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The Themes of Seneca the Younger (1st-Century Fridays #6)

The Themes of Seneca the Younger (1st-Century Fridays #6) July 30, 2021

Hi and welcome back! It’s Friday, and that means it’s time to meet another writer on our 1st-century list. Today, our lucky winner is Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, aka Seneca. This illustrious Roman lived between 4 BCE and 65 CE and spent his life as a philosopher, statesman, writer, and satirist. People regard him quite highly. But gosh, what will Seneca the Younger say regarding Jesus and Christianity? We’ll just have to see — together!

seneca statue in cordoba
A statue of Seneca the Younger in Cordoba, Spain. (PRA, CC.)

(Series tag.)

(In 1st-Century Fridays, we meet the ancient contemporaries of Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous” here, not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of evidence that their Savior actually existed. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. I prefer this diagram made by one of our other link writers. And here are some other lists.)

Everyone, Meet Seneca the Younger.

Seneca the Younger, a Hispania-born Roman man who lived between 4 BCE and 65 CE, caught my eye when I was looking over the master list of 1st-century names. He was an extremely well-educated writer, philosopher, and statesman. He contributed greatly to our species while he lived.

His father, known now as Seneca the Elder (of course), was a wealthy knight and landowner who himself wrote memoirs and histories — and it’s heartbreaking that we don’t have much of those latter works, because he lived from 54 BCE – 39 CE and apparently had a lot of things to say about Tiberius (the Caesar of the Gospels, as we saw last time) and Caligula.

All of Seneca the Elder’s sons went on to great things. His eldest boy became a proconsul in Greece — and got named in Acts as “Gallio,” who dismissed charges against the Apostle Paul in Acts 18:12-17. The middle son became Seneca the Younger. And the youngest became the father of a very gifted poet named Lucan.

Seneca the Younger grew up in this wealthy family. He even began working on that set of duties Romans called the cursus honorum to establish his eligibility for high political rank.

In a lot of ways, I think Seneca epitomizes an ideal Roman nobleman.

What Was Seneca Like?

We’re not sure about much regarding Seneca the Younger’s early life. We know he was born in Corduba [now Cordoba] in Hispania. That was located in the Roman province of Baetica, which eventually became southernmost Spain. His father moved him to Rome when he was five years old.

There, Seneca received an absolutely fantastic education from high-ranking philosophers.

Seneca soon became a Stoic, though he also learned various elements of Pythagoreanism. (We’ve seen both of those terms pop up a lot in this series, haven’t we? They were really popular philosophies back then.) Some of his tutors were trying to combine those two philosophies into a short-lived fusion creation. This fusion resulted in an intellectual retreat/school that sounds like something J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Light-elves” would just adore.

One of those fusion tutors, Sotion, even convinced Seneca to take up vegetarianism. And then, Seneca’s father talked his son out of it again. At the time, this was a suspicious and weird diet choice. In 19 CE, this interesting paper tells us, Rome’s rulers were getting increasingly suspicious of foreign religions — remember we talked about the expulsion of Jews from Rome?

I bet it would be like if someone found out that for eight hours a day, Mitch McConnell played a Mechagnome in World of Warcraft. Some people would be thrilled. Others would be relieved that something was keeping him from further wrecking our country. But most of his supporters would be flat-out horrified, while his enemies would be overjoyed!

Seneca’s future mattered more to him than vegetarianism. In that way, he couldn’t have been more Roman.

Life Among the Emperors.

For Seneca, sometimes life was chicken and sometimes it was feathers, as they say down South.

Seneca suffered for life with asthma. For almost a decade in his youth, he recovered from tuberculosis. Still, he gained election as a quaestor around 37 CE. After that, he became a senator.

That role got him rubbing shoulders with the imperial court.

Caligula, who became emperor in 37 CE too, hated Seneca for his incredible skill at oratory. Caligula exiled Seneca and at one point even ordered him to commit suicide. (Someone told Caligula not to bother, since Seneca was very sick at the time. Thankfully, the emperor let the order go.)

When Claudius took over as emperor in 41 CE, his wife Messalina took an instant dislike to Seneca. Remember her? She had some poor guy assassinated for not sleeping with her, as we learned last week as well. Well, Messalina accused Seneca of having an affair with Caligula’s little sister.

Nobody seriously thinks this happened. However, the Senate dutifully handed down a death sentence. Luckily, Claudius commuted it to just exile. Whew!

After Messalina’s death, Claudius remarried Caligula’s other sister, Agrippina. She helped end Seneca’s exile. She even got him a praetorship and made him the official tutor of her son Nero. And Nero just adored him and relied on him for years afterward when he became emperor in turn.

Seneca did his best to protect Nero from his own bizarre behavior. But in the end, this face-eating jaguar did what face-eating jaguars always do: it turned on its onetime friend. Nero declared Seneca his enemy and demanded he commit suicide.

This time, the order stuck. Seneca’s life finally came to an end in 65 CE. His onetime beloved student’s life would end just a few years later, in 68 CE.

What Did Seneca Believe?

As mentioned, Seneca subscribed to Stoicism. A Stoic philosophy blogThe Daily Stoic, has called him “the world’s most interesting Stoic.” That title might be inspired by the way Seneca reconciled his Stoic philosophy with his enormous wealth and power.

Stoics aren’t supposed to be obsessing over wealth. (Sound familiar?) Another philosophy site tells us:

Material wealth according to Stoics, is not bad nor good in itself, our perception of it makes it so. Wealth can be good if we use it to help others in need, but it can also be devastating for the soul if it becomes the only obsession in our lives. Therefore, our perception is what truly matters.

Epictetus said: “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants”.

