Many of Seneca’s letters are long and meandering, but this short letter on the Golden Rule and its dilemmas is tersely wise. We know we are exhorted by Moses and Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves, Seneca explores the rewards, lack of rewards, and the true rewards of not living selfishly.
Letter CIII – On the Dangers of Associations with our Fellow Man
Seneca warns us not “to trust the countenances of those whom we meet.” Men may appear to be kind smiling kind in their appearances but often men possess souls of brutal beasts in their hearts. The difference is beasts may attack you when they first encounter you from fear or hunger, but once your paths depart beasts will usually not pursue you further. Men, however, scheme and often delight in destroying one another, making each other’s lives miserable.
How should you treat your fellow man? “Try, in your dealings with others, to harm not, in order that you not be harmed.”
That is the negative form of the command to love your neighbor as yourself, what is the positive command?
“You should rejoice with your neighbor in all his joys and sympathize with him in all his troubles, remembering what you should offer and what you should withhold.” What should we offer? That which increases the love in our hearts. What should be withheld? The bitterness and anger and resentments that so often poison our relationships.
“And what may you expect to attain by living such a life?”
“Not necessarily freedom from harm from their hands, but at least freedom from deceit.” Love is its own reward, love is its own true reward, through love you attain virtue, through love you purify your soul.
We strive to love our neighbor as ourselves, but usually our neighbor is only dimly aware of our strivings, sometimes our neighbor is hostile, rarely does out neighbor appear to be appreciative of our efforts. Who will comfort us in our strivings?
“Take refuge with philosophy, she will cherish you in her bosom, and in her sanctuary you shall be safe, or at least you will be safer than before.”
Recasting this phrase in Christian terms, Take refuge in the Love of God and Holy Scriptures, she will cherish you in her bosom, and in her sanctuary you shall be safe, or at least you will be safer than before.
Study philosophy and Scriptures with a humble and accepting heart, and you will grow in humility and love and empathy. Seneca warns of the dangers of pride and superiority, “for philosophy when employed with insolence and arrogance is perilous. Let philosophy strip off your faults, rather than assist you to decry the faults.”
We should pray the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem:
O Lord and Master of my life,
take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions,
and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages.
Seneca concludes, “A man may be wise without parade and without arousing enmity.”[i]
Be right, be virtuous, but be right and virtuous in the right way, acting selflessly, for if you are right and virtuous in the wrong way, you are neither right nor are you virtuous, for either your motives are either selfish or you are more concerned with your own feelings and pride than the feelings and dignity of your neighbor.
Letter XCV On Basic Principles:
Mere men may be impressed by our outward actions, but God, who alone can truly see into our heart, knows our motives, and it is our motives that determine whether we act selflessly in love or selfishly. As Seneca observes, “the credit lies not in the actual deed, but in the way it is done.” “As our acts and our thoughts are, so will our lives be.”
Seneca provides an example. “When people sit by the bedsides of their sick friends, we honor their motives. But when people do this to attain a legacy, they are like vultures waiting for carrion. The same act may be either honorable or shameful, the motive makes all the difference.”
Seneca observed, “Philosophy is both theoretic and practical, it contemplates and at the same time acts.”[ii]
Letter CXIII –On the Vitality of the Soul
Seneca says, “Let each man convince himself of this before all else – ‘I must be just without reward.’ And that is not enough; let him convince himself also of this: ‘May I take pleasure in devoting myself of my own free will to uphold this the noblest of virtues.’”
Scriptures exhort, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”[iii]
Seneca says, “Let all your thoughts be turned as far as possible from personal interests. You need not look about for the reward of a just deed; a just deed in itself offers a still greater return. Remember this, it makes no difference how many are aware of your righteousness. If you wish your virtue to be advertised you are not striving for virtue but for praise.”
Seneca continues, “Are you not willing to be just even if you are not praised for your justice? Nay, indeed often you will be despised for your just behavior rather than praised. If you are wise, let ill repute, well won, be a delight.”[iv]
Scriptures reassure us, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”[v]
[i] Seneca, “Moral Discourses,” in Stoic Six-Park – Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and More, translated by Richard Gummere, (Enhanced Media, 2014, first published 1925), Letter CIII, 494.
[ii] Seneca, Moral Discourses, Letter XCV 464-469.
[iv] Seneca, Moral Discourses, Letter CXIII, 522.