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Thinking Out Loud

To Do A Very Beautiful Thing

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 27, 2015

Beautiful thingThe phrase, "to do a very beautiful thing," is from Seneca, the ancient Stoic philosopher, and is found in his essay on giving gifts ("De Beneficiis"). For Seneca, a person's attitude toward giving was an essential aspect of character. In the passage where our opening phrase appears, he is encouraging the giver not to allow even the ingratitude of a recipient to prevent him or her from giving. After all, Seneca says, "not even the mortal gods are deterred from showing lavish and unceasing kindness to those who are sacrilegious and indifferent to them."

Lucius Annaeus Seneca lived at the beginning of the Christian era. He was a public intellectual and a politician. He incurred the wrath of Roman Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero, the latter of the three permitting him to commit suicide after he was accused of participating in Piso's plot against Nero (whom he had once tutored). Seneca's brother Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, is mentioned in the Book of Acts (18:12); Paul was brought before Gallio's tribunal.

Seneca's primary goal as a philosopher was to teach virtue, how to live a life according to the will of God. According to Seneca, wisdom is fundamental to goodness. As he famously said, "There is no philosophy without goodness, and no goodness without philosophy." The word "philosophy" means for him, as for other Stoics such as Epictetus, the love of wisdom and not a technical academic discipline. Seneca wants to show the way for people to align their will with the will of God, to submit themselves so thoroughly to God's way that no circumstances of life nor actions of others can sway them from doing that which is true and right. Thus, his reflections on giving, whether the recipient is grateful or not. Why should we allow the ingratitude of a person receiving a gift to prevent us from doing something very beautiful, i.e., giving?

Seneca's understanding of giving reminds me of something an old friend, Dr. Lou Adams, once said to me. As I recall, I was attempting to determine whether or not I should give money to something or the other. Lou allowed me to talk for awhile. He was good at listening. (His day job was as director of the counseling center at the Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University). When I stopped talking, Lou said something to the effect of this: "Well, of course, from a Christian perspective, God doesn't seem to expect us to evaluate the worthiness of the cause or the person to whom we give. Our responsibility is to give, and that's between us and God, not us and the recipient of our benevolence." As bizarre as it may sound, this had never occurred to me. Then Lou reminded me of Jesus' observation that "the rain falls on the just and the unjust," a saying of Jesus that is similar to Seneca's observation.

It is striking to me that the Stoic and the Christian so often wind up in the same neighborhood, though we may drive down different streets to get there. Seneca described giving as "the chief bond of human society." The relationship between givers and those who benefit from giving is a sacred bond. And, while our liberality ought not to be conditioned by the gratitude of those who receive a gift from our hand, we may, according to Seneca, discover that generosity begets generosity. As he says, "Even wild beasts are sensible of good offices, and no creature is so savage that it will not be softened by kindness and made to love the hand that gives it."

Whereas it is conventional to assume a kind of hierarchy of virtue between the giver and the receiver, an expression of a power relationship based on generosity, especially when considering charitable giving, Seneca presents an illustration in which the students of Socrates are placed in the role of givers, and the great philosopher is the receiver. Seneca's illustration does not stop merely at reversing the usual power relationship so often assumed in charity. Seneca tells how one of Socrates' students by the name of Aeschines confesses to his teacher that he possesses nothing valuable enough to give Socrates, except, that is, himself.

"This gift," says Aeschines, "such as it is, I beg you to take in good part, and bear in mind that the others, though they gave to you much, have left more for themselves."

Socrates acknowledged the greatness of his student's gift, and promised that he intended to return the gift to him in time. When he did at last return Aeschines to himself, Socrates hoped to return him "a better man" for the education he received.

Seneca comments on the story: "You see how even in pinching poverty the heart finds the means for generosity." Hearing this illustration, it is hard not to think of Jesus' story of the widow's mites.

The relationship between the one giving and the one receiving is complex. Humility is called forth in both the giver and the recipient; as Seneca says, "Nature's rule is that a person should first become a debtor, and then should return gratitude."

The one receiving a gift clearly benefits in this relationship, but so does the giver, who often feels a sense of joy that is unique to giving. And so the bond of reciprocity is strengthened. Even when a gift is freely given, even when given without any expectation of an expression of gratitude, the giving creates the opportunity and invites the possibility of creating a grateful heart, indeed more than one grateful heart, because everyone who gives knows they have first received.

Doing "a very beautiful thing" encourages us to do even more.

NOTE: All references to Seneca are to the Loeb Classical Library bilingual edition of Seneca's Moral Essays, Volume III, English translation by John W. Basore (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935).

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