Throughout the history of the Roman Empire, stoic philosophy was the cornerstone of many facets of Roman life: education, politics, and religion. It is this last area of focus, religion, that is perhaps the most fascinating; and the most important given the major role the development of the Christian faith had in the history of Western civilization. The Roman people were the most important influence on the evolution of the Christian religion and church practices. In an empire where there is no belief in a separation between church and state, the role and development of Christianity is very important to examine. The Roman Empire oversaw the birth of Christianity, watched it grow from a small cult to an outlawed religious sect under Diocletian, and then to a legal and rapidly growing religious group under Constantine the Great, and finally to the official religion of the Empire under Theodosius I.
While no one philosopher is more important than another in gaining a full understanding of the development of Roman religious life, Seneca’s essay De Providentia, or On Providence, is a very important text to examine. It was composed sometime shortly before his death in the year 65 AD, before Christianity was a major concern of the Romans. It is a text posed on the balancing point of an important transitional period in Roman philosophical and theological thought. The older traditions of stoic philosophy that were intertwined with the old polytheistic Roman religion were about to give way to the monotheistic Christian church. Stoic philosophy had become an inextricable part of the Roman weltanshauung, and so the stoic philosophy clung with a fervor to the theological writings and beliefs of the up-and-coming Christian church.
The remnants of stoic philosophy in general, and Seneca’s De Providentia in particular, were important in shaping the minds and texts of Christian theological writers and the so-called Church Fathers who composed patristic literature centuries after Seneca’s death. The beneficent weltanshauung of the late Empire’s Christian writers and philosophers was made understandable and logical to followers of the Christian faith through a direct literary link to Seneca’s De Providentia. Works by such late Empire Christian authors like Saint Augustine’s Confessions in particular owe a great deal to Seneca’s On Providence. Confessions, which was composed sometime around 397 AD, borrowed from Seneca’s De Providentia the autobiographical approach to the narrative, the belief in an omniscient deity (or deities in the case of Seneca), and the concept of a beneficent universe that tests its inhabitants.
Seneca writes in his essay in a very autobiographical style, which is also how Saint Augustine wrote. This is not to say that Saint Augustine wrote in an autobiographical style because that was how Seneca wrote. There are, of course, countless Roman authors who composed their literary works in an autobiographical format. The reason that it is important to note that Saint Augustine and Seneca both employ the autobiographical narrative style to their respective works is because they had similar goals; and to achieve their goals with their respective audiences, they both found that turning to the narrative autobiographical approach served their purposes well. Both men were composing texts to audiences that they needed to sway. Both men needed to get their audiences to see things their way, and found that an incredibly effective way to do so was to write in an approachable, conversational, friendly, almost informal style. This style drew in the audience, and helped the audience to empathize with the authors. By providing autobiographical information, and thus giving their audiences more back story with which to endear themselves to their audiences, the authors ultimately made sure that their works had a better chance of being well-received. Certainly Saint Augustine was familiar with the works and essays of Seneca, and may have unconsciously or consciously emulated their style.
The second similarity in content and weltanshauung between De Providentia and Confessions is that both authors share a belief in the existence of an omniscient higher being (or beings). This may seem obvious or trivial, but without that presupposition in place, both theologians have no ground to stand on. If either of them do not believe or emphasize that their conception of the divine precludes the possibility of fallibility, their arguments will not work. Both stoic and Christian philosophy share a belief in an ordered universe, where there is a sense of predestination or destiny or fate. If there is any doubt in the infallibility of the divine, then there can be no faith in the knowledge and judgment of god or any of the deities in the Roman pantheon. True, Jupiter is renowned for making foolish mistakes, but in the stoic conception of the order of the universe, these mistakes are all part of a larger plan; a plan that is too vast for men to comprehend. This same belief is an intrinsic part of the Christian faith as well.
The most important shared trait between the two works, which Saint Augustine is truly indebted to Seneca for putting forth, is the concept of a beneficent universe that tests its inhabitants. Seneca argues that the universe, although it may seem maleficent or ambivalent for allowing bad things to happen to good people, is in reality totally beneficent. All hardships that virtuous people encounter are simply tests that the divine have placed upon the virtuous. Virtuous people are stronger than evil people, and so can handle more pain. This strengthens the weak, and also allows the virtuous to act as moral role models for the weaker people they encounter. All hardships a person encounters are simply part of a divine plan to strengthen oneself. Saint Augustine agrees with this philosophical tenet. He, too, views the universe as beneficent, which was a major change in world view for him, since before his conversion he had been a Manichean.
The Manicheans believed that good and evil were both inherent in the universe, and are part of a cosmic battle that works as a form of dualism. The central question of Saint Augustine’s work is “What is the nature of God?” Saint Augustine believes that God is beneficent. This raises a question also implicit in Seneca’s essay: “If God is beneficent, then why has he created evil in the world?” His answer is that free will is God’s gift to his creation. Seneca and Saint Augustine both agree that it is free will that makes man special in the eyes of the divine, and it is free will that allows man to either grow from his struggles, or to allow himself to be crushed beneath them. Although both men believe in God’s/Divine Master Plan, both men believe that man can choose whether to follow the path laid out before him. Both argue that God and the universe are beneficent, but only man can choose to interpret it as such.
The Roman people were the most important influence on the evolution of the Christian religion and church practices; and therefore ultimately were of great importance to the history of Western civilization. Saint Augustine’s Confessions drew from a rich literary tradition of stoic philosophers in the Roman Empire, and is especially indebted to Seneca’s essay On Providence. Confessions borrowed from Seneca’s De Providentia the autobiographical approach to the narrative, the belief in an omniscient deity (or deities in the case of Seneca), and the concept of a beneficent universe that tests its inhabitants. Stoic philosophers were an important predecessor to later Christian writers such as Saint Augustine. The beneficent weltanshauung of the late Empire’s Christian writers and philosophers was made understandable and logical to followers of the Christian faith through a direct literary link to Seneca’s De Providentia.