Seekers after God
Frederic William Farrar

Part 5 out of 5

Shall our eye be evil because God in His goodness granted the heathen
also to know such truths as enabled them "to overcome the allurements of
the visible and the terrors of the invisible world?" Yes, if we have of
the Christian Church so mean a conception that we look upon it as a mere
human society, "set up in the world to defend a certain religion against
a certain other religion." But if on the other hand we believe "that it
was _a society established by God as a witness for the true condition of
all human beings_, we shall rejoice to acknowledge its members to be
what they believed themselves to be,--confessors and martyrs for a truth
which they could not fully embrace or comprehend, but which, through
their lives and deaths, through the right and wrong acts, the true and
false words, of those who understand them least, was to manifest and
prove itself. Those who hold this conviction dare not conceal, or
misrepresent, or undervalue, any one of those weighty and memorable
sentences which are to be found in the _Meditation_ of Marcus Aurelius.
_If they did, they would be underrating a portion of that very truth
which the preachers of the Gospel were appointed to set forth_; they
would be adopting the error of the philosophical Emperor without his
excuse for it. Nor dare they pretend that the Christian teaching had
unconsciously imparted to him a portion of its own light while he seemed
to exclude it. They will believe that it was God's good pleasure that a
certain truth should be seized and apprehended by this age, and they
will see indications of what that truth was in the efforts of Plutarch
to understand the 'Daemon' which guided Socrates, in the courageous
language of Ignatius, in the bewildering dreams of the Gnostics, in the
eagerness of Justin Martyr to prove Christianity a philosophy ... in the
apprehension of Christian principles by Marcus Aurelius, and in his
hatred of the Christians. From every side they will derive evidence,
_that a doctrine and society which were meant for mankind cannot depend
upon, the partial views and apprehensions of men, must go on justifying,
reconciling, confuting, those views and apprehensions by the
demonstration of facts_" [72]

[Footnote 72: Maurice, _Philos. of the First Six Centuries_, p. 37. We
venture specially to recommend this weighty and beautiful passage to the
reader's serious attention.]

But perhaps some reader will say, What advantage, then, can we gain by
studying in Pagan writers truths which are expressed more nobly, more
clearly, and infinitely more effectually in our own sacred books? Before
answering the question, let me mention the traditional anecdote[73] of
the Caliph Omar. When he conquered Alexandria, he was shown its
magnificent library, in which were collected untold treasures of
literature, gathered together by the zeal, the labour, and the
liberality of a dynasty of kings. "What is the good of all those books?"
he said. "They are either in accordance with the Koran, or contrary to
it. If the former they are superfluous; if the latter they are
pernicious. In either case let them be burnt." Burnt they were, as
legend tells; but all the world has condemned the Caliph's reasoning as
a piece of stupid Philistinism and barbarous bigotry. Perhaps the
question as to the _use_ of reading Pagan ethics is equally
unphilosophical; at any rate, we can spare but very few words to its
consideration. The answer obviously is, that God has spoken to men,
[Greek: polymeros kai polytropos], "at sundry times and in divers
manners," [74] with a richly variegated wisdom.[75] Sometimes He has
taught truth by the voice of Hebrew prophets, sometimes by the voice of
Pagan philosophers. And _all_ His voices demand our listening ear. If it
was given to the Jew to speak with diviner insight and intenser power,
it is given to the Gentile also to speak at times with a large and lofty
utterance, and we may learn truth from men of alien lips and another
tongue. They, too, had the dream, the vision, the dark saying upon the
harp, the "daughter of a voice," the mystic flashes upon the graven
gems. And such truths come to us with a singular force and freshness;
with a strange beauty as the doctrines of a less brightly illuminated
manhood; with a new power of conviction from their originality of form,
which, because it is less familiar to us, is well calculated to arrest
our attention after it has been paralysed by familiar repetitions. We
cannot afford to lose these heathen testimonies to Christian truth; or
to hush the glorious utterances of Muse and Sibyl which have justly
outlived "the drums and tramplings of a hundred triumphs." We may make
them infinitely profitable to us. If St. Paul quotes Aratus, and
Menander, and Epimenides,[76] and perhaps more than one lyrical melody
besides, with earnest appreciation,--if the inspired Apostle could both
learn himself and teach others out of the utterances of a Cretan
philosopher and an Attic comedian, we may be sure that many of Seneca's
apophthegams would have filled him with pleasure, and that he would have
been able to read Epictetus and Aurelius with the same noble admiration
which made him see with thankful emotion that memorable altar TO THE

[Footnote 73: Now known to be unhistorical.]

[Footnote 74: Heb. i. 1.]

[Footnote 75: [Greek: polypoikilos dophia].]

[Footnote 76: See Acts xvii. 28; 1 Cor.; Tit. i. 12.]

