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:

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Quomodo autem revocari ad salutem possunt, quos nemo retinet, populus inpellit?

"How is a man to be recalled unto salvation whom nobody restrains as the crowd carries him away?"
-Seneca's Moral Epistle XLI

As Christians, it seems quite en vogue to embrace "judge not..." and do away entirely with "Are you not to judge those inside [the Church]? God will judge those outside." (1 Cor 5:12-13)

Put another way: Christian churches are terrified at the very idea of "church discipline." Seneca, however, demonstrates to us that such discipline is not only commanded by the Christian God, but such discipline makes rational sense even to a pagan!

Seneca argues in his epistle that individuals are subjected constantly to the communis insania, "the insanity of the community." We certainly can't argue with that. At issue is whether or not the Christian Church has an obligation to rescue them from being carried away by this insanity. Well, we seem to answer, of course we have an obligation - so long as it doesn't require us to offend our notion of "God as unconditional love."

Here we find a rational, non-Christian refutation of such a view: love restrains. A love that refuses to restrain someone from being carried away by the crowd when it is necessary is no love at all. Such a love is like a parent that allows their child to jump into the fire because the child wants to do it - this is not loving at all, but rather negligent!

Christians value love that is self-sacrificial and giving. Does it offend your sensibilities to restrain the erring brother or sister? Does discipline and rebuke bother you? In this case you have an opportunity to be faithful, sacrifice your own faulty notion of love, and embrace a difficult path of restraint for the salvation of another from error. The alternative is to be unfaithful, self-loving, and stand idly by while another is carried away by the communis insania.

Thank God He is willing to discipline and restrain us!

"For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." Hebrews 12:11 (ESV)

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

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


"Non est huius animus in recto, cuius acta discordant."

- Seneca's Moral Epistle XXXIV

"A man's acts are out of harmony where his spirit is not straight."

Christians always seem to struggle with the relationship between faith and works. Seneca provides a simple proverb for those who struggle thusly. Discordant acts flow from a crooked spirit. Harmonious acts flow from a spirit that is harmonious.
For the Christian, "harmony" and "discordance" are not harmony with the principles of nature, as for the Stoic, but harmony with the Torah, the Law, the eternal Will of God. The principle is the same, however: the acts of a man follow his spirit. As Jesus said, "For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean.'" (Mark 7:21-23)
What can we learn from Seneca? Cut through the rhetoric with simplicity. Evil deeds follow from an evil spirit. Obedience follows faith. Examine yourself and see the discordant acts for what they are and you will see that your spirit is crooked. The handwriting is on the wall for all of us, no matter our creed. Seeing that you have a crooked spirit, be confident that the Christ came to mercifully save all such crooked spirits:
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"
On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
(Matthew 9:11-13)