Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Gospel of Seneca (Letters from the Past III)

I'm not gonna lie: I have a serious man-crush on Lucius Seneca.

His insights into human behavior are painfully accurate and just as valid now as they were nearly 2,000 years ago. Dude's a poet, too. He sprinkles vivid imagery and allegories throughout his letters, helping readers grasp ideas that might otherwise elude them. The word "epic" is terribly overused these days but I can think of no better way to describe Seneca's writing.

Seneca's philosophy really speaks to me, but lately it's his spiritual side that gets me inspired. His theology is a fascinating blend of pantheism and pagan spirituality layered with Christian overtones. He uses words like "God" and "heaven" liberally, regards earthly matters as secondary to spiritual ones, and believes that the human soul can be liberated from the body.

Despite the apparent similarities between Christianity and Seneca's Gospel, there is no mistaking Seneca's God with its Biblical counterpart, Yahweh.

Seneca's God is the pantheistic God, aka Nature, aka the universe. It's the intelligent force organizing matter into ever more complex forms, of which we are the pinnacle. 

Likewise, Seneca's soul is radically different from the winged ghost that rises from your corpse and floats peacefully up to heaven after you die.

Or, not so peacefully?
According to the Stoic philosophers, reason is a divine gift, a fragment of the universal programming that keeps the machine running smoothly. As such, Seneca swaps the word "soul" with other terms such as "ruling faculty" or "Logos." He could just as easily call it "mind" or "consciousness," as far as I'm concerned. The semantics aren't that important.

Because he believes that the mind is of divine origin, Seneca holds the material world in somewhat low esteem. This opinion extends by default to the meat-vehicles we inherit at birth. This body of ours, Seneca says,
is a weight upon the soul and a penance; as the load presses down the soul is crushed and is in bondage, unless philosophy has come to its assistance and has bid it take fresh courage by contemplating the universe, and has turned it from things earthly to things divine. 
Note the abrupt departure from Christianity. Whereas Christians believe that only Christ can save one's soul, Seneca believes philosophy is the guide to spiritual freedom.
The soul, imprisoned as it has been in this gloomy and darkened house, seeks the open sky whenever it can, and in the contemplation of the universe finds rest. The wise man, the seeker after wisdom, is bound closely to his body, but he concentrates his thoughts upon lofty things.
Reflecting on the universe frees your consciousness from its prison of flesh and allows it to roam among the lofty things where it may find enlightenment. One who has begun this process of spiritual liberation finds their priorities radically realigned:
Bound so to speak, to his oath of allegiance, he regards the period of life as his term of service. He is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life; he endures a mortal lot, although he knows that an ampler lot is in store for him. 
Such a message will sound backward to someone entrenched in our materialistic society. Why waste time pursuing wisdom and contemplating the cosmos? Why not focus on reality, on the tangibles, on the here and now? As always, Seneca answers with brilliance:
Mortal things decay, fall, are worn out, grow up, are exhausted, and replenished. Reason, however, is nothing else than a portion of the divine spirit set in a human body. 

And then:
Must I be ignorant of the heights whence I have descended? Whether I am to see this world but once, or to be born many times? What is my destination afterwards? What abode awaits my soul on its release from the laws of slavery among men? Do you you forbid me to have a share in heaven?

In other words, do you bid me live with my head bowed down? No, I am above such an existence; I was born to a greater destiny than to be a mere chattel of my body. And I regard this body as nothing but a chain, which manacles my freedom.
Not only does Seneca view the body as secondary to the mind, he goes one step further and identifies it as a form of imprisonment. Epictetus, another Stoic, says: "You are a little soul carrying around a corpse." The body, in other words, is luggage, a burden, an anchor weighing down your soul.

I must restate that Seneca and other Stoics don't promote mistreating or neglecting the body: quite the opposite, they value a life of self-discipline, exercise, and proper diet. The body houses the Logos, after all, a piece of God, and as such should be well-maintained. Seneca is simply saying that the body should serve the mind, not the other way around:
World-matter corresponds to our mortal body; therefore let the lower serve the higher. Let us be brave in the face of hazards. Let us not fear wrongs, or wounds, or bonds, or poverty
That last bit is also stated by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, by the way, when he advises us not to "fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul."

The physical world is always pressing us to take action. We scramble and toil to stay afloat and in the process neglect the single most important thing in our lives: our mind. Take a little time out of your day to exercise this gift which you have received from the universe.

Don't let society stifle your curiosity. Send your thoughts outward to explore the wonders of the cosmos. Answer every question that crosses your mind. Contemplate your place and purpose in this vast and glorious universe and you will find the world in which you dwell changed forever.
/rant over
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