The Piety of Seneca
Seneca’s writing reveals a committed Stoic, a pious soul, and an inspirational moral philosopher. Nevertheless, some of his actions and financial dealings have generated doubt about his genuineness. The historical Seneca is a mixed bag if the record can be trusted. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that Seneca engaged in politics at the highest levels of the dominant world power of his time. Thus, he had powerful enemies, not the least of which was Emperor Nero. When I imagine a man like Seneca in the modern political game of character assassination, I can easily find room to believe some of his negative press was politically motivated. I do not have the space to delve deeply into the morass of conflicting scholarship about Seneca; I offer only the following as a balanced opinion,
Naturally, we can have no more certainty that Seneca actually followed his own moral teaching than we can have about any person from antiquity. At best, the sources allow us to extract certain implications for a prominent individual like Seneca. But common opinion about his person seems very much affected, first, by the bare fact that he was a wealthy man, as if that alone would have made him selfish and hypocritical by definition, and, second, by a peculiar fusion of the tutor and counselor Seneca with the student and Emperor Nero, who is best remembered for his bad morality. Here it seems to matter little that our sources suggest that the emperors ‘good period’ was in fact precisely when he was under Seneca’s influence. The stereotyped image of Seneca as a pretentious hypocrite is amazingly widespread, often simply found ‘as a stock assertion dragged from one second-hand work to another’.
As Stoics, I think we should take Seneca’s writings at face value. They inspired multitudes in the past, and they do the same today. Many of the early Christian Church Fathers thought highly of Seneca and considered him a moral exemplar. Tertullian even referred to him as “our Seneca” in his writings. Regardless of the ambiguous historical record, his writings reveal his deep philosophical thought and reverence for divine Nature.
Letters to Lucilius
Throughout his writings, Seneca refers to the relationship between the gods and us. In Letter 1.5 he calls this relationship a “kinship” and claims it is “sealed by virtue.” Later, in Letter 31, titled Our mind’s godlike potential, he suggests a committed devotion to philosophy as a way of life raises us above mankind toward our godlike potential. How? Through virtue, which he defines as:
[T]he evenness and steadiness of a life that is in harmony with itself through all events, which cannot come about unless one has knowledge and the skill of discerning things human and divine. (31.8)
Again, in Letter 53, Seneca argues that a mind committed to philosophy will be near to the gods and can experience the “tranquility of God.” He points out the amazing power of philosophy to “beat back all the assaults of chance” and claims,
No weapon lodges in its flesh; its defenses cannot be penetrated. When fortune’s darts come in, it either ducks and lets them pass by, or stands its ground and lets them bounce back against the assailant. (53.11-12)
In Letter 41 (God dwells within), Seneca covers the topics of Stoic physics and theology in some detail. First, he makes a clear distinction between the practices of personal religion and those of conventional religions. As I discussed in a previous post, Stoicism was never a religion in the conventional sense, with alters, temples, and priests. Nevertheless, the Stoics were pious and reverential toward God, who they conceived as an immanent and creative force that permeates and providentially guides the cosmos and humankind. Seneca begins by asserting,
You need not raise your hands to heaven; you need not beg the temple keeper for privileged access, as if a near approach to the cult image would give us a better hearing. The god is near you—with you—inside you. I mean it, Lucilius. A sacred spirit dwells within us, and is the observer and guardian of all our goods and ills. However we treat that spirit, so does the spirit treat us. In truth, no one is a good man without God. Or is there anyone who can rise superior to fortune without God’s aid? It is God who supplies us with noble thoughts, with upright counsels. (41.1-2)
Next, Seneca discusses the religious awe many people experience while in the majestic presence of Nature (41.3). Then, Seneca makes an interesting comparison. He compares this experience of the divine in Nature to that of encountering a sage-like person—a person who lives up to their godlike potential. He suggests an encounter with a person who is “undismayed by peril and untouched by desire, one cheerful in adversity and calm in the face of storms, someone who rises above all humankind and meets the gods at their own level” will leave us “overcome with reverence” (41.4). Moreover, Seneca argues we will assume, a “power divine has descended on him” (41.5). Seneca refers to this divine power as that “eminent and disciplined mind” that permeates all of Nature and states that such a godlike person could not “stand upright” without the aid of such a divine power (ibid). This eminent mind is the pneuma or logos of Stoic physics that permeates all of Nature. The Stoics consider this active force divine. Seneca says this “sacred mind” brings us “knowledge of the divine.”
Many moderns gloss over passages like this. Some consider them religious nonsense. However, Seneca and the other Stoics considered this conception of the cosmos the most reasonable inference from their observations of nature. Seneca is arguing for the existence of an intelligence inherent in the nature of the cosmos. Many modern scientists, physicists, in particular, accept that there is an intelligence within the cosmos. In response to an inquiry from a young girl, Einstein wrote:
…everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
Einstein did not believe in a personal God, and he was not an advocate of organized religion, nevertheless, he asserted that “individuals of exceptional endowments” could rise to a “third stage of religious experience” he called “cosmic religion” where,
The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.
Einstein’s definition of cosmic religion is consistent with the theology and religious reverence of the Stoics. The Stoics called this intelligence within the cosmos logos and they considered it divine. For the Stoics, the same logos which operates within the cosmos also operates within our minds as our guiding principle. In fact, the Stoics claim that our guiding principle (hegemonikon) is a fragment of the same logos that permeates the entire cosmos. Thus, when we live according to nature, as the Stoics prescribe, our guiding principle is in coherence with the divine mind (logos) operating within the cosmos.
According to the Stoics, the excellent (virtuous) character that leads to good flow in life (eudaimonia) results from bringing our portion of the divine mind into coherence with Nature. Seneca closes Letter 41 with the assertion that the highest human good is achieved by living according to our human nature, which is rational precisely because a portion of the divine dwells within us. This is a beautiful expression of a rational spirituality that is not beholden to a Church hierarchy or divine scripture. Each of us is capable of understanding the divine and living an excellent life because a portion of divine reason dwells within us and inspires us to live according to our true nature. The Path of the Prokopton disciplines our assents, desires, and actions so we can travel that path toward an excellent life of good flow.
In Letter 73, Seneca highlights the Stoic doctrine that considers our rational faculty (hegemonikon) a fragment of the logos (universal Reason). He emphasizes our role is the cultivation of the divine seed within us by bringing our rational faculty into coherence with the logos—living according to Nature.
Are you astounded that a human being can go to the gods? God comes to human beings. No, it is more intimate than that: God actually comes into human beings. For excellence of mind is never devoid of God. Seeds of divinity are scattered in human bodies: if a good gardener takes them in hand, the seedlings resemble their source and grow up equal to the parent plant. But poor cultivation, like sterile or boggy soil, kills the plants and produces only a crop of weeds. (73.16)
Seneca offers another expression of the immanent God of Stoicism in Letter 83. God knows our soul because our soul is a fragment of the divine soul.
