Seneca vs. Timothy

For this monologue, I have chosen to focus my exploration on Seneca and his book, “On the Happy Life”, if you wish to know my reasoning behind this choice, feel free to inquire further after the monologue and critical thought question is complete.  

  1. The following short work of historical fiction describes a hypothetical debate between St. Timothy and Seneca in the forum of Ephesus.  As Timothy and Seneca were contemporaries, it seems possible that such a debate could have possibly occurred, though no record of such has been handed down to us.  In the following lines, I seek to encapsulate some of the pagan arguments against Christianity that an early believer may have had to face.  Also, I detail three possible responses to the Christian message, as detailed in the Book of Acts and in Jesus’ parables. Much of this work is quotation, simply placed in an order that renders some of the points more clear.  The characters appear in the following order and follow the roles given:

II.  Seneca on Trial

“All hail Marcus Aetius Arcemus, overseer of the tax collections of Hispania, son of Lucius Aetius Arcemus, prefect of Gaul, venerable in death.  All hail Titus Hygenus Tullius, son of Valerius Hygenus Tullius, prefect of Cappadocia, bulwark against the Parthian scourge.  All hail Flavius Publius Tertullianus, son of the famed Honorius Publius Tertullianus, router of the Nubian pillagers, friend to the Emperor, blessed is He!”

“Hail!”, the port of Ephesus, slaves, citizens, foreigners, all cried as one, granting honor to the aristocratic beams of light that proceeded from that Imperial sun, their Emperor, Tiberius Caesar. The aristocrats, clad in jerkins of leather covered with breastplates emblazoned with imperial insignias, stood motionless and stern on the deck of their ship, their customary salute lifted aloft with great virility, ready to disembark at the completion of the ceremony.  

“Who are these men who do not kneel, Marcus?”, Asked Flavius, referring to a few lone slaves in the crowd with some disgust.  “Members of the Cult of the Dead Hebrew.  Pay them no heed, they pay their taxes and that is all about which I concern myself.”  Flavius persisted, “And yet, by not bowing to us, they show dishonor to not only us and our families, but the Emperor!  And we allow this outrage in our provinces?”  Titus attempted to console the wounded ego and dramatic outrage of Flavius, “Marcus, being our elder, has undergone more journeys than we, my good Flavius, let us trust his word that such a sleight may be overlooked for the present, until contrary information presents itself.”  Flavius sheathed his proverbial sword, and calmed himself at Titus’ appeal for Marcus’ honor.  

Homage duly shown, the port market resumed its normal course of affairs, with the sailors of tall-sailed triremes unloading their Carthaginian grain in large burlap sacks, with cranes loading large pallets of raw bronze and iron from the mines of Gaul, and slaves, ever and always, ships full of slaves unloading their human wares from every conquered people now made a denizen of the Empire.  Like a new Atlantis, Ephesus set on the Sea, the jewel of the Mediterranean, gleamed golden in the evening sun with its white-washed walls, pillars, and temples.  

“Flavius, Titus, draw near, I must speak with you privately.”, Marcus intoned conspiratorially.  His gray hairs framed his care-worn face, and his eyes darted about, paranoid, as Flavius and Titus drew near to hear his words.  “The aforementioned Cult has been known to stir controversy on previous occasions, and tonight, one of their leaders will meet a famed philosopher of ours in debate in the public forum.  There could be a controversy and general outbreak of riot if things do not proceed carefully.  My superior deems it best that we attend the debate to make the glory of Rome felt, perhaps quelling any outbreak of violence by our presence, and perhaps aweing the common rabble into submission to Imperial authority.”  Flavius’ hackles rose once more at the words of Marcus, “We not only possess a prefect of Ephesus who gives the common rabble a hearing with noblemen,  but also grace such a hearing with our dignified presence?  Such dishonor is unthinkable to my house, better to crucify such fools for their insolence than arrive at their forum wreathed in the insignia of beloved, Rome.  Their very stench will drive me to dishonorable conduct. Patria ad Aeternum!” He spit his last poetic word of glorification like the oath of a soldier losing at draughts or dice.

However, Marcus appeared somewhat subjugated by the diatribe of Flavius, as Flavius’ family outranked both his and Titus’ in prestige and privilege.  Yet again, Titus spoke.  

“Dear Flavius, is not a Roman citizen honor bound to the man of gray hairs and many years?  Let us follow the direction of our elder and support him in his orders, for we dare not leave him to the rabble if, perchance, ought should go amiss.”  Flavius again agreed.

