In modern times the sense of citizenship has played an important role as a crucial backdrop for economics, including for the philosophy of Adam Smith and for the perspective of the founders of the American Republic. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ was put forward alongside, not as an alternative, to civic responsibility. In our own times the notion of citizenship can still provide a crucial backdrop for key principles of economic life.
Advent 2009 – A World in Waiting
Week Three – Happiness, A New Morality
Day One – A Tale of Two Citizenships
‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say,
‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The
Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in
everything by prayer and supplication with
thanksgiving let your requests be made known to
God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all
understanding, will guard your hearts and your
minds in Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 4:4-7
Paul was a Roman citizen. He was also familiar with Hellenistic thought. And in his two decades of missionary journeys across the Mediterranean he spent much time in many of the principal urban centers. This, plus the experience of his own dramatic conversion from Judaism, gave him an outlook in marked contrast to, and frequent tension with, the church in Judea and Galilee. He had become a new person, even changing his name from Saul to Paul. He promoted a Christian morality among whose main themes were freedom, grace, love and universality. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians when in detention awaiting trial and eventual execution. Even under such conditions, he kept his sights high. He encouraged the Christians in Philippi to pursue all that
is noble (Philippians 4:8). He spoke about happiness, his own and theirs. They were a great joy to him (Philippians 4:10) just as he, in turn, was urging them to rejoice (Philippians 4:4).
At almost the time Paul was urging the Philippians to be joyful (probably 60-65AD), or perhaps a few years previously, the distinguished Stoic, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, had composed his essay ‘On the Happy Life’. Seneca, like Paul, knew good times and bad. Both accepted everything as part of God’s will and both had
something to say about happiness and citizenship. Both were Roman citizens and both were destined to die
unjustly as a result of Roman imperial paranoia. Paul (c.2BC – 62/65AD) and Seneca (c.1BC- 65 AD) were almost exact contemporaries. By a remarkable coincidence, the Proconsul before whom Paul had been brought in 51 or 52 AD and who declared that religious disputes between Jews and Christians were none of the civil court’s business, was Seneca’s elder brother, Gallio (Acts of the Apostles 18: 5-12). It was this Gallio to whom Seneca addressed his essay ‘On the Happy Life’. And Gallio, like his younger brother took his own life, probably also on Nero’s orders.
There is no reason to think that Paul and Seneca ever met or borrowed ideas from each other. But, in the Middle Ages, a charming legend emerged that Paul and Seneca had actually corresponded. The very fact that such a belief could have been entertained over several centuries is, in itself, a splendid tribute both to the openness and respect which Christian theology showed towards what would today be called ‘secular’ thought and to the fruitfulness of Seneca’s dialogic rather than purely didactic approach. Such attitudes must surely be welcomed today in any common attempt, amongst people of all religious faiths or none, to infuse economic life with a new moral spirit. The focus here, however, is not on the coincidences of their lives or their alleged correspondence but what they had to say about happiness.
In spite of all their sufferings and unjust treatment, both wanted to tell us something about the nature and the source of happiness. For both Paul and Seneca, happiness had a religious character or, perhaps more accurately, religion was the basis of happiness. Not the short-lived happiness that grows out of a superficial religious high nor the compensatory happiness offered by ‘the opium of the people’. But the happiness that comes from having a goal, from knowing that that goal is true and in accordance with deepest reality, and from living according to the path that leads to that goal.
For Seneca, the obligations that followed from this had the character of obedience to God (‘We have been born under a monarchy, and in obedience to God is our liberty’). For Seneca, the first duty prescribed by God is proper care for one’s own self, that is to say one’s character (‘True happiness resides in virtue… Virtue will love the one in whose service she falls, her commander; she will keep in mind that old precept: follow God’). That is the secret of peace (‘the highest good is harmony of the spirit’), freedom (from servitude to fortune and pleasure) and great joy (‘…the one with such a grounding [in the highest good]…will be accompanied by continuous cheerfulness and a profound happiness that comes from deep inside him’). Thus, ‘you should remain unmoved, whether you face evil or enjoy good, so that, as far as is permitted, you may represent God’.
For Paul also it was a matter of urging his fellow believers to rejoice, in spite of his confinement. ‘The very dungeon was consecrated by his virtue.’ These were Seneca’s words about Socrates. They could just as well apply to Paul. Like Seneca, Paul drew his happiness from an unwavering faith in God. What has all this to do with economics? For one thing it has something to say about our attitude to wealth. Seneca: ‘I say that wealth is not a good…But that it is desirable, that it is useful and confers great benefits on life, that I do admit.’ As a very wealthy person himself, Seneca made no apologies for his situation: ‘Enough, therefore, of your banning philosophers from possessing money: no one has sentenced wisdom to poverty…What doubt can there be that the wise man has greater scope for displaying his powers if he is rich than if he is poor…[and that] wealth allows a spacious field to moderation, generosity, diligence, good management and magnanimity?’ Yet he claimed that he would be just as happy sleeping on a bale of hay as on a soft mattress. And so with Paul. Even though, at the end of all his labors, he had few material resources, his only care was the spiritual profit accruing to the people amongst whom he had ministered – that was his receipt, ‘paid in full’ (Philippians 4:17-18). As for their needs, he assured them: ‘My God will supply all your wants out of the magnificence of his riches in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19). His was an economics of grace, not of Fortune. Which meant that his joy was greater than that of Seneca’s. For whereas Seneca’s happiness was derived from an obedience to nature, Paul’s was based on attachment to Christ. His suffering was not just something to be borne with equanimity. Like the sufferings of the Philippians, he saw his suffering as a privilege because it was suffering for Christ (Philippians 1:29).
The joy experienced by Seneca and by Paul was not a private, individualized joy. It was framed in the context of citizenship. Seneca prided himself on being a ‘citizen of the world’, Paul on being a citizen of heaven. Seneca‘s Stoicism, superimposed on classic Roman morality was ideally suited to the ruling class of the vast Roman empire – a philosophy of citizenship. It stressed natural justice – duty and responsibility, freedom and dignity, character and virtue. At certain periods of his life, Seneca had played a public role. He had once tutored the 13-year old Nero, the emperor-to-be, and later acted as Nero’s adviser and speechwriter. Paul insisted that Christians should consider themselves as ‘citizens of heaven, and from heaven we expect our deliverer to come…’ (Philippians 3:20). But being citizens of heaven did not mean turning their backs on early realities. It involved a transformation and extension of the idea of citizenship. It was an image that was to feature prominently in later Christian theology, most significantly, as developed by Augustine of Hippo, who viewed the heavenly city as already intermingling with the earthly city in human history – here and now.
In modern times the sense of citizenship has played an important role as a crucial backdrop for economics, including for the philosophy of Adam Smith and for the perspective of the founders of the American Republic. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ was put forward alongside, not as an alternative, to civic responsibility. In our own times the notion of citizenship can still provide a crucial backdrop for key principles of economic life. There are such things as economic rights and economic duties. The former are not simply individualist claims any more than the latter are simply impositions by the State. Such rights and duties may take different forms in different times and different places. But if we see them in the context of citizenship, we are far more likely to identify those which are more likely to lead to happiness and prosperity.