You tell me to describe every one of my days from start to finish. You must think well of me if you suppose there is nothing in them that I would hide from you. Our lives should indeed be like that, lived as if in the sight of others. Even our thoughts should be conducted as though some other person could gaze into our inmost breast. For there is someone who can. What use is there in keeping a secret from human beings? Nothing is hidden from God. God is in our minds; God enters into the midst of our thoughts. I say enters—as if he had ever left! (83.1)
In Letter 92 (What we need for happiness), Seneca points out mankind’s natural affinity for God and our inclination to seek union with divinity—to live according to Nature:
But the one who, as the poet says, has “courage and manly spirit in his body” is level with the gods and proceeds in their direction, mindful of his origin. There is nothing wrong in striving to climb up to the point one descended from. Indeed, there is no reason for you not to believe that there is something divine in one who is actually a part of God. This universe that houses us is a unity, and is God; we are God’s companions, God’s limbs. Our mind has this capacity; it is transported thither unless it is weighed down by faults. Just as our bodily posture is erect, with its gaze toward the heavens, so our mind can stretch forth as far as it wishes, having been formed by the very nature of the world to want things on the divine scale. If it exerts the strength that belongs to it and grows to its fullest extent, it needs no route but its own to reach the summit. (92.30)
In the passage above, Seneca argued it is natural for our guiding principle—our portion of the divine mind—to seek a return to “whence it came” (92.31). To commune with the divine, we must value excellence of character (virtue) exclusively and treat externals (health, wealth, etc.) as indifferents. In this state, our body is considered a “necessary burden, to be looked after but not loved” (92.33). Here we see an example of preferred indifferents, which are often misunderstood. The Stoic is not indifferent to his physical well-being; he looks after his body as a necessary burden. The Stoic does not despise his body or feel a need to mortify his flesh. The body is not evil; it is an indifferent, which means it has no inherent value—either good or bad—with regard to our moral character. This state of mind regarding externals requires The Discipline of Assent and The Discipline of Desire. Additionally, many will find occasional physical disciplines, like those described by Musonius Rufus and Epictetus, serve to bolster this state of mind. Nevertheless, the Stoics were not ascetics. They did not deny the flesh; they simply know “genuine riches are found elsewhere than the treasure trove, and that what ought to be fully stocked is not one’s money chest but oneself” (92.31).
In Letter 95.50, Seneca prescribes a method of worshipping the gods,
- the first step in worshipping the gods is believing in them
- the second is acknowledging their grandeur as well as their goodness, without which there is no grandeur—
- knowing that it is they who rule over the world
- who control everything by their power
- who exercise guardianship over the human race, though they are sometimes inattentive to individuals.
- They do not dispense or contain anything bad; but they do reprove and restrain some people, impose penalties on them, and sometimes punish them while appearing to do them good.
- If you want to please the gods, be good. Imitation is worship enough.
In Letter 10, Seneca offers a prescription for prayer:
Even as you thank the gods for answering your former prayers, offer new and different ones. Ask for excellence of mind and for mental well-being, and only after that for bodily health. Is there any reason you should not offer such prayers over and over again? Be bold in your requests to God, for you are not going to ask for anything that does not belong to you. But let me keep to my custom and send some little payment along with my letter. I have found something that rings true in the writings of Athenodorus:
Here is when you may know that you are free of all desires: when you get to the point that you no longer ask God for anything except what you could ask for openly.
As it is, how crazy people are! When their prayers are quite disgraceful, they whisper them to the gods; if anyone is listening, they fall silent. It is something they are unwilling for humans to hear, and they say it to God! Consider whether the following may not be a healthful bit of advice: live with humans as if God may be watching; speak with God as if humans may be listening. (4-5)
Seneca suggests that we should not ask God for what “does not belong to us.” That appears to exclude all prayers for externals. Here, Seneca appears to portray prayer as an inward focused petition aimed at our divine nature—that fragment of the logos within us—which seeks to assent correctly to externals and avoid desires for what is beyond our control. Thus, we pray to remain in accord with cosmic Nature and love what happens.
In Letter 107, Seneca addresses the providential nature of the cosmos and encourages Lucilius to be “ready and prepared” like a soldier to respond to fate. He contrasts the “strong character” of the person who willingly surrenders to fate with the “puny degenerate” who finds fault with the gods rather than himself. This language is contrary to the common conception that trust in providence is akin to resignation. Assent to providence is an active mental state that requires the Stoic to remain vigilant, via the practice of attention (prosoche), and ready to respond in an excellent manner (virtuously) toward the events the cosmos brings about.
