Friday, August 6, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 92 - On the Happy Life

On the Happy Life

Seneca states that "outward things" (i.e. externals or indifferents) exist for the upkeep of the physical body.

The body needs to be sustained for the soul.

Part of the soul is irrational, while part of it is rational.

The irrational is subject to the rational; but the rational is subject to nothing.  And just as "divine reason is set in supreme command over all things, and is itself subject to none" so too our own reason "is the same, because it is derived from the divine reason."

Given these premises, Seneca concludes, "the happy life depends upon this and this alone: our attainment of perfect reason."  Perfect reason alone will pave the path to excellence of soul and happiness.

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.

He continues,

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 therefrom.

A couple of rhetorical questions:

what is more base or foolish than to connect the good of a rational soul with things irrational?


why, therefore, do you hesitate to say that all is well with a man just because all is well with his appetite?

These are good philosophical questions.  Think on happiness; contentment and try to hone in on how you can attain them regardless of circumstances.  What can be true, always?

Can someone attain happiness in this life?  Is it up to them or do they have to wait for it to come to them?  Are some people just lucky and therefore happy?  Or do people really have control over their happiness?

The Stoics argue that by achieving excellence of soul and character (arete), someone can also be happy.  And that excellence and happiness are not left up to Fortune, Fate, God or chance.  This is the aim of Seneca's argument in this letter.

The Stoics separate externals and indifferents into a couple of categories: preferred vs. dispreferred.  And Seneca adds,

Of course I shall seek them [preferred indifferents], but not because they are goods, – I shall seek them because they are according to nature and because they will be acquired through the exercise of good judgment on my part. ... it is not my dinner, or my walk, or my dress that are goods, but the deliberate choice which I show in regard to them, as I observe, in each thing I do, a mean that conforms with reason. ... the good is not in the thing selected, but in the quality of the selection. ...  if I have the choice, I shall choose health and strength, but that the good involved will be my judgment regarding these things, and not the things themselves.

Indifferents are the material which allow us to demonstrate our excellence.  We can show our wise use of them, but they do not cause excellence or happiness.  The only cause of our excellence and happiness is our reason - our rational nature.

Excellence of character is like sunlight from the sun.  Things can block it, but nonetheless the light still shines.

The sun, however, is unimpaired even in the midst of obstacles, and, though an object may intervene and cut off our view thereof, the sun sticks to his work and goes on his course.

Excellence of character is not left up to chance.

We meet with one person who maintains that a wise man who has met with bodily misfortune is neither wretched nor happy. But he also is in error, for he is putting the results of chance upon a parity with the virtues.

The wise person recognizes

things which have no power to change his condition for the worse, have not the power, either, to disturb that condition when it is at its best. ... Therefore, one whose life is not changed to misery by all these ills is not dragged by them, either, from his life of happiness.  Then if, as you say, the wise man cannot fall from happiness to wretchedness, he cannot fall into non-happiness. ... virtue is itself of itself sufficient for the happy life.

Excellence of character is entirely 'up to us' and regardless of things 'not up to us' we can choose an excellent attitude, character and perspective.  We realize we are responsible and in control of our perspective.  Death, loss of possessions, exile, good health, promotions and wealth are simply the material to demonstrate the appropriate and honorable attitude, perspective and choice.  By consistently choosing the wise response and perspective, we liberate ourselves from Fortune and Fate and we determine our happiness.  We find ourselves living in the moment; in the perpetual now.

In order to live more happily, he must live more rightly; if he cannot do that, then he cannot live more happily either. Virtue cannot be strained tighter, and therefore neither can the happy life, which depends on virtue. For virtue is so great a good that it is not affected by such insignificant assaults upon it as shortness of life, pain, and the various bodily vexations. For pleasure does not deserve that. virtue should even glance at it.  Now what is the chief thing in virtue? It is the quality of not needing a single day beyond the present

We embrace the perpetual now.  We begin to see perfect reason.  We begin to see things from the perspective of the Cosmos; from Nature.  And our journey in this life becomes one of unification of our reason with right reason.

No man does wrong in attempting to regain the heights from which he once came down. And why should you not believe that something of divinity exists in one who is a part of God? All this universe which encompasses us is one, and it is God; we are associates of God; we are his members. Our soul has capabilities, and is carried thither, if vices do not hold it down. Just as it is the nature of our bodies to stand erect and look upward to the sky, so the soul, which may reach out as far as it will, was framed by nature to this end, that it should desire equality with the gods. And if it makes use of its powers and stretches upward into its proper region it is by no alien path that it struggles toward the heights.  It would be a great task to journey heavenwards; the soul but returns thither

And from this perspective, we see the externals and the body as mere accessories to an end.

just as we do not take thought for the clippings of the hair and the beard, even so that divine soul, when it is about to issue forth from the mortal man, regards the destination of its earthly vessel – whether it be consumed by fire, or shut in by a stone, or buried in the earth, or torn by wild beasts – as being of no more concern to itself than is the afterbirth to a child just born.


the soul fears nothing that may happen to the body after death.

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