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The Art of Living

How To Live A Happy Life, With Seneca

Massimo Pigliucci shares some Stoic standards.

What makes for a happy life? That depends on what sort of living organism one is. For a cactus, a happy life consists in access to the right set of soil and air nutrients, plenty of light, and a bit of water. Oh, and staying away from parasites and predators (hence the spines). For a human being things are a bit more complicated. Combined biology and culture make for an incredibly varied mix of wants, needs, hopes, and fears. Nevertheless, the general principles are the same, and so a list of ideas put forth by the Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) is a good starting point for reflection. Let’s take a look into that mirror.

The happiness list is found in Section 20 of his aptly titled On the Happy Life. I will quote a few excerpts covering the principal points. For instance: “I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance; I will submit to labors, however great they may be, supporting the strength of my body by that of my mind.” Strength of mind is crucial in life because it is our attitude toward things, and especially towards setbacks, that determines how we’re going to react to them.

Wealth, or anything else the Stoics classed as ‘externals’ (external to one’s own mind), including health, reputation, and career, are the sorts of thing it is nice to have if we’re lucky, but which don’t define who we are as human beings: “Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly.” The point that we should not be relying on or hoarding things was stressed more recently by the psychologist Viktor Frankl: “I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all humankind” (Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946). The Stoics used the deliciously oxymoronic phrase ‘preferred indifferents’, meaning things that we should prefer because they make our lives more pleasant, but that are indifferent to our moral character, which is our most precious possession. Indeed, the hallmark of Stoic wisdom is precisely the ability to use externals correctly, which includes not being overly attached to them. If you have spare funds, think of ways to put them to good use – where ‘good’ refers to helping others, not to buying yourself the latest chariot (or smartphone). If you don’t have any spare funds, focus instead on what nobody can take away from you: your good character.

Try out this one for size in our age of social media: “I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience.” Yet the point is well taken. While certainly our conscience ought to be informed by open and honest dialogue with our fellow human beings – on penalty of falling into rationalizing, rather than rational, thinking – ultimately, our opinion is the only thing that is truly ours and for which we are completely responsible. Everything else in our lives may be affected by fortune; but the buck stops with us when it comes to our considered judgments and intentions.

“In eating and drinking my object shall be to quench the desires of Nature, not to fill and empty my belly. I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes; I will grant pardon before I am asked for it.”

Again here we see an attitude that runs refreshingly against modern trends. Consumption – for instance of food and drinks – is to be tailored to our needs, not pursued to excess (at great expense, and even greater environmental impact). Regarding how to treat other people, for the Stoics there are no true ‘foes’, only human beings who are misguided in what they do. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to be ‘gentle and mild’ with them. This doesn’t mean that we should practice ‘doormatism’, so to speak – but that we should, as Seneca puts it, be ready to forgive even before we are asked.

The Stoics and their philosophical cousins the Cynics were cosmopolitan, meaning that they thought of all other human beings as their brothers and sisters. Even though we are naturally inclined to be kind toward our family, friends, and neighbors, reason tells us that the fact that those specific people are so important to us is an accident of fate, so we have no reason to treat anyone else poorly just because they happen to have been born in a different part of the world, or to look different from us, or behave in ways unfamiliar to us.

We should always be ready to face Nature’s ultimate test of character – our own inevitable demise. Even death, as both the Stoics and the Epicureans maintained, is not to be feared, for the simple reason that where it is we are not, and vice versa. Indeed, the Stoics believed that in exceptional cases we should be willing to hasten our own death; for instance, when faced with a terminal disease we know will only bring pain and suffering to ourselves and our loved ones: “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; that no one’s freedom, my own least of all, has been impaired through me.” The ability to quit if ‘the room gets too smoky’, as the second century Stoic Epictetus memorably put it, is the ultimate source of freedom, because if we decide to stay, this means we judge that we can still do something worthwhile for ourselves and others – which is the ultimate mark of a happy life.

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2023

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders (Basic Books). More by him at massimopigliucci.org.

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