We must adapt our minds to this law, following it and obeying it. No matter what happens, we should think that it had to happen and not wish to reproach nature. It is best to endure what you cannot correct, and to go along uncomplainingly with the divinity who is in charge of the entire course of events. It is a poor soldier who groans as he follows his commander. Let us, then, tirelessly and vigorously accept our orders. Let us not desert the course taken by this most beautiful of worlds, with which all our future experience is interwoven…That’s how we should live and speak, with fate finding us ready and prepared. This is the strong character that has surrendered himself to fate. In contrast we have the puny degenerate, struggling, thinking ill of the world order, and preferring to correct the gods rather than himself. (Letters 107.9-12)
In Letter 107 (The criterion for the human good), Seneca suggests a flawless mind, which rivals that of God, is the ultimate goal of a life of human excellence (virtue),
What is this good? Just this: a mind made flawless, a mind that rivals the divine, that elevates itself above the human sphere and places nothing beyond itself. You are a reasoning animal. What, then, is the good in you? It is perfect reason. Take your reason from where it is now to its own ultimate achievement, let it grow to its fullest possible extent. (Letters 124.23)
After discussing the two commonwealths—the ‘lesser’ one that includes the citizen of a particular city, and the ‘greater’ one that includes all of mankind and the gods—Seneca points out that some people serve only one while others serve both. He argues that we serve the ‘greater’ commonwealth during leisure, through contemplation on the natural philosophy, morality, and theology (On Leisure 4.1-2). Seneca closes with a question, he subsequently answers,
What service to god does the contemplator of such matters provide? That his great works are not without witness. We [Stoics] commonly say that the greatest good is to live in accordance with nature. Nature has created us for both purposes— for contemplation and for action. (4.2-5.1)
While Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius and Moral Essays are the most commonly read of his works, his books on Natural Questions are rich with material validating his commitment to Stoic physics and theology. Seneca’s Natural Questions is often neglected for understandable reasons; he uses the subject of meteorology to discuss Stoic physics. In his single volume commentary on Seneca, Inwood writes,
Understandable though it may be, the relative neglect of the Naturales Quaestiones is regrettable. For although Seneca’s primary interest was certainly ethics and although (as Barnes has recently reiterated) his interest in logic was merely utilitarian, physics is not a marginal or merely subordinate branch of philosophy for Seneca. Not only is a knowledge of physics useful for moral improvement; it is also clearly the superior science in Seneca’s eyes (NQ i Pref.), just as it was for Chrysippus (De Stoic. Rep. 1035a-f…). And for both philosophers, theology took pride of place within physics.
In another recent work on Natural Questions an author demonstrates “the holistic fusion of the physical and ethical strains in the Natural Questions.” Any doubts about Seneca’s commitment to Stoic orthodoxy in matters of physics and theology will be allayed by a reading of Natural Questions. In his translator notes at the beginning of Seneca’s Natural Questions, Harry Hine offers the following about Seneca in general and this work in particular,
[T]hroughout the work Seneca’s discussions are conducted within the framework of Stoic physics. He assumes that the world is controlled by a rational deity, who can be identified with reason, nature, providence, and fate (see, e.g., 2.45). There are no chance or random events in the world, for everything is controlled by the divinely ordained chain of cause and effect (see, e.g., 1. praef. 14; 2.45.2).
In the Preface to Natural Questions, Book 1 “On Fires” (originally book 7), Seneca opens by asserting the study of physics, specifically theology, is “more elevated and more noble” than the study of ethics, and lists several reasons why. Next, Seneca proclaims his thankfulness to nature for being discernable and provides a list of physical and theological questions he loves considering. The list includes:
- what is the material the universe is made of?
- who is the creator or guardian (god) of the universe?
- Is god concerned with humans?
- Is god immanent and acting in the world [theism] or created the universe and remains remote [deism]?
