Is there any such thing as a selfless act? It’s a philosophical question that has been debated for a very long time. In the ninth book of De Vita Beata (“About a Happy Life”), Seneca the Younger (C. 4BC – 65AD) tackles a knotty problem. If his path to happiness is all about being virtuous and rejecting pleasure, isn’t the achievement of virtue something that gives pleasure anyway? Can you really seek virtue without seeking the pleasure that a virtuous life brings? Seneca seems to think you can. Apparently the pleasure is just a Brucey Bonus.
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.
“You only live a virtuous life because you hope to obtain some pleasure from it.” So goes the counter argument.
Firstly, even though virtue may afford us pleasure, we don’t strive for it on that account. Virtue is not there to give pleasure, but gives it as a bonus. And pleasure is not the goal that virtue aims for, although it wins it anyway, despite aiming for something else altogether.
It’s like a ploughed field. You can farm it for corn, but some flowers will be found there too. Those blooms may charm the eye, but the work you put in was not done for the purpose of growing flowers. The farmer has another aim, and got his flowers as well, so pleasure is not the reward or the cause of the virtue, but comes in addition to it.
We do not choose virtue because it gives us pleasure, but it gives us pleasure also if we choose it. The greatest good lies in the act of choosing it, and in the attitude of the noblest minds, which have achieved their purpose within their own limitations, achieved the highest goodness, and need nothing more.
There is nothing outside the whole, and there is nothing beyond the end.
So it is a mistake to ask what is the purpose behind my quest for virtue. You are looking for something above the peak. Why do I seek virtue? My answer: to seek virtue. There is nothing better, and virtue is its own reward.
Isn’t that great enough? The greatest good is an unwavering strength of mind, wisdom, generosity, sound judgement, freedom, harmony, beauty. Should I look for something greater, which have these attributes? Why talk of pleasures? My quest is for what is good for a man, not for a man’s stomach. Cows and whales have bigger bellies than man.
Sometimes Seneca can be heavy going, even when translated into an accessible manner, but that farming metaphor really stood out for me. I think Seneca brings his argument to life at that moment.
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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