from: Seneca [c. 4 B.C.E. - 65 C.E.], Letters from a Stoic, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, Selected and Translated with an Introduction by Robin Campbell, Penguin Books, Baltimore ● Maryland, 1969.


"Christian writers have not been slow to recognize the remarkably close parallels between isolated sentences in Seneca's writings and verses of the Bible [see 2740- 2741, for a more constrained view].35 [see footnote, below] On the other hand the word 'God' or 'the gods' was used by the philosophers more as a time-honoured and convenient expression that as standing for any indispensable or even surely identifiable component of the Stoic system. And the tendency of Stoicism was always to exalt man's importance in the universe rather than to abuse him before a higher authority. The hope of immortality was occasionally held out but Seneca does not play on it. To him as to most Stoics virtue was to be looked on as its own reward and vice as its own punishment. The religious hunger of the masses of his [Seneca's] day was to be met not by philosophy but by the cults of Isis and Mithras and Christianity[the usual indoctrinated reaction. Back dated Christian stories]." [18].

"[footnote] 35. A few examples of sayings or ideas so paralleled are those of I Cor. iii, 16 (God's 'indwelling presence' – cf. Letter XLI, init.); 1 Tim. vi, 10 ('money the root of all evil'); Job i, 21 (we came into the world naked and go out of it naked, and 'the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away'); Rom. xii, 5, 10 (we are members of one body, and 'Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love', etc.); Acts xvii, 29 (God is not like any gold or silver image); Heb. iv, 13 (not even thoughts are hidden from God – cf. Letter LXXXIII, init.); Matt. v, 45 (the sun rises on the wicked as well); and (as translated in the New English Bible) Eph. V, I (imitate, try to be like God). They do not lend any real support to theories that Seneca was influenced by St Paul [a Fictional character!] [see Article #4, 105-151] or by Christian slaves in his own household." [236].

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from: Seneca, edited by C. D. N. Costa, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

"2 SENECA [c. 4 B.C.E. - 65 C.E.] IN CHRISTIAN ANTIQUITY" [122]

          "It was almost inevitable that the first manifestations of Christian philosophy should have a heavily Stoic flavour,35 not so much because of any similarities between Christianity and Stoicism,36 but because STOICISM WAS THE DOMINANT PHILOSOPHY DURING THE FORMATIVE YEARS OF CHRISTIAN THOUGHT. This dominance consisted not just in its popularity as a system distinct from others (though this was important, since it meant that Stoic writings were easily available, and that many early Christians were taught philosophy by Stoics), but in the fact that Stoic ideas had penetrated every type of philosophy and become the common heritage of all who philosophized. Stoic conceptions had become embedded in language, in general moral attitudes, and in the human and natural sciences, all of which had important repercussions on the unconscious presuppositions of early Christian thought. (To take just one example, Christian teaching about the soul and its relation to God and the universe was heavily dependent on the current orthodoxy of psychology, which was largely Stoic in orientation.)....

the unconscious Stoic influence on the Christian philosophy of the first two centuries was very considerable, and made it importantly different from the Christian philosophy that was the product of the predominantly Platonic era that followed. I shall shortly be arguing that the direct influence of Seneca's writings on early Christianity was minimal; but if it is accepted that he played an important part in bringing about this general Stoic climate of thought in the first place, then it follows that his indirect influence on early Christian thought was highly significant....

          Although we should be prepared to find Christianity most responsive to Seneca's thought in its Stoic period, the earliest writers had only a limited interest in pagan literature, and there are no traces of any direct Senecan influence till the end of the second century, by which time Stoicism was already giving way to Platonism. Parallels with Seneca have been found in the two greatest Christian thinkers of the time, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 to 210) and his pupil Origen (c. 185/6–254/5),38 but these are not sufficiently convincing to prove direct influence. Nor should we expect much, since they were among the first to produce a predominantly Platonic Christianity [see 2357 (Ehrlich)],39 and both wrote in Greek." [124-126]. [See: 1568-1572 (Bauer)].

"Though some scholars have claimed that he [Augustine 354 - 430] owed a considerable debt to Seneca, this claim does not bear examination.65 He mentions the apocryphal correspondence, probably relying on what Jerome [c. 342 - 420] had said [see 2537-2542]: 'Seneca, who lived in the days of the apostles, and of whom certain letters to Paul [Fictional character! "d. prob. AD 62–5" (Ox. Dict. C.C.)] [see Article #4, 105-151 (Paul)] the apostle are read....'66 But this does not seem to have affected his judgment of him in any way. Apart from one or two acknowledged quotations and the occasional striking parallel,67 the only significant use he makes of


Seneca is in Civ., VI.10–11, where he quotes extensively from Seneca's lost De Superstitione. But even while commending what Seneca wrote, he criticized him for hypocrisy in not practising what he preached (ibid. 10): 'He did not show the same freedom [from superstition] in his life as he did in his writings'; and even for not writing what he really believed (ibid. 11): 'Of the Christians, already strongly anti-Jewish, he dared say nothing, so as not to offend the traditions of his country by praising them, and possibly his own feelings by criticizing them.' It would be an exaggeration to say, with Reynolds,68 that he was one of Seneca's most hostile critics; but whatever Augustine may have meant by the suggestion that Seneca might have been more favourable to Christianity than he was prepared to admit publicly, there is no evidence of significant Senecan influence on his [Augustine's] writings." [129-130].

"nearly all quotations from Seneca by Christian writers, and all the extensive ones, are from lost works [of Seneca] of whose authenticity we have no independent evidence (Lactantius from the Exhortations and the De Immatura Morte, Jerome from the De Matrimonio, Augustine from the De Superstitione, and Martin from the De Officiis).81 But WHATEVER THE EXPLANATION,


not only is this admiration extremely limited, as I hope I have shown, but the only works the Christians obviously did admire are precisely those which have been allowed to disappear." [131]. [G.M. Ross]. [See: 2739].

          'It was Seneca's freedom from any real response to the numinous [supernatural, etc.] that made him particularly repellent to the nineteenth-century Romantics, for whom his bleak moralism seemed denatured and pedantic. It was his merely intellectual relationship to the 'leaden gods' (as Stephen Bateman called the Roman deities in 1577) that allowed the Renaissance to regard him as a proto-Christian, and enabled them to accept his views without changing their own. In a more credulous age this quality had been expressed by the forged correspondence between Seneca and St Paul, and also by the forged treatises then read as Seneca's, but now attributed to St Martin.

          ERASMUS [1466 - 1536] WAS, OF COURSE, FREE OF THESE PIOUS FRAUDS, but he reflects their legacy. As he says in his prefatory letter to his edition of Seneca, sent to the Bishop of Durham (Opus Epistolarum, ed. Allen, Oxford, II, pp. 51ff.) (p. 53):



[Erasmus] Et Senecam tanti fecit divus Hieronymus, ut hunc unum ex omnibus ethnicis in Catalogo scriptorum illustrium recensuerit, non tam ob epistolas illas Pauli ad Senecam et Senecae ad Paulum (quas nec a Paulo nec a Seneca scriptas probe noverat...) quam quod hunc unum dignum iudicarit qui non Christianus a Christianis legeretur.


[translation] (Indeed St Jerome made so much of Seneca that he included him as the only pagan in his Catalogue [see 2537-2542] of famous authors, not so much on account of those




but rather because he judged that he [Seneca] alone among non-Christians was fit to be read by Christians.)

In the new prefatory letter he addresses to the Bishop of Cracow in 1529 (Allen, VIII, pp. 25ff.), he [Erasmus] repeats these sentiments and adds a rather crisp and memorable statement of Seneca's ambiguous position (p. 31):


[Erasmus] Etenim si legas illum ut paganum, scripsit Christiane; si ut Christianum, scripsit paganice.


[translation] (For if you read him [Seneca] thinking of him as a pagan, then he appears to have written like a Christian; but if you read him as a Christian then he appears to have written like a pagan.)

He [Erasmus] also, in this later letter, explains why Jerome included Seneca in his Catalogus sanctorum (p. 29): non admodum probatae sanctitatis...[sed] ob religionis amorem (not because of proven sanctity...[but] on account of his love for religion). In the Institutio Principis Christiani he praises Seneca as the most suitable to be read (Opera Omnia, Leiden, 1703–6, vol. IV, p. 587):


[Erasmus] Qui scriptis suis mire exstimulat et inflammat ad honesti studium, lectoris animum a sordidis curis in sublime subvehit, peculiariter ubique dedocens Tyrannidem.


[translation] (Who in his writings marvellously incites us and stirs us up to a zeal for honest action, carrying the mind of the reader into the heights, far above the base concerns of men, especially where he [Seneca] is warning against tyranny.)

It was thus possible in the Renaissance to think of Seneca as a man wholly acceptable in his moral outlook....' [171-172]. [G.K. Hunter].

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By Bruce Floyd

Seneca (C. 4 B.C.–A.D. 65), a Roman essayist, philosopher, playwright, and tutor to Nero, writes a short essay about his asthma, which he calls "difficulty in breathing." Seneca says that he has suffered just about all that can go wrong with a man (he said that he would have committed suicide but that his father would have been unable to bear the loss), and he finds his asthma the worst ailment, an assessment he thinks we should find reasonable since with this affliction one is constantly at one's last breath. Roman doctors nicknamed asthma "rehearsing death." Anyone who has seen someone suffer a serious asthma attack know the aptness of the phrase the Roman doctors used.

How does Seneca feel about these attacks of asthma, attacks, he says, which last about an hour. Terrible, this gasping desperately for air, the oppressive smothering, but Seneca, a stoic, says he reflects while he is struggling for breath.

Writes Seneca,


"So death is having a try at me, is he? Let him then! I had a try at him a long while ago myself," writes Seneca.

When we ask when he had this "try" at death, he replies, "Before I was born." To Seneca, Death is simply not being, not existing. He thinks that after his death he will be what he was before his life: nothing. He says if there is any torment in the later state, there must have been torment in the former, yet we are not conscious of any distress then.

He [Seneca] then says,


"I ask you, wouldn't you say that anyone who took the view that a lamp was worse off when it was put out than when it was lit an utter idiot? We, too, are lit and put out. We suffer in the intervening period, but at either end of it there is deep tranquility....We are wrong in holding that death follows after, when in fact it precedes as well as succeeds. Death is all that was before us. What does it matter, after all, whether you cease to be or never begin, when the result of either is that you do not exist?"

Seneca assures us he is not afraid to die. He says he is "prepared, not planning as much as a day ahead."

He [Seneca] closes,


"The man, though, whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live and in spite of that is not reluctant to die. For where's the virtue in going out when you're really being thrown out? And yet there is this virtue about my case: I'm in the process of being thrown out, certainly, but the manner of it is as if I were going out. And the reason why it never happens to a wise man is that being thrown out signifies expulsion from a place one is reluctant to depart from, and there is nothing a wise man does reluctantly. He escapes necessity because he wills what necessity is going to force on him."

When I read what Seneca said about a wise person gracefully accepting what necessity will perforce bring, I remembered the wonderful tape by Sheldon Solomon on Otto Rank's thought (tape available from the EBF [Ernest Becker Foundation], and if you haven't heard Sheldon you're missing a real treat) in which Sheldon in his inimitable and insightful way talks about Rank's urging that we must develop a "voluntary acceptance of the obligatory." Both Seneca and Rank are saying the same thing: one must live in the world on the world's terms. Necessity will have its way with us, and we waste energy and force denying it. Margaret Fuller [1810 - 1850] once grandiosely said in Thoreau's presence, "I accept the universe" to which the crusty Thoreau [Henry David Thoreau 1817 - 1862] said, "You'd better."

We cannot demand of necessity, only gracefully submit to it. When Seneca's friends wept at his death sentence, ordered by Nero [Emperor 54 - 68 (37 - 68)], he admonished them, asking them where their philosophy had gone, that resolution against the inevitable misfortunes. "Surely nobody was unaware that Nero was cruel!" he said. "After murdering his mother and brother, it only remained for him to kill his teacher and tutor." Seneca made plans to die. His death was long and painful, but Seneca remained serene, even dictating to secretaries while he waited to die. He severed veins in his arms and legs, but still he lived. He took poison, but it did not dispatch him. Finally he was carried into a "vapor-bath," where he suffocated.

I do know that as I finish up the preceding paragraph, the lone crow comes out of the tall trees behind the neighbor's house and perches on the chimney thrusting from the roof. He takes my mind off Seneca. How the bird glistens--his ebony feathers iridescent in the afternoon light--shining, shimmering crow. He twirls his head a bit, seems to look at me, and then he lifts into the air and is gone, and once again I think of Seneca and of dying.

Seneca [c. 4 B.C.E. - 65 C.E.] has been dead for two thousand years. And although like most of us, his philosophy of life is more noble than his actual life, although he wrote better than he lived (he has been called a hypocrite), he understood humankind's fate, the piercing perishability of life, the fleeting moment, the blossom ripening for a moment, holding its beauty for the briefest of times, and then falling into ruin. I'd guess that Seneca loved the bare naked trees of winter as much as the heavily leafed limbs of early summer. The dying flower on the ground, its vivid color fading fast, is more poignant to the poet, more "symbolic," more meaningful than the beaming flower proud on the stalk. And the person who seeks only the flower at its perfection sees not the beauty of life at all, cannot catch the fleeting hem of the gown of vulnerable ecstasy disappearing even as the dusk wrings the last light from day.


Seneca thought there is no virtue in our being thrown out of life. He believed that if one accepts necessity, one is under no compulsion. One should love life, he thought, seek out the moon, whether it be bright gourd in the sky or thin, unstrung bow, but one should not be reluctant to leave life. Seneca thought that self-consciousness is a fugitive fever, short-lived, flanked by nothingness, and as simple as it sounds (and we know how hard it is to do), Seneca equates death with the time before we were born: we simply do not exist.

I don't think I have ever heard anyone lament the oblivion before one's birth. Implicit in Seneca is the belief that we come from a boundless sea of nothingness into life, into self-consciousness, for a burning moment, and then we retreat back to the eternal sea of oblivion [see "A Guide to Christianism"].

But it is this flickering, ephemeral beacon of conscious life, this quick spurt of flame swallowed by the immense clouds of darkness, that seizes our attention. We are here now, alive, the world about us, the guttural-crying crow beating his way to somewhere.

Alive, we find it hard to talk of oblivion, to understand its meaning, of its great peace. Most of us are transfixed by the shimmering of the lone crow's feathers, the towering green trees nodding in the wind, the blue sky with its white clouds above and beyond the boughs. Self-consciousness might be an aberration, an anomaly in this universe, but it is the thing we cannot ignore, like a bright handkerchief waving across the way, like a band rehearsing next door, the quick drums rattling, the guitar throbbing. What do dead ears hear? What do dead eyes see? Seneca would say nothing, nothing at all.

Seneca and Rank are right, of course: one must bow to the necessity of life, to one's fated dying, but on a day as lovely as this one, one in which the glittering crow took his accustomed perch in the all sweet gum tree, a black coal floating in the emerald sea of trembling leaves, most of us would be sorry to shut up this mortal house, pack up the imagination, and trundle off into the unknown dark. Not just yet. In spite of Seneca's calm and reassuring words.

Yes, Seneca is gone (and Rank too). We are here, though, but we know, too, that like Seneca and Rank we will leave, just like the lone crow that leaps into fading day and seamlessly swims away. Oh, the image of the lone crow, that dark spot moving through the air, the trees choked with green leaves as a backdrop--can we say good-bye easily to such things? Our leaving this world is obligatory, but the perception of the world's beauty is not obligatory. Perhaps Seneca and Rank knew that it is the necessity in life that somehow urges some persons to create beauty and meaning. Wallace Stevens says, "Death is the mother of beauty." I don't know, but it's grand sometimes to think so, isn't it? Do Steven's words somehow ease the burden of the obligatory? Do Seneca's fortify the terrified imagination at three [see 2964] in the morning?' [end of Lecture].