- Is god part of the world [panentheism] or the world itself [pantheism]? (1-2)
It is important to note that Seneca does not question the existence of divinity in the cosmos; he assumes the existence of a divinity and then ponders its nature philosophically. Like the other Stoics, Seneca assented to a divine and providential cosmos as the most reasonable inference from his observations of nature. Seneca follows the above list of theological ponderings with a remarkable statement,
If I were not allowed access to these questions, it would not have been worth being born. For what could give me a reason to be glad that I had been included in the ranks of the living? Digesting food and drink? Stuffing full this body— which is vulnerable, delicate, and will perish if it is not constantly replenished— and living as nurse to a sick man? Fearing death, the one thing to which we are born? Take away this invaluable blessing, and life is not worth the sweat and the panic. (4)
Seneca closes the Preface by comparing our mind to the mind of God. He expresses bewilderment at the “foolishness” of those who “profess wisdom” yet assert the universe was created by “accident” and continues to operate “without any plan by some haphazard process.” Next, Seneca offers an unambiguous expression of his assent to the Stoic conception of a providentially ordered cosmos,
So what is the difference between god’s nature and our own? The mind is the superior part of us; in him there is nothing apart from mind. He is nothing but reason, although such great error grips the mortal sphere that human beings think that the most beautiful, the most organized, the most reliable thing that exists is subject to accident, at the mercy of chance, and therefore disorderly, with all the lightning-bolts, clouds, storms, and other things that batter the earth and the neighborhood of the earth. And this foolishness is not confined to the uneducated, but it also affects those who profess wisdom. There are people who think that they themselves have a mind, one that has foresight, administering in detail both its own and other people’s affairs, but that this universe, in which we too find ourselves, is carried along without any plan by some haphazard process or by a nature that does not know what it is doing. (14-15)
As Brad Inwood points out, Seneca concludes this Preface with,
a grandiose rhetorical question about the value of studying theology and physics. Such study, he claims, takes us beyond our own mortal nature and enrols us in a higher class (in meliorem transcribi sortem). If you ask, he concludes, what good this will do, he replies: si nihil aliud, hoc certe: sciam omnia angusta esse mensus deum. Man is not the measure of all things; god is.
In the Preface to Natural Questions, Book 3 “On Terrestrial Waters” (originally book 1), Seneca repeatedly asks, “What is most important in human life?” His list includes:
- Using our minds to conquer our faults (10)
- Relinquishing our desires (11)
- “Being able to endure adversity with a glad mind, to experience whatever happens as though you wanted it to happen to you” (12)
- Developing moderation and courage (13)
- “Refusing to let bad intentions enter your mind” (14)
- “raising pure hands to heaven” (14)
- “not seeking any good thing if someone else must give it or must lose it so that it may pass to you” (14)
- “wishing for a sound mind (something that can be wished for without competition)” (14)
- “regarding the other things rated highly by mortals, even if some chance brings them into your home, as likely to exit by the door they entered.” (15)
In the middle of this list, Seneca offers a warning to those who turn their minds away from the divine,
Whenever you sink back from engagement with the divine to the human level, your sight will go dim, just like the eyes of those who return from bright sunlight to dense shadow. (11)
On the nature and names of the Divine
I briefly covered the Stoic conception of God in my post on The Religious Nature of Stoicism. This philosophical conception of a pantheist divinity can be difficult for Westerners to grasp. The passages below shed light on this conception of God:
“It is nature,” someone objects, “that provides these things for me.” Do you not grasp that when you say this, you are merely giving god a different name? What else is nature but god and the divine reason which permeates the whole world and all its parts? You can use different names, as often as you like, to address this author of all we have: it is correct to call him “Jupiter Best and Greatest,” and also “the Thunderer,” and also “the Stayer,” a name which he has not because a Roman battle line stayed its flight in response to prayer (as historians have related),’ but because all things stay in place thanks to him, because he is their stayer and stabilizer. If you call this same entity “Fate” as well, you will not be misrepresenting the facts, for, since fate is nothing else than a chain of connected causes, he is the first cause of all, the one on which all the other causes depend. Whatever names you choose will be properly applied to him if they imply some power or consequence of heavenly things; his titles can be as numerous as his benefits. (On Benefits 7.1-2)
Nor did they believe that Jupiter throws lightning-bolts with his hand, like the one we worship on the Capitol and in other temples. They recognize the same Jupiter as we do, the ruler and guardian of the universe, the mind and breath of the world, the master and the craftsman of this creation, for whom every name will be appropriate. Do you want to call him fate? You will not be mistaken: he it is on whom everything depends, the cause of causes. Do you want to call him providence? You will be right: he it is by whose deliberation provision is made for this world, so that it can advance unhindered and unfold its actions. Do you want to call him nature? You will not be wrong: he it is from whom everything is born, by whose breath we live. Do you want to call him the world? You are not mistaken: for he himself is all this that you see, contained in his own parts, sustaining both himself and his creation. The Etruscans too believed the same, and they said that lightning-bolts are thrown by Jupiter because nothing happens without him. (Natural Questions, book 1, 45)
I will close with Seneca’s essay On Providence. Seneca opens with the perpetual question regarding evil,
You have asked me, Lucilius, why it is the case that, if the universe is governed by providence, many bad things happen to good men. (1.1)
First, Seneca suggests there is a kinship between man and the gods, which is “sealed by virtue” (1.5). Then, after a few classical arguments designed to convince Lucilius of the ordered and providential nature of the cosmos, Seneca turns theodicy—the study of evil—on its head. How? By asserting that “nothing bad can happen to a good man” (2.1). Why? Because the good man “thinks of adversity as training exercises” (2.2). Seneca points to the athletes who only remain strong by testing themselves against worthy adversaries. The hardship of training makes the athlete strong, so he welcomes it.
