Some 6,341 words, comprising 7.5 percent of the four biblical Gospels, present lessons in which Jesus allegedly speaks about morality—that is, how people should behave toward one another. Primarily based on these words, Christians—and even many non-Christians—claim to admire Jesus as a great and original moral sage.
But this evaluation does not hold up, particularly if we consider the books, essays, letters, and sayings of the Greco-Roman moralists: Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch. Lucius Annaeus Seneca lived at about the same time as Jesus. Seneca didn’t just leave us pithy aphorisms; he wrote whole books on charity, anger, forgiveness, and other moral issues. Let’s compare Jesus’s words with those of Seneca.
Loving One’s Neighbors
Jesus: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Mark 12:31)
Seneca: “There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common. And no one can live happily who has regard for himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself.” (Epistles 48:2–3, “Quibbling Unworthy of the Philosopher”)
As he appears in the Gospels, Jesus typically tells us what but not really how or why. We are to do or believe what he says because he speaks for God who commands us to obey him; otherwise we will be condemned. Not only does Seneca avoid falling back on this type of justification, he provides a more profound and secular rationale. In this case, he goes much further than Jesus, arguing that caring for others is central to the competitive success of humanity: “Take us singly, and what are we? The prey of creatures, their victims, whose blood is most delectable and most easily secured . . . no might of claws or teeth makes him [man] a terror to others, naked and weak as he is, his safety lies in fellowship. God [nature] has given him two things, reason and fellowship, which, from being a creature at the mercy of others, make him the most powerful of all; and so he who, if he were isolated, could be a match for none is master of the world” (On Benefits 4:18:2).
Jesus: “Love your enemies.” (Matt. 5:43–44)
Seneca: “We shall engage in affairs to the very end of life, we shall never cease to work for the common good, to help each and all, to give aid even to our enemies when our hand is feeble with age.” (On Leisure 1:4)
Jesus: “Resist not evil.” (Matt. 5:39)
Because he does not agree, Seneca wrote nothing comparable.
Jesus: “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31)
Seneca: “You must expect to be treated by others as you yourself have treated them.” (Epistles 94:43, “On the Value of Advice”)
Jesus: “For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:35)
Seneca: While Jesus restricts this principle to “whosoever shall do the will of God,” Seneca includes all of humanity: “So long as we draw breath, so long as we live among men, let us cherish humanity.” (On Anger 3:43:5)
“Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave.” (Epistles 47:10, “On Master and Slave”)
Jesus: “Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” (Mark 10:21)
Seneca: “All else . . . he will gladly do with a lofty spirit; he will bring relief to another’s tears, but will not add his own; to the shipwrecked man he will give a hand, to the exile shelter, to the needy alms; he will grant to a mother’s tears the life of her son, the captive’s chains he will order be broken, he will release the gladiator from his training. . . . The wise man, therefore, will not pity, but will succor, will benefit, and since he is born to be of help to all and to serve the common good, he will give to each his share thereof. . . . Whenever he can, he will parry Fortune’s stroke.” (On Mercy 2:6:1–3)
Jesus: “For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had.” (Mark 12:44).
Seneca: “If benefits consisted, not in the very desire to benefit, but in things, the greater would be the benefits. But this is not true; for sometimes we feel under greater obligations to one who has given small gifts out of great heart, who ‘by his spirit matched the wealth of kings.’ . . . And so what counts is, not what is done or what is given, but the spirit of the action . . . the intention of the giver or doer.” (On Benefits 1:7:1; 1:6:1)
Jesus: “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” (Matthew 6:1–4)
Seneca: “And so all moralists are united upon the principle that it is necessary to give certain benefits openly, others without witnesses . . . on the other hand, those that do not give promotion or prestige, yet come to the rescue of bodily infirmity, of poverty, of disgrace—these should be given quietly, so that they will be known only to those who receive the benefit. Sometimes, too, the very man who is helped must even be deceived in order that he may have assistance, and yet not know from whom he has received it.” (On Benefits 2:9:1–2:10:1)
Jesus: “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” (Matthew 5:22)
Seneca devotes an entire book of about 124 pages to the subject of anger, providing recipes to prevent or allay anger, that “most hideous and frenzied of all emotions” (On Anger (1:1:1). Still, he appreciates Aristotle’s earlier observation that anger, like many emotions, can be “a spur to virtue” (On Anger 3:3:1–2).
Jesus: “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:28)
Seneca, while objecting to physical adultery, doesn’t consider going this far.
Jesus: “Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)
Seneca: “It will be impossible for one to to imagine anything more seemly for a ruler than the quality of mercy, no matter in what manner or with what justice he has been set over other men. . . . This quality is the more beautiful and wonderful, the greater the power under which it is displayed.” (On Mercy 1:19:1)
In the year 55 or 56, Seneca optimistically wrote On Mercy for the benefit of his eighteen-year-old student, Nero, the new emperor of the Roman Empire. He advises the youthful ruler that he should keep “sternness . . . hidden, but mercy ever ready at hand” (1:1:4). Seneca reasons that mercy extended by the powerful has double force: by virtue of their power, mercy can be more significant, yet in the short run, they have less to gain than others by extending it.
One might argue that a habit of revenge establishes a reputation that one is not to be trifled with. Instead, Seneca argues that in the long run a consistent policy of extending mercy is the surest way for an emperor to safeguard himself: “Such a prince, protected by his own good deeds, needs no bodyguard” (On Mercy 1:13:5) for “there is nothing more glorious than a prince who, though wronged, remains unavenged” (On Mercy 1:20:3).
Jesus: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matt. 7:1–2)
Seneca: “No man sense will hate the erring; otherwi
se he will hate himself. Let him reflect how many times he offends against morality, how many of his acts stand in need of pardon; then he will be angry with himself also. For no just judge will pronounce one sort of judgment in his own case and a different one in the case of others.” (On Anger 1:14:2)
Seneca eclipses Jesus in another way. Although Jesus supposedly predicts the immediate future, he fails badly in the longer term: his projected “Kingdom of Heaven” has not arrived. Seneca had his own apocalyptic visions, but with true prescience, drawing from a worldview alien to the Gospels, he predicted a different sort of kingdom that did happen: “The time will come when diligent research over very long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden . . . this knowledge will be unfolded only through long successive ages. . . . There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them” (Natural Questions 7:25:4–5).
All of this begs the obvious question: If Seneca is the more profound thinker, why today is Jesus so wildly popular and Seneca seldom heard about? I have yet to hear anyone ask: “What would Seneca do?” The full answer is complex, but one obvious reason comes from framing. As matchless a writer as he is, Seneca’s essay format cannot compete against that of the Gospel formula, with its cleverly worded aphorisms and stories and parables spoken by an extraordinary, rejected, and sympathetic hero who, unlike Seneca, exemplified his teaching by his conduct.
Mark Rubinstein is a retired professor of finance at the University of California at Berkeley.