Thursday, September 21, 2006


Sunt quaedam nocitura impetrantibus, quae non dare sed negare beneficium est; aestimabimus itaque utilitatem potius quam voluntatem petentium.

There are certain gifts that do harm to those who obtain them, and the benefit is in withholding these gifts rather than in giving them; we shall therefore consider the advantage of the petitioner rather than the desire.

- Seneca's De Beneficiis, 14:1 (ESS III:74-75)

The question that faces every person who holds something desired by another is this: Shall I give it or withhold it? Of course, Christians everywhere argue that it is morally encumbant upon the followers of Christ to give liberally to those who have need. Where people are hungry, Christians are required by Christ's own commands to give food. Where people are sick, to give medication and care. Where people are in prison, to visit them.

Wherever there is need, the Christian is required to provide for this need. Once upon a time, the matter of communing at the Altar of Our Lord was a matter of need. A pastor examined the petitioner as a doctor might (see last post) and determined whether or not the petitioner had a need for the Gospel, keeping in mind that only those who are repentant are in need of the Gospel, while those who are unrepentant are only harmed by the Gospel.

Those days are long past, however, and now the entire matter of who shall approach the Altar is one of individual desire. Appropriately, Seneca is not talking about need any more than churches are talking about need, but rather voluntas - "desire" or "wish."

What is the moral landscape when the desire presented is a desire for something dangerous or deadly to the petitioner?

A mother who gives her child a gun to play with will have a hard time arguing in a court of law that her child is responsible for shooting himself and not she, and this on the basis of her child's expressed desire to play with the gun. She was a kind and good mother, always giving her child what he desired, and should not be held accountable for the unfortunate, though predictable, way that things turned out. Of course, any reasonable person would find this a laughable defense.

When someone desires something dangerous or deadly, the morally upright action is no longer satisfying the desire, but withholding the desire.

Unfortunately, the common Christian practice of the Lord's Supper has become unreasonable and morally reprehensible. Christians are taught that the bread and wine of the Holy Sacrament are potentially deadly to those who eat and drink unworthily, that is, without recognizing the true body and blood of the Lord in the meal (1 Cor 11:27-30). When those who do not recognize the body (and the Greek vocabulary here does not allow "body" to be identified with the congregation, as many Protestants assert), participate in the Lord's Supper, they do so to their harm.

Are Christian congregations that grant the desired bread and wine to those whom it will harm doing good or evil?

Even Seneca, a pagan philosopher and moralist, makes it clear that congregations are committing a morally reprehensible act in distributing this meal to those who may be harmed by it. While such congregations may point to their free distribution of the meal as a sign of their goodwill and universal love, the act reveals quite the opposite about their moral character - if, that is, they actually believe Saint Paul's words.

It all rests on this: is Holy Scripture correct when it attributes dangerous or even deadly characteristics to the Holy Sacrament, or is Saint Paul (and Holy Scripture) in error?

Finally, a congregation is caught in a "knight's fork:" either the congregation is morally deficient in that it is freely giving dangerous and deadly gifts to those who may be harmed by them, or the congregation does not believe that Scripture's statement concerning the danger attached to Holy Communion is actually true.

- Lucilius

Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
-The Gospel of Saint Matthew (7:9-11, ESV)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


“Nihil magis,” inquit ille Socrates, aut aliquis alius, ius cui idem adversus humana atque eadem potestas est, “persuasi mihi, quam ne ad opiniones vestras actum vitae meae flecterem. Solita conferte undique verba; non conviciari vos putabo sed vagire velut infantes miserrimos.” Haec dicet ille, cui sapientia contigit, quem animus vitiorum immunis increpare alios, non quia odit, sed in remedium iubet.

“Upon nothing,” says a Socrates, or some other person who is able and powerful to deal with human adversities, “am I more resolved than not to change my course of action on the basis of your opinions. Drag out all the usual arguments and pile them on; I will not consider you to be abusing me, but rather to simply be crying like pathetic infants.” Thus speaks he who has wisdom, whose soul, being itself free from all vices, bids him rebuke others, not because he hates them, but in order to cure them.

- Seneca’s De Vita Beata, XXVI:4-5 (ESS II:172-173)

The metaphor of medicine has long been applied to spiritual correction. Pagan Seneca makes use of the image here, using the word “cure” or “remedy.” A common German term for priests and pastors is Seelsorger, or “soul-healer.”

Of course, not all who require the help of a doctor necessarily welcome the care they need. Often the doctor’s remedies are unpleasant. Only the clear understanding that such unpleasant remedies in the present will provide soundness in the future allows the average patient to stoically take his medicine or endure his unpleasant regimen.

Of course, not everyone is a Stoic.

Many are the patients who do not understand the seriousness of their illness. Many are they who do not have the faith in their doctor necessary to believe in future days of better health. Many are they who feel that the future benefit is not worth the present unpleasantness, and what is life but a series of present moments?

Seneca epitomizes all these in the worst, most foolish form of patient a doctor may encounter: a miserable infant. There is no reasoning with an infant.

The infant heaps abuse on the doctor, screams at him, flails about – all because the infant does not understand what the doctor is doing or why. All the infant knows is that someone is hurting him, and he simply tries to defend himself, lashing out instinctively like an animal. The infant does not understand that the pain the doctor inflicts is in the infant’s best interest. The infant, who lacks reason, cannot imagine any motive but hatred behind such unpleasant treatment, and yet the healer has only the infant’s health in mind.

What if the doctor’s unpleasant assistance were to be repelled by the infant’s screaming?

Of course, no doctor worth his salt would be so easily deterred. After all, the doctor knows what the infant’s best interest is; the infant is unreasonable. No, the doctor will rather go to even more unpleasant lengths to ensure the child’s health, if that is what it takes, while the child screams all the more loudly.

A good healer must stay his course and deliver the regimen of care, regardless of the unreasonable screaming of his infant patient.

Like the doctor, the Christian must remember that he is delivering an unpleasant remedy to an unreasonable patient. “This is for your own good,” are wasted words, just as they would be wasted on the unreasoning and beast-like infant. No, the Christian must purse his lips and endure all manner of abuse if he truly desires the health of his patient.

It is the unfaithful Christian and the unfaithful doctor who cares more for his own immediate comfort than the future health of a sick patient.

How cruel it would be to refuse medical care to pitiful, sick infants simply because they scream and flail at their caregiver! So cruel would it also be for Christians to refuse spiritual care to pitiful, sin-sick men and women simply because they cannot understand their own need.

The faithful Christian, particularly those in the distinct vocation of Seelsorger, “soul-healer,” must stoically press forward with the unpleasant regimen of care for those entrusted to his healing ministrations. He must not be deterred by those who, like pitiful unreasoning infants, heap abuse upon him. If he will love his people, he must do what must be done with mouth and shoulders set. This necessary stoicism is well-taught by Our Seneca.
If you want to be a soul-healer, steel yourself for abuse from unreasonable patients. Rehearse the words now so that they may be ready on your lips:

Upon nothing am I more resolved than not to change my course of action on the basis of your opinions. Drag out all the usual arguments and pile them on; I will not consider you to be abusing me, but rather to simply be crying like pathetic infants.
- Lucilius

[The saints of old] suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy.
- The Epistle to the Hebrews (11:37-38, ESV)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Necesse est opprimant onera, quae ferente maiora sunt. Quaedam praeterea non tam magna sunt negotia quam fecunda multumque negotiorum ferunt. Et haec refugienda sunt, ex quibus nova occupatio multiplexque nascetur.

Burdens that are too heavy for their bearer must necessarily crush him. There are certain undertakings, moreover, that are not so much great as they are prolific, and thus lead to many fresh undertakings. You ought to avoid those that give birth to new and multifarious undertakings.
-Seneca’s De Tranquillitate Animi 6:4 (ESS II:234-236)

This phrase in the Latin fascinates me because of the word nascetur: “they are born.”