Clearly good men must do the same. They must not flinch at hardships and difficulties, and must not level complaints against fate; but whatever happens, they must find the good in it— should turn it to good. It is not what you face that counts, but how you face it. (2.4)
Seneca then provocatively asks,
Are you surprised if that god who loves good men so much and wants them to be as good and outstanding as they can be allots them a fortune to exercise against? (2.7)
And what becomes of the person who welcomes these challenges? Seneca declares,
Here is a spectacle worthy to be looked on by god as he inspects his own creation; here is a god-worthy duel: a brave man matched against misfortune, especially if the man has issued the challenge himself. (2.9)
Seneca makes a clear causal link between the trials we face in life and the development of our personal virtue. Thus, Seneca offers the following as consolation and inspiration for those who assent to providence and willingly undergo the seeming misfortunes in life,
To fashion a man who can genuinely be called a man, a stronger fate is needed. For him, the way will not be flat: he must go up and down, he must be tossed by waves, and must guide his vessel on a stormy sea. He must hold his course against fortune. Many things will happen that are hard and rough—but things he can soften and smooth out himself. Fire proves gold; misery, brave men. (5.9)
Seneca was a committed Stoic. He frequently refers to the Stoa as “our school.” In spite of the controversy that swirls around him, I believe Seneca provides an inspirational example of a life well-lived. Moreover, I think we do Seneca and ourselves a grave injustice when we ignore or diminish his writings. He is truly “our Seneca.” Likewise, if you find yourself inspired by the writings of Seneca, you are wise to remember his confidence to face life, and death, as courageously as he did springs from his trust in a divine and providential cosmos and his ‘kinship’ with the God that dwells within.
Seneca, L. A., Graver, M., & Long, A. A. (2015). Letters on ethics: To Lucilius. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Seneca, L. A., Fantham, E., et al. (2014). Hardship and happiness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Seneca, L. A., & Hine, H. M. (2010). Natural questions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
 Thorsteinsson, R. (2010). Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A comparative study of ancient morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 24-5
 All Letter titles come from the Graver & Long edition of Letters on ethics: To Lucilius, listed above.
 Aczel, A. (2014) Why science does not disprove God. New York: HarperCollins. p. 104
 Einstein, A. in New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930, pp. 1-4. Reprinted in Einstein, A. (1954) Ideas and Opinions, New York: Random House, pp. 36-40
 See Meditations 4.23 for Marcus’ beautiful expression of love of fate (amor fati)
 Inwood, B. (2005) Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 162-3
 Williams, G. D. (2012). The cosmic viewpoint: A study of Seneca’s Natural questions. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 54
 Seneca, L. A., & Hine, H. M. (2010). Natural questions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 2-3
 Inwood, B. (2002). ‘God and Human Knowledge in Seneca’s Natural Questions’ in Frede, D., & Laks, A. Traditions of theology: Studies in Hellenistic theology: Its background and aftermath. Leiden: Brill, p. 149