Seek the Truth (Seneca 8)

Cordoba, birthplace of Seneca, painted by Carlo Bossoli in the 19th Century.

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 eighth book he discusses the importance of strength of mind in the search for goodness and happiness.  This is part of his philosophy of stoicism.  Importantly (and perhaps in contrast to his previous arguments) he doesn’t advocate the avoidance of more transient pleasures in life altogether, but argues instead that pleasure should be our servant, not our master, “auxiliary troops” in the battle of life.

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.

What can we say about the fact that pleasure belongs to good and bad men alike, and that bad men take as much delight in their shame as good men in noble things? This is why the ancients told us to lead the highest life, not the most pleasurable, so that pleasure is the companion of a logical and honourable mind, not the guide. Let our reason observe and be informed by pleasure.

To live a happy life, then, is the same thing as to live according to nature. I will explain what this means.

If we look after our bodies and the physical benefits nature has given us with care and fearlessness, recognising them as transient – if we are not obsessed by them, or allow ourselves to become slaves to what is no part of our own being – if we think of all bodily pleasures and external delights as auxiliaries troops in the army of our existence – if we make them our servants, not our masters – then and only then are they of any value to our minds.

A man should be unbiased and unconquered by external influences. He should admire only himself, to feel confidence in his own spirit, and so prepare himself to cope with good or bad fortune. He should not let his confidence be without knowledge, nor his knowledge without steadfastness. He should always stick to his guns, and not allow anything to wipe away his beliefs. That kind of a man will be calm and composed in his demeanour, high-minded and courteous.

He must strive to seek for the truth, and let reason be guided by that. There is no other starting point than reason from which to start in pursuit of truth. It must fall back upon itself. Even the all-embracing universe and god who is its guide extends himself forth outwards, and yet returns from all directions back to himself. Let our mind do the same thing. When it has gone forth, reaching outwards and following the bodily senses, let it still remain their master and its own. This is how we will obtain a strength and ability which are united, and will derive from it a reasoning that never wavers between two opinions, and is not slow to form perceptions, beliefs or convictions.

A mind like that, when it has organised itself, co-ordinated its various aspects and, if I may say so, harmonized them, has achieved the greatest goodness. It has nothing evil or dangerous remaining, nothing to shake it or make it stumble. It will do everything under the guidance of its own will, and nothing unexpected will befall it. Whatever a mind like that does will turn out well, and that will happen easily, without the owner of that mind having to stoop to underhand means. Slow and hesitating action are the signs of a discordant mind and lack of settled purpose. You can therefore boldly declare that the greatest good is singleness of mind. Where agreement and unity are to be found, there must also be found virtues. It is the vices that are at war with one another.

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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