Ever adopt a dog? Well, it is quite a surprise when you adopt one dog only to discover that your new pet is a mother-to-be. You thought you knew what you were getting yourself into (one dog), but now you are suddenly out of your depth. You unwittingly adopted a pregnant dog and will soon have puppies running everywhere.

That is the image that accurately describes some tasks. You might think you know what you are getting into, but it pays to look closely. Some tasks appear very manageable, but once undertaken, they give birth to “new and multifarious occupations.”

Your simple task becomes a juggling game that would dizzy most professional managers, as one after another of the cute little baby-tasks is born and demands your time and attention.

It’s really nothing more or less than common sense. Of course, that is what Seneca is best at teaching us: what we already know.

Watch out for “pregnant tasks.”

In the Church there are no shortages of “pregnant tasks.” What seems like a simple project usually has the power to cascade into a seemingly limitless number of small, time-consuming, resource-draining tasks. Of course, that’s my business; after all, the devil is in the details, and he is very difficult to exorcise.

Whatever your business might be as husband or wife, pastor, wage-slave or corporate manager, the warning is a sound one. Think about what you’re getting into before you fill your weekly planner quite so thoroughly. Watch out for tasks that grow beyond their bounds, and leave a little wiggle-room in case one slips through your defenses.

Jesus once used the analogy of a man who planned a great construction project, but ran out of money before it was finished. Everyone laughed at that man’s foolishness and lack of planning. He hadn’t counted the cost accurately before setting about to engage in his task. He obviously imagined that his own resources were greater than they actually were or that the task at hand was much simpler than it actually was. Either way, he could have benefited from Seneca’s advice: some tasks are obviously too big, while others are pregnant with new and multifarious tasks that can overpower you.

Of course, Jesus Christ wasn’t using the story to teach about planning various tasks. After all, the task of discipleship that Jesus is discussing is always too big for a person and is guaranteed to overwhelm a person with as many new and multifarious tasks as they have neighbors.


Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.'
-St. Luke the Evangelist (14:25-30, ESV)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Gratus adversus eum esse quisquam potest, qui beneficium aut superbe abiecit aut iratus impegit aut fatigatus, ut molestia careret, dedit? ... ne deos quidem immortales ab hac tam effusa nec ecssante benignitate sacrilegi neclegentesque eorum deterrent. Utuntur naturea sua et cuncta interque ella ipsos munerum suorum malos interpretes iuvant.

Who is able to be grateful to another for a benefit haughtily thrust upon him [in condescension], or pushed on him in irritation, or given out of a sense of fatigue in order to put an end to trouble? ... Not even the immortal gods are deterred from showing effuse and unceasing benevolence to those who are sacrilegious and negligent toward them. For they act according to their own nature and share their bounty, even with those who are evil interpreters of their aid.

-Seneca's De Beneficiis, Book I:7,9 (ESS 3-5,7)

God has poured out His gifts on His people through Jesus Christ. It would be difficult to be grateful for His merciful salvation if, as Seneca says, it had been haughtily thrust upon us in condescension. This is not the case. It could easily come across this way, however, with all of the talk about "glory of God," "ascribing to the Lord glory," and countless other phrases that serve to illustrate the incredible upsurge in American religion of God's glory and transcendence.

If God is so very holy and separate from us, if He is so transcendent and unapproachable, if our duty is chiefly to glorify God and recognize helplessly His eternal mystery and grandeur, then it would be easy to interpret His gifts as "haughtily thrust upon us." As a former Calvinist, I finally came to the conclusion that the "God of glory" was selfish. He gives us gifts like salvation, joy, and eternal life but always "for His glory." That's what I'd always been taught. I finally decided that such a narcissistic deity was unworthy of my thanks, much less my adoration. I mean - what a schmuck!

It wasn't until I was taught to look to Christ and Him crucified to find my God that I began to feel true gratitude for His gifts. Here is no deity haughtily thrusting gifts upon us "to glorify Himself." Here at the cross I find a beaten, battered, and bloody deity. Here I find a God who does not haughtily give gifts from on high, but rather gives gifts from lowliness. Here is a God who does not give from His bounty, but sacrificially in His moment of great need and want. The very deity who lavishes upon mankind the water of life while Himself begging for water from the cross is the God whose gifts inspire incredible gratitude.

A friend wisely pointed out that modern worship practices speak of "lifting up Christ in worship," and "glorifying God in song," while the Holy Gospels' version of "lifting up Christ" is His being lifted up on the cross for all to see.

Seneca is right when he says that haughtily given gifts inspire no gratitude. Gifts given with the expectation of repayment and recognition hardly inspire gratitude; "surely they have received their reward already."

On the other hand, the gifts given by and through Jesus Christ are not haughtily given, but given in lowliness and meekness. They are truly gifts, given to the very men and women who receive them poorly and repay them never (nor ever could they). How, then, are they to be received?

With gratitude.


And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, "Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
-Saint Mark the Evangelist (12:41-44, ESV)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Sorry for the delay in posts here at Our Seneca. The reason my mind hasn't been engaged with the blog is a joyous one, however. My wife has given birth to our daughter, Charista. Join us in giving thanks and praise to our great God and Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, for all of His unmerited gifts, given to us out of Fatherly goodness and mercy.

New posting will resume promptly.


You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! (Psalm 118:28-29, ESV)

Thursday, April 27, 2006


AMPHITRYON: Sollicita tanti pretia natales habent, semperque magno constitit nasci deum.

LYCUS: Quemcumque miserum videris, hominem scias.

AMPHITRYON: Quemcumque fortem videris, miserum neges.

AMPHITRYON: Disquiet is the price of such high births.

LYCUS: If you see someone wretched, you know him to be man [as opposed to god].

AMPHITRYON: If you see someone valiant, you must deny that he is wretched.

-Seneca's Hercules (461-464, TRAG I-87)

The tyrant Lycus has murdered Hercules' father-in-law, stolen the father-in-law's kingdom and is trying to convince Hercules' wife to marry him, as Hercules is in Hades, the realm of Pluto. Lycus argues with the foster-father of Hercules, interestingly enough, concerning theology.

Lycus makes a statement that is easily identified as pertaining to the "theology of glory." He says: "If you see someone wretched, you know him to be a man." This he argues as proof that a wretched man cannot be a god, nor can such a man be considered for divinization (remember that the pagan pantheon included many divinized characters). In the mind of Lycus, divinity is attended by power and glory and never by wretchedness. In another part of the argument, Lycus even says that it is blasphemy against Jove/Jupiter to suggest that he could father a human child. You put it together.

The real rub, however, is not Lycus. He is presented as a buffoon and a foil for Amphitryon. No, the interesting thing is the turn that Amphitryon's theology takes after the fairly promising opening to this excerpt. In response to Lycus' obvious theology of glory, Amphitryon does not affirm the wretchedness that he suggested to rightly attend deity. No. Amphitryon instead denies the wretchedness altogether.

The subtler theologian of glory will never embrace divine wretchedness without promptly erasing it.

I think Seneca's tragedy presents an amazing window into the mind of the theologian of glory. On the one hand, such a person will actually embrace the wretchedness of Christ. On the other hand, the same person will miraculously transform this wretchedness into something other than wretchedness (like water into wine). End result: Wretchedness of Christ - 0, Glory of Christ - 1.

You might be thinking something like, "Well, the glory of Christ DID win out on Easter Sunday. Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, isn't He?" Ah, now you've hit the mark!

The theologian of glory does not overcome the wretchedness of Christ through resurrection, but through theological "sleight of hand."

