Seneca on the happy life

HappinessOn the Happy Life is one of Seneca’s mature essays, written to his brother Gallio in 58 CE, when he was 62 years of age. The main argument is that the pursuit of happiness (understood as eudaimonia) is the pursuit of reason. Or, in more standard Stoic fashion, that only the exercise of reason can lead to a flourishing life. It begins, appropriately enough: “All men, brother Gallio, wish to live happily, but are dull at perceiving exactly what it is that makes life happy.”

Seneca then argues (in book I) that in order to seek understanding about what makes for a good life we should resist the temptation to go with common opinion, because it is often not well thought out. We should not live “by imitation of others,” as “the mob is ready to fight against reason in defence of its own mistake.” While the latter comment opens up the author to the usual accusation of elitism, I think we have all experienced plenty of what he’s talking about in recent years (pick your favorite populist cause, anywhere in the world, advanced without much thought and adopted with even less).

Book II continues by enticing Gallio to embark on a reasoned quest on what makes for a happy life, and book III clarifies at the outset that Seneca doesn’t feel constrained by whatever the “official” Stoic doctrine may be: “When, however, I say ‘ours,’ I do not bind myself to any one of the chiefs of the Stoic school, for I too have a right to form my own opinion.” This is one of the things I most appreciate about Seneca: he’s not afraid to break ranks, if there is a sufficiently good reason to do so, an attitude that also emerges clearly in the early letters to Lucilius, where he often approvingly quotes Epicurus.

In book IV, he unequivocally states: “The highest good is a mind which despises the accidents of fortune, and takes pleasure in virtue,” on which he then elaborates in Book V: “a man may be called ‘happy’ who, thanks to reason, has ceased either to hope or to fear: but rocks also feel neither fear nor sadness, nor do cattle, yet no one would call those things happy which cannot comprehend what happiness is.”

We have here an affirmation of the Stoic idea that happiness is about using reason to overcome fear and hope (in the sense of going after things that are outside of one’s control), and yet also the realization that that’s clearly not enough, since inanimate things (not so sure that cattle cannot feel fear, though very likely not hope) are in a similar situation by default, but it would make no sense to call them “happy.”

The same book ends with a dig at the Epicureans, or at hedonists more generally: “what mortal that retains any traces of human origin would wish to be tickled day and night, and, neglecting his mind, to devote himself to bodily enjoyments?” Which reminds me of a modern thought experiment in philosophy aiming at making the same point, Robert Nozick’s so-called experience machine. (Or maybe Woody Allen’s famous Orgasmatron, in the movie Sleeper.)

Book VI rather elegantly takes up one of the standard objections against the Stoic idea that the happy life is one of reason, not pleasure: “‘But,’ says our adversary, ‘the mind also will have pleasures of its own.’ Let it have them, then, and let it sit in judgment over luxury and pleasures … No insane person can be happy, and no one can be sane if he regards what is injurious as the highest good and strives to obtain it. The happy man, therefore, is he who can make a right judgment in all things.”

This is an interesting and subtle point: sure, under certain conceptions of “pleasure” even the Stoic Sage might be said to take pleasure in the rightness of her judgments. But Seneca uses that concession to turn the tables against the critics: see, right judgment is necessary even to appreciate pleasure, so reason is paramount.

In book VII he further elaborates on the distinction between pleasure and reason: “if they were entirely inseparable, we should not see some things to be pleasant, but not honourable, and others most honourable indeed, but hard and only to be attained by suffering.” Now, one could reasonably reject the distinction Seneca is trying to make, but then would be hard pressed to explain a large range of human behaviors where people do seem to genuinely prefer something despite its unpleasantness, for principled reasons, because they think it is good and honorable.

Book VIII gets to the heart of the matter with the claim that to live happily is the same thing as to live by following nature, which Seneca sets out to explain. He argues that internal harmony is crucial to eudaimonia, and that it cannot be obtained by seeking pleasures, which are always in conflict with each other, but only by pursuing virtue:

“Such a mind, when it has ranged itself in order, made its various parts agree together, and, if I may so express myself, harmonized them, has attained to the highest good … You may, then, boldly declare that the highest good is singleness of mind: for where agreement and unity are, there must the virtues be: it is the vices that are at war one with another.”

Book IX takes up a related charge to the one above by an imaginary critic, essentially that of hypocrisy regarding the relationship between pleasure and virtue:

“‘But,’ says our adversary, ‘you yourself only practise virtue because you hope to obtain some pleasure from it.’ In the first place, even though virtue may afford us pleasure, still we do not seek after her on that account: for she does not bestow this, but bestows this to boot, nor is this the end for which she labours, but her labour wins this also, although it be directed to another end … Pleasure is not the reward or the cause of virtue, but comes in addition to it; nor do we choose virtue because she gives us pleasure, but she gives us pleasure also if we choose her.”

I find this passage to be absolutely beautiful. Yes, virtue does give a kind of pleasure, but it is not sought because of that, it is just a bonus that is granted to the virtuous person.

