Seneca’s God (Vis-à-vis Plato)


Thus far, I have written quite a bit about how we can be happy by understanding the nature of reality around us.  Understanding is very important for our happiness, but isn’t it only the beginning?  To understand is to survive, but what makes us thrive?  What inspires us and leads us to our greatest happiness?  What is the meaning of all this?

I struggle with this question often.  Some days (or even moments), I find myself duty-bound to all of humanity.  Other times (yes, it could even be in the next moment), it seems that the greatest good is to “first, do no harm.”  In other words, if I mind my own business, and take care of myself while burdening the fewest number, then I am living the virtuous life.  Often, the good seems to be in being present for and helpful to those closest to us; to really be present and aware is what brings true happiness.

This meaning of life, this purpose seems to transcend from some universal order, some predetermined destiny of how existence should be, and whether or not we are living according to this plan.  At this point, it seems, is where the question of God comes in.  Seneca proposed that God is, in essence, the first cause.  That which drives all creativity, including our own.

Why am I here?

Why am I here?

However, this “first cause” description requires a little background.  You may already know that much of Seneca’s thought has been gleaned from his letters to his friend Lucilius.  In what is referred to as his 65th letter, he expounds upon the meaning of life to his friend.  According to Seneca’s recall of Plato, there are five causes:  matter (wood, bronze, rocks..the stuff), the agent (God), the form (the ways in which matter is combined to make up our reality), the model (the pattern upon which something is created), and the end view or purpose.  So, God uses a model to put the matter together to form it toward the end goal.  For all that we do, we follow this same series of causes.  When we start a project, build a life, or endeavor on a journey, we do so using these five.  Not a bad way to look at things in my opinion.  It’s a good way to organize a complex reality.  There certainly can be others, but let’s stick with this one.

As I mentioned earlier, the first cause is the agent. According to Seneca, this is God.  It is also our own reason, which is derived from God.  In fact, reason and God are one and the same.  In this 65th letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca proposes that the first cause is “surely Creative Reason- in other words, God.  For those elements to which you referred are not a great series of independent causes; they all hinge on one alone, and that will be the creative cause. ”

So, it seems that Seneca places the highest importance on our creative reason as if it were godly.  However, he admits that he is unsure of this to his friend.  After coming to this conclusion he asks his friend Lucilius for help in the matter:  “Either give your opinion, or, as is easier in cases of this kind, declare that the matter is not clear and call for another hearing.”

What is clear is that Seneca thought these existential questions to be extremely important to our happiness:  “And that which creates, in other words, God, is more powerful and precious than matter, which is acted upon by God.  God’s place in the universe corresponds to the soul’s relation to man.  World-matter corresponds to our mortal body; therefore let the lower serve the higher.”

I tend to think that our ability to reason, and more precisely our ability to conceive our purpose in the universe is a divine gift.  The fundamental question that remains is what are we to do with our life?  This question has, in my opinion, already been answered:  we must pursue virtue.  But now, as Pandora’s box has been opened, some trickier questions remain:

  • What is virtuous?
  • How do we pursue it?
Pandora's Box.  Much worse than a can of worms.

Pandora’s Box. Much worse than a can of worms.

Fortunately for my blogging career, all of our human reason hasn’t quite answered these questions, yet.  Looks like I’ll have enough material to keep me busy.  Of course, I haven’t really solved much for myself or anyone else today, have I?

A Little Seneca…On Being Content



“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”  –Seneca

Seneca Letter 7 to Lucilius: On People



The full letter from Seneca to Lucilius (really good stuff in bold):

Do you ask me what you should regard as especially to be avoided? I say, crowds; for as yet you cannot trust yourself to them with safety. I shall admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me.  Something of that which I have forced to be calm within me is disturbed; some of the foes that I have routed return again.  Just as the sick man, who has been weak for a long time, is in such a condition that he cannot be taken out of the the house without suffering a relapse, so we ourselves are affected when our souls are recovering from a lingering disease.  To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith.  Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.

But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure.  What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings.  By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation, – an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men.  But it was quite the reverse.  The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder.  The men have no defensive armour.  They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain.  Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs and to the bouts “by request.” Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon.  What is the need of defensive armour, or of skill?  All these mean delaying death.  In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators.  The spectators demand that the slayer shall face the man who is to slay him in his turn; and they always reserve the latest conqueror for another butchering.  The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword.  This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty.  You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it?  Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show?  In the morning they cried “Kill him!  Lash him!  Burn him; Why does he meet the sword in so cowardly a way?  Why does he strike so feebly? Why doesn’t he die game?  Whip him to meet his wounds!  Let them receive blow for blow, with chests bare and exposed to the stroke!” And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throatcutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on!
Come now; do you/a not understand even this truth, that a bad example. reacts on the agent?  Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel. The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority.  Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue.  Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed; the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbour, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere.  What then do you think the effect will be on character, when the world at large assaults it!  You must either imitate or loathe the world.

But both courses are to be avoided; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you.  Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can, Associate with those who will make a better man of you.  Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.  There is no reason why pride in advertising your abilities should lure you into publicity, so that you should desire to recite or harangue before the general public. Of course I should be willing for you to do so if you had a stock-in-trade that suited such a mob; as it is, there is not a man of them who can understand you.  One or two individuals will perhaps come in your way, but even these will have to be molded and trained by you so that they will understand you.  You may say: “For what purpose did I learn all these things?” But you need not fear that you have wasted your efforts; it was for yourself that you learned them.

In order, however, that I may not today have learned exclusively for myself, I shall share with you three excellent sayings, of the same general purport, which have come to my attention. This letter will give you one of them as payment of my debt; the other two you may accept as a contribution in advance.  Democritus says: “One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.” The following also was nobly spoken by someone or other, for it is doubtful who the author was; they asked him what was the object of all this study applied to an art that would reach but very few.  He replied: “I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all.”
Written to one of the partners of his studies: “I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority.  Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand?  Your good qualities should face inwards.