Never Cruel or Cowardly (Seneca 3)

A statue of Seneca the Younger at his birthplace, Cordoba.

For the last couple of weeks we have been looking at one of the most fascinating books ever written in Latin: De Vita Beata, by Seneca the Younger (c. 4BC – 65AD): About a Happy Life.  The following is my own translation of the third “book” (don’t worry, his books are just big paragraphs!), 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.

For his third book, Seneca is still skirting around the issue of how exactly to achieve happiness, skillfully avoiding specifics, while often using a lot of words to say not much.  But there are some important ideas here, such as learning to recognise what is truly important in life, something that still holds true today, and his closing remark is sheer perfection.  He also starts talking about Stoicism at this point, an important belief system for philosophers in ancient Rome (with origins in ancient Greece).

Let’s search for some kind of a blessing in life, and not one that just looks good, but one that is firmly and inherently good, with the most beautiful aspects the least obvious. Let’s unearth that. It is not far away, and it can be found. All you need to know is what direction to reach out your hand for it. As things stand, though, we behave as though we were in the dark, and reach beyond what is within our grasp, knocking aside the very things we want in the process.

So that I don’t lead you astray, I will pass over the opinions of other philosophers, because it would take forever to describe them all and prove them wrong. Just take ours. But when I say “ours”, I don’t tie myself to any of the main proponents of Stoic philosophy, because I also have a right to form my own opinion. So I will follow the teachings of some of them, but will challenge others. Once I have reported all their opinions I will offer my own if appropriate, but I will not trash the beliefs of my predecessors. Instead, I will add something to them.

In the process, I will follow nature. This is something all Stoic philosophers agree. True wisdom doesn’t come from turning away from nature, but from shaping our behaviour according to natural laws and examples from nature. So a happy life is one that is in harmony with the very nature of life itself, and cannot be achieved unless the mind is sound, and remains so uninterrupted, and is also brave and strong, enduring all hardships with admirable courage, well-suited to the times it lives in, wary of the physical world and all its trappings, but not careful to a fault.

A sound mind must also recognise the value of all the things that make up our lives, without over-estimating the value of any of them, and must enjoy what Fortune brings without becoming her slave. It goes without saying that this will lead to a lasting serenity and freedom, when we have driven away all the things which over-excite us or alarm us. In place of the pleasures of the flesh and the fleeting rush of euphoria from immoral crimes, instead we gain an immense, permanent, calm joy, along with peace, serenity and strength of mind.

And kindness.  For all cruelty is a sign of weakness.

Being courageous in the face of hardship, and always kind.  I can’t help but be reminded of Doctor Who: “never cruel or cowardly”.

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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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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