Gospel Echoes in Seneca


Crucified Rulers Talk is Cheap
Golden Rule Universal Inclination
Theology Fatherhood of God
Shock of Recognition Divergence
Convergence Smoking Gun
According to Nature Lunatic Fringe

Lucius Annaeus Seneca


Crucified Rulers

In his treatise 'On Wrath,' Seneca makes a passing reference to a ruler crucified:



  • “Behold the most glorious cities whose foundations can scarcely be traced — anger cast them down. Behold solitudes stretching lonely for many miles without a single dweller — anger laid them waste. Behold all the leaders who have been handed down to posterity as instances of an evil fate — anger stabbed this one in his bed, struck down this one amid the sanctities of the feast, tore this one to pieces in the very home of the law and in full view of the crowded forum, forced this one to have his blood spilled by the murderous act of his son, another to have his royal throat cut by the hand of a slave, another to have his limbs stretched upon the cross.”
  • (Seneca, On Wrath, Book I).




Of what ruler would Seneca have been thinking? What king, prince or governor had died upon a cross? He is speaking, evidently, of a real case. Conceivably he may have been thinking of Jesus, of whom he would have heard. Seneca's brother Gallio is mentioned in the New Testament:



  • “And when Gallio was the deputy of Achaia, the Jews made insurrection with one accord against Paul, and brought him to the judgment seat,
  • “Saying, This fellow persuadeth men to worship God contrary to the law.
  • “And when Paul was now about to open his mouth, Gallio said unto the Jews, If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you:
  • “But if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters.
  • “And he drave them from the judgment seat.
  • “Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. And Gallio cared for none of those things.”
  • (Acts 18:12-17).





It is also possible, of course, that Seneca was thinking of someone else, for instance of Regulus, of whom he says, "Just say to yourself: 'Of all these experiences that seem so frightful, none is insuperable. Separate trials have been overcome by many: fire by Mucius, crucifixion by Regulus, poison by Socrates, exile by Rutilius, and a sword-inflicted death by Cato; therefore, let us also overcome something.'" (Seneca, Letters, Epistle XCVIII.) Marcus Atilius Regulus, consul, was taken prisoner by Carthaginian forces in 255 B.C. After remaining in captivity for five years, he was allowed to travel to Rome with a deputation presenting a peace proposal. Regulus dissuaded the Senate from accepting this plan, and as he had undertaken, returned to Carthage, where he was tortured to death. Seneca, as indicated, understood his mode of death to be crucifixion, although accounts differ as to exactly how this man died:

"Let us come now to Regulus: what injury did Fortune do to him because she made him a pattern of loyalty, a pattern of endurance? Nails pierce his skin, and wherever he rests his wearied body he lies upon a wound; his eyes are stark in eternal sleeplessness. But the greater his torture is, the greater shall be his glory. Would you like to know how little he regrets that he rated virtue at such a price? Make him whole again and send him back to the senate; he will express the same opinion. Do you, then, think Maecenas a happier man, who, distressed by love and grieving over the daily repulses of his wayward wife, courted slumber by means of harmonious music, echoing faintly from a distance? Although he drugs himself with wine, and diverts his worried mind with the sound of rippling waters, and beguiles it with a thousand pleasures, yet he, upon his bed of down, will no more close his eyes than that other upon his cross." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Essays, Book 1, On Providence, iii. 8).

Regulus, thus, would count as a crucified leader, in Seneca's book. So this reference is not exactly a smoking gun, although it is also still conceivable Seneca was thinking of Jesus, a crucified king, when he wrote it. Regulus, however, is one of Seneca's favorite historical figures. Whether Regulus might serve in some contexts as a stand-in or cat's paw for Jesus is questionable, given that the issues involved in the semi-voluntary deaths of both men are different; Jesus's death is not really all about fidelity to an oath.


Salvator Mundi


Exactly what happened to Regulus is somewhat uncertain; some authors think he was 'impaled' in some other sense than 'crucified:' "For this reason, after he had returned voluntarily to Carthage, the Carthaginians put him to death by enclosing him in a standing posture in a box the planks of which were stuck full of iron spikes so that he could not possibly lie down." (Appian's Roman History, Book V, Chapter 1, p. 129). Modern historians, of course, scoff at the whole thing. If Regulus was enclosed in a nail-studded cask, this, while an impalement of some kind, is not exactly what we understand by crucifixion, although some of the sources seem to envision something more like conventional crucifixion: "I was looking on, when Regulus, the hope and pride of Hector's race, was dragged along amid the shouts of the populace to his dark dungeon, with both hands bound fast behind his back; I was looking on, when he hung high upon the tree and saw Italy from his lofty cross." (Silius Italicus, Punica, Book II).

Some in antiquity delighted in thinking up imaginative ways to inflict pain on other human beings. One cannot help but agree with the tyrant's verdict on the inventor of Phalaris' bull, that he who could think of such a thing, ought to suffer it himself. Could Seneca have deliberately chosen to misidentify Regulus' death as a crucifixion, knowing that stumped readers would be brought up short, to feel his a nudge hinting that he really means to talk about Jesus? This is beyond doubtful, as nothing that he wishes to say about Regulus applies much to Jesus. Certainly at some point Seneca's political ideals diverged from Nero's, with Seneca's suicide ensuing; however, the supposition that the treatment of the Nazarene's followers may have been central to this divergence is altogether speculative. The victors get to write history, and we don't remember Nero as an enlightened, benevolent ruler, but as a madman. In some of the ways in which Seneca's views diverged from Nero's path, he would have been a fellow-traveller with the Christians; the man who wrote the Pumpkinification of Claudius cannot have been an enthusiast for imperial deification. Beyond that it is difficult to untangle the threads.

Given the vicissitudes of history, other crucified rulers can be enumerated, such as the tyrant Polycrates of Samos:

"The tyrannies were at their height in the time of Polycrates and his brother Syloson. The former was distinguished for his good fortune, and the possession of such a degree of power as made him master of the sea. It is related as an instance of his good fortune, that having purposely thrown into the sea his ring, which was of great value both on account of the stone and the engraving, a short time afterwards a fisherman caught the fish which had swallowed it, and on cutting the fish open, the ring was discovered. When the king of Egypt was informed of this, he declared, it is said, with a prophetic s spirit, that Polycrates, who had been elevated to such a height of prosperity, would soon end his life unfortunately; and this was actually the case, for he was taken by the Persian satrap by stratagem, and crucified." (Strabo, Geography, Book XIV, Chapter I, Section 16, Volume III, p. 9).

It is not clear whether the princes of Lamentations 5:12, hung by their hands, suffered something like crucifixion: "Princes were hung up by their hands, and elders were not respected." (Lamentations 5:12). The brave Spartan king Leonidas, whose unsuccessful defense of the pass at Thermopylae is familiar to all, was posthumously crucified, by some accounts: "Having thus said Xerxes passed in review the bodies of the dead; and as for Leonidas, hearing that he had been the king and commander of the Lacedemonians he bade them cut off his head and crucify him." (Herodotus, The Histories, Volume 2, p. 228, Book VII, Chapter 238). Whether any of Mommsen's African "sheiks" called themselves kings, I don't know: ". . .the sheiks in all the communities that had revolted were crucified; it is said that there were three thousand of them, and that this revolting atrocity on the part of the Carthaginian authorities really laid the foundation of the revolution which broke forth in Africa some years later." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Book III, Chapter II, Kindle location 9754). The Persians, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians practiced crucifixion before the Romans adopted this surpassingly cruel method of execution. The exact practice of these various nations differed, although Seneca would have felt justified in using the word nevertheless.

Not only did Carthage use crucifixion as a punishment for the outcast and outsider, or for rebellious vassals; the Carthaginian Senate fell into the bad habit of crucifying their own unsuccessful generals: "This action of the Conscript Fathers was mild if we care to look at the violence of the Carthaginian senate in ordering military affairs. By its command generals who mismanaged campaigns were crucified even if fortune had turned in their favor." (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, Book II.7, pp. 197-199, Loeb edition). The luckless Carthaginian generals ran this risk from rebel mercenaries as well as their home government: "After the rebels killed Bostar, the military governor on the island [Sardinia], and other Carthaginians, a force was dispatched form Carthage. After arriving, however, its mercenary troops mutinied and crucified their Carthaginian general, then massacred all the Carthaginians in Sardinia." (Carthage Must be Destroyed, Richard Miles, p. 212). Hamilcar was another crucified Carthaginian leader, whose crucifixion is traced by the pious Aelian to his looting the temple of Aphrodite: "But I learn that Hamilcar the Carthaginian looted these objects, melted down the silver and gold, and then distributed an infamous largess to his troops. And for these deeds he suffered the most painful and grievous torments and was punished with crucifixion, while all his accomplices and partners in that unholy sacrilege died violent and terrible deaths." (Aelian, On Animals, Book X, Chapter 50, p. 351 Loeb edition). Hanno the Great was crucified after instigating a rebellion: "Such treachery could not be overlooked, and Hanno, when captured after his rebellion failed, was subjected to merciless punishment. After suffering scourging and terrible torture, he was finally nailed to a cross." (Carthage Must be Destroyed, Richard Miles, p. 131).

One conquered foreign monarch who suffered this cruel death at the hands of the Carthaginians was the Spanish king Tagus:

"Meanwhile the direction of affairs was handed over to Hasdrubal; and he harried with savage cruelty the wealth of the western world, the people of Spain, and the dwellers beside the Baetis. Hard was the general's heart, and nothing could mitigate his ferocious temper; power he valued because it gave him the opportunity to be cruel. . .Nor was he willing to sate his rage with ordinary punishments. Tagus, a man of ancient race, remarkable for beauty and of proved valor, Hasdrubal, defying gods and men, fastened high on a wooden cross, and displayed in triumph to the sorrowing natives the unburied body of their king." (Silius Italicus, Punica, Book I).

The Romans did not normally so treat defeated kings, only on occasion:

"These people Antony entrusted to one Herod to govern, and Antigonus he bound to a cross and flogged,— treatment accorded to no other king by the Romans,— and subsequently slew him." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 49, Chapter 22).

So there really are many crucified kings Seneca could have had in mind. The faithful Regulus, however, seems to have been one of Seneca's touchstones. Regulus's self-sacrifice was familiar to students of Roman history, celebrated in song and story:

"His wife's pure kiss he waved aside,
And prattling boys, as one disgraced,
They tell us, and with manly pride
Stern on the ground his visage placed.
With counsel thus ne'er else aread
He nerved the fathers' weak intent,
And, girt by friends that mourn'd him, sped
Into illustrious banishment.
Well witting what the torturer's art
Design'd him, with like unconcern
The press of kin he push'd apart
And crowds encumbering his return,
As though, some tedious business o'er
Of clients' court, his journey lay
Towards Venafrum's grassy floor,
Or Sparta-built Tarentum's bay."

(Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace (J. Conington, Ed.) Book III, Poem 5).

Time has done its dissolving work, and so when we think of first century kings, there is none who interests us but Jesus. However, there is really no way of knowing exactly who Seneca had in mind. Seneca's nephew Lucan presents us with the image of Julius Caesar, crucified:

"Caesareas spectate cruces, spectate catenas,
et caput hoc positum rostris effusaque membra
Saeptorumque nefas et clausi proelia Campi." (Lucan Liber vii, lines 304-306)
"'Think of the cross that threatens us, and the chain,
Limbs hacked asunder, Caesar's head displayed
Upon the rostra; and that narrow field
Piled up with slaughter. . .'" (Lucan, Pharsalia, Book VII)

"Picture to yourselves the cross and the chains in store for Caesar, my head stuck upon the Rostrum and my limbs unburied; think of the crime of the Saepta and the battle fought in the enclosed Campus. . ." (Lucan, Pharsalia, Book VII, Loeb edition.)

But Caesar's not a king? Lucan thought otherwise; in this very same speech of Caesar rousing the troops to battle, he muses on the benefits of victory: ". . .for 'tis I Who when this war is done shall have the power O'er all that peoples, all that kings enjoy [Quae populi regesque tenent] To shower it where I will." This alarming comparison occurs only a few lines earlier, in the same speech. As it turned out, Caesar emerged the victor, his fate not left to his enemies to determine, so Caesar was not in the event a crucified ruler. He escaped unscathed on that occasion, though ending later, not as a crucified ruler, but as a multiple-stab-wound ruler. Is it conceivable this is not altogether a made-up speech, and that Caesar was known to have said something like that, which people might recall as they recall, say, Ben Franklin's 'We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately'?

So while there is more than one crucified king, one must concede to the Seneca conspiracy theorists that it's at least possible Seneca was thinking of Jesus, because he was certainly aware of Christianity, by mid-century at least if not at the beginning. Paul stood upon his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard before Caesar. These things were not done in a corner, Christianity was already a popular movement with a sizeable constituency. Seneca, as a highly placed government advisor, cannot have been unaware of the controversy caused by this new sect. After the catastrophic fire of 64 A.D., Nero punished the Christians as arsonists. This indiscriminate mass punishment sparked both jubilation and public dismay. Some people thought the Christians got what they deserved, others were horrified. In 65 A.D., Seneca was allowed to commit suicide rather than be punished for his purported role in the anti-Neronian conspiracy of Piso. On which side of the divide in public opinion over the Christians Seneca stood, we cannot now know. Did he hate the Christians as much as Nero did, or fear that they had been unjustly accused? Did he think them criminals or innocent victims? He cannot have had 'no opinion.' The timing and sequence of events makes one wonder. Unfortunately exactly what he did think is difficult to reconstruct.

As a first step in finding one's way to reality, the reader should toss aside Reza Aslan and Bart Ehrman inspired mantras, as to how Seneca would never have heard of a peasant like Jesus, and how Judaea was an insignificant corner of the empire, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Judaea was a wealthy province at a geographical cross-roads, and Jews made up ten percent of the population of the empire. Christianity's initial growth was explosive. The conspiracy websites are not really on to something, Seneca did not invent Christianity, but at least they're thinking.

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Talk is Cheap

Seneca is aware of the dilemma stated thusly by Paul:

"For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I." (Romans 7:15).


  • “Indeed, the persons who take the greatest pains to proffer such advice are themselves unable to put it into practice. It is thus that the pedagogue advises the boy, and the grandmother her grandson; it is the hottest-tempered schoolmaster who contends that one should never lose one s temper. Go into in elementary school, and you will learn that just such pronouncements, emanating from high-browed philosophers, are to be found in the lesson-book for boys!”
  • (Seneca, Letters, Epistle XCIV).





Seneca had of course many times heard the standard complaint against the ethical striving of the philosophers:

"'Philosophers do not practice what they preach,' you say. Yet they do practice much that they preach, much that their virtuous minds conceive. For indeed if their actions always matched their words, who would be more happy than they?" (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On the Happy Life).

This point is often brought up by the Stoics, that written admonitions are plentiful but not sufficient: "What then is the thing which is wanted? A man who shall apply them, one who by his acts shall bear testimony to his word." (Discourse of Epictetus, transcribed by Arrian, Book I, Delphi Complete Works of Arrian, Kindle location 5916). Not only a satirist like Lucian, but a fellow ethical striver like Jewish philosopher Philo noticed the problem. He praised Moses for this rare and desirable character: ". . .he exhibited the doctrines of philosophy in all his daily actions, saying precisely what he thought, and performing such actions only as were consistent with his words, so as to exhibit a perfect harmony between his language and his life, so that as his words were such also was his life, and as his life was such likewise was his language, like people who are playing together in tune on a musical instrument." (Philo Judaeus, On the Life of Moses, Book I, Chapter VI.) The phonies of course comprise a much larger class according to Philo. The diagnosis that the dilemma for ethics is, not to identify moral behavior which is not so very difficult, but rather to deliver the groceries, is already made by Philo:

"For what city is there which is not full of those who are continually celebrating the praises of virtue? -- men who weary the ears of those who hear them by everlastingly dwelling on such subjects as these; wisdom is a necessary good; folly is pernicious; temperance is desirable; intemperance is hateful; courage is a thing proper to be cultivated; cowardice must be avoided; justice is advantageous; injustice is disadvantageous; holiness is honorable; unholiness is shameful; piety towards the gods is praiseworthy; impiety is blameable; that which is most akin to the nature of man is to design, and to act, and to speak virtuously; that which is most alien from his nature is to do the contrary of all these things.
"By continually stringing together these and similar aphorisms they deceive the courts of justice, and the council chambers, and the theatres, and every assembly and company which they meet; as men who put beautiful masks on ugly faces, with the intention of not being discovered by those who see them. But it is of no use; for some persons will come endowed with great vigor, and occupied with a real zeal and admiration for virtue, and who will strip them of all their coverings, and disguises, and appendages which they had woven round themselves by the evil artifice of plausible speeches, and will display their soul naked by itself as it really is, and will make themselves acquainted with the secret things of their nature which are hidden as it were in recesses."
(Philo Judaeus, On the Change of Names, Chapter XXXVI).

Christian ethics is not globally nor at heart on the same page with Stoicism, though there are points of convergence. In common with all systems of philosophical ethics, Stoicism lacks any bridge crossing the chasm between word and deed. Stoic ethics points out the right, sometimes accurately, but without granting power to pursue. Not that Seneca did not admire integrity: "And as this belief is, so will be our acts and our thoughts. As our acts and our thoughts are, so will our lives be. . .We must set before our eyes the goal of the Supreme Good, towards which we may strive, and to which all our acts and words may have reference — just as sailors must guide their course according to a certain star." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters, Epistle XCV). But oft-times the virtue of practicing what one preaches is admired from afar. This is a recurring, and never solved, problem of Greek philosophical ethics, how to traverse the gap between word and deed:

"We should so learn them that words may become deeds. And I hold that no man has treated mankind worse than he who has studied philosophy as if it were some marketable trade, who lives in a different manner from that which he advises. For those who are liable to every fault which they castigate advertise themselves as patterns of useless training. A teacher like that can help me no more than a sea-sick pilot can be efficient in a storm. .  .I shall show you how men can prove their words to be their own: it is by doing what they have been talking about." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letter CVIII, On the Approaches to Philosophy).

Jesus, of course, raised this issue as well: ". . .but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not." (Matthew 23:3). Christians, despite all the assistance of the Holy Spirit, do not always achieve perfect compliance with this shared goal. Whether Seneca himself met his own test is open to question. What do you say to a fabulously wealthy man who is ever praising the simple life? But no doubt this man, an intimate advisor of Emperor Nero, earned every penny honestly (snark).

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Golden Rule

Seneca gives, not as his own discovery but as a saying in common use, "You must expect to be treated by others as you yourself have treated them:"

"Moreover, who can deny that even the most inexperienced are effectively struck by the force of certain precepts? For example, by such brief but weighty saws as: "Nothing in excess," "The greedy mind is satisfied by no gains," "You must expect to be treated by others as you yourself have treated them." We receive a sort if shock when we hear such sayings; no one ever thinks of doubting them or of asking "Why?" So strongly, indeed, does mere truth, unaccompanied by reason, attract us. (Seneca, Letters, Epistle XCIV.).

This is not the Golden Rule, because it is a prediction, not a maxim. Perhaps it is more similar to, "with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you." (Mark 4:24), or the common folk saying, 'What goes around comes around.'

At least he does not recommend only the negative form of the Golden Rule, often proposed as a substitute, though quite unworthy and inadequate to the task: "What a little thing it is not to harm one whom you ought to help!" (Seneca, Letters, Epistle XCV). Stoic morals do not rise to the level of Christianity, but do approach at times. Seneca cannot bring himself to advise loving one's enemy: "Furthermore, when we advise a man to regard his friends as highly as himself, to reflect that an enemy may become a friend, to stimulate love in the friend, and to check hatred in the enemy, we add: 'This is just and honorable.'" (Seneca, Letters, Epistle XCV). 'Checking hatred' is not 'loving,' but it's heading on the right road.

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Universal Inclination

Seneca shared the New Testament's pessimism about human nature:

"Listen to the well-known line of Virgil, 'Loyalty is not safe anywhere,'. . .or of Menander (for who has not galvanized his great talents to address this topic, out of loathing for the human race's universal inclination toward wrongdoing?): he says that everybody lives wickedly — the poet has leaped onto the stage like a rustic — and he makes no exception for old people, or boys, or women, or men; and he adds that it is not individuals who sin, nor small groups, but now crime is intertwined [with crime]." (Seneca, Natural Questions, Book 4a, Preface, Section 19).

His negative evaluation on this score makes it all the odder that he would endorse an education-based elitism as the answer

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Theology

Stoic theology tends toward pantheism, describing God as bearing the same relation to the created world as the mind does to the body: "All this universe which encompasses us is one, and it is God; we are associates of God; we are his members." (Seneca, Letter XCII, On the Happy Life).  At times Seneca rises a little above this paradigm:

"What is god? The intelligence of the universe. What is god? All that you see and all that you do not see. Only then is his true greatness recognized—greatness than which nothing greater can be imagined—if he alone is everything, if he controls his creation both from within and from without.

"So what is the difference between god's nature and our own? The mind is the superior part of us; in him there is nothing apart from mind. He is nothing but reason, although such great error grips the mortal sphere that human beings think that the most beautiful, the most organized, the most reliable thing that exists is subject to accident, at the mercy of chance, and therefore disorderly, with all the lightning-bolts, clouds, storms, and other things that batter the earth and the neighborhood of the earth." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Natural Questions, Book 1, Preface 13-14).

While at times it seems as if, in the moral field, Seneca was granted a Pisgah view of the new world, in his tendency to identify God with nature, he remains mired in paganism:

"Nor did they believe that Jupiter throws lightning-bolts with his hand, like the one we worship on the Capitol and in other temples. They recognize the same Jupiter as we do, the ruler and guardian of the universe, the mind and breath of the world, the master and the craftsman of this creation, for whom every name will be appropriate. Do you want to call him fate? You will not be mistaken: he it is on whom everything depends, the cause of causes. Do you want to call him providence? You will be right: he it is by whose deliberation provision is made for this world, so that it can advance unhindered and unfold its actions. Do you want to call him nature? You will not be wrong: he it is from whom everything is born, by whose breath we live. Do you want to call him the world? You are not mistaken: for he himself is all this that you see, contained in his own parts, sustaining both himself and his creation." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Natural Questions, Book 2, 45:1-3).
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Fatherhood of God

The Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man. . .and I almost said, 'the neighborhood of Boston,' but I caught myself in time. The Stoics were conversant with these ever-popular doctrines. The Fatherhood of God:

"Now God, who is the Father of us all, has placed ready to our hands those things which he intended for our own good; he did not wait for any search on our part, and he gave them to us voluntarily." (Seneca, Epistle CX, On True and False Riches).

. . .and the brotherhood of man:

"What virtue do we admire more than benevolence? What do we encourage more? Who ought to applaud it more than we Stoics, who preach the brotherhood of the human race?" (Seneca, On Benefits, Book I, Chapter XV).

Insomuch as this is a Stoic doctrine of long standing, Christian influence is not at issue, though Jewish influence is an open question. No more than do Christians did the pagans believe God is honored as Father by all human creatures, including the wicked, defiant and rebellious; though He created these too, they are taken to have been disowned. However, the pagans' catalog of 'what is wicked' included no entry, as did Moses', for 'pagan idolatry.' So here is a true convergence which might cause more misunderstanding than mutual understanding; there are others:

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The Shock of Recognition

Seneca expects a sound maxim to meet with immediate agreement:

"Moreover, the precepts which are given are of great weight in themselves, whether they be woven into the fabric of song, or condensed into prose proverbs, like the famous Wisdom of Cato: "Buy not what you need, but what you must have. That which you do not need, is dear even at a farthing." Or those oracular or oracular-like replies, such as "Be thrifty with time!" "Know thyself!" Shall you need to be told the meaning when someone repeats to you lines like these: Forgetting trouble is the way to cure it. Fortune favors the brave, but the coward is foiled by his faint heart. Such maxims need no special pleader; they go straight to our emotions, and help us simply because Nature is exercising her proper function. The soul carries within itself the seed of everything, that is honorable, and this seed is stirred to growth by advice, as a spark that is fanned by a gentle breeze develops its natural fire. Virtue is aroused by a touch, a shock. Moreover, there are certain things which, though in the mind, yet are not ready to hand but begin to function easily as soon as they are put into words." (Seneca, Letters, Epistle XCIV, On the Value of Advice.)

