Seneca the Younger (c. 4BC – 65AD) had strong opinions about how to achieve happiness, and he wrote about them in De Vita Beata (“About a Happy Life”). The sixth book (don’t worry, the “books” are just big paragraphs) is a slightly more difficult one to get to grips with, and I have taken a few more liberties than usual with the translation to really get Seneca’s intended meaning across, which is generally lost in a cloud of fusty old academic translation.
Picking up on his theme of living life by reason and rejecting the obsession with physical or transient pleasure, Seneca starts the next section by imagining an opponent to his views, and the opinion that would be offered. Please see below for some interpretation of this book, further explanation of this project, and some more information about Seneca himself.
The opposite viewpoint is this: the mind wants its pleasures.
Let it have them then. Let it become an expert in luxury and pleasure. Let it indulge itself fully in everything that gives delight to the senses. Then let it reflect on the pleasures of the past and with all those fading sensations fresh in the memory let it look forward happily and eagerly to other pleasures from the distant pass that will return, and it intends to experience once again.
While the body is helplessly devoted to instant gratification, let it look to the future and take stock of its hopes. All this will make it appear even more wretched, in my opinion, because it is insanity to choose evil instead of good. No insane person can be happy, and nobody can be sane if he regards what is harmful to the soul as the ultimate good, and strives to obtain it.
A happy man, therefore, is one who can make a sound judgement in all matters. A happy man is one who is satisfied with his present circumstances, whatever they may be, and at peace with the conditions of his life. A happy man is one whose reasoning dictates the manner in which he lives his entire life.
I think there is an important point there that Seneca doesn’t exactly make clear (and it is even less clear in the original Latin and virtually absent from the traditional translations), which I have tried to bring out a little more with careful choice of words: the distinction between pleasure-seeking (which Seneca thinks leads to misery, or at least not a lasting happiness) and the innocent, simpler pleasures of the past. Although he doesn’t actually mention childhood, I think that is probably the point he is grappling for when he says that those pleasures will return. After all, old age is often considered to be a return to childhood in some ways, gaining freedom from financial pressures and responsibilities, etc. But Seneca’s final point in this book reiterates the main thrust of his argument so far: be content with what you have, and make judgements through logic, not passion.
Whether that’s a good way to live life or not is open to opinion!
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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