The theologian of glory, like Amphitryon, looks at Christ suffering on the cross on Good Friday and ignores the pain and weakness, instead emphasizing the divinity of such endurance. They look "through the suffering" and presume to see the glorious nature of Christ. "Where there is such fortitude, such valour, such strength of will," they say, "there is no wretched man."

What does the theologian of the cross say to Lycus' argument? When someone suggests that wretchedness and divinity are mutually exclusive, we say, "No they aren't. Look at Christ." As fans of, we might say: "Whoever told you that is a complete liar! Jesus Christ can be both wretched AND totally divine." We don't try to explain away the wretchedness into something less offensive. We don't trump Christ's wretchedness with His valour and resolve. We confess Him to be God stricken, God smitten, and God afflicted - in the flesh. We confess Him to be sin condemned in the flesh - for us. We confess three truly wretched days (no glory to be found in evidence anywhere) from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.

We can confidently cling to Christ as God for us precisely because He shows us the wretched God. Christ ressurected vindicates our God as the one who lifts up the lowly, not the one who lifts up the lowly-but-really-magnificent-in-valour-in-spite-of-suffering. In the resurrection of Christ we find the reason for our confidence: God saves the lowly, the sinner, the truly wretched. Having become sin incarnate on the cross, how little does my sin appear compared to Christ's. He is more wretched, more despised, more lowly than I can ever become.

The theologian of glory seeks to transform the wretchedness of the God-man into glory-disguised-as-wretchedness. To use Aristotelian terms: the theologian of glory ascribes to the crucified Lord the accidence of wretchedness but the substance. The theologian of the cross simply confesses Christ to be wretched.

This Easter season, we celebrate the Resurrection of the Truly Wretched One, and look forward with confidence to the resurrection of all truly wretched ones, each gladly confessing: "Among sinners I am the chief."


There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

-Saint Paul to the Romans (8:1-4, ESV)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Quis est iste qui se profitetur omnibus legibus innocentem? Ut hoc ita sit, quam angusta innocentia est ad legem bonum esse! Quanto latius officiorum patet quam iuris regula! Quam multa pietas, humanitas, liberalitas, iustitia, fides exigunt, quae omnia extra publicas tabulas sunt! Sed ne ad illam quidem artissimam innocentiae formulam praestare nos possumus. Alia fecimus, alia cogitavimus, alia optavimus, aliis favimus; in quibusdam innocentes sumus, quia non succesit.

"Where is that man who professes himself innocent of all the law? Even if such a man could be found, what a narrow innocence it is whose standard is the law! How much broader is that principle of duties than the rule of the law! How many are the demands of duty, humanity, generosity, faithfulness - all of which are outside of the public code of law! But even according to the more restricted measure we are not able to claim innocence. Some transgressions we have commited, some we have contemplated, some we have coveted, some we have goaded others to commit; in yet others we can claim innocence only because we were unsuccessful in bringing them to completion."

-Seneca's De Ira, Book II (xxviii.2-3; ESS 1-225)

Here is an ingenius excerpt from Seneca's essay. The pagan philosopher can perceive quite easily both the desire of man claim innocence for himself - not by increasing virtue but by decreasing the demands of the law - and the inability of man to claim innocence even under this narrow definition of the law.

My brother has recently hosted a discussion concerning the identity and definition of the Pharisees and the nature of their peculiar perversion of the Law of the Lord (so often criticized in the Gospels by our Lord Jesus Christ). Seneca has here identified the root of their perversion:

If man restricts the demands of the Law, it will become easier to profess innocence of transgression.

It is ironic that the Pharisees are perceived by many to have greatly expanded the legal code of the Hebrew people, while they in fact had worked only to limit it. How? Just as Seneca refers to the publica tabula, a technical term in the Roman Empire for the written and codified civil "table of duties," the Pharisees sought to codify and regularize the Torah by making it into a publica tabula, by nature a more limited expression of the Law.

Seneca's essay itself demonstrates that this tendency was not and is not restricted to the Pharisees of Jesus' day. Indeed, the desire to limit the Law by codification can be seen everywhere. My good friend, Der Bettler, referred to the expression of this tendency in the local Protestant bookstore as: books in which "the Law is not God's demand of perfection, but some cheap checklist that we are likely capable of keeping, if only in the most grotesque outwardly manner." Many modern Christians take pride in abstaining from alcohol, dancing, and playing cards as though this legal code is the sum of the Law. Catholics and Protestants alike have filled entire libraries with books on "Moral Theology" and "Christian Ethics" respectively, some more valuable than others.

Once codified (and thus limited), it should be easier both to live a life in accordance with the Law and to quantify transgressions, or so the reasoning of man's sinful tendency goes. While the Pharisees almost certainly were not consciously trying to make the Law easier to follow, Seneca pulls back the curtain and reveals the true motivation of any comparable action to be rooted in man's evil desire to justify himself - declare himself innocent. With a deft stroke of the pen, Seneca also slices to bits even this false declaration of innocence:

"Even according to the more restricted measure we are not able to claim innocence."

Of course it is not inherently evil to codify the Law or write on "Moral Theology" and the like, but we must always ask the questions: Where then is justice? Where fidelity? Where humanity, generosity, love? As Saint Paul writes: "For these there is no law." No, the true Torah of YHWH is wordless and yet is heard as a mighty sound everywhere (Psalm 19). Here is the true power of God's Law, its incredible majesty and its awesome power to kill and make alive:

The Torah - the Law and Will of God - is powerful to break any chains placed upon it.

In this season of Easter, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Christ, not the second Law-giver, but the true Man in Whom there can be made no division between the will of man and the will of God - the true union of God's Law and the flesh of humanity. This union took place without violence to the Law nor the flesh of man, while we creatures must confess that we cannot approach the Law of God without doing it violence.

Meditate on this: the unbound Law of God was and is bound to the flesh of our Brother, Jesus Christ, and we to Him. The Torah that is powerful to break any chains placed upon it could not be held by death nor the grave.


For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

-Saint Paul to the Romans (7:22-25, ESV)

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Lacrimae nobis deerunt ante quam causae dolendi. Non vides, qualem nobis vitam rerum natura promiserit, quae primum nascentium hominum fletum esse voluit? Hoc principio edimur, huic omnis sequentium annorum ordo consentit. Sic vitam agimus, ideoque moderate id fieri debet a nobis, quod saepe faciendum est... Nulli parcendum est rei magis quam huic, euius tam frequens usus est.

Our tears will fail us before that which causes us pain. Can't you see what kind of life nature has bequeathed to us, that decrees the first human act of the newborn to be weeping? With such an act we are brought forth and all the following years are so patterned. Thus we carry out our lives, and so that thing ought to be done with moderation that is often done... Nothing should be more economically used than that which is so frequently needed.

-Seneca's "To Polybius on Consolation" (IV.3; ESS 2-367)

I find myself lamenting the state of the Church quite often, both aloud to others and quietly to myself. Seneca wisely reminds us that "our tears will fail us before that which causes us pain."

This reading occurs following Seneca's advice to Polybius that he refrain from mourning that serves no useful purpose. It is natural for Christians - especially those who are very concerned about their Church - to lament the problems that plague her both within and without. The question that should be asked often is: Does this lamentation serve a purpose?

Often lamentation does serve a purpose. It gives very human expression to the deepest hurts and injustices that our world is filled with. Christ Himself lamented over the state of Jerusalem during Holy Week - the city "that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent to it." His ministry, however, was not a continuous lamentation. He took time to engage in sorrowful and public reflection; He did so in a way that spoke condemnation and judgment on His opponents so that "when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them." In short, Christ lamented in a useful manner, and was not distracted from His profitable labour.

