"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)