Pleasure or Virtue? (Seneca 7)

The Baths at Caracalla by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

For the last few weeks we have been looking at De Vita Beata (“About a Happy Life”), by Seneca the Younger (c. 4BC – 65AD). In his seventh book he tries to get to grips with the link between pleasure and goodness, and whether the two things go together or are in fact unconnected.  The following is my effort to present Seneca’s writing in more accessible form of English than most academic Latin translations.  Please see below for further explanation of this project, and some more information about Seneca himself.

Even the people who say that the greatest form of goodness is in their stomachs*, look what a dishonourable place they identify as its location. They say that pleasure goes hand in hand with virtue, and that nobody can live honourably without living cheerfully, or live cheerfully without living honourably. I do not see how these very different things are connected.

What prevents virtue existing in the absence of pleasure? The reason, of course, is that all good things derive their origin from virtue, and therefore even things you cherish and search for have roots in virtue. But if they were entirely inseparable, we would not find anything that is pleasant but not honourable, or anything that is most honourable indeed, but hard and achieved only by suffering.

In addition to this, pleasure visits the most immoral lives, but virtue cannot co-exist with a life of evil. Some unhappy people are not living lives without pleasure. In fact, it is because of pleasure that they are unhappy. This could not happen if pleasure had any connection with virtue, whereas virtue is often without pleasure, and never requires it.

Why link together two things which are different and even incompatible with one another? Virtue is a lofty quality, sublime, royal, unconquerable, untiring. Pleasure is low, slavish, weak, perishable. It makes its home in brothels and pubs. You will find virtue in the temple, the market place, the senate house, guarding the walls, covered with dust, sunburnt, with calloused hands. You will find pleasure skulking out of sight, looking for shadowy corners at the public baths, the hot rooms, place which fear the visits of the authorities, weak, lethargic, reeking of wine and perfume, or drugged and covered in make up like a corpse.

The greatest good is immortal. It knows no ending, and is never satisfied or regretful. A balanced mind never changes or hates itself, and the best things in life are also unchanging. But pleasure dies at the exact moment when it charms us the most. It has no staying power, and so it nauseates and exhausts us, fading away as soon as its first impulse is over. We cannot depend on anything whose nature is to change. So it is not possible that there could be any substance to something that comes and goes so quickly, and which perishes by exercising its own function. It arrives at the point when it ends, and even when it starts it keeps its end in sight.

* the Latin here is ilium, which could be translated as stomach or groin. Either make sense. Seneca is talking about people who prioritise physical pleasures over anything else.

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.

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider sharing on Facebook or Twitter, to help other people find and enjoy Windows into History. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 1st Century, Books, History, Inspiration, Latin, People and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s