58 | Rome

Soul Asylum

Seneca asks, “What is the happy life?”

You and I will agree, I think, that outward things are sought for the satisfaction of the body, that the body is cherished out of regard for the soul, and that in the soul there are certain parts which minister to us, enabling us to move and to sustain life, bestowed on us just for the sake of the primary part of us.

In this primary part there is something irrational and something rational. The former obeys the latter, while the latter is the only thing that is not referred back to another but rather refers all things to itself. For the divine reason also is set in supreme command over all things, and is itself subject to none. Even this reason that we possess is the same, because it is derived from the divine reason. The happy life depends on this alone: our attainment of perfect reason. For it is nothing but this that keeps the soul from being bowed down, that stands its ground against fortune; whatever the condition of their affairs may be, it keeps men untroubled. And that alone is a good that is never subject to impairment. That man, I declare, is happy whom nothing makes less strong than he is. He keeps to the heights, leaning on none but himself; for one who sustains himself by any prop may fall. If the case is otherwise, then things that do not pertain to us will begin to have great influence over us. But who desires Fortune to have the upper hand, or what sensible man prides himself on that which is not his own?

What is the happy life? It is peace of mind and lasting tranquility. This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to good judgment. How does a man reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of truth, by maintaining, in all that he does, order, measure, fitness, and a will that is inoffensive and kindly, that is intent on reason and never departs from it, that commands love and admiration. In short, to give you the principle in brief compass, the wise man’s soul ought to be such as would be proper for a god. What more can one desire who possesses all honorable things? If dishonorable things can contribute to the best estate, then there will be the possibility of a happy life under conditions that do not include an honorable life. And what is more base or foolish than to connect the good of a rational soul with things irrational? Yet there are certain philosophers who hold that the supreme good admits of increase because it is hardly complete when the gifts of fortune are adverse. Even Antipater, one of the great leaders of this school, admits that he ascribes some influence to externals, though only a slight influence. You see, however, what absurdity lies in not being content with the daylight unless it is increased by a tiny fire. What importance can a spark have in the midst of this clear sunlight? If you are not content with only that which is honorable, it must follow that you desire in addition either the kind of quiet that the Greeks call “undisturbed­ness,” or else pleasure. But the former may be attained in any case. For the mind is free from disturbance when it is fully free to contemplate the universe, and nothing distracts it from the contemplation of nature. The second, pleasure, is simply the good of cattle. We are but adding the irrational to the rational, the dishonorable to the honorable. A pleasant physical sensation affects this life of ours. Why, therefore, do you hesitate to say that all is well with a man just because all is well with his appetite? And do you rate, I will not say among heroes but among men, the person whose supreme good is a matter of flavors and colors and sounds? No, let him withdraw from these ranks, the noblest class of living beings, second only to the gods. Let him herd with the dumb brutes—an animal whose delight is in fodder!

Black and white image of Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca the Younger.

Seneca the Younger

From On the Happy Life. Eight years after being exiled to Corsica in 41, Seneca was recalled to Rome and made the tutor of Nero. Elsewhere in this epistle, written to his brother Gallio, Seneca writes that although all men wish to be happy, most “are dull at perceiving exactly what it is that makes life happy.” In 65, Nero demanded that Seneca commit suicide for purported involvement in a conspiracy. The Stoic philosopher slit his veins, dictated a dissertation, drank hemlock, and died in a vapor bath.