Seneca on Wisdom

“Now I will explain how you can recognize that you are not wise. The wise man is full of joy, cheerful and calm, undisturbed. He lives on equal terms with the gods.  Now examine yourself: if you are never sad, if no hope disturbs your mind with anticipation of the future, if by day and night the condition of your spirit is even and unvarying, alert and happy with itself, then you have reached the high point of human good.” Seneca, Letter 59 in Seneca: Selected Letters, trans. Elaine Fantham (Oxford 2010), p. 92.

Seneca’s statement reflects his Stoic philosophy:  Temporary emotions do not disturb wise persons, but rather they control their passions through the use of reason.  In this manner true happiness (not a temporary mood) rests in the human mind.


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Exchanging Tyrants

“This is clear at once to the dullest-witted man in Rome that, so far from having escaped from tyranny, they had only exchanged one tyrant for another.  As for the elder Marius, he had always had a savage character, and power had intensified, not altered his natural disposition.  Sulla, on the other hand, had used his good fortune moderately at first and had behaved like a normal person, he had acquired the reputation of being a leader who was both an aristocrat and a friend of the people; then too from his earliest days he had been one who loved laughter and one who, so far from disguising his tenderer feelings, would often burst into tears.  It was natural therefore that his behaviour should cast a certain suspicion on the very idea of high office and should make people think that these great powers bring about a change in the previous characters of their holders–a change in the direction of overexcitability, pomposity and inhumanity.  However, I should have to write another essay altogether to determine the point whether this is a real change and revolution in a man’s nature, brought about by fortune, or whether it is rather the case that when a man is in power the evil that has been latent in him reveals itself openly.” Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Empire trans. Rex Warner, Revised Ed. (New York, 2005), p. 96.

Here we read Plutarch’s account of Sulla’s victory over his enemies in a civil war.  Marius, who had died in 86 BC, had promoted an authoritarian government in Rome particularly against the aristocratic Senators.  Sulla championed the traditionalists’ cause and won in 82 BC.  The Senate declared him dictator of Rome.  He used this power to purge Rome of his political enemies through proscription.  Sulla made lists with powerful men’s names on it and declared them to be enemies of the Republic.  Anyone could kill them and make a claim to their property.  This included their slaves who could gain their freedom through this action.  Plutarch depicts Sulla as a brutal, savage dictator.  The moral lesson: Don’t exchange one tyrant for another.  The second one, she, may be worse than the first.

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A Glorious and Everlasting Possession

“Every man who wishes to rise superior to the lower animals should strive his hardest to avoid living all his days in silent obscurity, like the beasts of the field, creatures which go with their faces to the ground and are the slaves of their bellies.  We human beings have mental as well as physical powers; the mind, which we share with gods, is the ruling element in us, while the chief function of the body, which we have in common with the beasts, is to obey.  Surely, therefore, it is our intellectual rather than our physical powers that we should use in the pursuit of fame.  Since only a short span of life has been vouchsafed us, we must make ourselves remembered as long as may be by those who come after us.  Wealth and beauty can give only a fleeting perishable fame, but intellectual excellence is a glorious and everlasting possession.” Sallust, Chap. I in The Conspiracy of Catiline, trans. S. A. Handford (London 1963), p. 175.  [Emphasis added]

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True Friendship

“Now I think the word amicus [friend] comes from the word amor [love], and amicitia [friendship] from amicus.  For love is a certain “affection” of the rational soul whereby it seeks and eagerly strives after some object to possess it and enjoy it.  Having attained its object through love, it enjoys it with a certain interior sweetness, embraces it, and preserves it.” Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship I. 19. trans. Mary Eugenia Laker (Kalamazoo, MI: 1977), pp. 54-55. [Italics in original]

Aelred wrote this dialogue on spiritual friendship as a Cistercian abbot in the twelfth century.  While he used Cicero’s Friendship as a primary source for his dialogue, he combined it with copious biblical citations.  In this work Aelred presents the nature of true friendship and its foundation: love.  Aelred explained:


“Furthermore, a friend is called a guardian of love or, as some would have it, a guardian of the spirit itself.  Since it is fitting that my friend be a guardian of our mutual love or the guardian of my own spirit so as to preserve all its secrets in faithful silence, let him, as far as he can, cure and endure such defects as he may observe in it; let him rejoice with his friend in his joys, and weep with him in his sorrows, and feel as his own all that his friend experiences.