Let us then make a brief and final sketch of the three great Stoics
whose lives we have been contemplating, with a view to summing up their
specialties, their deficiencies, and the peculiar relations to, or
divergences from, Christian truth, which their writings present to us.

"Seneca saepe noster," "Seneca, often our own," is the expression of
Tertullian, and he uses it as an excuse for frequent references to his
works. Yet if, of the three, he be most like Christianity in particular
passages, he diverges most widely from it in his general spirit.

He diverges from Christianity in many of his modes of regarding life,
and in many of his most important beliefs. What, for instance, is his
main conception of the Deity? Seneca is generally a Pantheist. No doubt
he speaks of God's love and goodness, but with him God is no personal
living Father, but the soul of the universe--the fiery, primaeval,
eternal principle which transfuses an inert, and no less eternal,
matter, and of which our souls are, as it were, but divine particles or
passing sparks. "God," he says, "is Nature, is Fate, is Fortune, is the
Universe, is the all-pervading Mind. He cannot change the substance of
the universe, He is himself under the power of Destiny, which is
uncontrollable and immutable. It is not God who rolls the thunder, it is
Fate. He does not rejoice in His works, but is identical with them." In
fact, Seneca would have heartily adopted the words of Pope:

"All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul."

Though there may be a vague sense in which those words may be admitted
and explained by Christians, yet, in the mind of Seneca, they led to
conclusions directly opposed to those of Christianity. With him, for
instance, the wise man is the _equal_ of God; not His adorer, not His
servant, not His suppliant, but His associate, His relation. He differs
from God in time alone. Hence all prayer is needless he says, and the
forms of external worship are superfluous and puerile. It is foolish to
beg for that which you can impart to yourself. "What need is there of
_vows_? Make _yourself_ happy." Nay, in the intolerable arrogance which
marked the worst aberration of Stoicism, the wise man is under certain
aspects placed even higher than God--higher than God Himself--because
God is beyond the reach of misfortunes, but the wise man is superior to
their anguish; and because God is good of necessity, but the wise man
from choice. This wretched and inflated paradox occurs in Seneca's
treatise _On Providence_, and in the same treatise he glorifies suicide,
and expresses a doubt as to the immortality of the soul.

Again, the two principles on which Seneca relied as the basis of all his
moral system are: first, the principle that we ought to follow Nature;
and, secondly, the supposed perfectibility of the ideal man.

1. Now, of course, if we explain this precept of "following Nature" as
Juvenal has explained it, and say that the voice of Nature is always
coincident with the voice of philosophy--if we prove that our real
nature is none other than the dictate of our highest and most nobly
trained reason, and if we can establish the fact that every deed of
cruelty, of shame, of lust, or of selfishness, is essentially
_contrary_ to our nature--then we may say with Bishop Butler, that the
precept to "follow Nature" is "a manner of speaking not loose and
undeterminate, but clear and distinct, strictly just and true." But how
complete must be the system, how long the preliminary training, which
alone can enable us to find any practical value, any appreciable aid to
a virtuous life, in a dogma such as this! And, in the hands of Seneca,
it becomes a very empty formula. He entirely lacked the keen insight and
dialectic subtlety of such a writer as Bishop Butler; and, in his
explanation of this Stoical shibboleth, any real meaning which it may
possess is evaporated into a gorgeous mist of confused declamation and
splendid commonplace.

2. Nor is he much more fortunate with his ideal man. This pompous
abstraction presents us with a conception at once ambitious and sterile.
The Stoic wise man is a sort of moral Phoenix, impossible and repulsive.
He is intrepid in dangers, free from all passion, happy in adversity,
calm in the storm; he alone knows how to live, because he alone knows
how to die; he is the master of the world, because he is master of
himself, and the equal of God; he looks down upon everything with
sublime imperturbability, despising the sadnesses of humanity and
smiling with irritating loftiness at all our hopes and all our fears.
But, in another sketch of this faultless and unpleasant monster, Seneca
presents us, not the proud athlete who challenges the universe and is
invulnerable to all the stings and arrows of passion or of fate, but a
hero in the serenity of absolute triumph, more tender, indeed, but still
without desires, without passions, without needs, who can fell no pity,
because pity is a weakness which disturbs his sapient calm! Well might
the eloquent Bossuet exclaim, as he read of these chimerical
perfections, "It is to take a tone too lofty for feeble and mortal men.
But, O maxims truly pompous! O affected insensibility! O false and
imaginary wisdom! which fancies itself strong because it is hard, and
generous because it is puffed up! How are these principles opposed to
the modest simplicity of the Saviour of souls, who, in our Gospel
contemplating His faithful ones in affliction, confesses that they will
be saddened by it! _Ye shall weep and lament_." Shall Christians be
jealous of such wisdom as Stoicism did really attain, when they compare
this dry and bloodless ideal with Him who wept over Jerusalem and
mourned by the grave of Lazarus, who had a mother and a friend, who
disdained none, who pitied all, who humbled Himself to death, even the
death of the cross, whose divine excellence we cannot indeed attain
because He is God, but whose example we can imitate because He was
very man?[77]

[Footnote 77: See Martha, _Les Moralistes_, p. 50; Aubertin, _Seneque et
St. Paul_ p. 250.]

The one grand aim of the life and philosophy of Seneca was _Ease_. It is
the topic which constantly recurs in his books _On a Happy Life, On
Tranquility of Mind, On Anger_, and _On the Ease_ and _On the Firmness
of the Sage_. It is the pitiless apathy, the stern repression, of every
form of emotion, which was constantly glorified as the aim of
philosophy. It made Stilpo exclaim, when he had lost wife, property, and
children, that he had lost nothing, because he carried in his own person
everything which he possessed. It led Seneca into all that is most
unnatural, all that is most fantastic, and all that is least sincere in
his writings; it was the bitter source of disgrace and failure in his
life. It comes out worst of all in his book _On Anger_. Aristotle had
said that "Anger was a good servant but a bad master;" Plato had
recognized the immense value and importance of the irascible element in
the moral constitution. Even Christian writers, in spite of Bishop
Butler, have often lost sight of this truth, and have forgotten that to
a noble nature "the hate of hate" and the "scorn of scorn" are as
indispensable as "the love of love." But Seneca almost gets angry
himself at the very notion of the wise man being angry and indignant
even against moral evil. No, he must not get angry, because it would
disturb his sublime calm; and, if he allowed himself to be angry at
wrong-doing, he would have to be angry all day long. This practical
Epicureanism, this idle acquiescence in the supposed incurability of
evil, poisoned all Seneca's career. "He had tutored himself," says
Professor Maurice, "to endure personal injuries without indulging an
anger; he had tutored himself to look upon all moral evil without anger.
If the doctrine is sound and the discipline desirable, we must be
content to take the whole result of them. If we will not do that, we
must resolve to hate oppression and wrong, _even at the cost of
philosophical composure"_ But repose is not to be our aim:--

"We have no right to bliss,
No title from the gods to welfare and repose."

It is one of the truths which seems to me most needed in the modern
religious world, that the type of a Christian's virtue must be very
miserable, and ordinary, and ineffectual, if he does not feel his whole
soul burn within him with an almost implacable moral indignation at the
sight of cruelty and injustice, of Pharisaic faithlessness and
social crimes.

I have thus freely criticised the radical defects of Stoicism, so far
as Seneca is its legitimate exponent; but I cannot consent to leave him
with the language of depreciation, and therefore here I will once more
endorse what an anonymous writer has said of him: "An unconscious
Christianity covers all his sentiments. If the fair fame of the man is
sullied, the aspiration to a higher life cannot be denied to the
philosopher; if the tinkling cymbal of a stilted Stoicism sometimes
sounds through the nobler music, it still leaves the truer melody
vibrating on the ear."

2. If Seneca sought for EASE, the grand aim of Epictetus was FREEDOM, of
Marcus Aurelius was SELF-GOVERNMENT. This difference of aim
characterises their entire philosophy, though all three of them are
filled with precepts which arise from the Stoical contempt of opinion,
of fortune, and of death. "Epictetus, the slave, with imperturbable
calm, voluntarily strikes off the desire for all those blessings of
which fortune had already deprived him. Seneca, who lived in the Court,
fenced himself beforehand against misfortune with the spirit of a man of
the world and the emphasis of a master of eloquence. Marcus Aurelius, at
the zenith of human power--having nothing to dread except his passions,
and finding nothing above him except immutable necessity,--surveys his
own soul and meditates especially on the eternal march of things. The
one is the resigned slave, who neither desires nor fears; the other, the
great lord, who has everything to lose; the third, finally, the emperor,
who is dependent only on himself and upon God."

Of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius we shall have very little to say by way
of summary, for they show no inconsistencies and very few of the
imperfections which characterise Seneca's ideal of the Stoic philosophy.
The "moral peddling," the pedagogic display, the puerile ostentation,
the antithetic brilliancy, which we have had to point out in Seneca, are
wanting in them. The picture of the _inner_ life, indeed, of Seneca, his
efforts after self-discipline, his untiring asceticism, his enthusiasm
for all that he esteems holy and of good report-this picture, marred as
it is by rhetoric and vain self-conceit, yet "stands out in noble
contrast to the swinishness of the Campanian villas, and is, in its
complex entirety, very sad and affecting." And yet we must admit, in the
words of the same writer, that when we go from Seneca to Epictetus and
Marcus Aurelius, "it is going from the florid to the severe, from varied
feeling to the impersonal simplicity of the teacher, often from idle
rhetoric to devout earnestness." As far as it goes, the morality of
these two great Stoics is entirely noble and entirely beautiful. If
there be even in Epictetus some passing and occasional touch of Stoic
arrogance and Stoic apathy; if there be in Marcus Aurelius a depth and
intensity of sadness which shows how comparatively powerless for comfort
was a philosophy which glorified suicide, which knew but little of
immortality, and which lost in vague Pantheism the unspeakable blessing
of realizing a personal relation to a personal God and Father--there is
yet in both of them enough and more than enough to show that in all ages
and in all countries they who have sought for God have found Him, that
they have attained to high principles of thought and to high standards
of action--that they have been enabled, even in the thick darkness,
resolutely to place their feet at least on the lowest rounds of that
ladder of sunbeams which winds up through the darkness to the great
Father of Lights.

And yet the very existence of such men is in itself a significant
comment upon the Scriptural decision that "the world by wisdom knew not
God." For how many like them, out of all the records of antiquity, is it
possible for us to count? Are there five men in the whole circle of
ancient history and ancient literature to whom we could, without a sense
of incongruity, accord the title of "holy?" When we have mentioned
Socrates, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, I hardly know of another.
_Just_ men there were in multitudes--men capable of high actions; men
eminently worthy to be loved; men, I doubt not, who, when the children
of the kingdom shall be rejected, shall be gathered from the east and
the west with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, into the kingdom of heaven.
Yes, _just_ men in multitudes; but how many _righteous_, how many
_holy_? Some, doubtless, whom we do not know, whose names were never
written, even for a few years, on the records of mankind--men and women
in unknown villages and humble homes, "the faithful who were not
famous." We do not doubt that there were such--but were they
_relatively_ numerous? If those who rose above the level of the
multitude--if those whom some form of excellence, and often of virtue,
elevated into the reverence of their fellows--present to us a few
examples of stainless life, can we hope that a tolerable ideal of
sanctity was attained by any large proportion of the ordinary myriads?
Seeing that the dangerous lot of the majority was cast amid the
weltering sea of popular depravity, can we venture to hope that many of
them succeeded in reaching some green island of purity, integrity, and
calm? We can hardly think it; and yet, in the dispensation of the
Kingdom of Heaven we see such a condition daily realized. Not only do we
see many of the eminent, but also countless multitudes of the lowly and
obscure, whose common lives are, as it were, transfigured with a light
from heaven. Unhappy, indeed, is he who has not known such men in
person, and whose hopes and habits have not caught some touch of
radiance reflected from the nobility and virtue of lives like these. The
thought has been well expressed by the author of _Ecce Homo_, and we may
well ask with him, "If this be so, has Christ failed, or can
Christianity die?"

No, it has not failed; it cannot die; for the saving knowledge which it
has imparted is the most inestimable blessing which God has granted to
our race. We have watched philosophy in its loftiest flight, but that
flight rose as far above the range of the Pagan populace as Ida or
Olympus rises above the plain: and even the topmost crests of Ida and
Olympus are immeasurably below the blue vault, the body of heaven in its
clearness, to which it has been granted to some Christians to attain. As
regards the multitude, philosophy had no influence over the heart and
character; "it was sectarian, not universal; the religion of the few,
not of the many. It exercised no creative power over political or social
life; it stood in no such relation to the past as the New Testament to
the Old. Its best thoughts were but views and aspects of the truth;
there was no centre around which they moved, no divine life by which
they were impelled; they seemed to vanish and flit in uncertain
succession of light." But Christianity, on the other hand, glowed with a
steady and unwavering brightness; it not only swayed the hearts of
individuals by stirring them to their utmost depths, but it moulded the
laws of nations, and regenerated the whole condition of society. It
gave to mankind a fresh sanction in the word of Christ, a perfect
example in His life, a powerful motive in His love, an all sufficient
comfort in the life of immortality made sure and certain to us by His
Resurrection and Ascension. But if without this sanction, and example,
and motive, and comfort, the pagans could learn to do His will,--if,
amid the gross darkness through which glitters the degraded civilization
of imperial Rome, an Epictetus and an Aurelius could live blameless
lives in a cell and on a throne, and a Seneca could practise simplicity
and self-denial in the midst of luxury and pride--how much loftier
should be both the zeal and the attainments of us to whom God has spoken
by His Son? What manner of men ought we to be? If Tyre and Sidon and
Sodom shall rise in the judgment to bear witness against Chorazin and
Bethsaida, may not the pure lives of these great Seekers after God add a
certain emphasis of condemnation to the vice, the pettiness, the
mammon-worship of many among us to whom His love, His nature, His
attributes have been revealed with a clearness and fullness of knowledge
for which kings and philosophers have sought indeed and sought
earnestly, but sought in vain?


Back to Full Books