The pagan despisers of Christianity, men like Celsus and Porphyry, reacted to the gospel with pettiness and prejudice. But Seneca was neither stupid nor small-minded. How would he have reacted in reading the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's gospel? No doubt, as a Roman patriot though a Spaniard, with unease at the lack of flattery toward the emperor or gratitude to the empire; but some points must have won agreement, grudging or free. Since Jesus had a knack for phrasing things in a striking and memorable way,— "Never man spake like this man." (John 7:46),— certain of these sayings might have stuck in his mind. If so, we have a 'clock,' a dating mechanism: Seneca died in 65 A.D., so anything he quotes was written prior to this date. The atheist alternative: that the gospels quote Seneca, and are indeed derivative from his writing,— fails to convince. Can we find any such quotes, allusions, or reminiscences in Seneca's work? I would hesitantly affirm that we can, though they are far from dazzling.

First example: loving others "as oneself:"

"True mercy, Caesar, is this which you display, which arises from no regret for violence, that bears no stain and never shed a compatriot's blood. In a position of unlimited power this is in the truest sense self-control and an all-embracing love of the human race even as of oneself — not to be perverted by any low desire, or by hastiness of nature, or by the precedent of earlier princes into testing by experiment what license one may employ against fellow-citizens, but rather to dull the edge of supreme power." (Seneca, On Mercy).

The concept of loving others "as oneself" is so far from being a self-evident piece of humanity's moral heritage that atheists like Robert Ingersoll and Christopher Hitchens mock and deride the very idea, confident that their scorn will fall on none but those they despise, namely the Christians. Pagan literature is abundantly stocked with maxims commending 'log-rolling,' like Cato's advice, "Always act in such away as to secure the love of your neighbors." (Cato quoted in Pliny's Natural History, Book XVIII, Chapter 8). However these maxims do not rise above enlightened self-interest, boiling down to 'I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine.' They do not commend disinterested love of neighbor; the neighbor to be cultivated is one who can reciprocate your kindness. Currying his favor is a sort of insurance policy.

A catch-phrase takes wings and flies,— or 'goes viral' as they say nowadays,— because once a compact statement has found a home in someone's memory, it easily escapes through the outlet of the mouth when circumstances call it to mind. This is so whether the speaker regards the originator of the catch-phrase as an authority or not, likes him or loathes him. In this case the originator of the catch-phrase is, strictly speaking, not Jesus but Moses: "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD." (Leviticus 19:18). However, the phrase as given is subject to interpretation, and as Jesus informs us, some interpreters thought the word 'neighbor' intended to exclude rather than include:

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?" (Matthew 5:43-47).

Jesus offered God's own authoritative interpretation of Leviticus 19:18, and Seneca has internalized the correct reading of the passage. Or did he originate the concept, as some atheists would claim? This is the more doubtful as it is Jesus, not Seneca, who actually believes that one should love everyone, friend or enemy; upon considered reflection, Seneca would likely add the qualifier that one should love the virtuous. Seneca wrote this treatise of advice to Nero when Nero was eighteen years of age; Nero was born in 37 A.D. Was Matthew's gospel available in Greek translation in the mid 50's of the first century? Is there any reason to think that it was not?

Second example: even cats understand the concept of reciprocity, as any cat-owner can attest who has received the well-intentioned but under-appreciated gift of a dead mouse. But some kindnesses are unrequited. Where do they go? Are they counted a loss? Jesus says no, they are piled up in the treasure-house of heaven:

"Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me." (Mark 10:21).

Seneca says something similar in 'On Benefits,' that gifts unrequited are not lost, but consecrated to heaven:

"You say, “I have lost the benefit which I bestowed.” Yet do we say that we have lost what we consecrate to heaven, and a benefit well bestowed, even though we get an ill return for it, is to be reckoned among things consecrated." (Seneca, On Benefits, Book VII, Chapter XXIX).

Again, if this were a Stoic common-place it would mean little, but it does not appear to be such that I can ascertain. It fits uneasily within the framework of Seneca's other beliefs, because, recall, this man is not confident of any life to come, and at times he perceives that rewards and punishments are rewarded at random in this life: "As much so, in all faith, as it is great folly and ignorance of one's lot to grieve because of some lack or some rather bitter happening, and in like manner to be surprised or indignant at those ills that befall the good no less than the bad — I mean sickness and death and infirmities and all the other unexpected ills that invade human life. All that the very constitution of the universe obliges us to suffer, must be borne with high courage." (Seneca, On the Happy Life). The concept of a heavenly treasury where goods are stored up 'fits' better either with those confident of eternity, as Seneca is not, or convinced that the 'gods' mete out justice in this life, as Seneca is certain they do not. Moreover, Seneca is, after all, reluctant to throw away wasted gifts: ". . .he will give of it either to good men or to those whom he will be able to make good men; choosing the most worthy after the utmost deliberation, he will give of his wealth, as one who rightly remembers that he must render account no less of his expenditures than of his receipts; he will give of it only for a reason that is just and defensible, for wrong giving is no other than a shameful waste. . ." (Seneca, On the Happy Life). Given the non-conformity between the concept of the heavenly treasure-house and Seneca's general pattern of thought, this appearance of the concept in his writings stands out as an alien chick squawking in the nest.

Third example: "We have been born under a monarchy; to obey God is freedom." (Seneca, On the Happy Life). A monarchy, really? This again would appear a borrowing. That servitude to God equates to human freedom is a concept found in scripture, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?. . . If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." (John 8:32-36).

Fourth example: the concept of bearing the cross is familiar to Christians:

"Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." (Matthew 16:24).

Many interpret the Lord's command so as to identify an individual's besetting sins with the cross, though it is not clear that this is what Jesus meant. Though neither Seneca nor his brother Gallio were at any risk of crucifixion, Seneca trots out a similar turn of phrase: "For if those who pursue virtue are avaricious, lustful, and ambitious, what are you yourselves, to whom the very name of virtue is hateful? You say that no one of them practices what he preaches, or models his life upon his own words. . .Though they strive to release themselves from their crosses — those crosses to which each one of you nails himself with his own hand — yet they, when brought to punishment, hang each upon a single gibbet; but these others who bring upon themselves their own punishment are stretched upon as many crosses as they had desires." (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

Another common image is the sower who sows the seed of the word, a mustard seed perhaps:

"Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it has once found favorable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth." (Seneca, Letters, Letter 38).

Compare:

"A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it." (Luke 8:5).

If this concept of broadcasting the word like seed were either an obvious analogy or a folkloric common-place, a ready-stocked item available in every literary cupboard, then it would be unremarkable to find the same image in both Seneca and the gospels. But it does not seem to be either, though a general comparison of instruction with sowing seed does occur:

"Instruction in medicine is like the culture of the productions of the earth. For our natural disposition is, as it were, the soil; the tenets of our teacher are, as it  were, the seed; instruction in youth is like the planting of the seed in the ground at the proper season; the place where the instruction is communicated is like the food imparted to vegetables by the atmosphere; diligent study is like the cultivation of the fields; and it is time which imparts strength to all things and brings them to maturity." (Hippocrates, The Law, Section 3, The Works of Hippocrates and Galen, p. 4).

Add in to the mix wheat and tares: "If, however, the husbandman be had, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat." (Seneca, Letter 73, On Philosophers and Kings). Since it is not folklore, thus it is likely to have been borrowed from one to the other; and Jesus cannot have borrowed it from Seneca.


