One of the most fascinating books ever written in Latin is De Vita Beata, by Seneca the Younger (c. 4BC – 65AD): About a Happy Life. So much of what Seneca wrote holds true today.
In his second book, Seneca discusses something that is every bit as significant to modern life as it was in his day, perhaps even more so: the foolishness of copying and envying those in a position of power or wealth. Nowadays we would probably describe that as the obsession with celebrities. He also challenges the nature of friendships built on envy, and he has another important message as well: be careful what you wish for in life.
The following is my own translation, with the original text rendered into a style of English that is easily readable, unlike a lot of academic translations of Latin. Please see below for further explanation of this project, and some more information about Seneca himself.
When we are thinking about how to achieve a happy life, you cannot answer that question as if we were talking about a political vote: “this view has the most supporters.” If that is the case, it will be the worst option. It is not human nature for the majority to prefer the better course of action. The more people do a particular thing, the worse it is likely to be.
So instead let’s not ask what is done the most, but what is the best thing for us to do. Let’s ask what will put us in possession of undying happiness, not what is approved of by the worst possible people who offer their opinions: the vulgar people. By “vulgar”, I mean those who wear the political robes and the crowns of power. I am not interested in the colour of their clothes. I do not trust my eyes to tell me about a man’s character. I have a better and more reliable method for telling true from false: let your own mind discover what is good for it.
If a man allows his mind some breathing space, and has time for self-reflection, what truths will he confess to himself, after he has put himself to torture! He will say:
“Everything I have done before I wish could be undone. When I think over what I have said in the past, I envy those who lack the power of speech. Everything I have longed for has turned out to be a curse my enemies would have prayed would befall me. Good heavens, how much more enduring have been the things I have feared, than the things I have desired! I have been the enemy of many men, only for my dislike of them to turn to friendship, if friendship can even exist between bad men. And yet, I have still not made peace with myself.
“I have tried with all my strength to raise myself above the common herd, and to make myself remarkable with some kind of a talent. What have I achieved except to make myself a target for the arrows of my enemies, and to show those who hate me where to wound me?
“Can you see people complimenting you on your eloquence, envying your wealth, sucking up to you, praising your power? All of them are, or will be (which amounts to the same thing) your enemies. The number of people who envy you is as great as those who admire you. Why don’t I search instead for some kind of goodness I can use, and feel, rather than what I can show? The good things which men gaze at in wonder, which they crowd to see, which one person points out to another in breathless admiration, are outwardly brilliant. But inwardly they are miseries to those who possess them.”
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.
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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