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)

1 comment:

Steven G. said...

The difference between acting from severity or cruelty is one of the chief reasons that Holy Scripture gives the following qualifications for being a bishop: sober-minded, self-controlled, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome. How do you know if he has these qalifications? You look at his family.

He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? -1 Timothy 3:4

Being severe but not cruel with your own children is harder than one expects.