Living well is not a gift from God (but the ability to live well is): Seneca on God & wisdom


I should start with three quick notes on Seneca’s relevance in Christian history because some background will give reasons for considering his writings as relevant to thinking about God.

First, a general assessment of Seneca’s point of view in relation to Christianity:

His [Seneca’s] writings represent Stoicism at its best and have been much studied by Christian apologists for the similarities as well as the contrasts of their moral teaching with the Gospel ethic.  — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Second, John Calvin’s interest in Seneca:

In 1532 he [John Calvin] issued a Latin commentary on Seneca’s ‘De Clementia’. — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

And third, a translator’s note on Seneca’s importance to four Christian thinkers:

While scholars and schoolmasters in the century following continued to condemn Seneca, early Christians were taking to this kindred spirit among pagan writers, so many of who ideas and attitudes they felt able to adopt and share. Anthologies were made of him and he was frequently quoted by such writers as Jerome, Lactantius and Augustine. Tertullian called him saepe noster, ‘often one of us’.  — Robin Campbell, in the introduction to his translation of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Furthermore, as Campbell also notes, Dante frequently quotes Seneca.

So, as I was recently reading Seneca’s Letter XC, I came across something that helped me think about what God does and what God doesn’t do for humans.

In a way, the following passage sounds like an overview of the biblical book of Proverbs.

From Seneca’s Letter XC, as translated by Campbell:

“Who can doubt, my dear Lucilius, that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? A corollary of this would be the certain conclusion that our debt to philosophy is greater than the debt we owe to the gods (by just so much as a good life is more of a blessing than, simply, life) had it not been for the fact that philosophy itself was something borrowed by the gods. They have given no one the present of a knowledge of philosophy, but everyone the means of acquiring it. For if they had made philosophy a blessing, given to all and sundry, if we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her — that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t. As things are, there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t just fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts, that one doesn’t go to anyone other than oneself to find her. What would have have worth looking up to in philosophy if she were handed out free?

“Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds. The religious conscience, the sense of duty, justice and all the rest of the close-knit, interdependent ‘company of virtues’, never leave her side. Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human, telling us that with the gods belong authority, and among human beings fellowship.”

My takeaway:

Life is a gift from God. Living well is a gift of philosophy. Philosophy is also a gift from God, and philosophy has taught us to worship “what is divine.” But living well is not a gift from God. We must engage philosophy to learn how to live well.

The Penguin Classics edition of Letters from a Stoic, selected, introduced, and translated by Robin Campbell

“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell

Advertisements

Comments are closed.