“Careful who you call gray-haired and decrepit! Forget not my conduct on the fields of Espania with the great Augustus!”  Titus bowed his head, hand pressed to his chest at the mention of such an august figure as the first true Caesar; Flavius followed suit.  “The Cantabri shall not rise again, old one, on account of thy sword.”  

After bathing and a small supper, the men walked together to the forum, among the crowds of Greek and Roman nobles, many of high-birth; every man of letters and every man of wisdom made an appearance for this night, even the Prefect of the city himself.  “Surely the nobles of so many high houses do not emerge for the words of some unruly Hebrew?”  Flavius mused.  “No, good Flavius, they come to hear the words of the wise Seneca, the foremost of Roman thinkers, and a defender of the nobility, much to your satisfaction, I am sure.”  

The forum of Ephesus, fashioned after an old Athenian amphitheater, held many men, but tonight men gathered on the highest portion of the amphitheater, standing to hear the highly anticipated words, while many crowded onto the floor in front of the stage, standing just below it.  The stage, a simple stone slab, stood at the focal point between the wrap around of stone seats in the theater.  Soon, the reason for the crowded nature of the theater revealed itself, for alongside those of high-birth and wealth, sat slaves, merchants, even women, all gathered to hear the discourse.  Flavius’ face flushed and jaw gritted at the presence of such ‘rabble’, but held his tongue, seating himself with Titus and Marcus in the seats reserved for dignitaries, next to the Prefect.  

An old man, robed in white, took the stage and stood till the clamor in the theater stilled to hear him.  

He frowned slightly and continued with his prepared speech after nodding to the Prefect and the dignitaries, “Men of Ephesus, tonight we shall hear the discourse between the wisened, patrician Seneca, a man of means and liberality, and purveyor of good speech, and, in opposition,  the plucky leader of the Cult of the Dead Hebrew in this city, one Timotheus, a beardless young man of vibrant rhetoric.  Please wait to speak until both arguments have been heard!”  The old overseer of the forum vacated the stage and made his winding way through the sea of onlookers to his own beleaguered seat, his face most disapproving at this breach of custom.  After he left, the priest of Apollo stood on stage to light the incense fires as a request for approval and good Fortune from the gods.  At this, the noble crowd of Romans and Greeks stood, while many of the rabble remained seated.  

An old man of noble bearing, robed in a white toga trimmed in accents of scarlet took the stage on completion of the traditional ceremony, his dark eyes uplifted to engage every citizen in attendance.  Then, he regarded slowly each member of the aforementioned rabble with a stern, steady gaze.  After a few long moments of mere observation, he began his part of the argument in a sonorous voice, that carried throughout the amphitheater in spite of its crowded state:

“They say that Diodorus, the Epicurean philosopher, who within these last few days put an end to his life with his own hand, did not act according to the precepts of Epicurus, in cutting his throat: some choose to regard this act as the result of madness, others of recklessness; he, meanwhile, happy and filled with the consciousness of his own goodness, has borne testimony to himself by his manner of departing from life, has commended the repose of a life spent at anchor in a safe harbour, and has said what you do not like to hear, because you too ought to do it.

"I've lived, I've run the race which Fortune set me."

You argue about the life and death of another, and yelp at the name of men whom some peculiarly noble quality has rendered great, just as tiny curs do at the approach of strangers: for it is to your interest that no one should appear to be good, as if virtue in another were a reproach to all your crimes. You enviously compare the glories of others with your own dirty actions, and do not understand how greatly to your disadvantage it is to venture to do so: for if they who follow after virtue be greedy, lustful, and fond of power, what must you be, who hate the very name of virtue? You say that no one acts up to his professions, or lives according to the standard which he sets up in his discourses: what wonder, seeing that the words which they speak are brave, gigantic, and able to weather all the storms which wreck mankind, whereas they themselves are struggling to tear themselves away from crosses into which each one of you is driving his own nail. Yet men who are crucified hang from one single pole, but these who punish themselves are divided between as many crosses as they have lusts, but yet are given to evil speaking, and are so magnificent in their contempt of the vices of others that I should suppose that they had none of their own, were it not that some criminals when on the gibbet spit upon the spectators.