Jesus lamented well. As we are oft reminded: we are not Jesus. It is very easy for sinful people to fall into the trap of lamenting INSTEAD OF working and calling it "a prophetic ministry." It is very easy to fall into the HABIT of lamentation. Seneca wisely points out that something so often necessary as lamentation should be engaged in economically, sparingly, miserly. The tears of lamentation, if over-indulged, eventually run dry and leave only bitter and angry persons. We should all guard against this.

Seneca also advises Polybius that there are many causes for tears, and that any human being can find countless causes for sorrow without searching long or hard. So many are the legitimate grievances that surround mankind that a certain relative value should draw forth lamentation, lest the mourner look foolish. After all, what is it to mourn a missed meal while overlooking the countless children who starve to death every day in this world? What is it to lament the splitting of a congregation and overlook the countless splitting families that sit in that congregation's pews every week?

The Church is both Divine and Human. It suffers from many causes for lamentation both within and without. Nevertheless, we should be sparing with our tears. We should use our cries wisely. Discipline fails, self-seeking clergy bring shame on the Church, absolution becomes promiscuous, tradition is despised, and the list could go on forever; Seneca observes that there simply isn't enough time nor have we enough tears to lament them all. Let us pause to weep - even complain - but no more than is useful. Always, when our lamentation is complete, our tears are dried, and our mourning is ended, we should draw a deep breath and take up our cross and follow Christ as He walks through the city of lamentation this Holy Week. There is time for human weeping, but there is also work to be done.


"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
-St. Matthew the Evangelist (23:37-39)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Quid per se peregrinatio prodesse cuiquam potuit? Non voluptates illa temperavit, non cupiditates refrenavit, non iras repressit, non indomitos amoris impetus fregit, nulla denique animo mala eduxit. Non iudicium dedit, non discussit errorem, sed ut puerum ignota mirantem ad breve tempus rerum aliqua novitate detinuit. Ceterum inconstantia mentis, quae maxime aegra est, lacessit, mobiliorem levioremque reddit ipsa iactatio. Itaque, quae petierant cupidissime loca, cupidius deserunt et avium modo transvolant citiusque quam venerant, abeunt.

"What has travelling about been able to confer upon anyone? It has never tempered pleasure-seeking, nor restrained lustful passion, nor repressed hatred, nor tamed undisciplined and impetuous love, nor ever finally educated an evil soul. It does not give judgment, nor does it give a man in error pause to consider himself, but rather distracts us with novelties like a low-born child beholding something unfamiliar. It excites the inconstant and suffering like a ship tossed about on the waves. Hence, those places desired most eagerly are deserted even more eagerly and like birds that no sooner arrive than they leave again, these travellers fly away."
-Seneca's Moral Epistle CIV [EP 3-199]

Seneca spends considerable time in this epistle on the topic of stability. He notices, as did St. Benedict, that human beings love to travel in part because it distracts from the hard work of self-examination and self-discipline. In other words:

Novelty seems like a quick fix.

Not much has changed in 2000 years. It's still easier to run away from a problem than face it, but the catch is this: your problems travel with you. I couldn't help but wonder as I contemplated Seneca's point, "Is stability only about location?" Of course it isn't. Stability is about recognizing a problem and sticking it out to fix the problem rather than "changing the scenery" and hoping this problem doesn't arise in the context of novelty.

Two areas of the church could take a lesson: worship style and (more specific to my own context) those who abandon ship for other Christian traditions or confessions.

Look at worship style. There isn't anything wrong, per se, with change in worship style; however, one should ask whether or not the change is novelty-as-escape. I hear this complaint often in some form or another: liturgy is dry, empty - people are just going through the motions. Maybe that is a fair complaint, but the answer to the problem of empty worship isn't different worship. It is always easier to chase after novelty than to ask the hard questions like, "Nobody has complained that liturgy isn't 'spirit-filled' for 2000 years - except heretics. Is the problem with us?" It is hard to imagine that the problem is within, rather than without. That's what instability and novelty-escape is all about...!

Change the outside and you'll change the inside.

Sorry, but it doesn't work that way. If you go to church and "don't get anything out of it," even though the Word is preached and taught and the Sacraments are administered according to Christ's command, then the problem is WITHIN. That means that changing the window-dressing won't address the problem. It also means that groups of people who form their own novelty churches will soon be facing the same old problems in their new "setting." Be ready.

Stability means refusing to change the outside as a quick fix. It is cutting of an habitual, sinful avenue of escape (that doesn't work anyway) so that the real problem can be addressed. Anything else is just distraction.

The second issue I mentioned is like unto the first. It is certainly true that Christians are to flee from error and those who teach it. If a person becomes convinced that their church body or tradition is promoting error, then they should flee to teachers of purer doctrine. HOWEVER, knowing the habitual nature of human beings to seek escape in novelty, one should examine oneself very carefully to make sure that this impulse isn't driving the show.

Stability - it just makes sense. The Church has embraced this spiritual discipline for thousands of years. Heck! Even the pagan can appreciate its incredible value.


"The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues.These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. Of the miserable conduct of all such it is better to be silent than to speak."

-Regula Sancti Benedicti (Chapter 1)

You can access the Rule of St. Benedict at:

Monday, March 27, 2006


I have added a link to Seneca's works in English on the left side of the page. All six volumes of Seneca's works (Epistles and Essays) from the Loeb Classical Library are available for free viewing. The pages look awkward at first, but this is because the text is broken according to the pagination of the LCL editions. If you are interested in reading the context surrounding any of my excerpts, I encourage you to do so.

Where possible, I will include not only the usual volume, book, verse notation; I will include also the notation used by the site linked to.

Ex: [ESS 1-7] means Loeb Classical Library, Seneca's Moral ESSays, Volume 1, page 7; [EP 2-5] means Loeb Classical Library, Seneca's Moral EPistles, Volume 2, page 5.

Hopefully this will make Seneca more accessible to everyone interested.

By the way, wherever my translation differs from the LCL translation, you should of course prefer my translation.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Huic contrariam imperiti putant severitatem; sed nulla virtus virtuti contraria est. Quid ergo opponitur clementiae? Crudelitas, quae nihil aliud est quam atrocitas animi in exigendis poenis.

"Those who lack understanding say that the opposite of [mercy] is severity; however, this can't be, because one virtue cannot be the opposite of another virtue. What then stands opposite to mercy? Cruelty, which is nother other than ferocity of the soul in carrying out punishments."

-Seneca's De Clementia (Book II, IV.1)

Suggest that the average Christian congregation actually try to maintain discipline among its members in accordance with the teachings of the New Testament and you will see how many "lack understanding." Seneca identifies severity with strict discipline, classing it amongst the virtues. The New Testament would seem to also class severity among the virtues, defined in this way. Nevertheless, a mighty cry will arise if discipline should be suggested.

Why the outcry? Obviously, the appeal to mercy reveals the presumed opposition of mercy and severity. To be severe (to maintain discipline) is to be unmerciful, and to be merciful is to abandon discipline. People can't seem to imagine severitas without crudelitas, strict discipline without cruelty. You say "discipline," but what people hear is "merciless cruelty."

There is certainly a difference between discipline and cruelty. There is a difference between saying, "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you," and cackling gleefully as the punishment is meted out. In the context of Seneca's essay, severity is signing the order of execution for a criminal while lamenting the necessity of the act. "Would that I had never learned to write!" cried the emperor as he signed the order. Even so, sign it he did.

So then, when next you suggest discipline in the life of the Christian or in the life of the Christian Church, be ready to explain carefully that severity is not contrary to mercy; they have discipline confused with cruelty, and what Christian would advocate cruelty?


"It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons."

-The Letter to the Hebrews (12:7-8, ESV)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Non tamen vulgo ignoscere decet; nam ubi discrimen inter malos bonosque sublatum est, confusio sequitur et vitiorum eruptio; itaque adhibenda moderatio est, quae sanabilia ingenia distinguere a deploratis sciat. Nec promiscuam habere ac vulgarem clementiam oportet nec abscisam; nam tam omnibus ignoscere crudelitas quam nulli.