And Seneca follows it with something very similar: “The greatest wealth is a poverty of desires”.

A wise man, Stoics felt, could use wealth wisely. But a foolish one soon became enslaved to ambitions and cravings. Obviously, Seneca thought he’d managed to achieve and utilize great wealth in a way that harmonized with his beliefs.

Overall, it sounds like he used philosophy itself in a very practical way — to help him figure out how to handle his life and the situations Fortune threw his way.

Seneca on Religion.

Our boy was a prolific writer. He covered a bunch of subjects — and we have a lot of what he wrote still!

And he didn’t really approve of most foreign religious customs much.

In City of God, Augustine quotes Seneca’s now-lost work On Superstition:

They dedicate images of the sacred and inviolable immortals in most worthless and motionless matter. They call them deities, when they are such that if they should get breath and should suddenly meet them, they would be held to be monsters. [. . .]

Here some one says, Shall I believe that the heavens and the earth are gods, and that some are above the moon and some below it? Shall I bring forward either Plato or the peripatetic Strato, one of whom made God to be without a body, the other without a mind? [. . .]

One castrates himself, another cuts his arms. Where will they find room for the fear of these gods when angry, who use such means of gaining their favor when propitious? But gods who wish to be worshipped in this fashion should be worshipped in none. [Source.]

Augustine further quotes Seneca’s feelings about Judaism, though to me it sounds a lot more like he’s talking about foreign pagan religions. (And the Reddit group r/Stoicism seems to agree.)

Seneca’s Silence on Christianity and Jesus.

However, Augustine also came up with a novel (and frankly hilarious) bit of hand-waving to explain why Seneca, who was alive right when Jesus was supposedly alive and who should have been a front-row spectator to the kickstarting of a new religion during his most active adult years, somehow didn’t say a single-dingle-dongle word about either topic. I loved this so much. It’s from Volume VI, Chapter 11 of City of God. Just check this out and try not to laugh:

Seneca, among the other superstitions of civil theology, also found fault with the sacred things of the Jews, and especially the sabbaths, affirming that they act uselessly in keeping those seventh days, whereby they lose through idleness about the seventh part of their life, and also many things which demand immediate attention are damaged. The Christians, however, who were already most hostile to the Jews, he did not dare to mention, either for praise or blame, lest, if he praised them, he should do so against the ancient custom of his country, or, perhaps, if he should blame them, he should do so against his own will. [Source.]

So. Y’all, see, see, um, see, Seneca was just totally askeered to talk about Jesus and Christianity cuz he’d have to be too compliment-y and praise-y toward the enemies of his civic religion! Romans had this “ancient custom” we’ve never heard of (and which Augustine does not identify). This custom demanded they never compliment this brand-new religion! So he had to just stay quiet!

Poor Seneca! Darned if he did, darned if he didn’t!

Oh wait.

Refuting Augustine.

Whew, my lords and ladies and nonbinary daisies. I just can’t.

This guy braved serious death threats, exile (during which he wrote famous condolences to his loved ones to comfort them), and the most dangerous political arena around. He stared a furious Messalina in the face and didn’t run screaming from Nero at his worst.

Oh, but Augustine wants us to believe that Seneca“did not dare to mention” this upstart sect apparently gaining ground in Judea [citation needed] and spreading like wildfire [citation needed] throughout the Roman Empire [citation needed] because it preached a message that was just so, I dunno, DIFFERENT, man[citation needed]

Out of everything one can say about this remarkable philosopher, the word coward just doesn’t fit him at all.

Christian Revisionism Takes a Body Blow, Again.

But I can see why Augustine had to lie-for-Jesus here.

If Christians’ claims were true, it truly would be strange for Seneca not to know a single thing about Jesus or Christianity. After all, his lifetime puts him right in the smack middle of the birth of Christianity and the miraculous ministry of Jesus.

And yet he wrote absolutely nothing that indicates he knew anything of any of it.

Things are about to get way worse for Christian revisionists, however, because Seneca outlived Jesus by some decades — and yet still we have only silence from him on the topic of Christianity.

In fact, Seneca would have been in Rome about when Paul was supposedly there. Paul was there till after the Great Fire in 64 CE. But Seneca, who was very much there from 60-62 at least, doesn’t mention Paul either, nor anything Paul preached.

(Hilariously, someone’s come up with letters claimed to be between Paul and Seneca. These appear to date to the 4th century at the earliest. Nobody takes them seriously now.)

I just can’t think of any way Seneca wouldn’t have heard something and written something about this religion, if it’d been there for anyone in Rome to encounter at all.

Grading Seneca.

What a remarkable person Seneca was!

When we examine writing of his like On the Shortness of Life, we see a robust and life-affirming set of beliefs. Seneca tells us to make the most of what we have, to appreciate what we get, and to be aware of how finite it all is. In fact, he criticizes people who think they have eternity to live. It doesn’t sound like he’d even want eternity if it even was a possibility!

So, I give Seneca an A+.

I’d want to see more of a focus on history, perhaps, but overall he’s got everything we’d want to see in a 1st-century writer who should have known about Christianity.

Seneca definitely belongs on our list of vetted writers. We may never find a 100% perfect 1st-century source to contradict Christians’ claims about the origins of their religion, but Seneca meets the need very well. And I bet that assessment would have tickled his Stoic heart pink.

I’ll be reading more about this man in the days to come. I’m glad I met him. And I hope you are too!

NEXT UP: QAnon, a conspiracy theory and moral panic made up mostly of fundagelical Christians, has begun to turn against other fundagelicals. I’m not surprised, and tomorrow I’ll show you why. See you then! <3


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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