"Philosophers do not carry into effect all that they teach." No; but they effect much good by their teaching, by the noble thoughts which they conceive in their minds: would, indeed, that they could act up to their talk: what could be happier than they would be? but in the meanwhile you have no right to despise good sayings and hearts full of good thoughts. Men deserve praise for engaging in profitable studies, even though they stop short of producing any results. Why need we wonder if those who begin to climb a steep path do not succeed in ascending it very high? yet, if you be a man, look with respect on those who attempt great things, even though they fall. It is the act of a generous spirit to proportion its efforts not to its own strength but to that of human nature, to entertain lofty aims, and to conceive plans which are too vast to be carried into execution even by those who are endowed with gigantic intellects, who appoint for themselves the following rules: "I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance: I will submit to labours, however great they may be, supporting the strength of my body by that of my mind: I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not; if they be elsewhere I will not be more gloomy, if they sparkle around me I will not be more lively than I should otherwise be: whether Fortune comes or goes I will take no notice of her: I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind: I will so live as to remember that I was born for others, and will thank Nature on this account: for in what fashion could she have done better for me? she has given me alone to all, and all to me alone. Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly. I will think that I have no possessions so real as those which I have given away to deserving people: I will not reckon benefits by their magnitude or number, or by anything except the value set upon them by the receiver: I never will consider a gift to be a large one if it be bestowed upon a worthy object. I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience: whenever I do anything alone by myself I will believe that the eyes of the Roman people are upon me while I do it. In eating and drinking my object shall be to quench the desires of Nature, not to fill and empty my belly. I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half way: I will bear in mind that the world is my native city, that its governors are the gods, and that they stand above and around me, criticizing whatever I do or say. Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits; that no one's freedom, my own least of all, has been impaired through me." He who sets up these as the rules of his life will soar aloft and strive to make his way to the gods: of a truth, even though he fails, yet he

”Fails in a high emprise.”[1]

But you, who hate both virtue and those who practise it, do nothing at which we need be surprised, for sickly lights cannot bear the sun, nocturnal creatures avoid the brightness of day, and at its first dawning become bewildered and all betake themselves to their dens together: creatures that fear the light hide themselves in crevices. So croak away, and exercise your miserable tongues in reproaching good men: open wide your jaws, bite hard: you will break many teeth before you make any impression.

I advise you, respect virtue: believe those who having long followed her cry aloud that what they follow is a thing of might, and daily appears mightier. Reverence her as you would the gods, and reverence her followers as you would the priests of the gods: and whenever any mention of sacred writings is made, favete linguis, favour us with silence: this word is not derived, as most people imagine, from favour, but commands silence, that divine service may be performed without being interrupted by any words of evil omen. It is much more necessary that you should be ordered to do this, in order that whenever utterance is made by that oracle, you may listen to it with attention and in silence. Whenever anyone beats a sistrum,[1] pretending to do so by divine command, any proficient in grazing his own skin covers his arms and shoulders with blood from light cuts, any one crawls on his knees howling along the street, or any old man clad in linen comes forth in daylight with a lamp and laurel branch and cries out that one of the gods is angry, you crowd round him and listen to his words, and each increases the other's wonderment by declaring him to be divinely inspired.

We have been born into a monarchy: our liberty is to obey God.  As far as is right, to form a god out of what is good.  I make this speech, not on my own behalf, for I am steeped in vices of every kind, but on behalf of one who has made some progress in virtue.   Focused on the Self and positing values from a deeply personal sense of virtue.”

The venerable Seneca’s address to the crowd complete, he returned to his seat to listen to the response of his opponent.  Every face of noble birth watched him carefully as he descended from the stage, approval securely fastened in their eyes.  The rabble remained silent and watched their own champion take to the stage, a young man, beardless as mentioned before, his eyes calm, but clearly no stranger to passionate flame, his body clothed in a simple woolen robe, lashed tightly with rope, and head covered with a felt hat.  

“It is written somewhere by my interlocutor as his first principle that, “a right-thinking mind never alters or becomes hateful to itself”  and in another place that, “the best things never undergo any change: we cannot depend upon anything whose nature is to change.”  

For such writing, I applaud my interlocutor, for he has spoken wisely, and his words illuminate the very seat of Truth.  Yet, in light of his recent statements, I am left with questions, which I, being a man of common quality, humbly bring to the light of your attention gathered here today.  Primary, how can the action of bloodletting of one’s self be seen as anything less than hateful, as far as regards your Epicurean, Diodorus?  Secondary, if it be allowed that the best things never undergo any change, how can it be said that one progresses toward a state of virtue?  Will not a man be all of the one or all of the other, in light of this statement from my wise interlocutor?  Before I allow such an answer, allow me to share what I believe answers these quandaries in a single instant, through an avenue favoured by the people, according to wise Seneca’s own admission: Sacred Writ.