It is not seemly that forgiveness be also vulgar, for where the discrimination between evil and good is removed, confusion and an eruption of vices follows. Thus, a moderation is called for that is able to distinguish between those inward natures capable of being restored to health and those that are hopeless. Promiscuous, vulgar clemency ought not to be exercised, but neither should it be done away with altogether; it is just as cruel to pardon all as to pardon none.
-Seneca's De Clementia (II.2)

Seneca wrote the moral essay, On Mercy, to the new emperor - Nero. His advice was directed to a man in power, who held authority over others; as such it seems most appropriate to direct comments on this passage to those in the church who hold offices of authority. It is to pastors that the Office of the Keys - of binding and loosing, forgiving and retaining - has been given, and to the same I direct my comments.

The Christian Church has struggled with the question under examination for millenia: when and where should mercy be shown? There have been those who advocated a strict militaristic use of the absolution of sins: let a man demonstrate the depth of his sorrow and commit himself to satisfaction before forgiveness is spoken. On the other side have been those who advocated indiscriminate forgiveness and "erring on the side of the Gospel." Seneca describes these two factions as those who "exercise promiscuous, vulgar clemency," and those who "do away with it altogether."

Certainly nobody would argue when I suggest that the pendulum in our setting has most certainly rested in "promiscuous, vulgar clemency." Forgiveness is proclaimed indiscriminately -I can't help but use Seneca's word - "promiscuously," and most certainly in a vulgar manner (entire congregations absolved at once, along with any strangers who might have wandered through the church's doors).

In following Seneca, I am certainly not going to react against this promiscuity of the Gospel with a removal of it altogether, since this would be a great violence. Neither, however, should such indiscriminate forgiveness be proclaimed; even pagan Seneca can rationally discern that this is a great violence to the Church as well, since it leads to a dissolution of the distinction between good and evil. Rather, I must advocate a "middle path."

What does this middle path look like? Ah, doubtless you may be expecting some strict guidelines or step-by-step instructions? Surely not. The only way to find this middle path of moderation is to carefully discriminate between those inner natures that can be cured and those that are hopeless. This requires a great deal of concentration and effort from both emperors and pastors. It is hard work. It also requires authority. Both emperor and pastor must rest secure in their authoritative power to both mercifully restore or dicisively punish, and wield their authority confidently. Ultimately, it looks like pastor as Seelsorger - caretaker of souls.

While we do the work of both executing and advocating a middle path, it is certainly appropriate that we repent of the violence we have done to our brothers and sisters by "promiscuously and vulgarly absolving," and the repentance should be all the more sincere because we stand rightly accused by a pagan.


Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.
-Saint Paul's Epistle to the Romans (2:4-5, ESV)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Alioquin ut scias subesse animis etiam in pessima abductis boni sensum nec ignorari turpe, sed neglegi; omnes peccata dissimulant et, quamvis feliciter cesserint, fructu illorum utuntur, ipsa subducunt. At bona conscientia prodire vult et conspici; ipsas nequitia tenebras timet.

"Besides therefore, you might know that even the deepest being of souls in captivity to the worst are ignorant of neither the good nor the foul, but rather they are negligent concerning these. Everyone hides their sins, and even where a man enjoys the fruit of his sins when they bring him benefit, he still hides them. While a good conscience wants to speak up and be noticed, those of an immoral conscience fear even the darkness."
-Seneca's Moral Epistle XCVII

Even people in bondage to terrible sin, even those indeed who make their living by such evil deeds, have a sense of shame concerning these evil deeds. There is simply some part of a man that knows the difference between good and evil, even when a man would rather he didn't. This inner knowledge of good and evil, and of the moral imperative to do the good and refrain from the evil - even when one is above temporal punishment - is what drives men to cover up, justify, hide, and disguise their evil deeds.

This may seem like common sense, but it is the most hated brand of common sense. It is that most deeply felt sense of moral awareness and obligation that drives men to work like mad to hide their sins.

We live in a society that tries to make everything into a disease, and therefore to make everyone into a victim. Even in morality (perhaps especially in morality), people use all manner of sophistry to arrive at this position: we cannot know what is good or evil, or more positively - we must each decide for ourself what is good or evil. Seneca, far from being a Christian, as a rational pagan puts an immediate stop to such self-deceit. "It is not ignorance of the good that plagues you, but negligence of the good." It isn't that a person doesn't KNOW what is good, but that a person does not particularly WANT TO DO what is good, especially when there are benefits to reap from evil deeds.

Should Christians, then, seeing that it is a cheap parlor-trick of moral sophistry for a person to claim ignorance of the good, waste time trying to argue that good and evil CAN be known? Perhaps Seneca sounds a call for us to simply address the true problem: unwillingness to do the very well-known good.

Negatively, the accusation is as obvious to Seneca as it is to common-sense "everyman" lawyers like Perry Mason or Matlock: "If you didn't know that it was wrong, then why did you try to cover it up." Many a murderer's psychological appeal to the court has been foiled by the same's attempts to cover up their crime. [In my own experience, an acquaintance's husband killed a man while intoxicated, but was given the maximum sentence because he then tried to dispose of the body.] Obviously, a jury of our peers can see the truth of Seneca's accusation. It isn't such a bad argument, after all: If you think that a man can't or doesn't know good and evil, then why the fear of exposure?

Positively, Seneca makes an invitation to those who would live in freedom, both socially and morally: if you do good, then you will not share the fear of exposure with the evildoers.

In the end, it doesn't take social mores or even divine revelation to argue for moral behavior. A simple appeal to the nature of every individual's conscience works quite nicely, and such an appeal may be the only recourse one has in a radically secular and individualistic society.


"Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret."
-Saint Paul to the Ephesians (5:11-12, ESV)

Saturday, March 04, 2006


"At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."

-Plato's Phaedrus, Jowett trans.

While not Seneca, Plato's illustration using Egyptian myth is a well-known (classical) argument against the rise of a literate society. Plato lived during a key turning point in history: the transition from an oral to a literate culture. Many have argued that we are living during a similar transition from literate to "post-literate" culture. If you don't like video screens in churches (so goes the argument), then you are resisting the transition just as Plato resisted the transition in his day.

The last post spoke of the value in mastering a few volumes versus simply possessing countless titles. As we reflect on Seneca's warning, it becomes evident that Plato wasn't ALL wrong. Some of his criticisms are valid. The question is economic: "If there really are costs to pay in a transition from oral to literate (or literate to 'post-literate'), are they worth the benefits we will receive?"

Seneca's admonition seems to partially justify Plato; there is evidently a tendency toward the fulfillment of Plato's prediction. We can't just dismiss Plato as "old-fashioned" and standing against the tide of modernizing forces. As individuals living in a literate culture, we shouldn't just assume that our way is right ipso facto. Nevertheless, I am convinced that a literate culture is superior because the benefits for society of literacy outweigh the costs.

If it is true that we living during a time of transition from literate to "post-literate," there will be advocates for change and those who resist it. We can't forget (no matter where you find yourself in the cultural battle) that the transition CANNOT be boiled down to "old-fashioned" versus "contemporary." There are benefits and costs involved in the transition - things you gain and things you lose. Let's slow down and consider both sides, since it is evident that Plato's "cost" has been vindicated as legitimate. Maybe the "old-fashioned" of our own day aren't just being difficult; maybe they just don't believe the benefits are worth the costs. Plato and Seneca have demonstrated one thing, if nothing else: there ARE costs. If you think there are only benefits with no costs, then you aren't being contemporary and modern, but foolhardy and blind.


Thursday, March 02, 2006


Quo innumerabiles libros et bybliothecas, quarum dominus vix tota vita indices perlegit? Onerat discentem turba, non instruit, multoque satius est paucis te auctoribus tradere, quam errare per multos.