Friendship, therefore, is that virtue by which spirits are bound by ties of love and sweetness, and out of many are made one.  Even the philosophers of this world have ranked friendship not with things casual or transitory but with the virtues which are eternal.  Solomon in the Book of Proverbs appears to agree with them when he says: ‘He that is a friend loves at all times,’ manifestly declaring that friendship is eternal if it is true friendship; but, if it should ever cease to be, then it was not true friendship, even though it seemed to be so.” Aelred, Spiritual Friendship I. 20-21. Ibid., p. 55. [Emphasis added]

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History Kindles the Desire for Honor

“I have often heard that Quintus Maximus, Publius Scipio, and other illustrious citizens of our state, used to say that the sight of their ancestors’ portrait-masks fired their hearts with an ardent desire to merit honour.  Obviously they did not mean that the actual mould of wax had such power over them, but that the memory of what others have accomplished kindles in the breasts of noble men a flame that is not quenched until their own prowess has won similar glory and renown.  In these degenerate days, however, one cannot find a man who does not seek to rival his ancestors in wealth and extravagance, instead of in uprightness and industry.  Even newcomers to politics, who formerly relied on merit to outstrip the nobility, now use underhand intrigue and open violence, instead of honourable means, in the struggle for military and civil power, as though a praetorship, a consulship, or any similar position, were something glorious and magnificent in itself–whereas, in reality, the respect in which such offices are held depends on the worth of those who uphold their dignity.”  Sallust, Chap. 1 in The Jugurthine War trans. S. A. Handford (London: Penguin, 1963), p. 37.  [Emphasis added]

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Principles over Passions

“To criticize a particular subject…a man must have been trained in that subject: to be a good critic generally, he must have had an all-round education.  Hence the young are not fit to be students of Political Science.  For they have no experience of life and conduct, and it is these that supply the premises and subject matter of this branch of philosophy.  And moreover they are led by their feelings; so that they will study the subject to no purpose or advantage, since the end of this science is not knowledge but action.  And it makes no difference whether they are young in years or immature in character; the defect is not a question of time, it is because their life and its various aims are guided by feeling; for to such persons their knowledge is of no use, any more than it is to persons of defective self-restraint.  But Moral Science may be of great value to those who guide their desires and actions by principle.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I. iii. 5-7.  [Emphasis added]


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The Princess of the Whole Human Race

“Filius ita factus est homo, ut a spiritu sancto sine virili opera conciperetur et ex Maria pura, sancta, semper virgine nasceretur…”

Dass der Sohn sei also Mensch worden, das er vom heiligen Geist ohn männlich Zutun empfangen und von der reinen, heiligen Jungfrau Maria geporn sei…”

That the Son became man in this manner, that He was conceived, without the cooperation of man, by the Holy Ghost, and was born of the pureholy [and always] Virgin Mary.

Above are the Latin and German statements from Marin Luther’s Schmalkaldic Articles, Part I, article 4.  I have also provided the English translation (that combines the Latin with the German) above.  If one wants to engender a discussion among Lutherans quickly, then he or she should assert that this article concerning Mary’s perpetual virginity is a statement of a confession. For an excellent online discussion of this topic see

My goal here is not to debate the Semper Virgine statement, but to point toward some of Martin Luther’s fascinating proclamations regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Lucas Cranach-Virgin & child

“He [Jesus], indeed, was a genuinely true, natural human being, but not conceived or born in sin as all other descendants of Adam.  That is why his mother had to be a virgin whom no man had touched, so that he would not be born under the curse, but rather conceived and born without sin, so that the devil had no right or power over him. Only the Holy Spirit was present to bring about the conception in her virgin body.  Mother Mary, like us, was born in sin of sinful parents, but the Holy Spirit permitted the Virgin Mary to remain a true, natural human being of flesh and blood, just as we.  However, he warded off sin from her flesh and blood so that she became the mother of a pure child, not poisoned by sin as we are.” Martin Luther, “First Sermon on The Day of Annunciation to Mary,” in The House Postils, vol. 3. ed. Eugene F.A. Klug (Grand Rapids 1996), p. 291.

Dr. Luther expressed the common understanding here that the Holy Spirit acted miraculously in Mary to keep original sin from affecting her Son, Jesus. The purpose of a purifying the Virgin was so that she could give birth to a pure God-man. Even if Luther did not explicitly affirm the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, he did assert that the Holy Spirit purified Mary in a special, miraculous manner. (On this issue see:

In a sermon on Mary’s visitation of Elizabeth, Luther emphasized St. Mary as an example of humility and chastity for all Christians, but especially for believing women.  Luther described Mary’s humility when he proclaimed:

She is the mother of God and the greatest of women in heaven and on earth.  She forgets all else, every good thing, and with truly humble heart sets out on her way, not ashamed to wash diapers, gently care for and bathe the infant John, and so on.  Such humility is truly something to behold.  It would have been fitting had someone provided her with a gold carriage to ride in, drawn by four thousand horses, with trumpets heralding the carriage’s coming proclaiming that the greatest of all women was approaching, the princess of the whole human race! But there was nothing like this, only silence…That is the first virtue, great humility.” Martin Luther, “First Sermon for the Day of Mary’s Visitation,” in The House Postils, vol. 3. ed. Eugene F.A. Klug (Grand Rapids 1996), p. 344. [Emphasis added]

Luther then explained the example of Mary’s chastity and proper, public decorum.  For example, she did not gossip or flirt, but instead performed humble tasks at the home of Elizabeth.  It’s clear Luther wanted to address certain public vices.  Finally, Luther explained:

“Mary’s example, therefore, should set a beautiful pattern for us to follow, though indeed we may be equally beautiful, learned, capable, wealthy, young, and strong.  We must certainly not exalt ourselves but be humble, willingly and diligently serving others.” Ibid., 346.







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The Show Must Go On

“Finally, make sure that your entire campaign is full of pomp, glamorous, eye-catching, and popular, that it has the maximum visibility and prestige.  Also, be sure if at all possible that your competitors acquire a bad reputation for vice, or lust, or bribery, depending on their character. Most of all, let it be clear in this election that the Republic respects you and has high hopes for your political future.  Still, do not try to deal with political issues in the midst of the campaign, neither in the Senate nor at a rally.” Quintus Cicero, Running for Office: A Handbook in Ancient Rome: An Anthology of Sources, trans. Christopher Francese and R. Scott Smith (Indianapolis 2014), p. 90. [Emphasis added]

Traditionally, this work is attributed to Quintus Cicero, the brother of the famous Marcus Tullius Cicero.  If the traditional attribution is correct, Quintus wrote this work as a letter to his brother Marcus in 64 BC as advice on how to win one of the significant political offices in the late Republic: quaestor, aedile, praetor, consul.   In fact, Marcus Cicero was elected to the consulship in 63 BC.  This present text gives practical (and sometimes cynical) advice on how to win in an election.


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Truth Makes Enemies

“Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” John 18:38   Regarding these words Dr. Luther stated the following:

“I do not know whether Pilate is being serious or whether he is mocking.  But in my understanding, I take what he says to be sheer mockery and a sarcastic way of speaking, for Pilate was a wise, shrewd Gentile.  Therefore, he looks down on Christ and say: ‘Hah! If You will concern Yourself with truth, then You are lost.  Complaisance makes friends; truth makes enemies.  If You are the kind of man who deals in truth, it is no wonder Duccio-Christ-before-Pilatethat You have been taken captive and led here bound.  If you want to live on earth, You must give up the truth.’ Thus I understand what he says to be a heathen jest, spoken with a shameless conscience.” Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 17-20, Luther’s Works, vol. 69, p. 216.   [Emphasis added]

The editors identified Luther’s quote of Terence’s Andria in the bold section from the quote above.  Truth simply isn’t popular among human beings therefore, those who tell the truth make their own enemies.


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He Scatters the Peoples Who Delight in War

“It is not right to start a war just because some silly lord has gotten the idea into his head. At the very outset I want to say that whoever starts a war in in the wrong.  And it is only right and proper that he who first draws his sword is defeated, or even punished, in the end.  This is what has usually happened in history.  Those who have started wars have lost them, and those who fought in self-defense have only seldom been defeated.  Worldly government has not been instituted by God to break the peace and start war, but to maintain peace and to avoid war….God tolerates no injustice and he has so ordered things that warmongers must be defeated in war.  As the proverb says, ‘No one has ever been so evil that he does not meet someone more evil than he is.’  And in Psalm 68: [30] God has the psalmist sing of him, ‘Dissipat gentes, quae in bella volunt,’ that is, ‘He scatters the peoples who delight in war.’ ” Martin Luther, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, in Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 118.      [Emphasis added]Martin Luther-Cranach


“It is easy to start a fight, but we cannot stop the fighting whenever we want to.  What have all these innocent women, children, and old people, whom you fools are drawing with you into such danger, ever done to you?  Why do you insist on filling the land with blood and robbery, widows and orphans? Oh, the devil has wicked plans! And God is angry; he threatens to let the devil loose upon us and cool his rage in our blood and souls. Beware, dear sirs, and be wise! Both of you are equally involved! What good will it do you intentionally to damn yourselves for all eternity and, in addition, to bequeath a desolate, devastated, and bloody land to your descendants, when you still have time to find a better solution by repenting before God, by concluding a friendly agreement, or even by voluntarily suffering for the sake of humanity?  You will accomplish nothing through strife and violence.” Martin Luther, Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia, in Luther’s Works, vol. 46, p. 42.

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