“A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.”  This brief quotation strikes near to the heart of our issue in hand, for my interlocutor has spoken well of the range of pleasures as well, in saying,

“If we assign to all bodily pleasures and external delights the same position which is held by auxiliaries and light-armed troops in a camp; if we make them our servants, not our masters—then and only then are they of value to our minds.”

Taken on its own, this statement holds truth, for all things created by the Maker are good, and to be received with thanksgiving, yet in light of the desire for illumination I proffer another humble inquiry:

How can the state of change evident in the image of a military camp not succeed in one side’s domination of a man, possessing his soul, working out its ends?

For in another place wise Seneca has written, “that the highest good is singleness of mind: for where agreement and unity are, there must the virtues be: it is the vices that are at war one with another.”  

Yet, the various methods of attack at work in a military unit fail to denote singleness and unity, and if one attempts to “harmonize” these units, one falls into the other trap of entering a state of change, thus proving to be undependable, unreliable, vacillatory.  All long-winded talk aside, we, the dust of the earth, we little creatures truly fall in line with the thunderous words, “All fall short of the glory of God.”  I do not accuse merely noble men, but all men of the same charge.

For, on the one hand lies the vain attempts of our empty souls to heave the rock of our lacking virtue up the hill of human nature, while on the other hand lies the complete conquest of our baser instincts, driving us into deeper darkness, till all the world appears as dark as our own hearts, desperate and deceitfully wicked, ultimately ending in the ultimate tragedy, hatred of self, hatred of the terra firma, hatred of God, and the choice to deal out judgement upon one’s self with the cruel knife.

Judgement stands with the axe laid to the branches for everyone gathered here, and yet the way out appears readily.  I commend to your attention the Man of supreme virtu of unflagging and deified andreia, the Son of God, ascended into heaven and throned in glory, returning to judge the living and the dead, Jesus Christ, and urge your hasty allegiance to Him, and the departure from all false gods and false ways as seen here tonight.  “For in every way was he tempted like as we, yet without wrong-doing.”  In this, he stands as the paragon of your virtue.”

As the young man ended his speech with a shameless holding up of the Dead Hebrew, the crowd began to surge in anger, a few men stood and shouted obscenities, while others left the theater entirely, outraged at the breach of honor.  Seneca refused to take the stage once more, noting “the absurd portrayal of a Dead Man as more virtuous than the men gathered currently.”  Flavius was on his feet howling for the blood of the “wretched plebeian” on stage.  Titus watched with cool aspect, yet Marcus sat with a single tear breaching the corner of his eye.  Soon, the crowd promised to break its bonds and rush the stage, yet the prefect signaled silently, and legionaries entered, promising swift retribution if the peace was broken.  

As the theater emptied and the legionaries demanded every one return to their dwellings, Marcus slipped away from Titus and Flavius, who continued venting his displeasure, “What unphilosophical rubbish; yet, how could one expect better from such a peasant as that?  I vow to write to my father of this incident.  To admit the common to the society of the noble for a debate on shared ground grants them the same equality with us, their betters.  A vain attempt indeed, for their intellects barely get at the main theme of Seneca, stoicism under duress, a most admirable quality for the Roman to possess.”

Titus responded quietly, “Yet, the younger pointed difficult inconsistencies in the reasoning, which I have yet to solve.  I will consider these things and perhaps talk more of this over later.”

Titus left Ephesus that winter and campaigned with the army in the North, where he was slain in the forests of Germania on a survey expedition.  He never got his chance to discuss further with Timotheus or any other cult member.

Flavius wrote to his father, who spoke with the Emperor, who put in an official inquiry of the prefect, his family, and all matters concerning the cult in Ephesus.  Roman law would deal with this absurdity and any who allowed it to spread.  Flavius ended his days a venerated advisor in the court of Nero.

And Marcus? No one knows for sure.  Some say he returned to Hispania, drank his wine, and ended his days as a tax-collector; Others claim he went to the province of Judaea to investigate the Cult and its teachings; still, others swear to have seen him dining with Timotheus that night, an absurd smile brightening his care-worn face, laughing with joy.

III. Critical Thought

In the monologue, Timothy puts forward a quote from “On the Happy Life” as Seneca’s first principle, which details a right thinking mind’s lack of change.  Is this a misrepresentation of Seneca and Stoicism?  If so, why?