On December 25th, people all over the world celebrate Christmas, a holiday which marks the birth of Jesus Christ, one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. This was a man who lived two thousand years ago, taught timeless lessons about kindness, mercy, forgiveness, on doing one’s duty, on the dangers of money and the redemptive power of poverty and adversity.
It’s pretty remarkable to think that in that same year as Jesus, another philosopher was born, one who taught more or less the same lessons, one who for at least a century was far more famous and influential than Jesus was. That man’s name was Seneca.
No one can confirm for certain the exact birth date for either, but it is indisputable that Seneca and Jesus walked the earth at the same time and lived roughly parallel lives. Indeed, they are both written about by Tacitus, and Seneca’s brother even appears briefly in the Bible! Again, it’s incredible.
Ultimately, the two men met very similar ends, killed by the long reach of an emperor’s tyranny. Both have lived on far beyond their deaths—Jesus it was claimed, rose from the dead after three days, and Seneca, through his writings, feels as alive to us as he would have to many Romans.
What’s lovely too is that there is much to be learned from the teachings of both, whether you’re a believer or an atheist.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” Seneca
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Jesus
“It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.” Seneca
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Jesus
“You look at the pimples of others when you yourselves are covered with a mass of sores.” Seneca
“And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” Jesus
“If my wealth should melt away it would deprive me of nothing but itself, but if yours were to depart you would be stunned and feel you were deprived of what makes you yourself. With me, wealth has a certain place; in your case it has the highest place. In short, I own my wealth, your wealth owns you.” Seneca
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal…No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Jesus
Seneca was simply a man, a rather flawed one in fact. Jesus—depending on your beliefs—was much more than a man. In a way, this makes Seneca much more interesting and relatable because he was just like us. Seneca was no prophet. He was a person trying to do the best he could. He struggled like us. Jesus was supposedly a carpenter, but Seneca really did have to work for a living. Jesus couldn’t have liked being crucified, but he knew that God was looking out for him. Seneca, like us, had to wrestle with the uncertainty of mortality.
On this day right here, on Christmas Day, we should take a minute to simply marvel at this near-miracle—that two wise men were alive at the same time, and through their suffering and teachings, a great legacy has been passed down to us. While we don’t know what Jesus would have said about Seneca’s teachings, we know what Seneca would have told the Stoics about Jesus’s, because he said it about philosophies he disagreed with all the time: If there is good stuff in there, use it.
And so in that spirit we should study and learn from both these wise men and count it as a blessing that we’re able to do so.