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: