Seneca, Epistle 90, Paul, Flesh, Spirit, Things Human and Things Divine

I’m always a little timid in putting my assignments up, especially before grading and the such, but who cares, I guess.

Seneca, part of double-herm in Antikensammlung...
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I’ve learned so much from the biblioblogosphere and I hope to continue to learn. Anyway, here is a recent assignment comparing Seneca and Paul.


Minus a few polytheistic statements about gods and a few rewordings, Seneca the Younger’s Epistle 90 would fit will with Pauline thought regarding the dichotomy of flesh and Spirit. It is evident that the same environment surrounded Paul and Seneca, and given that both men would have lived in proximity of each other, both in age and in geography, it is possible that at the very least, Paul could have known of the works which gave tutelage to Seneca, which Wilson notes included his father’s Cicero-based works of Controversiae and Suasoriae, and perhaps developed his own style from the inclusion of them. Both men were focused on the morality of the age, or at least the audience in reception, in their epistles. For Paul, it was an eschatological hope inaugurated with Jesus which had been brought out. For Seneca, on the other hand, the advancement of humanity must be seen through the prism of philosophy, so that one would understand that not all leaps were wise. With rhetoric placed within the written word, both men sought to impart a message to his respective audience which were beyond their reach.

Seneca the Elder provided the rhetorical foundation for his son, which included a well-versed knowledge of Roman history and rhetorical skill, something which is evident in his writings. He led his son into developing the fictional character in which to act as a cause of the rhetoric. As Wilson notes, the Younger became known for the “application of rhetorical devices” in his writings with which he could reverse social situations and offer predictions. While scholars tend to look for rhetoric and its devices in Seneca and other ancient authors of the time, rhetorical criticism thus far has been limited in the study of Paul; however, as one can demonstrate by mere historical proximity, if not an accurate study of the texts, the Apostle would have been greatly influenced by the cultural milieu and thus, while Paul did not have a recognizable figure writing works for his guidance, he was nevertheless still influenced by the rhetorical schools.  But, beyond their assumed environmental connection, the thoughts running rampant in Seneca’s Epistle 90 and Paul’s epistles, at the very least, show a kindred spirit of philosophy.

Seneca writes of the contrast between “things divine” and “things human.” He allows that human intelligence has done marvelous works, but he insists that the potter’s wheel is no more divine than the warhorse. Those things which have produced human luxury are not “things divine.” Instead, philosophy is the thing considered divine. In the beginning of the Epistle, Seneca considers life as the basic gift of the gods, while the good life is what comes from philosophy. This is an echo, no doubt, from Aristotle and Plato before him, and something found throughout the greatest philosophers, even those who claimed Christ. Seneca allows that all have the “faculty” to gain this knowledge, but it seems only a few do. Further, he considers the Lady Wisdom as a gift, something we see echoed in the Deuterocanoical book, The Wisdom of Solomon. Throughout the Epistle, personified Wisdom plays a dutiful part of guiding the philosophical progress of humanity. While not expressly mentioned in Paul as a personified attribute of God, the Apostle does, however, consider Christ the wisdom of God (1 Co 1.24).

Seneca writes of “things divine” and “things human” in the second paragraph. Throughout the rest of the work, he addresses the things which fall into these categories. The human things are those things which follow nature. He writes that primitive men allowed a king to rule over them, but that this king was the one who had “beaten the other males by his might and muscle.” We could easily compare this to Paul’s separation of the words of the Spirit and the Flesh throughout his letters to Rome and Galatia, in which he roundly condemns the works of the Law which allows sin to beat us by its might and muscle. The works of the flesh, the Law, was made in human weakness (Romans 8.1-3) and could simply not advance us past a certain point (Gal. 3.24), at which point, Faith (or Spirit, and for Seneca, the “things divine”), would carry us along the rest of the way. Seneca saw temporal advancement through the rudiments of human devices which only weighed us down in luxury; Paul saw temporal advancement through the rudiments of the works of the Law/Flesh which continued to allow sin and death to reign over us. Paul saw that through Christ, there was salvation through the Spirit; Seneca could only perceive of real advancement through philosophy which ended the constant human wants.

Seneca, in this Epistle, argues with Posidonius. In the fourth paragraph of the Epistle, he agrees with the great Stoic that in the “golden age,” “government was under the jurisdiction of the wise.” We must keep in mind that Seneca saw Wisdom as one of the “things divine” so we wouldn’t be very far off is we consider this golden age government to be one governed under philosophy. He speaks of these rulers who gave service, and not mere exercise of royalty, as those who ruled wisely and were adored by those in their city. Immediately, we should think of Paul’s use of Abraham. In Romans 4 and Galatians 3, Abraham is seen as the progenitor of the faithful, not of the flesh. Abraham didn’t boast in his works, but believed in God which was the connection to the divine. Remember, Paul is trying to secure the idea that it was now salvation through (the) faith(fullness of Christ) and not because one was born a Jew under the Law (salvation by works; cf Romans 2.17-29). Abraham, like Seneca’s golden age government by philosophers, was one who existed before the Law and lived by the righteousness produced by faith. However, something crept in causing the pure faith/philosophy of the golden age to be transformed, and thus laws by human intellect, or works of the flesh, had to be instituted.

Seneca notes that the former kingdoms of the wise gave way to tyrannies which forced laws to arise although they were instituted by the wise. Seneca mentions Solon and six others, as well as the one born out of due time, Lycurgus, who brought about wise laws of human achievement. Paul, in Romans 10.5-19 speaks of Moses who instituted the Law based on the rise of sin and rebellion and Isaiah who looked towards a time when faith would reign instead. It is not difficult, then, to see that both men were arguing that a golden age existed in which the wise ruled by “things divine” but that a time had come when a different generation rose up which needed human laws but that by returning to the “things divine,” there would come a time when the laws were no longer needed. Seneca never fully expressing it in the manner in which Paul does, and while we may accredit this to the lack of prophetic predications in the golden age of government for Seneca, I believe that it is because Seneca’s entire epistle is about the return to rule by wise. To support this statement,  I note several statements by Seneca in which the mundane human creations are seen as causing grief in contrast to the simplicity of philosophy which is held in high regard. This should have provided a enthymeme to the receiving audience in that they should mimic the wise. Whereas Paul was clear that one could only now live by faith, Seneca left it for his audience to decide which pursuit was more divine.

Seneca writes, “Wisdom’s seat is higher; she trains not the hands, but is mistress of our minds” in response to Posidonius’ continued claim that those things made by human hands, technological advancements, are due to Wisdom. Previously, he writes of the end of easiness, which was brought about by all the works of humans. He writes of these things, “All these crafts by which the city is patrolled – or shall I say kept in uproar – are but engaged in the body’s business; time was when all things were offered to the body as to a slave, but we are now made ready for it as for a master.” He stands against the modern luxuries, the works of flesh, which were to make life easier, but instead, life has succumbed to them and instead of these works being controlled by us, we are now controlled by them. I am reminded, then, by Paul’s argument in Romans 7 in which he contends that the Law actually makes sin come alive. Beginning in 7.7, Paul argues that while the Law itself is not sin, it is what enslaves us to sin; however, by the end of the chapter, in 7.22-25, Paul is finding peace, delighting in his innermost self through the law of God which is found implanted in his mind, rather than his flesh. Seneca might write that “her voice is peace” and remind us that her place is not in the flesh, but in the mind.

Seneca, I believe, unites Paul with Plato. In the great and timeless parable by Plato of his cave, we know that only Philosophy can bring us out of the dark prison. Seneca opens his letter up by saying that the good life will only come by the gift of philosophy.  Later, he speaks about the animals in nature “with eyes too dull to perceive the divine in it.” Paul writes in 1 Co 13.9-13 that we are still seeing through dull eyes, or as he writes, “a mirror, dimly” (NRSV). He also allows that humanity, the community of believers rather, has to grow. It is time to leave childhood behind and walk into the light. We further see in 2 Co 4.4-6 that Paul blames the dull eyes on the “god of this world” who keeps people blinded to the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”  The light, for Paul, is Christ who is the wisdom of God. For Seneca, it is philosophy, the “things divine” which draws us closer to the gods.

There is much in common between Seneca and Paul in regards to the dichotomy between “things divine” and “things human” for the former and works of the Spirit and works for the Law for the latter. It is difficult for me to exclude Seneca’s thought world from Paul’s as they share a similar opinion of the world, albeit with different stated beginnings and ends. Further, it makes the case rather succinctly that Paul was using his letters as something more than a private exchange between Apostle and congregation, but that they were full-fledged rhetoric treatises meant to deliver a message containing more than the usual theological layers we have given them. Citing Deissmann, Stowers notes the distinction between real and unreal epistles in current scholarship and warns too heavily of a distinction. While it may be easy to allow the Pastorals or even Philemon to be private letters friendship, it is much more difficult after examining Seneca, to allow that Paul was merely writing in such a way in many of his epistles (Stowers:18). Instead, as Seneca wrote with an eye towards publication, no doubt Paul was writing many of his letters with the idea that they would be published in the ancient method. No doubt this is why we still have them, in that they were published and heard by large audiences.

I am unsure if such a comparison exists, but it would be interesting to compare Wisdom in the aforementioned book with the way in which Seneca uses the image. Already, there are points of comparison, and departures, easily seen.

I would temper the difference a little by suggesting that for Paul, the end was to be near to God whereas for Seneca, it was to be near the gods. Perhaps this is why Justin would allow, a century after Paul and Seneca, that the Logos dwelled among these ancient philosophers as well.

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2 Replies to “Seneca, Epistle 90, Paul, Flesh, Spirit, Things Human and Things Divine”

  1. Remember that Paul encountered Seneca’s brother Gallio, see Acts 18:12-17. So it wouldn’t be fanciful to suggest some influence both ways – although the medieval legend that Seneca became a Christian is unlikely.

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