How do you achieve happiness in your life? It’s not a straightforward question, and it is an issue that interested the ancient Romans just as much as it interests us today.
Over the last few weeks I have been providing modern translations of some selected passages from Cato’s De Agri Cultura. Now it’s time to look at something different: De Vita Beata, by Seneca the Younger (c. 4BC – 65AD): About a Happy Life.
Seneca was a philosopher, a dramatist, a satirist, a senator and a tutor and advisor to Nero. He was also a vegetarian for a grand total of one year, until his father persuaded him to abandon the “foreign” practice. After his retirement he was accused (probably falsely) of being involved in an attempt to assassinate Nero, and was forced to commit suicide, which he did with calm dignity and stoicism (or so the story goes – history is rarely told in an unbiased manner), after attending to his final letters.
Seneca wrote 124 letters tackling issues of morality, and they are absolutely fascinating and still thought-provoking today. At least, they are thought-provoking if they are translated in an accessible manner. More on that below, but first let’s have a look at the first section (or “book”) of De Vita Beata, written around 58AD. The letter was written to his brother Gallio.
Everyone wants a happy life, but are slow to understand what makes life happy. It is so difficult to achieve happiness that the more eagerly a man struggles to find it, the further he travels away from it, if he takes the wrong path. It leads him in the opposite direction, so when he rushes that way he moves further away from his goal.
So, first we need to work out exactly what we are looking for. Then we need to find the quickest route to reach it. As long as we are heading in the right direction, we will learn each day on our journey how much progress we have made, and how much closer we are to our goal.
But if we wander randomly, not following any guide except for all the different noisy opinions of those who send us off in all different directions, our short lives will be wasted roaming uselessly, however much we try to understand where we are heading, day and night.
So let’s not decide where we are going, and by what route, until we have taken advice from somebody who has already travelled the path we are going to tread. Local expert advice on the path will take us in the right direction, but the most popular routes will often lead us most astray. The most important thing is not to follow the flock that has gone before us like sheep, and end up going the same way as everyone else, rather than the way we should be headed.
Nothing gets us into more trouble than taking notice of rumours, and thinking the best things are those that other people think are best, being sucked in by fakes and living life by copying others rather than using our own common sense. That is what causes men to rush together until they are piled in great heaps on top of each other; in a great crush of people, when the crowd presses in on itself, nobody can fall without bringing somebody else down with him.
You might have observed this in day-to-day life. Nobody can simply go wrong by himself, but must cause someone else to go wrong as well, by giving advice. It is harmful to follow the path of those who have gone before us, and because everyone would rather believe somebody else than form their own opinions, we never make our own deliberate judgements about life. Some traditional error always ensnares us and brings us to ruin, and we perish following the examples of other men. We need to be cured of this if we are to break away from the herd, but as things stand the mob is ready to fight against reason in defence of its own mistakes.
The same thing happens at elections. When the fickle breeze of popular opinion has changed direction, those who have been chosen as politicians are viewed with admiration by the very men who put them there. Every decision made according to the voice of the majority ends up with us all approving and disapproving of the same things.
I think what Seneca as saying in that final paragraph really boils down to “the majority is often wrong”.
We will look at some more of Seneca’s advice about how to achieve happiness next time.
An explanation of this project:
Roman writing can have a reputation for being a rather dry subject for those who never had their enthusiasm sparked by Latin, and I would lay the fault with that firmly at the door of the translations. Rome was a vibrant, exciting society and that was reflected in their writing, but I remember when studying Latin finding the obsession in academia with accurately translating everything word for word frustrating. I can see the necessity for that approach from an academic point of view, but if the end result is a piece of hackneyed, stuffy prose, then you have actually produced something that is a million miles away from the original, despite including all the right words. For the general reader, I think Latin needs to be translated a little more loosely: get the meaning across without copying every aspect of the sentence structure. So I am attempting more modern translations. For these Seneca translations I will be working with the original Latin text and with reference where necessary to a standard translation by Aubrey Stewart from 1900.
Let’s look at what Seneca wrote, but with the translation tidied up into a much more natural form of English. Let’s render the work back to a natural prose, the manner in which it would originally have been enjoyed. I’m not going to take any huge liberties with the original material, just give it a bit of a spruce up. Let’s see what Seneca really had to say.
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