And here is another stunning passage, where Seneca rebukes his imaginary interlocutor for essentially asking whether this is all there is to life and Stoic philosophy: “Does this not appear great enough, when I tell you that the highest good is an unyielding strength of mind, wisdom, magnanimity, sound judgment, freedom, harmony, beauty? Do you still ask me for something greater, of which these may be regarded as the attributes? Why do you talk of pleasures to me? I am seeking to find what is good for man, not for his belly.”

Book X ends with perhaps the sharpest contrast I’ve read between Epicureanism and Stocism: “You devote yourself to pleasures, I check them; you indulge in pleasure, I use it; you think that it is the highest good, I do not even think it to be good: for the sake of pleasure I do nothing, you do everything.” Well, I’m glad we’re clear on that!

Skipping to book XII, we find a nicely balanced defense of Epicureanism from the apparently common abuse that many made of the term (which is still true today, indeed arguably even more so than in the time of Seneca): “Men are not encouraged by Epicurus to run riot, but the vicious hide their excesses in the lap of philosophy, and flock to the schools in which they hear the praises of pleasure. They do not consider how sober and temperate — for so, by Hercules, I believe it to be — that ‘pleasure’ of Epicurus is, but they rush at his mere name, seeking to obtain some protection and cloak for their vices … The reason why that praise which your school lavishes upon pleasure is so hurtful, is because the honourable part of its teaching passes unnoticed, but the degrading part is seen by all.” This is a good example of Seneca’s fairmaindedness, as well as of his compelling style of argumentation, whereby he manages to both strike a point in favor of his opponents and one against them in a single sentence.

This defense of Epicurus — something that, for sure, Epictetus would never have uttered — continues in book XIII: “I myself believe, though my Stoic comrades would be unwilling to hear me say so, that the teaching of Epicurus was upright and holy, and even, if you examine it narrowly, stern.”

But book XIV goes back to a critique of the pleasure principle: “those who have permitted pleasure to lead the van, have neither one nor the other: for they lose virtue altogether, and yet they do not possess pleasure, but are possessed by it.”

In XV Seneca explains why one cannot simply combine virtue and pleasure and call it a day. The problem is that sooner or later pleasure will pull you toward unvirtuous territory: “You do not afford virtue a solid immoveable base if you bid it stand on what is unsteady.”

Later, in book XVIII, he confronts directly the accusation that is still leveled to him 2000 years later: of not practicing what he preaches. His response: “I am not a wise man, and I will not be one in order to feed your spite: so do not require me to be on a level with the best of men, but merely to be better than the worst: I am satisfied, if every day I take away something from my vices and correct my faults. I have not arrived at perfect soundness of mind, indeed, I never shall arrive at it.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Seneca the historical figure, the above words resonate very powerfully with me: indeed, I am not the best of men, I’m just trying to be better than I was yesterday. And sometimes even that is difficult enough.

Book XX begins with a defense of philosophy, obviously very much needed even in those early times: “‘Philosophers do not carry into effect all that they teach.’ No; but they effect much good by their teaching.” The same, of course, could be said of practitioners of religions: at their best they do effect much good, even though on several occasions even their leaders fall far short of the ideal.

The same book actually provides a list of rules Seneca is trying to live buy. It is worth considering it in full:

* I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance.

* I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not.

* I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.

* Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.

* I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.

* I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half way.

* Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits.

In book XXI Seneca goes back to answering his critics, this time explaining the Stoic attitude (and particularly his own, since he was very wealthy) toward being rich: “[the wise person’s] answer is, that these things ought to be despised, not that he should not possess them, but that he should not possess them with fear and trembling: he does not drive them away from him, but when they leave him he follows after them unconcernedly.”

From XXII, on the same issue: “If my riches leave me, they will carry away with them nothing except themselves … my riches belong to me, you belong to jour riches.”

At the beginning of XXIII he recaps: “Cease, then, forbidding philosophers to possess money: no one has condemned wisdom to poverty. The philosopher may own ample wealth, but will not own wealth that which has been torn from another, or which is stained with another’s blood: his must be obtained without wronging any man, and without its being won by base means.”

Phew! Now I can enjoy my CUNY salary and book royalties in peace! Seriously, though, this is a forceful reminder that Stoicism is not Cynicism, and it isn’t about asceticism. And notice the positive message here, in the second part of the quote: philosophers do not have to be poor, but they do have to get their wealth honestly and virtuously, like everyone else, one would want to add.

in XXIV Seneca makes a plea for magnanimity and generosity, in a remarkably cosmopolitan fashion: “Nature bids me do good to mankind — what difference does it make whether they be slaves or freemen, free-born or emancipated, whether their freedom be legally acquired or bestowed by arrangement among friends? Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a benefit.”

Book XXV is devoted to explaining the apparently paradoxical Stoic concept of preferred indifferents: “place me where gold and silver plate is used for the commonest purposes; I shall not think more of myself because of things which even though they are in my house are yet no part of me. Take me away to the wooden bridge and put me down there among the beggars: I shall not despise myself because I am sitting among those who hold out their hands for alms.”