What is the use of countless books and libraries whose titles their owner could scarcely learn in his entire lifetime? Such a collection heaps upon the learner confusion rather than instruction; it is much better to hand yourself over to a few authors than to wander aimlessly among many.

-Seneca's De Tranquillitate Animi (ix.4)

Those of us who love learning know the danger of becoming "jack-a-non"s - dabblers in several areas of learning but masters of none. Seneca points out the danger by pointing (immediately following this reading) to the Library of Alexandria as one of the greatest foibles of human history. Contrary to what you might expect, he does not lament the burning of the Library, but the fact that it was assembled in the first place! He comes off as very nearly a blasphemer to we lovers-of-books when he suggests that burning was a fitting end for such a library: assembled not for learning but for show.

Why do we gather such libraries of teachers around ourselves? I will list a few reasons I have observed in myself:

- As a true son of my generation, I prefer buying a book to actually reading it. Appearance is more important that substance (or there is no real difference). Buying the book gives me a superficial sense of "owning" the information in it, and the gratification is instant (if short-lived).

- There is so much to learn that I imagine I can learn it all. This isn't far from our god-like illusions of immortality. Choosing to specialize means admitting my own limitation.

- Limiting myself to a few teachers means making a commitment to them. To commit in this way gives these authors a certain claim to my time and effort.

- Devoting myself to a few teachers results in an intellectual "tradition" or "lineage" that does not immediately begin with me. So long as I can diffuse my intellectual influences, I can convince myself that I have developed my "very own" world-view.

Of course there are countless other reasons I might prefer to "wander aimlessly among the many" than actually devote myself to true, disciplined learning.

Christians have an ancient library of spiritual masters and teachers - the prophets, apostles, saints, and martyrs. There are four thousand years worth of teachers in the library of our tradition and a lineage that should not be caricatured to include only fishermen and camel-hair clad prophets, but includes kings, bishops, intellectual giants of East and West.

For some reason, we just don't seem to be satisfied with even so expansive a library as this. Instead, men like Dan Brown and a resurgence of movies like Stigmata try to tell us about "other books" and "other teachers" whom the Church would hide from us. Modern writers abound to teach us about genuine spirituality and true knowledge of the Divine who themselves have little or no knowledge of or connection to those who have gone before them.

Seneca's advice is sound. It is better to devote oneself to a small circle of teachers than to wander aimlessly after this one or that one. Is there no room for new knowledge, then? Of course, but let the new teacher be commended by the old even as the Messiah was commended by the Baptist; that way, even in taking to oneself a new teacher, the old is being followed still.

"The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

-Heb. Qohelet, "The Teacher" (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Immo ille vir fuerit, qui perculis undique imminentibus, armis circa et catenis frementibus non alliserit virtutem nec absconderit; non est enim servare se obruere. Vere, ut opinor, Curius Dentatus aiebat, malle se esse mortuum quam vivere; ultimum malorum est e vivorum numero exire, antequam moriaris.

That one is truly a man who, when faced with imminent danger - encircled by weapons and hemmed before and after with the din of battle, neither binds up his virtue nor hides it; one is not saved by being buried. "Truly," Curius Dentatus said, "it would be better to actually die than to live as one dead; there is no greater evil than to be counted among those who have departed this life before you have died."

-Seneca's On the Tranquility of the Soul (v.4-5)

So far as I know, everyone who reads this blog is preparing to enter into parish ministry or is already in parish ministry. For the faithful pastor, but truly for every Christian, Seneca aptly describes the situation we face as he describes the State: we are "encircled by weapons and hemmed before and after with the din of battle." What will we do? How will we respond to this situation?

With conscious allusion to the mounts of cursing and blessing that stood before the people as they entered the Promised Land, "I place before you this day both life and death." To be faithful - to be real men and those proud to be called by the name we have been given - is life itself. This is drinking the cup of human experience deeply, even to the dregs. To be unfaithful - to conceal our virtue when faced with danger - is death.

We all know tired and retired pastors who look back on their ministries with sorrow and regret. They will say, "I was unfaithful." They buried their virtue before the onslaught of church politics, cultural invasion, and open and unrepentant sin. They were not real men, and now there is no better way to desribe them than as those who, "are counted among those who have departed this life before they have died."

I knew an old pastor who preached with fire and excitement. He said he remembered as a young man preaching in the pulpit of an older, tired pastor. The pastor clapped his hand after the sermon and said with a hint of nostalgia, "I wish I still had that enthusiasm and fire." That day, the young pastor perceived what Seneca tells us; he resolved to never be forced into such an admission/submission.

You are a Christian. You are a pastor. Whoever you are, live as a real man. Be faithful and do not bury your virtue when it is most needed. Someday, perhaps, as an old man you yourself will be able to say with humility and without shame: "I have truly lived." Live every day until you die.


To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
"These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death."
-The Apocalypse (2:8-11, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Non quicquid nos offendit, et laedit. Sed ad rabiem nos cogunt pervenire deliciae, ut quicquid non ex voluntate respondit, iram evocet.

"Not everything that offends us injures us; but we are driven to raving by our whims of pleasure, so that whatever does not respond as we will evokes our anger."

-Seneca's Moral Epistle XLVII

The most pervasive and dangerous anger is also the most childish and full of pride. St. Benedict of Nursia alluded to the reality that all anger is rooted in sinful pride in his Rule, teaching that humility is the proper poultice for rage. Seneca also points to this truth.

A man does not only feel anger when he perceives himself harmed at the hands of another man; he more commonly becomes angry at Lady Fortune, God, or the universe. Why? Men are quite convinced that the entire world should serve their whims. The stoplight turns red at an inopportune moment and a man takes offense. Who has wronged him? He is angry at reality itself for not bending to his will as though he were the transcendent deity.

Here is the true sin of pride at the root of anger: part of man's desire to be "like god" is the conviction that reality itself should bend to his creative will. When it does not, he perceives himself to have been wronged! How absurd to pridefully imagine that Lady Fortune, so indiscriminate in her attacks on all flesh, should step down from her throne and wait on him as a maidservant or as her unique favorite among the sons of men!

Translated from Seneca's paganism into Christian terms: we are childishly angry at the world so often because we pridefully expect (nay, demand) that God Himself should step down from His throne and allow us to command all of creation according to our whims.

For the Stoic, humility leads to the greatest achievement of the human being: life in accord with Nature. For the Christian, humility alone leads to the recognition of man's true potential: the potential to live as human creatures and leave off our prideful assault on Heaven.

How does a Christian realize such humility in this life? What tools have been given us to battle our own pride and its subsequent anger? I will point to only one here: The Second Petition of the Lord's Prayer - "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." When you find yourself struggling with this pervasive and childish anger that Seneca identifies, quietly pray: "Thy will be done." In this way we can humbly remember that "whatever does not respond to our will," was never obliged to respond to our will. Only one Will commands all things, and it is not our own.


"How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.'"

-Book of the Prophet Isaiah (14:12-13, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Quid est hoc, Lucili, quod nos alio tendentes alio trahit et eo, unde recedere cupimus, inpellit? Quid conluctatur cum animo nostro nec permittit nobis quicquam semel velle? Fluctuamur inter varia consilia. Nihil libere volumus, nihil absolute, nihil semper.

"What is this, Lucilius, that draws us elsewhere than where we are trying to go, even compelling us to go headlong toward the very place from whence we desire to flee? What is this thing that wrestles with our spirit and prevents us from willing anything singularly? We fluctuate between intentions. We never will anything freely, never absolutely, never with permanence!"
-Seneca's Moral Epistle LII

Ah. Here is the question that every person should be asking. What is this thing? You don't need St. Paul to tell you that you are a house divided against yourself. Even the non-Christian has a will to do good, live honorably, and be at peace with neighbors divine and human. Well then, why isn't the world filled with good, honorable, peaceful persons? Well, there's this thing that wrestles with us.