Parable of the Sower, John Everett Millais


Despite his awareness that earlier emperors like Tiberius and Caligula had been a plague upon the people, Seneca did not long for the restoration of Republican rule. He fully believed in the imperial system. Like others in the day, he saw one-man rule as the antidote to civil war and disunion. Still he fully realized that several of the prior emperors had been monsters of cruelty and repression. So what would prevent a recurrence of these horrors? A proper set of checks and balances on the power of the emperor? No, a Stoic education, which would make the emperor a good man. The futility of this approach is glaring. But owing to his political commitment, he cannot have felt entire sympathy for the Jesus movement. Jesus was no cheer-leader for Roman rule; after all the figure of the tax-collector is acknowledged as the very epitome of a bad character in the gospels. Jesus counsels, not Roman patriotism, nor armed revolt, but non-violent resistance to Roman oppression. So Seneca cannot ultimately have been in complete sympathy with this movement. He was, however, aware; he cannot not have been, and consciously or unconsciously, cannot at times help quoting indirectly.

What has long consigned Seneca to the second rank of thinkers is the perception he is not altogether consistent. Moreover, there is a glaring discrepancy between the walk and the talk. This man who despises riches is the same man who also attracted the envious resentment of the emperor for the vast fortune he amassed while in the emperor's service: "By what kind of wisdom or maxims of philosophy had Seneca within four years of royal favor amassed three hundred million sesterces?" (Tacitus, The Annals, 13.42, Kindle location 4816). This is a universal complaint: "While finding fault with the rich, he himself possessed a property of seven thousand five hundred myriads; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he kept five hundred three-legged tables of cedar wood, every one of them with identical ivory feet, and he gave banquets on them." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 61, Chapter 10).

"Seneca had made a name for himself as a philosopher, particularly with his writings during his exile on Corsica. Many of his sayings have passed down to present day. Yet, Seneca had frequently failed to live up to the high standards he set in his own philosophy. Far from living a simple life, he had amassed great wealth, had lived in luxury, and had charged exorbitant rates of interest on the money he had loaned out. It was said that in summarily calling in his massive loans to British tribes in AD 59-60, he had contributed to resentment in Britain that had led to Boudicca's bloody revolt." (The Great Fire of Rome, Stephen Dando-Collins, p. 140).

No doubt every penny of it was honestly earned, and, really, honestly, Seneca could have done without it: "In the same way that, even if he [the wise man] is able to accomplish a journey on foot, he will prefer to mount into a carriage, so, even if he is able to be poor, he will prefer to be rich." (Seneca, On the Happy Life). Who, wise or unwise, is not able to be poor,— even the very poorest of people are able to be poor!— or mightn't prefer to be rich? He reads Epicurus and can't help remark on how much he agrees with. . .even though his Stoic educators no doubt taught him to disparage, not agree. When he chanced upon the gospels, he was, evidently, struck by several points, even though they do not stand up well to transplanting into a system lacking eternal life. Though maybe he was on board with that after all. . .except he can't make up his mind! At any rate, the gospel must have already seen print for him to borrow, as he apparently does.

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Divergence

Often enough the sources for Christianity pressed upon us by the atheists have no real affinity with Christianity at all. In this case, however, there are genuine synergies between Stoicism and Christianity, especially in the realm of practical ethics. Where they diverge,— and of course, they do diverge,— begins in the realm of the basic plan and purpose of human life. The gospel brings the promise of eternal life:

"The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." (John 10:10).

Though some Stoics shared Plato's belief in the immortality of the soul, Seneca cannot make up his mind whether or not death is simply non-existence. A difference of opinion as basic as this: viz., is earthly life a brief anteroom through which to exit before entering eternity, or is it all there is?,— might well give us pause before we join the atheists in their view that Seneca invented Christianity:



  • “Place before your mind's eye the vast spread of time's abyss, and consider the universe; and then contrast our so-called human life with infinity: you will then see how scant is that for which we pray, and which we seek to lengthen. How much of this time is taken up with weeping, how much with worry! How much with prayers for death before death arrives, how much with our health, how much with our fears!
  • [...] “This is what you should preferably advise: that no sensation of evil can reach one who is dead; for if it can reach him, he is not dead. And I say that nothing can hurt him who is as naught; for if a man can be hurt, he is alive. Do you think him to be badly off because he is no more, or because he still exists as somebody? And yet no torment can come to him from the fact that he is no more — for what feeling can belong to one who does not exist? — nor from the fact that he exists; for he has escaped the greatest disadvantage that death has in it — namely, non-existence.”
  • (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters, Epistle XCIX).




"Death is non-existence, and I know already what that means." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letter LIV). Seneca however had not made up his mind on this point; he offers both this dismal prospect, but also the Platonic/Pythagorean view, at various times: "'All the years,' says the soul, 'are mine; no epoch is closed to great minds; all time is open for the progress of thought. When the day comes to separate the heavenly from its earthly blend, I shall leave the body here where I found it, and shall of my own volition betake myself to the gods. I am not apart from them now, but am merely detained in a heavy and earthly prison.'. . .Such thoughts permit nothing mean to settle in the soul, nothing low, nothing cruel. They maintain that the gods are witnesses of everything. They order us to meet the gods' approval, to prepare ourselves to join them at some future time, and to plan for immortality." (Seneca, Letters, Epistle CII). An author who does not even agree with himself introduces complications into the process of seeking convergence.




The greatest good for Seneca is, not knowing and loving God, but, "And what is this Good? I shall tell you: it is a free mind, an upright mind, subjecting other things to itself and itself to nothing." (Seneca, Letters, Epistle CXXIV, On the True Good as Attained by Reason).

"For that is exactly what philosophy promises to me, that I shall be made equal to God." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letter XLVIII, On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher). Promised by Seneca. . .or Satan?

Let us hope the Stoics do not receive back the same measure they meted out, as they were in general an unforgiving lot: "For there was once a man of the greatest genius, whose name was Zeno, the imitators of whose example are called Stoics. His opinions and precepts are of his sort: that a wise man is never influenced by interest; never pardons any man's fault; that no one is merciful except a fool and a trifler; that it is not the part of a man to be moved or pacified by entreaties; that wise men, let them be ever so deformed, are the only beautiful men; if they be ever such beggars, they are the only rich men; if they be in slavery, they are kings." (Cicero, The Oration of M. T. Cicero in Defense of L. Murena, Prosecuted for Bribery, Section 61).

The fundamental transaction of the gospel order was alien to Seneca's turn of mind:

"But this worship does not consist in slaughtering fattened bulls, or in hanging up offerings of gold or silver, or in pouring coins into a temple treasury; rather does it consist in a will that is reverent and upright." (Seneca, Letter CXV, On the Superficial Blessings).

"Thus good men are religious, though their offering be meal and their vessels of earthenware; whilst bad men will not escape from their impiety, though they pour the blood of many victims upon the altars." (Seneca, On Benefits, Book I, Chapter VI).




Another instance where Christians and Stoics are by no means singing from the same page in the hymnal is in the matter of pity:

"Pity is the sorrow of the mind brought about by the sight of the distress of others, or sadness caused by the ills of others which it believes come undeservedly. But no sorrow befalls the wise man; his mind is serene, and nothing can happen to becloud it. Nothing, too, so much befits a man as superiority of mind; but the mind cannot at the same time be superior and sad. . .he, consequently, will not suffer pity, because there cannot be pity without mental suffering."(Seneca, On Mercy, Book II).

Weeping at other people's sorrows is 'womanish,' which is the worst insult in the Stoic lexicon. But the Bible counsels us: "Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep." (Romans 12:14). In the song, 'Blest Be the Tie that Binds,' we learn, "We share of mutual woes, Our mutual burdens bear; and often for each other flows The sympathizing tear." (John Fawcett). The Stoic wise man does not want to get in touch with his feelings; he will have none of our weepiness because it disturbs his tranquillity of mind. But what to make of a Mourners' Bench unstained with tears? Sinners ought to wail over their sins, and over the consequences of rebellion:

"Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" (Jeremiah 9:1).

Taking Jesus as our perfect example, we cannot confirm the wisdom of the Stoic sage:

"Jesus wept." (John 11:35).

The Bible is so bold as to say, "For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15). If He 'feels our pain,' as President Clinton used to say, then who are we to elevate ourselves above His level? Even many among the pagans could not share the goal to making oneself unfeeling, "What is the value of this 'freedom from care'?. . .Seeing then that the wise are not exempt from the heart-ache (which must be the case unless we suppose all human nature rooted out of their hearts), why should we banish friendship from our lives, for fear of being involved by it in some amount of distress? If you take away emotion, what difference remains I don't say between a man and a beast, but between a man and a stone or a log of wood, or anything else of that kind?" (Cicero, On Friendship, Chapter 13).

Christian critics likewise felt that the Stoic, avoiding perturbation of mind at all costs, takes away from himself something essential to humanity:

"Therefore I can call them by no other name than mad, who deprive man, a mild and sociable animal, of his name; who, having uprooted the affections, in which humanity altogether consists, wish to bring him to an immovable insensibility of mind, while they desire to free the soul from perturbations, and, as they themselves say, to render it calm and tranquil; which is not only impossible, because its force and nature consist in motion, but it ought not even to be so. . .In fine, they who assert this immoveableness of the soul wish to deprive the soul of life; for life is full of activity, but death is quiet." (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 17).

The same is true of Buddhism, which may be the matrix out of which some of these ideas arose. Life is painful, but you can quiet the pain by ceasing to feel for others, in other words, by maiming your own nature and ceasing to be fully human. This is a good thing?

Other Stoic ideas which have never attracted much of a Christian audience include the corporeality of all existent things, "For what else is the soul than air in a certain state?" (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letter L), and the prescription of suicide, self-murder, as the cure-all for all otherwise unresolvable ills. Augustine wrestles with some of these conflicts in his 'City of God.' Rome had been sacked by the Goths, and as was natural for a society which still venerated the memory of Lucretia's post-rape suicide, the Romans immediately began hymning the chastity of those women who had flung themselves into the river rather than submit to barbarian rape. This implied, of course, that rape victims who survived were somewhat less than chaste. Stoic romanticizing of suicide did not survive Augustine's analysis.

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Convergence

On the other hand, while there are serious rifts, there are also undeniably 'riffs' in Seneca similar to gospel preaching; compare,

"And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." (Luke 12:16-21).

With,

"Graft now thy pears, Meliboeus, and set out thy vines in their order! But how foolish it is to set out one's life, when one is not even owner of the morrow! O what madness it is to plot out far-reaching hopes! To say: "I will buy and build, loan and call in money, win titles of honor, and then, old and full of years, I will surrender myself to a life of ease." Believe me when I say that everything is doubtful, even for those who are prosperous. No one has any right to draw for himself upon the future. The very thing that we grasp slips through our hands, and chance cuts into the actual hour which we are crowding so full. Time does indeed roll along by fixed law, but as in darkness; and what is it to me whether Nature's course is sure, when my own is unsure?
"We plan distant voyages and long-postponed home-comings after roaming over foreign shores, we plan for military service and the slow rewards of hard campaigns, we canvass for governorships and the promotions of one office after another — and all the while death stands at our side; but since we never think of it except as it affects our neighbor, instances of mortality press upon us day by day, to remain in our minds only as long as they stir our wonder. Yet what is more foolish than to wonder that something which may happen every day has happened on any. one day? There is indeed a limit fixed for us, just where the remorseless law of Fate has fixed it; but none of us knows how near he is to this limit. Therefore, let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life's account every day." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters, Epistle CI).

Certainly the brevity and uncertainty of life must occur to every serious thinker, the theme is not new, nor yet is it equally popular everywhere and at all times. Who brought this theme into the conversation? It is a corner-stone of Seneca's preaching: "But nothing will give you so much help toward moderation as the frequent thought that life is short and uncertain here below; whatever you are doing, have regard to death." (Seneca, Letter CXIV, On Style as a Mirror of Character). Was Seneca influenced by the gospel, or were the gospel authors influenced by Stoicism? Or was there the shock of mutual recognition when the two streams, flowing from distant sources, met? While noting a convergence, however, honesty compels us to note also the divergence: the moral of Jesus' story, that we all must give an account to our Maker, is not Seneca's moral.

Another: "Secondly, the sacrilege and indifference to religion of some men does not prevent even the immortal gods from continuing to shower benefits upon us: for they act according to their divine nature and help all alike, among them even those who so ill appreciate their bounty. Let us take them for our guides as far as the weakness of our mortal nature permits; let us bestow benefits, not put them out at interest." (Seneca, On Benefits, Book I, Chapter 1). Other than an ill-placed 's' there's nothing wrong with that; the Bible-believer can't help but be reminded,

"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:42-43).

Again:

"Reflect, then, upon this: you say, 'My kindness has met with no return, what am I to do? I ought to imitate the gods, those noblest disposers of all events, who begin to bestow their benefits on those who know them not, and persist in bestowing them on those who are ungrateful for them.'. . .Yet, nevertheless, like the kindest of parents, who only smile at the spiteful words of their children, the gods do not cease to heap benefits upon those who doubt from what source their benefits are derived, but continue impartially distributing their bounty among all the peoples and nations of the earth. Possessing only the power of doing good, they moisten the land with seasonable showers, they put the seas in movement by the winds, they mark time by the course of the constellations, they temper the extremes of heat and cold, of summer and winter, by breathing a milder air upon us; and they graciously and serenely bear with the faults of our erring spirits. Let us follow their example; let us give, even if much be given to no purpose, let us, in spite of this, give to others; nay, even to those upon whom our bounty has been wasted." (Seneca, On Benefits, Book VII, Chapter XXXI).

The imitation of God as a motive to disinterested benevolence is a shared theme. It was not a novelty in pagan literature; Cicero had said, "For there is nothing so calculated to win the affections of the people as kindness. Of all your many virtues, there is none more admirable, none more beloved than your mercy. For there is no action by which men make a nearer approach to the gods, than by conferring safety on others." (Cicero, For Ligarius, 12:37-38).

Paul testifies to the power of natural religion: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:. . ." (Romans 1:20). As pagan philosophy advanced, some of these thinkers were feeling their way in the direction of an ethical monotheism. Unaided human reason can discover a surprising amount of valid information about God. But there may even be more than that going on in some cases, which would add interest and utility to these commonalities.

Inn or tent?: "But this heart is never more divine than when it reflects upon its mortality, and understands that man was born for the purpose of fulfilling his life, and that the body is not a permanent dwelling, but a sort of inn (with a brief sojourn at that) which is to be left behind when one perceives that one is a burden to the host." (Seneca, Letters, Epistle CXX, About Virtue). The reader will recall that Seneca is not fully persuaded whether this life is indeed "a brief sojourn" or all there is. Paul, however, is sure:

"For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." (2 Corinthians 5:1).

While he does not say 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' Seneca does, in his recounting of the 'Golden Age,' imply that men did so at that time:

"Not yet had the stronger begun to lay hands upon the weaker; not yet had the miser, by hiding away what lay before him, begun to shut off his neighbor from even the necessities of life; each cared as much for his neighbor as for himself." (Seneca, Letter XC, On the Part Played by Philosophy in the Progress of Man).

The atheists rush to assure us, the gospel can only be influenced, never influence. But this is not rational; the world-view that conquered the ancient world,— that won the battle,— cannot have lost every single skirmish along the way. Seneca's personal letters were not collected and published to the public until after his death; even on the most 'liberal' guess as to the date of composition of the gospels, this is cutting it rather close, for any 'copying' to run in that direction. Luke's two-part history of Christianity, his gospel and the Book of Acts, breaks off suddenly with Paul awaiting trial. Had the verdict yet been handed down, Luke's silence is inexplicable. If the work was completed at that time, then it is historically impossible for Seneca not to have been acquainted with it. The sudden death of a friend in the midst of economic success may well have jolted Seneca's memory and reminded him of the gospel story in Luke 12. If so, this gives us a terminus ad quem for Luke's gospel: 65 A.D., the date of Seneca's death. The atheist alternative waits for Lucilius to publish Seneca's letters, which must have been after Nero's death, at which time the Jews and the Romans had already descended to open war,— nevertheless the gospel writers had the courtesy and broad-mindedness to quote Seneca, a highly placed Roman government official though one who had fallen out of favor by 62 A.D. While it is historically impossible for Seneca to have left Luke's gospel unread if it existed,— that was his job,— there is no difficulty at all with the idea that the gospel writers either did not know or did not care who Seneca was. A third alternative is that the correspondences between the gospels and Seneca are mere coincidence, but this is not in all cases entirely convincing.

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Smoking Gun

At this point the reader may complain, this is very weak tea. To what do these half-hearted reminiscences and echoes add up? Seneca was certainly aware of Jesus of Nazareth, and he may, or may not, have been favorably impressed. Certain New Testament authors, such as Paul, were aware of Stoicism and sometimes use its vocabulary, but cannot be classed as Stoics. Several centuries into the Christian enterprise, a forger, perhaps hoping to mitigate persecution by inventing a past happy, friendly, collegial relationship between the Empire and the church, produced a not very meaningful forged correspondence between Paul and Seneca. So what?

The unimpressed reader is not spending enough time skirting along on the margins of the lunatic fringe, where the theory that Seneca invented Christianity gets its share of ink:

"Was it Seneca who wrote the tragedy on the passion of Jesus that the evangelists used in constructing their narratives? A question such as this can never be answered with certitude. It can be, however, adopted as a working hypothesis, whose success can be judged by the extent to which it helps solve the innumerable enigmas of the passion narratives.

"Seneca’s choice of Jesus as a tragic hero may at first seem surprising; but we must remember that there was a whole gendre [sic] of Roman tragedy that dealt with historical events from the recent past (the so-called fabulae praetextae). Moreover, Seneca had a lifelong interest in oriental religions and wrote several books on the subject. That Seneca had received some information about the founder of Christianity may be inferred from the allusion in one of his works to an unnamed individual who had aspired to royalty, but instead was condemned to suffer a cruel death upon the cross. Seneca encountered, in the trial of Jesus, a subject worthy of his aspirations as a philosopher and dramatist." (Web-site Nazarenus).

As with conspiracy thinking generally, the evidence that Christianity is based upon a lost drama by Seneca is buttressed by no actual evidence. The evidence is that there is no evidence. That Seneca's play 'Nazarenus' is lost,— and, of course, it is 'lost,' there is no such work in existence,— is further evidence of the conspiracy: "It was not by chance that Lucilius omitted the Nazarenus from his edition of Seneca’s collected works." (Nazarenus web-site).

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Lucius Annaeus Seneca
On Wrath


According to Nature

To the Stoics, Nature is a reliable guide to morals. An echo of this concept is found in Paul, for instance,

"Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?" (1 Corinthians 11:14).

It would be going beyond the evidence to take Paul's several references as validating the Stoic idea that a complete code of ethics can be elicited from Nature's storehouse, as well as from revealed Law. Paul seems to be using 'nature' as a back-stop: "even" nature can teach us, if we will not learn from Moses. What 'nature' means here is, of course, not 'what the animals do,' though the word seems to be trending in that direction in contemporary American usage. The Stoics had noticed that morals differ all over the world, but this apparent disunity conceals a larger consensus. The Persians and Egyptians might allow a man to marry his sister, but all other nations stood in opposition. It cannot be custom or culture which directs this consensus, because these concurring nations are politically fragmented. 'Nature,' then, weighs in on the side of the majority. 'Nature's' commands were not automatic: the Stoics, like other moralists, found as much or more to blame as to praise in human behavior,— but could be discovered by reason.

To any monotheist, of course, nature is God's created order. Study of nature brings us back to the contents of God's mind, as shown in His revelation.

A little leaven leavens the whole loaf. It does not stand to reason that Christianity could overtake the Roman empire in the times of Constantine, but have had no favorable impact on anyone at all prior to that time. Christian ideas were diffused through society by a variety of routes. Aulus Gellius knew Peregrinus Proteus, the same party Lucian found so detestable:

"When I was at Athens, I met a philosopher named Peregrinus, who was later surnamed Proteus, a man of dignity and fortitude, living in a hut outside the city. And visiting him frequently, I heard him say many things that were in truth helpful and noble."
(Aulus Gellius. (1927). Vol. 2: With An English Translation (J. C. Rolfe, Ed.) (393). Medford, MA: Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 12.11.1).

He was impressed by Peregrinus' ethical teaching, which revolved around doing good for its own sake. Why shouldn't he be? Peregrinus, who was given the left foot of fellowship by the Christian community and then became a Cynic philosopher, had likely adopted some of his principles from his former associates. There are two sides to this dialogue.

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Lucius Annaeus Seneca


Lunatic Fringe

Jesus of Nazareth is one of the best attested figures of ancient history; we believe in His existence on much better evidence than we do several of the Roman emperors. Four separate gospel accounts provide independent, multiple attestation. If the ascription of healings and the like to Jesus proves He never existed, then similar claims made in the present day about Benny Hinn must prove that Benny Hinn never existed. If making well-attested god-claims proves that Jesus never existed, then men like Father Divine and Wallace D. Fard, who made similar claims, never existed either.




The atheists are confused: in their world-view, no such claim can ever be true, but this does not mean no one ever makes such claims. Expunging all such claims, along with those about whom they were made, from history deletes much well-documented material from the historical record. In addition to Christian recollection there is pagan testimony:




In spite, however, of this abundance of testimony, the 'Jesus Never Existed' meme is alive and well on the internet. Scoffers who hope to keep at least one foot in the 'respectable' camp, like Bart Ehrman, feel obliged to fend off 'help' from this quarter. Seneca is sometimes pressed to testify by this camp:

"As it happens, the life of Seneca, like that of Philo, was contemporaneous with the "Jesus" of legend. Yet though Seneca wrote extensively on many subjects and people, nothing relating to "Jesus" ever caught his attention, nor does he show any awareness of a "vast multitude" of Christians, supposedly, punished for the fire that ravaged Rome in 64 AD." (Web-site, Jesus Never Existed).

Strangely enough, this same web-author, who hears no gospel echo in Seneca, also endorses the web-site quoted above which claims Seneca invented Christianity! If you cannot understand, dear reader, how it can simultaneously be true that there is no trace in Seneca's works of any interest in Christian themes, and also that the convergent links are so strong and compelling that Seneca must have invented Christianity, then you are not intellectually cut out to be an atheist. It is true there is no explicit mention of Jesus of Nazareth in Seneca's works, but if this proves Jesus never existed, then the same methodology also proves that many other people, nations, planets and galaxies never existed either. Seneca is not in general a chronicler of contemporary history. He does offer trenchant commentary on current events in his 'Pumpkinification'. . .as well as 'Octavia,' though this latter is not commonly believed to have come from his pen. However most of his work consists of philosophical reflections incorporating no more than occasional, scatter-shot instances of moral, or immoral, behavior by still-living or recently deceased actors. He also penned tragedies whose direct reference is to people and places of long ago. That he fails to mention Jesus by name proves very little. Young atheists are impressed by this type of information, because they visualize some historical tome by Seneca containing a chapter headed, 'Events in First Century Palestine,' and this chapter mysteriously omits mention of Jesus of Nazareth. There is of course no such work. Seneca omits to mention King Herod just as he omits to mention Jesus of Nazareth, which is very meager proof that King Herod did not exist.

It is striking that none of the early anti-Christian polemicists, men like Celsus and Porphyry, ever thought to question Jesus' existence. It was left to skeptics around the time of the French Revolution to raise the issue, when, of course, no documentation remained in any government archive attesting that this man was crucified. Jesus' purported non-existence was not an issue for early Christian apologetics. The 'Jesus Never Existed' web-site finds evidence to the contrary in the tendency of some Christian writers of late antiquity, like Jerome and Eusebius, to lay claim to non-Christian writers like Philo and Seneca. But this grabbiness has nothing to do with any desire to rebut an as yet unheard claim that Jesus never existed, neither is it simply the inevitable human chauvinism that in former times drove propagandists for the old Soviet Union to claim that Russians invented even baseball and automobiles. Certainly it's true that Philo and Seneca, who were no Christians, got 'baptized' posthumously against their will, as the Mormons are said to do; so there must have been something which made these writers attractive to somebody. What was it? I suspect these authors were impressed into the fold to provide an otherwise missing pedigree for the monastic movement. The 'evangelical counsels' commending chastity and poverty go back to Jesus Himself, but the church structure that incorporates powerful communities of like-minded persons banded together at a higher rank than the 'laity' does not. It was first seen outside of orthodoxy, in gnosticism, where the 'perfect' lived celibate lives above the impure, unconverted mob whose only hope was reincarnation as one of the 'pure,' making the 'church' to be formed like a layer cake. Though unknown in the days of the apostles, this layer-cake formation becomes the church of the Middle Ages. As the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis leaps from the fearless rat to the destination cat, this hierarchical church structure picked itself up off of gnosticism and plunked itself down on the orthodox church. But to say, 'this came from gnosticism,' is what could not be admitted.

There is a certain synergy between the Stoic and Cynic dream of the simple life and such gospel themes as storing one's treasure in heaven, though this point of contact is vastly overplayed in the 'Jesus Seminar's' remaking of Jesus into a 'Cynic Sage.' The ancients realized it was important, not only to espouse noble ethical ideals, but to live them:

"In the case of Chilon his life agreed with his teaching, a thing one rarely finds. As for the philosophers of our time, for instance, most of them are to be seen uttering the noblest sentiments, but following the basest practices, and the solemnity and sagacity expressed in their pronouncements are refuted when the speakers are put to the proof." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History Book IX, Chapter 9).

Seneca, the filthy rich advisor to Nero, might have some vulnerability on this score. Incredible as it may sound, there are some in the modern world who claim this demand for consistency of life and doctrine would have been met, to the satisfaction of the ancients, by simply making up stories:




Late authors like Basil can write about a young man's decision to become a monk as if it were a conversion story and the young man were accepting the gospel by making this career move/lifestyle change. These folks realized the church of the apostles knew no such institution. This absence sparked a flurry of forgeries like 'The Acts of Paul and Thecla:' Thecla is a nun who hung out with Paul. The 'desperation' of authors like Jerome and Eusebius is to find a pedigree for the monastic movement outside of gnosticism, which Philo provides with his 'Therapeutae,' and Seneca with his counsel against assisting in the work of the polity: "This, my dear Lucilius, is a noble thing, this brings peace and freedom — to canvass for nothing, and to pass by all the elections of Fortune." (Seneca, Letter CXVIII, On the Vanity of Place-Seeking). That the believer should 'drop out' is not a self-evident conclusion from the gospel. The orthodox tradition lacks a verse like, "Jesus said, 'Be passersby.'" (Gospel of Thomas 42). Therefore those who need such a scripture will find it where they may.

While the pagan philosopher Seneca never actually says 'Be passersby,' he certainly comes closer to saying it than the orthodox New Testament ever does. Although himself a high government official, Seneca reaches back as far as the Pythagorean brotherhood to revive the concept of an ascetic elite. He even commends voluntary dietary restrictions: "I shall admire you only when you have learned to scorn even the common sort of bread, when you have made yourself believe that grass grows for the needs of men as well as of cattle. . .Learn to be content with little, and cry out with courage and with greatness of soul: 'We have water, we have porridge; let us compete in happiness with Jupiter himself.'" (Seneca, Epistle CX, On True and False Riches). An idea discountenanced in the Bible: "Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein." (Hebrews 13:9),— must find a foundation somewhere. Seneca was not, historically, the founder; and yet 'baptizing' him obscures the actual founders, the heterodox gnostics. The fact that Seneca was "was a man of most continent life" (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter 12), impressed Jerome. To people who have come to identify the monastic movement so strongly with Christianity that the one cannot be imagined without the other, it is almost like saying he is a Christian.

When accused of importing practices from gnosticism, the monks and their defenders objected, no, we are only following Jesus. To be sure Jesus never counselled His people to pile up treasure upon the earth; however, the Bible-reader cannot fail to notice more than a shift in emphasis. One must add a pinch of misanthropy and a dash of elitism to arrive at this result. Timon of Athens must cast his vote; the gnostics did not after all contrive this novel arrangement of society from love of the people. What did the monastic party really have in the Bible, beyond the book of Ecclesiastes, of which they were inordinately fond, with its diagnosis of 'vanity'? What has gone wrong is that those who aspire to follow the 'evangelical counsels' began to look out at the church and see no kindred spirits except each other; they saw the church itself as the world from which they were fleeing. This unchristian evaluation of God's people warped the political structure of the church and helped to subvert the early church democracy.

Even these 'desperate' church-men never interpolated passages into Philo or Seneca purporting to testify to Jesus, which shows the limits to what desperation can make a person do. Since this web-author concedes that neither author directly addresses the life of Jesus of Nazareth, then what meaning has his claim that this missing piece is precisely what drew Christian attention to them? That Jerome and Eusebius tried to press Philo and Seneca into the fold says nothing, for or against, about Jesus' existence, because this is a topic which neither author addresses.

It's a shame really that the church devolved from its early democracy to the hierarchy of the Middle Ages. Medieval political thought is resolutely set against democracy. The medievals were convinced, and kept repeating to one another, that one-man rule is the only way to achieve unity. Disunity is fatal; it is ruin. This was perhaps a misapplied lesson from Christendom's confrontation with Islam, which was ruled by one head, the caliph, and did achieve success, for a time. And so these people kept swallowing the draught of poison that was debilitating them, convinced it was medicine keeping them alive:




One of our web-author's tests of Jesus' reality offers equally valid proof for the non-existence of Philo and Seneca, because they, too, do not have much to say about Rome's reverses in Germany. Since, by this author's reasoning, Jesus' failure to address this issue proves His non-existence, then lots of other folks who fail to address the same issue are likewise relegated to a Twilight Zone of People Who Don't Have Much to Say about Rome's Reverses in Germany and whose ontological status accordingly falls into doubt. It's a shame really that the Jews did not talk more about this topic, because the way to do the Jewish Rebellion and win is for Germany, Britain, and Judaea and Galilee all to rise in rebellion at the same instant. This they never did, and Rome was able to pick its malcontents off one by one.

Seneca expresses the same kind of resentment against the Jews as is heard from other Roman moralists: “When he was speaking concerning those Jews, he said, 'When, meanwhile, the customs of that most accursed nation have gained such strength that they have been now received in all lands, the conquered have given laws to the conquerors.'” (Seneca, quoted in Augustine, City of God, Book 6, Chapter 11). The Romans wanted to believe that their culture was superior to that of the peoples who lay prostrate at their feet. However, at the interface of pagan culture with monotheism, it was the monotheists who made the bulk of the converts, not the pagans. While one can find the occasional Jewish apostate, all contemporary testimony suggests large numbers of God-fearers and proselytes; the Jews, and Christians, were winning the competition. If, as the atheists suggest, it is the pagan culture which showed vitality and dynamism, the Jews always imitating and never innovating or leading the way, this is distinctly strange. But if the strange deposit of village custom and ancient, half-remembered nightmares that comprised paganism made little head-way, then why do the atheists assume the Christians would have wanted to imitate their losing rival?

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Seneca the Atheist

There were atheists in antiquity like Theodorus. Of course there were also numerous thinkers falsely accused of being atheists; recall, the Christians were condemned as 'atheists.' There are several ancient authors with whom today's atheists would feel quite comfortable, like the hedonist Epicurus. However, atheists cannot seem to stop themselves from corralling into their enclosure ancient authors who were not atheists, like Seneca:

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." ("Seneca the Younger," quoted by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 313).

This quote, which is 100% bogus, is reminiscent of something historian Edward Gibbons actually did say. Seneca, who was not an atheist, did not say it, which hasn't stopped this made-up quote from proliferating all over internet chat rooms, wherever atheists congregate. Christians cannot find Stoic ideas about God altogether satisfactory, ranging from pantheism to polytheism to something approximating to monotheism, varying from one author to the next; but these authors are rarely atheists.

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