But the Stoic does have preferences: “I prefer, as far as my feelings go, to show myself in public dressed in woollen and in robes of office, rather than with naked or half-covered shoulders … I prefer to have to regulate joys than to stifle sorrows … In spite of all this, I had rather be a conqueror than a captive. I despise the whole dominion of Fortune, but still, if I were given my choice, I would choose its better parts. I shall make whatever befalls me become a good thing, but I prefer that what befalls me should be comfortable and pleasant and unlikely to cause me annoyance.”

Why is this apparently so difficult to understand for critics of Stoicism? Here is the answer: “I do not talk one way and live another: but you do not rightly understand what I say: the sound of my words alone reaches your ears, you do not try to find out their meaning.” Ahem, I wish it were university policy that I could speak so frankly to some of my own students…


9 thoughts on “Seneca on the happy life

  1. jmyers8888

    Thanks for the post, Massimo. I wonder what Seneca would have to say about whether or not you should speak so frankly to your own students. There must have been many times when he wished to speak frankly to Nero but didn’t. Would other stoics have approved of such a decision? (I ask as a curmudgeonly retired professor who sometimes shocked his students by speaking too frankly.)


  2. Massimo Post author


    Well, Seneca’s motivation for not speaking frankly to Nero was likely very different from mine regarding my students, and of course he has been roundly criticized himself for that failure.

    From a Stoic point of view I’m guessing there is no point in gratuitously insulting others, but there is a point in using stern words if one thinks it is the right thing to do to either prompt change or for the benefit of third parties. Ain’t virtue ethics a bitch…


  3. Shane Sullivan

    I was happy to hear Seneca defend Epicureanism. For all their rivalry, all too often Stoics and Epicureans seemed to be talking past one another. Seneca says above,

    “Pleasure is not the reward or the cause of virtue, but comes in addition to it; nor do we choose virtue because she gives us pleasure, but she gives us pleasure also if we choose her.”

    And here, I’m sure most Stoics would agree with him. Meanwhile, Epicurus, in his Principle Doctrines, says,

    “It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly.”

    They both say that a virtuous life is a pleasant life; the only point of contention is, one of them says the connection matters, and the other says it doesn’t. On this point, at least, they have a lot more to agree on than not. This, coupled with Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts on atomism (and the fact, I’d be willing to bet, that there *have* been quite a few Stoics who were really after the pleasure that follows virtue!), makes me think the massive gulf both schools seemed to perceive between them was more like a crack in the sidewalk.


  4. Angus White

    Thank you Massimo – this is a lovely post and helps me to understand Seneca rather more:
    I think of Seneca as the man of the world of Stoics, Epictetus as the crotchety but kind old teacher, Musonius as the severe calvenistic preacher and Marcus as the brave man trying to find his way in a world not of his choosing.
    But, now, I regard them all as friends.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ellary Eddy

    Fantastic rundown of Seneca, of whom I knew little. I’m just wondering how he did make his money? Was it in the pursuit of virtue? How much of his life was spent upon his financial well-being? It does seem often the case that those with ample means have the spare time and latitude to spend philosophizing. Which could be a decent reason to amass riches?!


  6. Massimo Post author


    Seneca came from a wealthy family, and made additional money both from his extensive land owning and from landing.

    He is reported to spend periods of his life living somewhat frugally for such a wealthy man, but whether he pursued and used wealth in a virtuous way is very much the subject of debate. You might want to check the two biographies of him that came out recently:



  7. Noldorin

    An excellent post. From my brief prior acquaintance with Seneca, it would appear to sum up his philosophies of life rather well.

    Two points struck me, in particular. Firstly, he defends (albeit with patent caveats) the school of Epicureanism, at least as taught by Epicurus himself. Yet he also condemns the pursuit of “bodily pleasures” of Epicureans, as you quote him. Surely he was aware that the sort of pleasure Epicurus spoke of was primarily concerned with food, sex, or comfort, but of “higher” pleasures. Indeed, he seems to show acute awareness of this fact in his defence of the school, and perhaps other places too… yet I can’t help but notice this apparent contradiction.

    Secondly, I made the (shallow) observation that Stoicism, if you take it in its encompassing form, seems to both owe its origin and inspiration to Cynicism (I have heard of a direct “genealogy” of teachers from Antisthenes/Socrates to Zeno) and also represents a more moderate, tempered “middle way” to that of its harsher, more ascetic predecessor. For me, this draws a neat parallel between with the origin of Buddhism as an outgrowth of the ancient ascetic traditions of India (in particular Jainism), and Gautama Buddha’s discovery of the Middle Way after his experimentation with some of these practices and school. Of course, one should always be hesitant of drawing parallels between philosophies separated by so much physical and cultural distance, but I can’t help it here, especially considered the long-established comparisons of Stoicism and its eastern counterpart. It should also not be forgotten that Zeno was probably influenced by eastern though (I refer to Middle Eastern/Semitic traditions) as well as his own original theory, just as the Buddha innovated greatly himself. Yet they both seemed to have moved away from a stern and unforgiving tradition to a more human and balanced one, schools that share much in common. Perhaps the speculators that suggest early Buddhism made its way over to the Middle East to influence the Hellenistic schools are onto something after all… though the utter lack of historical evidence as to that cannot be ignored.


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