Seneca: On the Happy Life

By: John C. Gentner

In Letter XCII.II, De Vita Beata (On the Happy Life), Seneca writes to his friend Lucilius: “the happy life depends upon this and this alone: our attainment of perfect reason. For it is naught 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 which 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 upon none but himself; for one who sustains himself by any prop may fall. If the case is otherwise, then things which 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 upon that which is not his own?” Those of us who attain perfect reason, or at the very least, are on the path, stand a chance at possessing the happy life. As a result of that, our lives will naturally begin to flourish. Reason – living in accordance with our nature, is the embodiment of excellence. Free exercise of wisdom, self-discipline, courage, and justice will bring us to a state of eudaimonia; or a truly good, fulfilling, and flourishing life; and by extension, true happiness. Unlike momentary pleasure, this happiness can not be taken from us. Sometimes, our life flourishes through the gifts of Fortuna; the goddess of fortune, luck, and fate. It shouldn’t have to be said how fickle she can be. She gives one day and takes the next, with no regards as to who she smiles upon or frowns upon. Therefore, true happiness cannot be achieved through external means, it can only come from within; in our actions and way of thinking. Likewise, true sadness can only come from within. A man should stand upright, not be held upright by the gifts of Fortune. Whatever Fortuna has raised to the heights, she can revoke at any moment. In part III, Seneca goes on to define what the good life is, and how it it can be attained– “What is the happy life? It is peace of mind, and lasting tranquillity. This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached. 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 upon reason and never departs there- from, that commands at the same time 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.”

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