The Loeb translation by Richard M. Gummere of Seneca's Epistula XLI, "On the God Within Us":

Non sunt ad caelum elevandae manus nec exorandus aedituus ut nos ad aurem simulacri, quasi magis exaudiri possimus, admittat; prope est a te deus, tecum est, intus est. Ita dico, Lucili: sacer intra nos spiritus sedet, malorum bonorumque nostrorum observator et custos. Hic prout a nobis tractatus est, ita nos ipse tractat. Bonus vero vir sine deo nemo est; an potest aliquis supra fortunam nisi ab illo adiutus exurgere? Ille dat consilia magnifica et erecta. In unoquoque virorum bonorum:

     Quis deus incertum est, habitat deus.

renders deus as "God" in the main text but "a god" in the quotation:

We do not need to uplift our hands toward heaven, or to beg the keeper of a temple to let us approach his idol's ear, as if in this way our prayers were more likely to be heard. God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian. As we treat this spirit, so are we treated by it. Indeed, no man can be good without the help of God. Can one rise superior to fortune unless God helps him to rise? He it is that gives noble and upright counsel. In each good man:

     A god doth dwell, but what god know we not. [Vergil, Aeneid, viii.352]

Is the translation to "God" an imposition of Judeo-Christian monotheism onto the Roman pagan worldview, or is Seneca really invoking a notion of a single "God", common to everyone, which he expects Lucilius to understand? Since Latin lacks definite and indefinite articles, I figure you have to refer to the cultural context, but if I'm wrong about that, please let me know.

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    This seems possibly parallel to the common Greek usage of ho theos without reference to a specific god, meaning something like "the divine"; translators sometimes render that as "God" (which I've always felt doubtful about).
    – TKR
    Commented Nov 20, 2019 at 7:06

2 Answers 2


As Latin lacks articles, when translating into English, one supplies them (or not) as appropriate to the meaning. The cultural context only matters if it casts light on the meaning. Assuming it is clear without cultual context (but just by reading Seneca) that Seneca did not mean that each person is helped to be good by a god who may be different from person to person, the reading "a god" is excluded without reference to cultural context. "God", "the god", "this god", or even substituting the name of the god in question, if known, may all be appropriate, and that may possibly depend on cultural context. On the other hand, the meaning of the Vergil quote clearly demands "a god" in English, and it would even if Seneca had said it himself rather than quoting; no reference whatsoever to cultural context is required.

As for whether "God" imposes a Judeo-Christian world view, I don't think so. Even for some polytheists, "deus" by itself in some eras and contexts had a strong tendency to refer to Jupiter, and the other answer explains its significance for the Stoics.


Seneca was a proponent of Stoicism; a philosophy which urged a dutiful self-discipline; detachment from the feckless passions; steadfastness in friendship; and, fortitude in adversity. It reasoned that all men were the offspring of God and, therefore, brothers--each deserving of compassion and justice. Though pantheistic, Stoicism conjectured God as present in all things and not transcendent. It is true that Stoicism provided some of the building blocks out of which the early Christians built their religion; but, the two concepts were not the same: the one was not the progenitor of the other e.g. Stoicism made no vain promises of a life beyond the grave, though some Stoics thought it a possibility. Happiness was to be found within, in this life. Stoicism was manly, rational and temperate. Its reward was virtue--the highest good.

The life of Seneca (4BC-65AD) paralleled that of Jesus. Though Seneca wrote extensively on many subjects and people, Christianity did not seem to catch his eye; despite the many Christians, punished, for the fire that ravaged Rome in 64AD


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