Seneca’s On the Happy Life

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A series of short audio meditations on Seneca’s On The happy Life, dedicated to his brother Gallio. Seneca explores what it means to live a good life as a human being. It turns out to be different from what most people think.

I: Seneca advises his brother, and us, not to listen to the random “shouts and clamors” of people, but to reflect carefully on what happiness is and how to achieve it.

I: Nothing gets us into greater troubles than our subservience to common rumor, living not by reason but by imitation of others.

II: These good things which men gaze at in wonder, which they crowd to see, which one points out to another with speechless admiration, are outwardly brilliant, but within are miseries to those who possess them.

III: When I say “our opinion,” 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.

III: A happy life must also set due value upon all the things which adorn our lives, without over-estimating any one of them, and must be able to enjoy the bounty of Fortune without becoming her slave.

IV: The highest good is a mind which despises the accidents of fortune, and takes pleasure in virtue.

V: A person may be called “happy” who, thanks to reason, has ceased either to hope or to fear: but rocks also feel neither fear nor sadness, yet no one would call those things happy which cannot comprehend what happiness is.

V: For no one can be styled happy who is beyond the influence of truth.

VI: That person is happy, whose reason recommends to them the whole posture of their affairs.

VII: If pleasure and virtue were entirely inseparable, we should not see some things to be pleasant, but not honorable, and others most honorable indeed, but hard and only to be attained by suffering.

VIII: The ancients bade us lead the highest, not the most pleasant life, in order that pleasure might not be the guide but the companion of a right-thinking and honorable mind.

VIII: A mind in harmony with itself is a virtuous one, because it is the vices that are at war with each other.

IX: If exercising virtue is pleasurable, aren’t the Stoics a kind of Epicureans in disguise? Not at all, because the pleasure of virtue is a byproduct, not the main goal.

IX: 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?

X: 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.

XII: Seneca strikes a sympathetic note toward Epicureanism, suggesting that it is a misunderstood philosophy, just like, in some respects, modern Stoicism turns out to be.

XIV: Let virtue lead the way and bear the standard: we shall have pleasure for all that, but we shall be her masters and controllers; she may win some concessions from us, but will not force us to do anything.

XVII: Why, then, do you talk so much more bravely than you live? Why do you pay regard to common rumor, and feel annoyed by calumnious gossip? Why do you drink wine that is older than yourself?

XVII: I am not a wise man, 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.

XVIII: I shall continue to praise that life which I do not, indeed, lead, but which I know I ought to lead, loving virtue and following after her, albeit a long way behind her and with halting gait.

XIX: Diodorus has said what you do not like to hear, because you too ought to do it. “I’ve lived, I’ve run the race which Fortune set me.”

XX: Seneca gives us a handy list of fundamental goals to live a life worth living.

XXI: Wealth ought to be despised, not that we should not possess it, but that we should not possess it with fear and trembling: we do not drive it away from us, but when it leaves us, we follow after it unconcernedly.

XXII: Health, for Aristotle, is a necessary requirement for a eudaimonic life. For the Stoics, it is preferred, other things being equal, but a life worth living is within grasp of everyone, regardless of their specific condition.

XXII: Do not, then, make any mistake: riches belong to the class of desirable things. But if my riches leave me, they will carry away with them nothing except themselves.

XXIII: The philosopher may own wealth, but will not own wealth that has been torn from another, or which is stained with another’s blood: her must be obtained without wronging anyone, and without it being won by base means.

XXIV: He who believes giving to be an easy matter, is mistaken: it offers very great difficulties, if we bestow our bounty rationally, and do not scatter it impulsively and at random.

XXIV: Nature bids me do good to mankind. Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a benefit.

XXIV: Riches, I say, are not a good thing; for if they were, they would make people good: now since that which is found even among bad people cannot be termed good, I do not allow them to be called so.

XXV: A Stoic finds herself at ease both in a fancy house where food is served on silver plates and under the bridge sharing the fare with beggars.

XXV: 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.

XXVI: You are rendered over-proud by a fine house, as though it could never be burned, and your heads are turned by riches as though Fortune has not sufficient strength to swallow them up.

XXVII: Do you look at other people’s pimples while yon yourselves are covered with countless ulcers?