The Definition of Happiness (Seneca 4)

Seneca was born in Cordoba. This view of the Andalusian countryside is by Julia Kostecka, sourced via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently 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.  In his fourth “book” (the “books” are just big paragraphs!) Seneca finally gives a definition of happiness, and he gets there via bonum: “goodness”.  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.

Great goodness can be defined in different ways. The same idea can be explained in different terms. It is like an army, which can be spread far and wide or closed into tight ranks, and can be curved towards the wings by a dip in the centre, or drawn up in a straight line. However it is arranged, its strength and loyalty remain unchanged. In the same way, our definition of the greatest good can be expressed widely and at great length, while others may put it in concise terms. Either way, it will amount to the same thing, if I say this:

“The greatest good is a mind which despises the accidents of fortune, and takes pleasure in virtue.”


“Unconquerable strength of mind is knowing the world well, being gentle in our interactions with it, and showing great courtesy and consideration for who live in it.”

Or we can choose to define goodness by recognising that a man who knows good and bad only in terms of good or bad minds is a happy man. He is a man who worships honour, who is satisfied with his own virtue, who is neither puffed up by good fortune nor cast down by back luck, who knows no good other than the goodness he can bestow upon himself, and whose real pleasure lies in despising pleasures.

If you decide to pursue this course further, you can rationalise the idea in many other ways, without damaging or weakening its meaning. Why shouldn’t we say that a happy life consists of a mind which is free, upstanding, undaunted, steadfast, beyond the influence of fear or desire, a mind which thinks nothing is good except honour and nothing is bad except depravity*, and regards everything else as a mass of background noise that cannot add or take away anything from the happiness of our lives, but which come and go without increasing or diminishing the greatest goodness?

A man of these principles, whether he wants to or not, will be accompanied by constant cheerfulness, a sublime happiness, which comes from on high, because he delights in what he has, and desires no greater pleasures than those which his home can afford. Isn’t he right to allow these things to tip the scale against all the petty, ridiculous and transient events of his physical life.

The day he becomes immune to pleasure he also becomes immune to pain. In contrast, see how evil and guilty a life of slavery a man must live, if he is dominated by pleasures and pains, those most untrustworthy and passionate of masters. We must, therefore, escape from them, to freedom. Nothing will allow us to achieve that except contempt for fortune. But if we achieve this, then there will dawn upon us those invaluable blessings: the peace of mind that is at rest in a safe haven; greatness of mind; great and steady delight in rejecting mistakes and learning the truth; courtesy; cheerfulness. We will take delight in all of those, not regarding them as good things, but resulting in the proper goodness of man.

* The Latin here is “turpitudo”, which is very open to interpretation depending on the context, and can’t be easily translated with a single word. I have gone with “depravity” but it has overtones of physical disgrace, and can even mean “nakedness”. There is an aspect to the word of other people’s disapproval, rather than simply wrongdoing by itself. “Indecency” or “shame” would also be acceptable translations in the context. Seneca is sticking with his theme of rejecting the pleasures of the flesh here, and trying to achieve something greater in life. It is the origin of our word “turpitude”.

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.

Seneca was born in Cordoba. This view of the Andalusian countryside is by Julia Kostecka, sourced via Wikimedia Commons.

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About Roger Pocock

Author of Co-writer on Administrator of
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