Seneca on Mercy

Seneca on Mercy June 25, 2018

I’ve been reading Seneca’s On Mercy and noting certain themes in his praise of mercy as both virtue and a necessity for rulers. Seneca is, of course, trying to persuade the young Nero to be a merciful emperor. A few things stand out:

Seneca believes that mercy should be in some part deserved or based on one’s capacity for reform:

Therefore a wise moderation should be exercised which will be capable of distinguishing between curable and hopeless characters. Neither should we have indiscriminate and general mercy, nor yet preclude it; for it is as much a cruelty to pardon all as to pardon none. We should maintain the mean; but since a perfect balance is difficult, if anything is to disturb the equipoise it should turn the scale toward the kindlier side.

Seneca also believes that the gods are models for dispensing mercy.

Since I have made mention of the gods, I shall do very well to establish this as the standard after which a prince should model himself – that he should wish so to be to his subjects, as he would wish the gods to be to himself. Is it, then, desirable to have deities that cannot be moved to show mercy to our sins and mistakes? Is it desirable to have them our enemies even to the point of our complete destruction? And what king will escape the danger of having the soothsayers gather up his river limbs? But if the gods, merciful and just, do not instantly avenge with the thunderbolt the shortcomings of the mighty, how much more just is it for a man, set over men, to exercise his power in gentle spirit and to ask himself which condition fo the world is more pleasing to the eye and more lovely.

Seneca says that mercy is the difference between a king and a tyrant.

Mercy, then, makes rulers not only more honored, but safer, and is at the same time the glory of sovereign power, and is at the same time the glory of sovereign power and its surest protection. … Meanwhile, as I was saying, it is mercy that makes the distinction between a king and tyrant as great as it is; though both are equally fenced about with arms; but the one uses the arms which he has to fortify good-will and the other to curb great hatred by great fear, and yet the very hands to which he has entrusted himself he cannot view without concern.

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