It is as plain as the nose on your face, and yet it seems like a fantastic insight when someone verbalizes it: there is this thing. It thwarts our intentions and compels us to do the very opposite of what we desire. You don't need a theological diploma to discuss this; if you are talking to a human being, this is familiar territory.

This is a great place to begin a discussion with someone who is reasonable but not necessarily sympathetic to Christianity. This is common experience. Ask the question that Seneca asks: What is this thing? Why can't we fulfill our good intentions? Why do we turn aside from good and even do the very things we hate ourselves for doing? Don't ask rhetorically! Wait for an answer.

Any answer to the question is going to be a mess, because here is the great "black hole" created by sin. What is it? I don't know. Pat answers are not only silly, but insulting to any rational person. "Sin is anything contrary to God's will." Really? I don't think that will get you very far with a thinking person, since now you end up with a god who can't effect His own purpose. "Did God create this thing?" "Is it a thing at all, or maybe an un-thing?"

Whatever it is (or isn't), every human being has first-hand knowledge about it. We may not be able to describe it very well, but we KNOW it intimately. That's what makes it such a great topic for discussion - everybody really IS an expert on this matter.

While we may not be able to define this tendency or evil or... well, whatever it is or isn't, one thing is obvious even to pagan Seneca: it is the nature of our battle with this thing that we can't escape it - it leaves us hamstrung by its very nature. He goes on to write in his epistle:

"Stultitia," inquis, "est, cui nihil constat, nihil diu placet." Sed quomodo nos aut quando ab illa revellemus? Nemo per se satis valet ut emergat; oportet manum aliquis porrigat, aliquis educat.

"'Is it not the fool,' you say, 'that is never constant, never satisfied for very long?' Rightly so, but how will we extricate ourselves when we realize that we are such fools? No man is strong enough in himself to escape; he needs someone else to reach out his hand and pull him out."

Discussing the existential struggle we endure within ourselves leads us inexorably to this conclusion: we need someone outside of ourselves to get us out of this mess. This wrestling isn't natural (a very important conclusion for those familiar with Stoic teaching), and there must be an end to it. There is, in fact, an end to the struggle. Someone else has reached out his hand to pull us out of the struggle - not today, but on the Last Day. It requires faith in the faithfulness of God in Christ to fulfill His promise of deliverance through death and resurrection. Far from being an irrational faith, it is a rationally necessary faith if an end to the struggle is ever to be found!


"So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you."
-St. Paul to the Romans (Chapters 7 and 8, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

Monday, January 30, 2006


Crates, ut aiunt, huius ipsius Stilbonis auditor, cuius mentionem priore epistula feci, cum vidisset adulescentulum secreto ambulantem, inerrogavit, quid illic solus faceret? "Mecum," inquit, "loquor." Cui Crates "Cave," inquit, "rogo, et diligenter adtende; cum homine malo loqueris."

"Crates, a student of the same Stilbonis I have made mention of in a prior epistle, once beheld a young man walking alone. He asked the young man, 'What are you doing all alone?' The young man replied, 'I am keeping counsel with myself.' Crates then answered him, 'Be careful, I pray, and take heed; you are keeping counsel with an evil man!"
- Seneca's Moral Epistle X

A comment I received on the last post brought to mind the passage above, and so I decided to simply publish a new post altogether. Last time I pointed out that the discipline of tracing every evil to its root deep within our own nature drives one to "hatred of self," odium se. This hatred of self in turn causes one to despair of oneself and to cast oneself on another.

For Christians, the proper response to hatred of self is contrition and repentance. In the story cited in his tenth epistle, Seneca indirectly points out the danger in keeping counsel with oneself: when we do so we must remember that our company is not to be trusted. Why is contrition and repentance best expressed in community (in my own tradition in the Rite of Private Confession and Absolution)? Well, as hatred of self grows and suspicion of one's own inner nature grows with it, even the Word of God promising forgiveness can be swallowed up within us.

Perhaps individuals who feel no need for contrition and repentance in community (in whatever form their respective tradition practices it) have not yet learned to despair of themselves thoroughly. Instead, they take God's forgiveness as their own possession and prefer to "keep counsel with themselves." Crates warns: "You are keeping counsel with an evil man!"

On a related note, this is a very rational reason that "me and my Bible" is a dangerous tendency in Christianity. While the Bible is to be trusted, I absolutely must warn you against this "me" fellow you keep counsel with! When any aspect of the Christian life is taken out of the context of the community of faith, a warning is in order. St. Augustine referred to sinful men as curvatus in se, "curved inward on themselves." Is such an evil, selfish nature to be trusted to correct itself, counsel itself, and interpret God's Word for itself? Of course not!

Even the Word of Gospel can be lost in the depths of such an endless yawning black hole of self-centredness, and here is where community is most helpful. Turned in on myself as I am, I can very quickly believe that God's forgiveness does not apply to me - I'm special: I can despair of myself in the depths of an otherwise useful odium se to such a degree that I become sure that if God sees me as I see myself, there can be no hope for such as I.

Community keeps us from falling off one side or the other - esteeming ourselves too highly on the one hand and allowing our self-despair to trump our God-trust on the other.

In a society that glorifies the sovereignty of the individual, a warning is in order: Beware of yourself! You can't trust that person with whom you are taking counsel.

"If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!" - Ecclesiastes 4:10, ESV

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

Thursday, January 26, 2006


Caeci tamen ducem quaerunt, nos sine duce erramus et dicimus: "Non ego ambitiosus sum, sed nemo aliter Romae potest vivere. Non ego sumptuosus sum, sed urbs ipsa magnas inpensas exigit. Non est meum vitiam, quod iracundus sum, quod nondum constitui certum genus vitae; adolescentia haec facit." Quid nos decipimus? Non est extrinsecus malum nostrum, intra nos est, in visceribus ipsis sedet.

"The blind desire a guide; we, without a guide, wander around and say: 'I am not ambitious; nobody can live in Rome by any other way. I am not sumptuous; the city itself requires great provision. It is not my fault that I am irascible and that I have not settled down in any one way of life; it is the fault of adolescence.' Why do we deceive ourselves!? Our evil is not outside of us; it is rooted in our very own inner parts!"

-Seneca's Moral Epistle L

Even Seneca, a pagan philosopher, could conclude that "our evil is not outside of us." Our evil is rooted in our very selves. It is amazing how difficult it is for human beings to take responsibility for the evils they commit. It is certainly difficult for me to identify my own evils! It is so much easier to simply suggest that the evil deeds I commit are somehow involuntarily elicited from me by outside forces.

Christians of my persuasion (Lutherans) use a Latin phrase to describe the dual nature of the Christian: simul justus et peccator; "simultaneously saint and sinner." We are both 100% saint and 100% sinner! We don't HAVE a sinful nature and a divine nature, we ARE both; in the same way, we don't HAVE a body but ARE a body.

What does this mean? We don't HAVE a sinful nature; we ARE 100% sinful. Our evil is bound up in our very selves. It is not external to us. This means that the proper attitude of the Christian is not blame, but responsibility; with responsibility, the acknowledgment that we ARE the very thing we hate - odium se, "hatred of self." This is not a sense of depression, low self-esteem, or any other psychologically negative mindset. It is rather a realistic, reasonable (even Stoic?) assessment of oneself. Such an escape from the blame-game leads one only to despair of one's own goodness.

What is the result? According to Seneca, it is universally understood as obvious that only a foolish blind man would not seek a guide. He is, after all - blind. What is the result of despairing of one's own goodness? We seek goodness outside ourselves, just as a blind man seeks sight outside of himself. He would be foolish to do otherwise. He would be foolish to blame the light for failing him when the blindness is in himself. It is a waste of time. Likewise, it is only a fool that blames others for the sin that is in his very own inner parts.

For Christians, Seneca advises a reasonable, conscious discipline of thought - a metacognitive discipline of tracing each evil deed and thought back to its root deep within us. When I lose my temper, I must trace my loss of control to some fault in myself; I cannot blame it on the person who angered me. Likewise with every fault, sin, and evil.

For Seneca, the constant gardening of one's own nature - constantly finding the roots of evil and pulling them up - takes place under the guidance of another better than oneself. For Christians, this painful removal of evil's tendrils is entirely the work of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Still, the discipline of tracing our evils into our very own selves, acknowledging them, owning them, and hating them drives us to despair of ourselves and to confess honestly our sinful acts and even nature with genuine repentance.

It is a difficult discipline, this taking responsibility, but its necessity is obvious to any reasonable person - even a pagan. Only a blind fool refuses to admit his blindness and take the hand proferred to guide him.


Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, "Are we also blind?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, 'We see,' your guilt remains.
-St. John's Gospel (9:39-41, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

Monday, January 23, 2006


Non vaco ad istas ineptias; ingens negotium in manibus est! ... Nam ut ait ille tragicus, "Veritatis simplex oratio est." Ideoque illam inplicare non oportet; nec enim quicquam minus convenit quam subdola ista calliditas animis magna conantibus.

"I have no leisure for this sort of stupidity [i.e. sophistry]; the work at hand is of colossal import! ... As the tragic poet says: 'The language of truth is simple.' [Euripides Phoenissae, 469] We should not, therefore, make such language into a ball of snakes! There is nothing less fitting for a soul of great endeavour than this crafty sort of cleverness."
-Seneca's Moral Epistle XLIX

I can't speak from experience about everybody's church body, but I can say with some authority that my own is plagued with sophistry. Every church body and congregation has its share of disagreements over issues of both greater and lesser import. Some may argue over the ordination of women, while others are simply arguing about what color the carpet should be in the sanctuary. This is not in any way a criticism of our various churches!


Argument is a method we use to seek and reveal truth in community. I have actually heard people argue (ironically) that Jesus himself never argued, because arguing is sin. This is truly laughable, since this same Jesus had no qualms calling his opponents to task in public, denouncing them as "sons of the devil," and "brood of vipers." The argument (even polemical rhetoric) was not aimed at covering up falsehood, however, but rather exposing the truth. Jesus did not argue from a position of anger or insecurity. He condescended to engage in argument with people in order to carefully show them the truth.

Argument in our churches is very good, since as Seneca points out, the task at hand is of colossal import - the confession of the Incarnate Truth and the search for a life in concert with that Truth. Our confessions of faith themselves (minimally - the three ecumenical creeds of orthodox Christendom) were forged in the fires of truth-seeking, clarifying, and falsehood-excluding argument. This is good.

Argument is good. Sophistry is bad. As a Stoic, Seneca believes in the power of reason and logical argument. Sophistry, masquerading as such argument, is like the antiChrist of reason and logic. Sophistry and word-play does not seek to unmask falsehood and discover truth. Sophistry does not "put all the cards on the table" for fair discussion. Sophistry instead uses twisted logic, double-entendre, open language, and many other tools to hide falsehood, prevent open and fair argument, and to bury the truth. It seeks to make a "ball of snakes" of discussion to the end that every path of inquiry leads to a dead-end. Sophistry ends healthy argument.

Nothing is so hateful to the truth as sophistry. It aims at making patent falsehoods seem true, and those who resort to it might have earned themselves Jesus' condemnation as "children of the devil," the father of lies.

Why do people who otherwise love truth fall into the habit of sophistry? While there may be any number of reasons, ranging from Satanic love of confusion and lies to innocent logical fallacy, most sophistry seems rooted in insecurity and pride. When legitimate argument invites all parties to openly and honestly enumerate their points and "put all the cards on the table," sophistry provides a back-door for the insecure who are afraid their "cards" won't measure up. Here can already be seen pride peeking in, because a true searcher after truth is more concerned with finding truth than being justified in his/her own position. Sophistry is the tool of those who haven't the humility to say, "Maybe I could be wrong, but let's do find the truth - that's the important thing."

It is to every one of us that Seneca says: "There is nothing less fitting for a soul of great endeavour than this crafty sort of cleverness." Our endeavour is truly greater than anything Seneca's Stoicism could have imagined, and so where Seneca's naked pagan reason can value fair argument so highly and hate sophistry so powerfully, how much more should we Christians love and value fair and clear argument and despise sophistry as itself the despiser of Truth?

"This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."
-St. John's Gospel (3:19-21, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library:

Monday, January 16, 2006


Librorum istic inopiam esse quereris. Non refert, quam multos, sed quam bonos habeas; lectio certa prodest, varia delectat. Qui, quo destinavit, pervenire vult, unam sequatur viam, non per multas vagetur. Non ire istuc, sed errare est.

"You complain of there being an inadequate supply of books. It is not how many you have, but rather what quality; faithful, constant reading is beneficial, but varied reading is an amusement. Anyone who wants to arrive at his destination will travel a single path and not many. That is not traveling! It is wandering aimlessly."

-Seneca's Moral Epistle XLV

When Seneca's friend Lucilius complains that he suffers from a lack of literature to read, Seneca suggests that he has too much to read. Seneca is of the conviction that it is not desirable to be a "jack of all trades," but rather a master. To be such a master requires concentrated effort in a single sphere, not to mention intense discipline.

I can certainly sympathize with Lucilius, however. As a student of theology, I find myself drawn in many directions. I quickly tire of studying "one book:" the Bible. The Holy Scriptures bore me sometimes. I am confident that I am not alone in this. I study Hebrew and Greek in order to better understand the one book in front of me, but it simply gets old sometimes.

It is much more amusing, as Seneca points out, to read a stack of books by various authors pertaining to some specific epistle of St. Paul than to actually translate the epistle itself, devote myself to mastering its content, and discipline myself with repeated readings of the same epistle. I'd like to say that I am diverted only so far from my text as a stack of books on the text, but in truth I find myself drawn quickly from that stack of books to another topic altogether. Very quickly I realize that I am thoroughly amused by my studies, but woefully far from mastering any single subject.

His condemnation is very appropriate: I am not traveling, but wandering aimlessly. The same may be true of your own studies - of course, I cannot know.

To remain committed to a single study, a single theology, a single philosophy requires great discipline. It is natural to be diverted by ancillary and even non-related studies; these prevent us from serious thought and reflection, instead keeping us in a sort of comfortable and undemanding sphere. Such an escape from discipline and the authority of a particular topic on our time and effort sadly prevents us from ever wielding any authority ourselves.

I find that it is not only in the area of my own theological studies that this tendency can be found. As a martial artist, I encounter countless proponents of "mixed martial arts." Rather than mastering any single discipline, they simply (under the clever guise of "taking the best of each") dabble in several disciplines.

Note: As in any area to which Seneca's principle can be applied, the "aimless wandering" tendency often disguises itself in our own thinking as something noble or desirable, minus any uncomfortable constancy or discipline.

In religion in the broader sense, countless individuals have adopted a similar sort of "eclectic" approach to spiritual travel. There are, they would quickly point out, many paths to the same destination. Seldom do I discover a person so commited to this principle to yet remain on one path very long.

Seneca provides an often unwelcome remedy to our innate wanderlust: put one foot in front of the other and ignore the manifold distractions that seek to entice you from the path you are on. Only in this discipline is true mastery to be found.

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air."
-St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (9:24-26, ESV)

Seneca's writings are available from Harvard University Press' Loeb Classical Library: