Roughly 2,000 years ago, a child was born in a province of the Roman empire. He would go on to be one of the great philosophers who ever lived—teaching people about the importance of kindness, mercy, forgiveness, on doing one’s duty, on the corruptive influence of wealth and the redemptive power of poverty and adversity. He would, over the course of his life and legacy, teach millions of people how to live and how to die, how to better themselves and how to treat their neighbors. Eventually his teachings would become controversial and a threat to the state and so he would be painfully put to death by the Romans. Yet even as he experienced the agony and humiliation of that death sentence, he found the compassion to use it all as an opportunity to embody his philosophy—asking his loved ones and followers to stay strong, to forgive the excesses of an emperor who did not know what he was doing. In those brave, final moments he immortalized himself forever.
So who was this man whose birthday we recognize? It was Jesus right? Well the holiday is called Christmas, so obviously the answer is Jesus. But what if the answer was Seneca? It just as easily could be. Because not only do both Jesus and Seneca share the same story, but both were born—according to many sources—in the same year. No one can confirm for certain the exact birth date for either, but it is indisputable that these two men walked the earth at the same time and lived roughly parallel lives.
More incredible is just how much their teachings overlap:
“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
“It’s in keeping with Nature to show our friends affection and to celebrate their advancement, as if it were our very own.” Seneca
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” Jesus
Now Seneca was obviously just a man—a flawed and contradictory man at that—while Jesus—depending on your beliefs—was both a man and God. But both lived these magnificent lives, leaving behind much for us to follow, to consider and to question. We don’t know what Jesus would have said about Seneca’s teachings, but 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.
It would come to be over the centuries after their deaths, that culturally and historically, Christianity would replace Stoicism as the dominant philosophy in Rome and then the world. But for quite some time, their two modes of living mimicked the relationship of Jesus and Seneca—close, but never quite touching. Seneca’s brother Novatus (renamed Gallio) is mentioned in the Bible. There are purportedly letters between Seneca and St. Paul (mostly thought to be fake). The term the logos appears nearly as often in the writings of Marcus Aurelius as it does in the Bible. And there were persecutions going both directions—Stoics executing Christians, Christians banning and erasing Stoic texts (as well as preservations going in both directions too). It was, at times, a bloody and violent war of ideas.
Now, we can put all that conflict behind us. On that day, on Christmas Day, we can 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. Which one of them we choose to rely on most heavily is an individual decision—but that we should do something with their teachings? That’s what Christmas can be a reminder of.