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!"
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
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
"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."
"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
"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.
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."
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