is this the philosophy that can promise us “to better ourselves and become like God?” (Epistles 48, 49).
Seneca and his contemporaries knew that the intellectual goods they circulated in their speeches and writings were not generated by them. They had inherited them from the Greeks, and sometimes their hearts were troubled when they asked themselves what they had done to increase and process the foreign treasure. Seneca consoled himself with the thought that the Romans had sought and found the application of the “remedies” left by the ancients (Epist. 64). He himself believed that one had to animate and make the censure of vices effective with “rhetorical fire, tragic grandeur, comic finesse” (Epist. 101). In this sense, his predecessors had already given their recommendations of Greek wisdom rhetorical emphasis. They were the tribunes of the imperial era and continued the effectiveness of the forum’s orators in the times of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. But constrained by the peace, which had put an end to the struggle of eloquence between applicants and persons and as well as between the large political parties, they were limited to generalities in their thundering speeches, and exaggerations were all that remained as expressions of their conviction and as weapons of attack. They became the forerunners of the Christian sermon of the fourth century and the later Bossuet, Bourdaloue, and Reinhard. They spoke as if they were sitting in judgment over the world and its rulers (Seneca writes about one of his teachers, “Attalus” (Epist. 198), “He called himself a king; but the one who could sit in judgment over the rulers seemed to me to be more than a king.”).
The rulers, whom these preachers brought before their judgment seat, were impersonal but nevertheless real powers of Rome at that time, above all wealth, greed with its companions: the merging of private life into luxurious pleasure and the paralysis of the general workforce. Rome, its great men and its financial lessees from the judiciary had regarded the provinces as a field which belonged to their plundering and squeezing, and had heaped up the treasures of the world in the capital. There were only two ways to alleviate the pressure of this loot weighing on Rome, until the foreigners from the north came and took the rest from the houses of the great and small: the imperial confiscations, the proceeds of which soon melted away again in the hands of the high robbers, and the calls for sobriety and the exhortation to the oppressed to enrich themselves through spiritual goods. The same protests against greed have passed into the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament.
Just as the frenzy with which the rich displayed their plundered loot to the world and the emperors filled the emptied treasury through confiscations and executions reached its peak under Nero and then weakened as the wealth was consumed, so did the fire of the Stoic preachers wane towards the end of Nero’s reign. The school of preachers in which Seneca was educated – “the Sextian school of Roman strength, which began with great momentum,” as Seneca himself says in one of his last writings (Natural Questions 7, 32) – “has died out.” He believes that it is no longer represented by any great orator and leader. However, the school had accomplished its mission. The seed that it had sown in the minds had sprouted and bore fruit in Christianity.
The founder of that school, Quintus Sextius, refused honorary positions (Seneca, Epist. 98) and also declined the broad purple stripe and a seat in the Senate, which the dictator had offered him, although he was entitled to apply for public office by his birth. Inspired by Cynicism and Stoicism, he opened a free school and ignited his time both through his lectures and his writings. “What power, what nobility!” exclaims Seneca when he reports on the reading of a work by Sextius in his household (Epist. 64). “Whatever state of mind I may be in when I read him, I would like to challenge all the vicissitudes of fortune and cry out: “Step into the arena with me, fate, I am ready.” I would like to have something to overcome, something in enduring which I could practice.”
Seneca learned the daily self-examination (recognitio sui, de Ira 3, 36) from Sextius, the son, who renewed Pythagorean discipline in his life and lectures and abstained from meat. Since then, he would stand before himself in his chamber every evening after the end of his day’s work to take responsibility for his actions. Another one of his teachers, the Alexandrian Sotion, convinced him to abstain from meat completely. However, during the time of Tiberius, when foreign cults were expelled from Rome, he returned to his usual diet due to his father’s fears of being accused of foreign superstitions. He also owed his enthusiasm for abstinence from food to Attalus, another one of his teachers, who sought to rival Jupiter in his simplicity of needs (Epist. 110).
The work of Sextius found its successors in the Cynics. When the youth lost their distinguished speakers, the bearded street philosophers drew their audience and also attracted the attention of the elites. Demetrius, who flourished under Nero and was later expelled from Rome under Vespasian, was the most significant of these street apostles. Seneca had great admiration for him, calling him powerful and noble; his words still resounded in Seneca’s mind, and he heard his sayings in a different light when he found him half-naked lying on the ground in his dwelling. In his thoughts, he always had him as his companion, not conversing with the powerful among the purple-clad at court, but as a witness (testis) and not just a teacher of truth (Provident. cap. 5, Epist. 20. 62).
In a time when Pythagorean self-examination, self-control, and diet penetrated noble houses, the Cynics were regarded as a kind of saints. Their master, Diogenes, still held esteem, as in the time of Alexander. Seneca admiringly calls him “a man of great spirit” (Tranq. cap. 8) and exclaims in amazement about the power of this man who lacks material possessions: “It is a kingdom, to be the only one among the miserly, deceitful, robbers and soul-sellers who can be harmed by no one.”
For this spiritual kingdom, the Roman successors of Diogenes and Seneca’s contemporaries practiced renunciation of home, wife, and child, which the later saying of the Gospel (Luke 18:29) demands of the faithful. They already knew that reveling in unhappiness which the Beatitudes of the poor, the mournful, the hungry in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-6) express. And when Demetrius told Seneca, “nothing seems more unhappy to him than a person to whom no adversity has ever happened” (Provid. cap. 3), he was not far from the woes of the rich, the well-fed, the laughing, and the flattered in Luke’s Gospel (Cap. 6:24-26). The same Demetrius gave an equally energetic expression to the joy of suffering when he (Seneca Epist. 67) called a life without disturbance and without any onset of misfortune “a dead sea.”
During the first Athenian flourishing period, the Cynics had already developed an apostolate of warning and conversion. There were door-breakers among them, soul-inspectors who announced to the carefree and laughing the time of repentance. The idea of this apostolate still lived in the Stoic and Cynic itinerant preachers from the end of the first and beginning of the second century after Christ. For example, Arrian writes (Epictet. Diatr. 3, 22): “The true Cynic is a messenger of Jupiter to open people’s eyes to their errors and, with raised hands, to call them to repentance from the path on which they seek their well-being in external things.”
Seneca, like Tacitus, knew nothing about the interior of Judaism when he unwittingly compiled a rich collection of sayings from the theological material of Stoicism and with the help of the ascetic mood of his time, which was to bear fruit in a spiritualistic offshoot of the Jewish community. However, when that spiritualization of Judaism, with a union of Roman, Jewish, and Greek elements, spread, which was the dawn of Christianity on the Roman horizon, those wandering philosophers found a new field of work on which they could give their gnomic wisdom an unexpected concentration and appear with greater weight than before. It is certain that many of the first Christian teachers wore the Greek philosopher’s cloak, and the Cynics were so numerous among them that Lucian, when he wanted to portray a parody of the apostle Paul in his Peregrinus Proteus, as lawgiver, prisoner, and circular-letter writer, had to place a group of Cynics next to the saint in order to give his picture the right local and temporal color. At the time of Tertullian, the Christians and community teachers who emerged from Cynicism still wore their cloak, and the fiery African exclaims in his writing “De Pallio”: “Rejoice, Pallium, and shout for joy; a better philosophy has dignified you as an adornment, since you began to dress the Christians.”
Now let us consider Seneca’s preparations for Christianity.
4. Views on Seneca’s Christianity.
The first Christian writer whose name, era, and literary activity are beyond doubt, Tertullian, a contemporary of Caracalla according to one of his writings, says of Seneca (de Anima cap. 20) that he is often “one of us” (saepe noster). ” So”in general, the teacher of Nero is a heathen to him.
Lactantius, the tutor in the household of Constantine the Great, admires the frequent agreement of Seneca with true theology alongside the Christian sayings of Cicero (e.g. Divin. Instit. 1, 5), but believes (ibid. 6, 24) that Seneca lacked a guide to lead him away from Zeno and his teacher Sotion towards perfect devotion to God.
A century later, the small collection of letters was created in which the apostle Paul exchanges greetings and heartfelt expressions with Seneca, the Christian believer and minister of Nero, during his supposed stay in Rome. Although Augustine mentions (Epist. 153) the circulation of these letters without expressing his opinion on their authenticity, he is convinced of Seneca’s thorough initiation into the Christian mysteries and only criticizes him for not “daring” to mention the Christians in his numerous writings. This striking silence, according to the Church Father, is explained by Seneca’s fear of offending the old customs of his homeland by praising the Christians or of denying his own convictions by their criticism (de Civit. Dei 6, 10).
Jerome even calls Seneca “one of ours” (Seneca noster. Adv. Jovinian.). Although he is just as cautious as Augustine about the likely correspondence between Paul and the Roman Stoic, he only says that it is “read by many”. Nevertheless, he is persuaded by it to include Lucius Annaeus Seneca in his catalogue of saints in his book “De viris illustribus” (On Illustrious Men).
This veneration that the aforementioned church fathers give to Seneca also carried over to the Middle Ages. The second council of Tours (in December 567) refers in its 14th canon to one of his sayings about adultery, which is no longer found in his existing writings, but is certainly found in the collection of sayings “de moribus,” which is largely an anthology from his works. This collection, which Fabricius ascribes to Martin, bishop of Braga in Lusitania, born in Hungary and a contemporary of that council, was a popular manual during the Middle Ages. The “Imitatio Christi,” written at the end of the Middle Ages, also cites extensively from Seneca’s formulas and quotes from memory a passage from his writings in which the Roman sage extols the retreat from human interaction.
The conviction of Jerome regarding the almost complete agreement between the Stoics and Christianity (Comment in Jesaiam c. XI: nostro dogmati in plerisque concordant) also found significant advocates after the restoration of knowledge. Justus Lipsius was the most enthusiastic admirer of the Christian spirit of his Stoic heroes in his writings on Seneca and Stoic philosophy. Even the prudent, critically minded Pierre Daniel Huet (died 1721) found the Christian doctrine of the Trinity literally expressed by Seneca.
Despite the continued efforts of German and Western scholars to highlight the differences between these lines of thought, the literal connections between them did not cease to surprise the minds. Can it be called natural, asked Schöll in his History of Roman Literature, that a well-intentioned man, when reflecting on the relationship between God and man, arrives at the same moral truths found in the Holy Scriptures? But why is there nothing similar in Aristotle, Plato, or Cicero? Why in Seneca, not only the principles of Christianity, but also expressions that are not used by secular authors and are only found in the New Testament in the same sense?
De Maistre, in his Soirées de St. Pétersbourg, can only explain this convergence, which makes many of Seneca’s letters suitable for the sermons of Bourdaloue and Massillon with slight modifications, by the fact that Seneca had a fairly thorough knowledge of Christian doctrines. Finally, Troplong, in his work De l’influence du Christianisme sur le droit civil des Romains (Paris 1843), traces the reflection of Christian ideas and language in Seneca’s writings to the atmosphere in which Christianity enveloped this author, secretly and unnoticed transforming and purifying the mind and language of the Stoic.
Recently, the industrious French have produced two works which bring the question of the relationship between Seneca and Christianity closer to a decision, a question that has been lingering since Tertullian’s time.
The first work, misguided but so thoroughly and with such an immense expenditure of erudition that it can be called epoch-making for the question, comes from Amédée Fleury and is titled “Saint-Paul et Sénèque, Recherches sur les rapports du Philosophe avec l’Apôtre et sur l’infiltration du Christianisme naissant à travers le Paganisme” (2 vols., Paris 1853). The author, who, for his literary history of the question, has even dug up German school and university programs, dissertations, and doctoral dissertations from the dust of the centuries, seeks to prove the reality of the Paul-Seneca exchange and believes that Seneca drew from the writings of the Old and New Testaments. But more important than this argument, whose failure is further highlighted by the foil of its erudite apparatus, is Fleury’s assertion that the ideas of universal love, the thought of general equality with its consequence, the abolition of slavery, the supremacy of the spirit over matter, of right over violence, are owed solely to Christianity. In this sentence lies the crux of the matter, and it is here that the question arises as to the fact that the ideas that Seneca is said to owe solely to Christianity had already developed in the Greek schools centuries before and had since spread in the Greek and Roman public. Without investigating this fact, the investigation into the personal connections between Paul and Seneca sinks to the level of insignificance.
In his work “On Indifference in Matters of Religion,” in which he defended the authority of the Roman Church as the only norm of certainty, Lamennais tried to show that Christianity did not bring anything new or essential in the series of moral ideas and teachings that had not already been discovered and presented before it.
This is the chapter that is relevant here, and in this regard, Mr. Charles Aubertin in his “Seneca et Saint-Paul, Étude sur les rapports supposés entre le philosophe et l’Apôtre” (Paris 1872. Third edition) has effectively demonstrated the weakness of Fleury’s work. However, there is one point of investigation that he was not able to fully address: the literary dependence of one of the two, Seneca or the Apostle, on the other. His aversion to Fleury’s hypothesis prevented him from considering the possibility of the opposite, and his belief in the authenticity of the Pauline epistles as well as the historical character of the Acts of the Apostles blinded him to the transfer of Seneca’s wisdom to the Pauline epistles and the Gospels.
We will now demonstrate this transfer.
5. Seneca’s View on Politics.
The gospel view on state power is: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 20:25)
This contrast between exercising secular power and mutual service in a union encompassing the world had already been established by post-Socratic philosophical schools and introduced into the practice of life. The Cynic was eager to bring salvation to his neighbor. Epicurean school spread across the world as a league of friends and helpers; Seneca says of the Stoic school (Clement. 2, 5), “none are kinder, gentler, or more humane, so that helpful service to all and each individual can rightly be called its soul.”
These masters of unbroken hearts replaced the dissolved states with their schools, and Seneca also looks back on the downfall of the republic without painful regret. In his eyes, Brutus went against the principles of the Stoics and their aversion to involvement in political power struggles when he hoped that the state could be restored to its former constitution after the old customs had been lost and a uniform legal status had arisen, as the question among the thousands under arms was not whether, but whose slaves they should be (Benef. 2. 20).
Similarly, he asks Cato what he had to do with the quarrel over whether Caesar or Pompey should take possession of the state, and why he, by renouncing his school, got involved in the question of who should win, since the winner, even if he were the better man, would become the worse through the victory (Epist. 14).
To him, the leaders of civil wars are selfish individuals who sought their majesty and greatness in seeing the state and the people low and oppressed at their feet. He goes through the series of these “malicious ungrateful” individuals, who turned the power and armies of the state against it, from Marius to Antony (Benef. 5, 15, 17), and says of Pompey that he had brought the Roman people to a point where the loss of freedom was a blessing and salvation.
Regarding Augustus, who laid his hand on the neck of the republic before it was brought under the yoke, he does not want to call it mercy when his mildness entered only after his cruelty had worn itself out (Clement. 1, 10). His vehement attacks on Caligula are only declamations; his unfavorable judgment of Claudius (Benef. 1, 15) will only concern us later when we present his passage through the imperial court. Nero, on the other hand, is to him (in the letter addressed to him on mercy, Clementia) the ideal of what was still possible on the ruins of the republic, but still surrounded by so much terror that the wise man must seek his salvation in solitude and can only occupy himself with the founding of religion.
He attributes to the emperor a monologue, in which he (in Clementia 1, 1) says among other things: “I have been chosen by divine favor to represent the gods among mortals; I am the arbiter of life and death for peoples; it is in my power to determine the fate and position of every individual. What fate has in store for any mortal, it speaks through my mouth; my word is the source of joy for peoples and cities. There is no prosperity anywhere except with my will and favor. Every person, even if nothing else recommends them, is in my favor just because they bear the name of human.”
In this proclamation, we have before us the basic constitution of the empire of humanity. The draft comes from Seneca himself and is intended to show the world to what principles he has trained his pupil. Later we will show that the teacher correctly grasped the spirit and tendencies of his student, and that both agreed fundamentally in their views. In explaining that proclamation, the master goes so far as to portray the emperor as the gracious one “before whom no one will be able to claim his innocence, but rather will look to the source of grace which helps human weakness” (ibid.).
However, the teacher himself is not entirely comfortable with the praised omnipotence. The powerful one has surrounded himself, at the top of his human empire, with an arsenal of terror alongside grace. There are “iron and fire, the horde of beasts to set upon human bodies, dungeons, crosses, torture, hooks to drive into human bodies, carts that tear apart the limbs of the victims of violence, and that shirt covered in flammable substances to throw over the unfortunate” (Epist. 14).
The Lord of the world, who wants to accept all and everyone as humans, is also a jealous ruler who does not even allow the appearance of doubt to arise about his right and purges the crowds at his feet from the disobedient with a word from his mouth, those who even suggest their independence from his circle of grace with a single gesture.
Earlier, says Seneca (ibid.), it was the people or the Senate that one had to fear, now it is individuals to whom the power of the people is given against the people. To have them all as friends is difficult enough, if one does not have them as enemies. Instead of provoking the powerful, the wise man will avoid him, but he must be careful not to seem to avoid him, because part of his security depends on not seeking it out.
In this life of fear under the powerful, the wise man has only one refuge, the same humanity to which the Emperor has flattened Rome and the peoples. So humanity against humanity, a human community against the human masses, with which the Emperor fraternizes, world against world, the universalism of the wise against the orbis terrarum of the Emperor!
“If one has lost the office of citizen,” Seneca writes in this sense (Tranquill.) chap. 3), “one should exercise that of a human being. Therefore, with a lofty spirit, we have not enclosed ourselves within the walls of a single city, but have extended ourselves to the whole world for intercourse and declared the world to be our fatherland, in order to offer virtue a broader field. Look behind you, which vast territories, how many peoples are up to you!”
Thus Seneca rises as a rebel against the authority of the Emperor, whom he wants to win over to the world. In his idea of an apostolate in the great republic of humanity, he strengthens himself by looking at the masters who, among the ruins of the Greek cities that Alexander and his successors stormed and burned, looked at the world and drew the law for that great republic from their own inner being. He often celebrates them as the men who worked for humanity, and once (de Brevit vit. chap. 14) as the highly renowned founders of religion (as Moser aptly translates in the Stuttgart-Metzler edition, conditores sacrarum opinionum), who brought a new faith to the world.
Despite the peaceful era that reigns under the human emperor, he sees the dawn of a similar time to that which the masters of the Stoa referred to in their inner selves. “I would not know any state,” he writes, “that would be right for the wise man or the wise man for it” (de Otio. 31, 32); let us now see what inner peace he brings to his time and what he added as a world apostle to the religious foundations of his predecessors.
6. Seneca’s New Religion.
The scenery around us undergoes a complete change. Just now, Seneca opened up the dazzling scene before us, where the emperor from his throne dispenses his treasure of grace and brotherhood with humanity. Once again, Seneca describes to us humanity as the working field of the wise, who becomes uneasy in the proximity of that throne. Now, Seneca describes the world as a great hospital.
To his friend who sought assistance to better himself, he replied (Epist. 68), “Here, there is no physician, only a sick person. I am lying with you in one and the same sickroom and can only talk with you (Epist. 27) about our common illness.”
Just as before the emperor, all are equal and no one can think of themselves as more than another, in the general hospital of the world, no one can elevate themselves above the others. There is no reproach, gentleness prevails, and the advanced will treat the pressurized with benevolent sympathy. Will he be surprised that there is no fruit hanging from the thicket? Will he be astonished that hedges and thorns do not bear useful fruit?” (de Ira 2, 20). In this community of patients, fairness of judgment is the first commandment, and everyone must remember that “no human being is without guilt” (ibid. 2, 27). Whoever claims to be innocent only thinks of witnesses for whom nothing remarkable can be noticed about him, not of his own conscience (ibid. 1, 14).
“I have not reached the state of health,” Seneca continues this theme, “and I will not reach it either. I weigh on a sea of pure ailments” (On the Happy Life, chapter 17-18). “We have all sinned (peccavimus omnes) and will stumble even until the extreme old age” (On Clemency, chapter 6).
In the above passage about the mistake of expecting useful fruit from a thorn bush, Seneca says that anger and rejection are not appropriate where “nature excuses the error.” In this sense, he finds the difficulty of achieving recovery in the ignorance of self-deception about the internal seat of the disease. “What do we deceive ourselves? Our trouble (malum) is not outside us; it lies in ourselves and clings to our entrails” (Epist. 50). “The body is a burden and punishment to the soul; it presses on the spirit and holds it in bonds” (Epist. 65). “Through this bone, the soul is obscured, whitewashed, infected, separated from what is true and its own, and thrown into deception; its whole struggle is with the oppressive flesh; it strives to return whence it was sent out: there awaits eternal rest, where after the moderate and confused of this world, it beholds the pure and clear” (ad Marciam c. 23).
Thus, the homeland of the spirit is above, in the sphere of heaven, where the stars revolve, where the divine throne is located, and where it performs its duties. Earthly life is a fleeting sojourn in a foreign land, and what surrounds the spirit here is only the debris of a guesthouse; it considers nothing of it as its property and uses it like a passing stranger as something borrowed. Great spirits have never loved long stays in the body; they yearn to break free. The body, the temporal dwelling of the spirit, is the shell that is only temporarily laid around it and on the day that is “the birthday of eternity,” it will be taken away from it. “The day will come,” Seneca writes to his friend, “which reveals you and takes you out of the tent community of ugly life. Already now, rise up as high as you can” (Epist. 102, 120, Ad Marciam cap. 23).
Let us also mention that according to Seneca, in agreement with the Stoics, for whom the human spirit was a fraction of the divine, there is a God who dwells in the human body as in his lodging (e.g. Epist. 31).
The attentive reader will have recognized almost all of these sentences as old acquaintances with whom he has become familiar since childhood. They are known to us from the first Bible lessons. The body as the dwelling place of the divine corresponds to the temple of God, which the apostle (1 Corinthians 3:16) considers to be in the body of the believers. If Seneca groans despite this significance of the body for the liberation from its oppressive burden, the apostle (Romans 7:24; 8:3) also sighs no less for liberation from this body of death. The desire of the heavenly citizens of Seneca to be freed from this burden is echoed in the New Testament: “To die is gain. I desire to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:21, 23). When Seneca exclaims (Epist. 102): “We can still only view the heavenly homeland from afar,” the apostle consoles himself (1 Corinthians 13:12): “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” Just as Seneca recommends ascending from the body even before the birthday of eternity, on which the soul is stripped of its bodily envelope, so the apostle says (2 Corinthians 5:1-9): “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens… Therefore we labor, whether present or absent, to be pleasing to Him.” “Our conversation is in heaven,” says Philippians 3:18-20, continuing these considerations, while for others their “belly is their god,” and the centerpiece of this entire train of thought also dominates the letter to the Hebrews, where the patriarchs (ch. 11:13-16) confess on their journey to the heavenly homeland as strangers on earth.
Let us now look back into antiquity from Seneca, and none of his sentences offer anything new. Only the plaintive and cutting accent with which he delivers them, the presence with which they constantly impress themselves upon him, and their ensemble is original. The content itself, however, that “sighing of the creature” (to use a post-Senecan expression), all that concern for the “one thing needful” (to use a later formula), had already emerged earlier in the world. The authors are Plato and the Stoics.
The most eloquent student of Socrates laid the foundation for later theology. The attempts of the ancient philosophers, from Thales to Democritus, to explain the formation of the world through the development of real elements, failed due to the weakness of natural science and the power that the declining Greek religion still possessed in its dissolution. It was left to a later posterity to take up the attempts of the Ionians and Democritus on the basis of a richer knowledge of natural laws and to replace theology with mechanics and physics. For two thousand years, Plato dominated the intervening period with his legislator, who formed the chaos of material substances according to the ideas of an upper world and had to leave the responsibility for the constant disruption of his world plan to the superficiality of this influence of matter and the remainder of its autonomous power.
Aristotle said in his Metaphysics of Anaxagoras, who first elevated the mind (nous) as the ordering power of the world, that he appeared like a sober person among those who spoke at the banquet. This sober person, whom the author of the collection of teachings of philosophers (falsely attributed to Plutarch) describes as having a supreme principle “smelling of the insipid jokes of the ancient world,” inspired Plato to prescribe a guiding directive for divine intervention in matter at the upper world of ideas, thereby creating a formula to which the gods expelled from the world of atoms by the atomists and their later renewer, Epicurus, could cling and draw new life. The further development of philosophical content was limited to the transfer of purposiveness, which was achieved in Plato by transferring the idea forms to the chaotic mass, to the interior of things (by Aristotle), above which the sky of the divine continued to circle in ancient sublimity within the inner world-factory (also in Aristotle).
The Stoics behaved as heirs and continuers of a philosophical system in which the development of the real world and its rational law (the Logos) had not yet experienced the Platonic separation, but they were under the impression of the sublimity (or popularity) of the wisdom of the founder of the Academy and did not want to do without the technique that seemed to solve the problem of the world in the most illustrative way. Although the separation of the divine and the material, of thought and being, of the active and passive, is only one thought among them, the moment of one thought in which the active and passive, the soul and its world, the fertilizing and receptive, the law and the substance stand apart, the thought has the power of a ruler in a philosophical system, and this power of the ruling lord wielded in the Stoic description of the calculating purposefulness of the creative principle that provoked the laughter of antiquity and is still preserved in the library of teleological works of the previous century and in the current opposition to the latest English natural science.
This fleeting idea that brought the separation of the spiritual and material into the system of the Stoics also forced them to include in their teachings from Plato the responsibility of the latter for the flaws and errors of the spirit, the struggle with the flesh, and the longing for separation from it. Plato is the one who brought these formulas for the longing for the upper homeland to dominance for the following millennia. The founder of the Academy, who invented the vivid image of the fall of the soul from the upper ether world into the sensory realm for the guilt of mortals, also added the lament for the burden of the body to this image and sighed for escape from its prison. Plato coined the classical expression for the anxious pursuit of dying (μελετᾶν ἀποθνήσκειν); Seneca refers grieving Marcia (chapter 23) to this statement of the divine sage about the ascent of the soul after death; Philo borrowed the same formula from the creator of the world of ideas, and it has also passed into the books of the New Testament. “For you died,” it says in the letter to the Colossians (3:3-5), “and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”
The path, however, that leads from Plato and the Stoics to Philo and Seneca, and through the latter two into the writings of the New Testament, is dominated by a shining height of Heraclitus. The Ephesian still stands above the mythological course of history in which Plato finds the interpretation of the divine approaching the matter of chaos. He is also innocent of the thought in which the Stoics allow thought and being to be separated until the latter is formed purposefully. In every moment of the world process, the struggle of ascent and descent, of the Logos’ own “way up and down,” appears, but also in every moment, the unity of the opposition. If he regards sensory existence as a momentary standstill that brings only deception, distress, and toil instead of the hoped-for rest and satisfaction, as a hindrance to the eternal process according to the rational law of the Logos, then it is not the matter of the Stoics, not Plato’s hylomorphic addition to the sensory that misleads and misleads the spirit, but the individual self-will that seeks to oppose the world process of the Logos, causing the tension that must be resolved according to the law of the Logos that moves upward and downward. And indeed, voluntarily, through the elimination of opposition and through the peace of merging with the world law, which also pervades the individual – in fact, through death, which atones for the injustice that the mortal wishes to maintain the mixture with the immortal. The calm in which the individual self-will believed it was lulled into its sensory existence was only an illusion; in death, eternal peace, rest (ἀνάπαυσις), and harmony with one’s own being are born.
These metaphysical statements of the Ephesian are the ones that have taken the form of moral maxims on the way through the Academy and Stoicism and finally, through the influence of Philo, have become the foundations of Christian asceticism. For Heraklit, it was a metaphysical statement arising from the constant shifting of the logical path downwards and upwards, that life and death are together and one in humans every day. It was also an interpretation of the actual in the light of that statement when the dark one said: we live the death of the gods and die the life of the gods. Finally, Heraklit described, in the sense of his teaching of the Logos that enters the scattered and isolated existence on its way downwards and leads it back to unity and rest on its way upwards, the constant fact when he said that God heals the ailing world by bringing inequalities into balance. It was also a description of the factual when the Ephesian called individual life a microcosm, which is an imitation of the universe and its changing process.
Later thinkers transformed these statements into demands for morality and commonplaces of instruction as the self-consciousness and ego emancipated themselves through the experience of history and dialectic. Plato recommended careful pursuit of death, the Stoics populated the world with renouncing monks, Seneca indulged in thoughts of death, even if he transformed Heraklit’s saying about daily dying into the simple truth that life diminishes every day (e.g. Epist. 24), and the New Testament, in which the most eloquent representation of the individual’s completion in dying was given, allowed its Logos to proclaim true rest on his path (ἀνάπαυσις Matth. 11, 28 [corrected from 23]) to the weary and burdened. And the Heraklitean proposition that the human microcosm and the macrocosm of the universe are each other’s image became Plato’s exhortation to imitate divinity as much as possible, the Stoic commandment to follow nature, the theme of Seneca’s sermons on the imitation of God, as well as in the New Testament an exhortation (e.g. Ephesians 5:1) to become imitators (μιμηται) of God. The Christian Middle Ages ended with an echo of Heraklitean wisdom in the “Imitatio.”
7. Seneca’s Ideal.
Plutarch, in his dialogue “Against the Stoics,” cites the statement as an example of their nonsense that “if a single wise man at any place only points his finger in a reasonable way, all the wise men on earth will benefit and gain from it.”
The popular philosopher of the second century did not know that the Stoic association was a mystical community of the holy, to whose treasury of grace the works of its members belonged and in which a master could not think and speak without the whole being fruitfully stimulated. This association had helpers and spiritual assistants before whom the worldly rulers and sensual images of the gods lost their significance. It had its own ideal of the wise person, who, though unattainable in his perfection, floated in the distance but still provided the norm that seekers must strive for. They sought the monarchical summit.
Seneca also aimed to capture and shape this ideal. For example, the statement of Epicurus, “we must choose some noble person whom we always have before our eyes, so that we live as if he were watching and act as if he saw it” (Epist. 11), corresponds entirely to his intentions. He finds it useful and salutary. “We need,” he continues, “a guardian and educator. A large number of sins disappear when the faltering have a witness at their side. The mind must have someone whom it reveres with a reverence that also sanctifies its innermost being. The mere thought of such a helper has a regulatory and corrective power; he is a guardian, an exemplar, and a norm, without which one will not bring the wrong into balance.”
“In Epistle 67, it says “Put on (indue) the spirit of a great man” – just like in the New Testament: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14) or “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).
Seneca makes attempts upon attempts to design the shape of this renewing ideal. He always has it in mind, especially in the letters. He wants to grasp it entirely as it is and hold it firm in association with the frail. “If only the vision of the soul of the virtuous man were granted us,” he exclaims in Epistle 115, “oh, how beautiful, how holy it would shine in gentle dignity! If someone saw this figure, higher and brighter than everything the eye is accustomed to see in this human world, wouldn’t he, as when meeting a god, pause in amazement and pray in silent prayer that he might be granted the sight without sin? And when it then encourages him to approach with the inviting kindness of its face, how will he bow down to worship and break into the words (of Virgil), “Be a savior and relieve us, whoever you are, of our toil!” And she will support us and raise us up if only we will honor her. But she will not be worshiped by animal sacrifices and the fat of bulls, nor by images of gold and silver, but by pious and right-minded disposition.”
On another occasion (Epistle 120), he describes this ideal of virtue in the man who, in everything he does, is equal to himself, no longer intentionally or with purpose, but by his nature and habit, he had arrived at the point where it was impossible for him to do wrong. In him, that blessed life was to be seen, which flows unrestrictedly and follows no law except its own. This perfection shone forth from the fact that he never cursed fate, never received anything that happened to him with displeasure, and revealed himself like a light shining in the darkness.”
In Constantia sapientis chapter 7, Seneca writes, “Do not come to me with your usual objection that this wise man cannot be found. No, I do not invent a vain spectacle of human intelligence, nor do I design a lifeless image of the powerful. Rather, as I hold him in my conviction, I have presented him, and I would present him even if, like all things great, extraordinary, and uncommon, he does not often appear.”
Seneca often draws features for the image of his ideal from the experiences of Cato. For example, he asks in Constantia sapientis chapter 14, “What will the wise man do when he receives a slap in the face?” The answer is what Cato did when he was slapped in the face: he did not become angry, he did not retaliate for the insult, he did not even forgive it, but rather, he stated that nothing had been done to him. At another time, he reminds readers how Cato “places his undefiled hand on his holy breast” (Epist. 67). Being crucified, bound, mutilated, and offering oneself as a sacrifice (Provid. cap. 5) are signs of the virtuous who toil for the great commonwealth of humanity.
In an epistle (41) in which he speaks of the closeness and indwelling of God in the good, Seneca continues, “When you see a man unbowed in danger, untouched by lust, happy in misfortune, will you not say, ‘A divine power has come over him?’ Thus, in his better part, he is there, from whence he came. Just as sunlight strikes the earth but is still in the place from where it emanates, so too is a great and holy soul, sent down for our closer understanding of the divine, while in communication with us, but inseparable from its origin.”
Finally, Seneca calls it the duty of the fighter to nourish the hope that victory will appear in the sublime form of the wise man, since the nature of humanity implies that this representation of the perfect becomes visible. “That there is someone (aliquem) whom nothing can conquer, that there is someone whom fate cannot overcome, is inherent in the commonwealth (e republica est) of the human race,” he writes (Constant. sap. cap. 19).
The overview of these traits that Seneca combines to form his ideal image, and the close connection with the messianic figure of the New Testament, will make it understandable to the reader why learned and scientifically educated men can only make sense of such language from the minister of Nero through his interaction with a chief apostle and the use of Christian texts. For us, to whom criticism has turned Christian literature into a gradual product of the period from the end of the first to the end of the second century, Seneca’s views acquire a higher value than those who see them only as a reproduction of what some apostle communicated to the pagan teacher of Rome. Seneca becomes a real collaborator in early Christianity. If Philo made Heraklit’s Logos into a priestly mediator who, hovering between heaven and earth, relates the extremes of the divine and the human to one another, then the Roman brought this mediator as a real and suffering intermediary to earth and into human interaction. What is still a vision in Philo becomes, in Seneca’s own words, the power of conviction and tangible experience. Philo, from his Jewish perspective, made Heraklit’s Logos a priestly representative of humanity on his way up and down; the Roman started from the essence of the Stoic cosmic unity and held on to the conviction that it was not just a figment of the imagination and that it must manifest itself in one person as a savior and uplifter. The later combination of the Oriental and Occidental, the Jew and Roman, Philo and Seneca, the Heraklitian Logos and the Stoic Sage, then brought about the living figure sought on both sides.
8. Seneca in the New Testament.
The founder of a community not only imparts a new content to those who gather around him or derive sustenance from his writings, but also binds their thinking and speaking in expressions from which they can only free themselves through a complete break with the revered master. Each philosophical school has its own style, each religious association its own phraseology and particular sentence structure, and from their linguistic expressions we can immediately recognize the individual factions or shades of such a group.
We will now demonstrate the preservation and transmission of such characteristic formulas through a characteristic example. We will show that Seneca’s wisdom sayings formed the first point of unity in a community in which the elements of a spiritual opposition to the Roman military dictatorship and the associated state priesthood gathered, and that even when they became intertwined with Jewish views, they retained the influence of the new formation. The fact that we present in the following lines will provide evidence that Seneca’s sayings not only circulated in oral tradition and formed the stem on which new formations were based, but that the teachers of that Roman-Jewish association also derived significant inspiration from the master’s writings and also took stylistic constructions from them.
It is about the parallel connections between Seneca’s sayings and those of the New Testament.
We start with a passage from the letter of consolation to Marcia. Seneca derives from it his view (chap. 10) that the passage through this life is just a fleeting journey through a foreign land, and therefore “all that glitters as a gift to us – children, honors, the adornment of a woman – is not our property, but only a loan, which adorns the stage of this life and, like the refuse of an inn, returns to the owner after the traveler has departed.” Therefore, one must love one’s loved ones as if they were a fleeting possession, and possess what happiness has given as something about to depart. “Quickly,” he concludes, “pluck therefore the pleasure from the children and indulge in the children on your part; grasp without delay every joy that is in a hurry!”
“The time is short,” says the Apostle (I Corinthians 7:29-31), “that those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they possessed nothing, and those who use this world as though they did not consume it, for the structure of this world is passing away.”
Thus, the same construction, the same idea on both sides, but with Seneca’s original composition with the thoroughness and motivation of the first invention!
One of the most significant documents of the Gospel of Matthew presents the contrast between the old and new commandments in the formula: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:27ff.). Likewise, in the same place, the old restriction of love to reciprocal love is dismissed in light of the new commandment of universal love, with the question of what reward such narrow-mindedness may expect, whether even the tax collectors do not do the same, and whether anything special is done by this means (ibid. 5:46-47).
The framework for this construction was created by Seneca when he attempted to express the exuberance of his new understanding of the law in a series of phrases. “That is still not enough,” he writes (e.g. Epistle 95), to follow the rules of virtue, “because it is not the action that deserves praise, but the way in which something is done.” “Someone may hear what rules to observe when making sacrifices, how far to stay away from the burden of superstition; this will never be enough if he does not conceive of the deity, as it is fitting, in his mind as the all-encompassing, all-encompassing one, who dispenses benefits for free.” Furthermore, in the same place, “the other question arises, how to interact with people? What do we want? What instructions do we give? That we should spare human blood? How little it is to harm no one whom we should benefit! Truly, it is a great praise if one is tame towards another! We prescribe that one share his bread with the hungry,” and so on.
We can see from this how eagerly Seneca occupied himself with these expressions for the exuberance of his new demands. For example, in Epistle 110, he returns to this opposition, saying, “You do nothing great if you do not value the superfluous; I only admire you if you despise the necessary.”
He also eagerly sought a comprehensive formula for his new commandments. For example, in the aforementioned Epistle 95, he asks, “When will I say everything that needs to be done and left undone? In short, this is the formula for human duty: everything you see that contains both divine and human qualities is one; nature has created us as relatives and implanted mutual love in us; our hands should be ready to help according to its commands” – so the same question about the formula on which the law hangs, as in the Gospel (Mark 12:29-31), the same answer, and the unity of the command derived from the unity of the absolute.
A structure as mature as the one Seneca gave to his antithesis of the new and old, the traditional and the personal, and the supreme formulation of the command corresponding to the unity of the divine and human, was well suited to be modulated and developed within the circle of the gentle ones who confront us at the time of Domitian until it acquired its present-day evangelical form.
Another framework of Seneca the stylist! “Throw all of that away from you (projice. Epist. 17; referring to property matters) and strive for a wise mind. If something is holding you back, free yourself from it or cut it off.” Furthermore, “throw away (projice) what tears your heart apart, or if it cannot be removed in any other way, then the heart itself must be torn out with it.” The new clothing in the evangelical exhortation to the rich and in the saying about plucking out the eye still clearly shows the original framework.
The evangelical saying (Matthew 6:8), “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” is a literal repetition of Seneca’s saying (Epistle 100): “What is meant to serve us well, our God and Father has placed in our nearest proximity; he has not waited for our request; he has given it of his own accord.”
The stylistic construction of one and the same thought cannot be more uniform than the one we find in the description of a spiritual metamorphosis in Seneca and in the letter to the Philippians. The Roman writes (Epistle 6): “I find, my Lucilius, that I am not only improving, but transforming (transfigurari), not as if I had already taken hold or hoped that there was nothing in me left to change. Why should I not have many things in me that need to be strengthened, moderated or lifted up?”
On the other hand, the author of the letter to the Philippians (3:10-12) is cognizant of the death of his Lord (ouµµoppoúμevos) and hopes to attain to the resurrection of the dead, but adds: “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect; but I press on if indeed I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”
The metamorphosis of which Seneca speaks, which he nevertheless does not yet present as the absolute perfection with cautious restraint, is the rebirth, which was one of the dogmas of the Stoics and in which, according to their view, man rises as a new creation from the old. Plutarch, their passionate opponent, caricatures this dogma and cites in his treatise on their “inconsistencies” as one of their follies the teaching that “whoever was perhaps the worst villain in the morning, could be the most virtuous person in the evening.”
Once again, the same sentence structure dominates the antithesis in which the New Testament opposes the natural and the spiritual man, and Seneca opposes sensuality and reason. “The natural man,” it says in I Corinthians 2:14-15, “receives nothing of the Spirit of God; it is foolishness to him and he cannot understand it, because it must be spiritually discerned. But the spiritual man judges everything.” In Seneca (Epistle 66), the antithesis reads: “Sensuality (sensus) cannot judge good and evil; what is useful and what is not is unknown to it. It cannot speak about anything that does not immediately concern it. It does not see into the future, does not remember the past, and does not know the sequence and order of the consequences in which the unity of life progresses to its completion. Therefore, reason is the judge of good and evil.”
Of the many other literal connections between Seneca and Paul, we highlight the following short sentences, on the side of the former (On Anger 1.13): “Man is born for mutual assistance,” of the latter (Galatians 6:2): “Bear one another’s burdens,” of the former (Epistle 9): “What is the use of gaining a friend? To have someone for whom I can die, for whose life I will put my own at risk, and for whom I will sacrifice myself,” – of the latter (II Corinthians 12:15): “I will gladly spend and be spent for you.”
Both Seneca and Paul warn against associating with those of different beliefs, although they agree in their admonition of being lenient towards the faults of others and in the statement about the universality of sin. Paul commands (II Corinthians 6:14), “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” Seneca (for example in Epistles 123 and 32.10) even quotes the Cynic philosopher Crates, who also said, “Beware and take heed that you do not speak with an evil person.” The association of Stoics, which was based on the conviction of its members and whose spirit of community arose from the constant generation through the intense participation and activity of its members, already had a religious character, and, like the later church, viewed the temptation of one of its own by “profane” people with the same fear and jealousy.
Because of a parallel that will immediately occupy us, we mention the literally identical saying with which both authors find their way out of the contradiction that the adverse fates of the good seem to form with divine providence. Seneca believes (Provid. cap. 1. 2): “God has a fatherly attitude towards the good and exercises them, whom he likes to strengthen, through pain and harm. God tests (experitur) the good, hardens him and prepares him for himself.” Likewise, it says in the Epistle to the Romans (9:18): “Whom God loves, he hardens,” and in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:6-7): “Whom the Lord loves, he chastens, and he scourges every son whom he receives.”
The tranquility of the stoic sage arose from the approval with which he accepted the sufferings and misfortunes of the divinely ordered world course, on which he exercised and put his inner strength to the test. However, this satisfaction with the world order was also a kind of self-reflection in the multitude of sufferings and trials that rushed towards the sage and broke against him. The darker the background of the world, the more brilliantly the heroic calm of the tested one emerged. The antithesis to the world is thus part of the image of the sage, and in the midst of his calm, something trembles from the irritability of the fighter over the attacks of the race.
This excitement over the hostility of the world also affects Seneca’s soul, despite its triumphs, in trembling vibrations, and his imagination is nourished by the depictions of suffering in which the sage proves his exaltation. “The sage,” he writes, for example, in Epist. 85, “is a master in the art of controlling evils. Pain, poverty, shame, prison, banishment, terrible everywhere else, become mild when they come upon him.”
The sufferings of imprisonment form the background of most of the so-called Pauline epistles, and the overall picture that the Apostle gives of his troubles and afflictions (2 Corinthians 11:23-28) unmistakably displays his independence from Seneca’s terrifying descriptions. “I have worked much harder,” the Apostle is said to write, “been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea.” We can safely leave the much-extended list of endured dangers after this stay in the depths of the sea.
Amédée Fleury, the learned author of “Deliciae theologicae Pragenses,” reminded us (Tom. II. pag. 247-249 of his work) how Abraham Scultetus, the court preacher and ecclesiastical-political advisor of Elector Palatine Frederick, found time to write his book while participating in the diplomacy of the short-lived Bohemian kingdom of this prince in Prague in 1620. In it, he demonstrated that the Apostle Paul had visibly been inspired by the letters of Heraclitus. Although Fleury also found the connection between Pauline literature and the letters of Heraclitus noteworthy, he hastened to conclude by pointing out their apocryphal character and their late origin, and surmised that it was more likely that the author of the two letters in question had had the Apostle’s epistles in mind and had copied them.
After proving the late origin of the Pauline epistles, the possibility of the reverse is not precluded for us. However, both Heraklitic letters, which belong to the first Christian century, have a special interest since they prove the entanglement of the admired Heraklit by Christian writers of the second and third centuries with Platonic and Stoic asceticism. When the supposed Ephesian writes to his friend Hermodorus (in the fourth letter of the collection of “The Heraklitic Letters” edited by Bernays, Berlin 1869): “I have successfully fought many terrible battles,” and then lists all his victories and triumphs, he leads us, even though his opponents are moral desires and defects, into the atmosphere of an era whose representatives present themselves to us in the position of combat-ready or triumphing fighters. The other passage admired by Scultetus in the letter to Amphidamas (the fifth in the aforementioned collection): “my soul already senses its liberation from this prison and, peering out from the shaken body, remembers the homeland from which it descended into the husk of a flowing and dead body,” has its parallels in the previously demonstrated sayings of Seneca and the letter to the Philippians, and provides additional evidence of the escapism of a time that wanted to escape this world altogether.
We hasten to a conclusion! Only in passing can we mention the view of significant men such as Huet, who wanted to find in Seneca’s writings evidence of his acquaintance with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. However, the insightful Bishop of Avranches had already been countered by contemporary Germans, who argued that the Roman Stoic’s attributes for the creative and ordering principle were taken too personally, while in Seneca they are merely names for the same One that can be chosen arbitrarily or according to the various relations of the One. For example, in the consolation letter to Helvia, chapter 8, when it says “whoever he may be, let him be an almighty God, or an incorporeal, creative reason in mighty works, or a divine breath (spiritus) stretched out in uniform tension through everything great and small,” the choice of which attribute to ascribe to the One is left to everyone’s discretion. The continuation of this freedom of designation, “whether he be fate or the unalterable sequence of interconnected causes,” would have to yield a quaternity or a fivefold personification of the One to men like Huet or Fleury, rather than the Trinity.
The freedom of choice is most clearly demonstrated in the Quaest. natural. (2, 45), where Seneca explains that Jupiter can be called “not the one worshipped in the Capitol and other temples, who is made to play with lightning, but the one who, according to the conviction of the enlightened, is the guardian and ruler of the universe, the animating spirit, the master and craftsman of this earthly world. One may call him Fate, the foundation of all, Providence, Nature, the world, the whole, everything visible, completely united in its parts and carrying itself through its own power, and one will not err.”
Philo preceded Seneca in these matters and was able to penetrate the construction of the divine before his Roman colleague in the new community that formed under the influence of Alexandria and Rome. His combination of Stoicism with the Platonic world-maker, who transformed matter after the model of ideas, gave the Stoic logos a separate scope between the anonymous being and the world and allowed it to emerge as the mediator, in whose form and office we find him especially in the Pauline letters and in the fourth gospel. Seneca’s influence on the formation of that community, on the other hand, is based on the ascetic character of his considerations on man and his relationship to his creator and on his efforts to personally embody the ideal of a mediator between earth and heaven and to impart to him the utmost seriousness through the test of struggle and suffering.
The value of his Stoic formulas about the true Jupiter’s polyonymy was not entirely wrongly assessed by educated men like Huet, even against their knowledge and will, when they extracted from them the germ of the later doctrine of the Trinity.
The asceticism of his view of humanity led him inevitably to a spiritualistic transformation of Stoic theology. Thus, although he confesses a couple of times (e.g. Epist. 106, 117) to the orthodox belief of the school that everything active is a body, he could not bring himself to call the creative reason, which he lists as one of the names of the world ruler in the passage cited in the letter to Helvia, corporeal. The speculation of some scholars that “incorporalis” is a Christian alteration is unnecessary; “corporeal” would have been too harsh for him. He goes so far beyond the theory of his master that in the preface to his investigations into nature, he poses the question of whether God created once and for all or creates continually, and it would be nice (utile) to know “whether he creates matter himself or finds it already given.”
Now a word about the position of Seneca and the Pauline letters regarding slavery! Fleury believes that the influence of Christianity led Seneca to adopt views on the human rights of slaves, and that the later reforms of Roman law were thus indebted to the authority of Nero’s teacher. However, we need only recall the major shift that occurred in the Stoic doctrine with regard to the general perception of the master-slave relationship. The Cynics had already broken the conventional barrier and boasted of their slaves as members of their brotherhood. Zeno leveled the class distinctions in the name of virtue; the tragic and comic stages of Athens made the freedom of the soul the regulator of human esteem, and Plautus brought their teachings to the Roman stage. To prove the harmony of the Greek poets and philosophers with their time, shall we recall the opening up of the bourgeois class by the wars between Greek city-states and by Alexander and his successors’ devastation, and the inclusion of slaves in the citizen armies? Or the economic upheaval in labor relations that transformed slave labor into wage labor and eventually into free labor? Or the similar reversal in Rome, which led to numerous manumissions and, under Augustus and Claudius, produced laws for the milder treatment of slaves?
Enough, Seneca had learned to hold in high esteem the general human right of slaves from the Stoics (and also from Epicurus, compare Epist. 107). In the third book of his work “De Beneficiis” (chapters 18-28), he draws numerous examples from the history of the Roman civil wars of slaves who, in a time of general brutality and cruelty, saved their masters by dedication and self-sacrifice, thus providing evidence “that virtue is not closed to anyone and that even the slave can be just and magnanimous.”
Furthermore, he was also ahead of later reformers in establishing the intimacy between master and servant on the basis of their shared dependence on a common superior (fate). His statement that slaves are not only “human beings, household members, friends, but fellow slaves” (conservi; Epist. 47) became, in Christian form (Ephesians 6:5-9), the union of servant and master in the same service under Christ.
Yes, Seneca was even ahead of Paul in the letters in rejecting dangerous consequences. In the above-mentioned letter, the Roman had to deal with the objection that “he would thus put the freedom cap on the slave and bring the masters down from their heights, if he demanded that the slave should obey his master without fear.” And he, as the original, had the audacity to insist simply that he should honor him as he would honor a superior, as a client whom he respects. The composition of the letter to Philemon, in which Paul sends back to Philemon an unprofitable slave (Onesimus, meaning “useful”), who had run away from his master but has now been won for Christ by him, and asks for his friendly acceptance as a dear brother, is nothing more than Christian apologetics against the same accusation that the new association would ultimately dissolve the relationship of slavery.
It remains to be noted (without digressing to Heraklitus and the earlier Stoic philosophy) that Seneca provided Christian authors with materials for their depiction of the Last Things through his description of the world fire that precedes the renewal of the universe. In his writing to Marcia, he states that the world will burn in fire, everything will be consumed by its own energy, star will collide with star, and everything that now shines in order will burn in a single mass of fire. The same imagery appears in the New Testament’s portrayal of the end of the world (2 Peter 3:12-13). Seneca also contributed to the development of Christian funeral rites, as his notion of the Heraklitean calm after death (avánavots) and the belief that the deceased rests in eternal peace and quiet (ad Polybium cap. 28; ad Marciam cap. 19, 24) influenced the Church’s view of the afterlife. Seneca’s letter to Marcia (cap. 25), in which he comforts her by saying that her deceased son is purged of the earthly remains and infirmities before ascending to the realm of blessed spirits, gave rise to the doctrine of purgatory.
As we conclude this section, some of our readers may still wonder whether it was really the case that the authors of several New Testament writings had Seneca’s letters and essays in their hands.
First, let us recall the biblical authors’ own citations of literary works, which prove that they were not unfamiliar with classical literature and were well aware of its intersections with their message. When the Paul of the letter to Titus, whom he had left behind in Crete to combat local seducers, exhorts him to perseverance, he refers him to a Cretan poet who had characterized his compatriots by saying that they “are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” According to the Church Fathers, who were still in possession of the relevant literature, it was the Cretan Epimenides who was supposed to have dedicated this kindness to his compatriots in one of his mystic-philosophical poems.
The author of the first letter to the Corinthians (15, 33) weaves the verse “Bad company ruins good morals” into his exhortations. Jerome tells us that the trimeter belongs to Menander; Grotius and Meineke believe they can assert that it is from that playwright’s “Thais” that the apostle took his citation. However, the tragic poets of Athens, as well as the masters of the newer comedy, also brought the teachings of philosophers to the stage as a moral guide for life; their works therefore offered the apostles of strict moral guidance many opportunities for inspiration and connection.
The popular teachers of the time also turned to the more serious exponents of stoic philosophy. The author of the Acts of the Apostles is aware of the intimate relationship between the new faith and the teaching of the Stoics and has the Apostle Paul appeal to the Athenians for the agreement of his message with the sayings of one of their poets in his speech. The poet is Cleanthes, Zeno’s successor in the leadership of the “hall”; the apostle’s quotation “we are of his offspring” is taken from his hymn to Zeus, and in the opening of the speech, “in him we live and move and have our being,” is from Aratus’ saying (in his “Phenomena”) about the omnipresence of God – a passage that also inspired Virgil in his aforementioned stoic apostrophe.
The Christian authors also found inspiration in Plato. The phrase with which the leaders of the early community twice defended themselves before the high council in Jerusalem (Acts 4:19, 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men”) is taken verbatim from Socrates’ speech to his judges in Plato’s Apology. And just as the Athenian sage continues, “I will not cease to practice philosophy as long as I breathe,” so too the disciples of the Christian community, even in the face of threats from the high council, continue their preaching with unwavering commitment.
But one might object that Seneca is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament parallels. Neither is Plato’s name, when a saying is borrowed from him, nor that of Philemon, the author of the comic stage, when, for example, in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, his words are used to recommend the subjection of women to men. Nor is Menander’s name mentioned when, in the question of the first letter to the Corinthians (6:7), the saying of the master of the comic stage, “The best man is he who knows how to suffer the most injustice,” is clearly implied by the author.
Seneca could not be cited for two reasons. Firstly, his Latin did not fit into the literary exchange that was conducted in the Greek language between Greece, Alexandria, and Rome in the Greek lingua franca. Furthermore, we have in the so-called Pauline letters only a late literature that was preceded by many modulations of Greek and Latin fundamentals, just as in our present three first Gospels, various types and attempts that underlie them are still visible today. It can, therefore, be assumed with certainty that the Roman-Jewish circle that formed in Rome during the Flavian period had already been engaged in transforming Seneca’s treasures into symbols of their community in many ways, and that the new wisdom of sayings had been spread by the Jewish wandering people and their foreign connections to Greece and the Orient, without the final compilers of such sayings always knowing the original source.
The similarity in style that occurs between Seneca’s main clauses and the New Testament parallels remains, despite all this, a strong indication that the authors of such parallels, such as the one we started this section with, had the Roman philosopher’s writings in mind. Fleury has only juxtaposed brief sentences or dogmatic catchwords from Seneca and the Bible in parallel; but if one considers the stylistic form of composition and diction on both sides, one will recognize that on the side of the Roman, content and form develop originally and have their natural motivation, while on the side of the New Testament, a given material is sharpened into new points.
9. Seneca’s Compromises.
After having presented Seneca as a religious founder and the extensive influence of his foundation in the writings of the New Testament, we can leave it to the judgment of our readers to decide whether the harsh and dismissive hardness with which Mr. Schiller (p. 626 ff. of his work) speaks of the Roman sage can give a picture of his historical significance.
“Seneca,” says Schiller, “wrote because it was fashionable and writing was a power. The phrase dominates the presentation (in his writings) completely; for it has the task of replacing the warmth of feeling and moral depth that he lacked and without which an ethical writer can never be effective. It is not the thought that determines the expression, but to gain a piquant antithesis, everything is distorted and skewed, and to seem witty, the writer often only grasps at the external means and characteristics of wit. In his own consciousness of his limited talent for dialectical and representational art, Seneca sought to replace the noble popularity that the Greeks had achieved, because they were able to draw from the abundance of material and life with full hands and the linguistic presentation of the right thought followed naturally, through bons mots and aphorisms, even through forced means of rhetoric.”
The fact that the Greeks drew from the abundance of material and life is as little said as with the modern call: “Just reach into the fullness of human life!” As for the Greek philosophers who are of particular interest to us in this matter, it was rather the misfortune and emptiness of their surroundings that drove them to seek inner peace and lasting happiness. The absolutism of democracy and its kinship, as well as its apparently futile struggle with the rising military dictatorship, heralded to them the loss of their homeland and made politics unattractive, for the shattered principles of which they sought compensation in the world order and its conformity with their own ego. Originality, which Herr Schiller completely misses in Seneca, is rare in the world as a whole; during the time from Heraclitus to Christianity, and even until the end of the Middle Ages (if we disregard Luther’s affinity with the ancestor of Greek philosophy here), we had to be content with the processing of the wisdom of the Ephesians in the highest questions.
The “bon mots” with which Schiller’s Seneca is said to embellish his poverty of talent for dialectics and composition are rather a concentration of the wisdom that came from Heraclitus through Plato to the Cynics and Stoics into gripping sayings, a reduction of philosophical research to the one thing that is necessary, and an application of theory to the needs of the soul.
The supposedly witty antitheses that Schiller’s Seneca is supposed to use to produce the appearance of wit are rather the opposites in which his time lived, and which he formulated in a concise language. Spirit and flesh, illness and deceptive health, the wealth of poverty, the blessing of misfortune and the joy of misery, the invigorating and uplifting power of suffering – this disharmony that triumphs was what the time since the calamity of the civil wars felt as a solution to the general misfortune, and Seneca brought it to clarity with his cutting sayings. The perseverance of the Stoic under the blows of misfortune and the jubilation of the Cynic over his unreachability for the attacks of the world had provided the first structure for these sayings, and the devotion that had spread for a time after the victory of the Prince of Peace at Actium in the general mood and in the language of the poets, as well as in the reorganization of the state, had brought about the religious attitude with which Seneca traced the solution of his antitheses back to the world order of his organizing deity.
Another feature of Schiller’s Seneca’s portrait is that, according to the historian of the Neronian period, “he is not rigorous towards circumstances, and his basic idea about moral progress is that life consists of compromises, and by constantly seeking to achieve such compromises between his teachings and his life, between Epicureanism and Stoicism, and between form and content, he comes to the view that a small and hardly noticeable step forward is to be preferred to the complete rejection of a too rigid demand.”
Seneca’s willingness to compromise should not be understood as petty. He usually expresses himself differently. For example, in his fifth letter he says, “the name ‘philosopher’ is already offensive in itself, even if it appears very unassuming, so one should not further provoke people with a contrived appearance and rather strive for a better way of life than that of the world and not alienate those one wants to improve by acting in the opposite way; also, the contentment that philosophy demands is by no means a mortification and torture of the body; one would scare away those one wants to improve by living conspicuously.”
Similarly, in the first letter to the Corinthians (9:10-22), Paul states that he has adapted to everyone in order to win some: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
This condescension towards the world does not hesitate to address even the most ordinary detail of casuistry. Philo (see my work on him) deals with the question of whether the wise man may allow himself to become intoxicated, and answers in the affirmative. Similarly, Seneca believes (in Tranquill. cap. 1) that “one must do something for the sake of the soul and sometimes allow it some leisure, which serves it for nourishment and strengthening. Sometimes even a little drunkenness is permissible, not that it drags us down, but it submerges us a little. This washes away our cares and shakes up the spirit in its depths.” And does not the passage in the first letter to Timothy (5:23), “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities” also belong to this category?
In my critique of the Pauline epistles, I have shown that the two letters to the Corinthians, which are usually considered, along with the letters to the Romans and Galatians, as the pillars of the alleged Pauline literature, are a compromise attempt from the second century. This century was a time of lively oscillation between conflict and compromise, and one should not interpret the latter, from which the universal (Catholic) church emerged, along with the previous strife, according to the schema of the conflict and entanglement between Jewish and Gentile Christians, on which theology has been working until this moment without arriving at a sustainable result.
The period after the downfall of the Greek and Roman republics was generally a period of compromises, as criticism of its mythological philosophy went beyond the powers of antiquity and only the mythological fusion and unification of its acquired laws of life remained for the expanded world circle.
Entering into a compromise by itself does not make a flaw. Seneca’s religious foundation was based on the combination of the unshakable wisdom of the Stoic philosophy supported by Platonic asceticism with the gentle ideal of the martyr who proves himself in suffering and shame, which shone out of the darkness of civil war. And in the maturity of his development, he also befriended the morality of Epicurus, a man whom he often mentions in the letters to Lucilius, even though he, figuratively speaking, walks in female attire. He needed the tranquility and inner peace of this man to fully reconcile himself and his friends with the withdrawal from the world and its activities.
Nevertheless, Seneca’s life is marked by a compromise that involved him in the intrigues of the Claudian court and the bloody state actions that, prepared in these intrigues, came to maturity under Nero, and has occupied the judgment of the world about him until now. He, the wise man who estranged the minds of the people from the affairs of state with his doctrine, undermined the imperial throne, and called into existence a band that could only maintain itself at the cost of Rome, accepted Agrippina’s invitation to become the tutor of her son, became Nero’s leading minister, and was close to the tragedies that spread terror over the reign of this emperor. Finally forced into actual retirement by the displeasure of his lord, he looked with sympathy on a conspiracy that threatened to overthrow the emperor and elevate the wise man to the throne. Let us now attempt to describe and interpret the risk of this compromise.
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