Some Senecan Realism About Happiness by Paul Stanley

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  We have posts running up to Stoic Week, but if we get more in, we’ll run additional short posts during Stoic Week as well.  And now, Paul’s post!

When you were first learning to write at school, did your teachers steer you away from the adjective “nice”? Mine did. “Try to find a better word!” they said. “Don’t just say that on your holidays you went to a nice farm, and ate some nice ice cream, and saw a nice goat, and had a nice day. Try to find some other words.”

For “nice” you could substitute any number of jack-of-all-trades words: “great”, “awesome”, “enjoyable”. “Happy” risks being one of those words. We sort of understand what it means, and it generally seems like it must be a good thing. But it’s a slippery word, and because it means so much it also means very little.

In everyday thinking, happiness is associated with a variety of positive emotional states (pleasure, joy, contentment, laughter) and the absence of others (pain, depression, tears). And those states are associated with things that happen in the world: the things that make me happy or sad. The “happy ending” means a wedding; a funeral makes a “sad ending”.

Stoic thought calls this a trap. After all, the “happy ending” is not an ending. After the marriage, what? Well, after the marriage, at some point, illness, misfortune and – yes – in the end, the funeral. As Seneca puts it (Letter 59):

In everyday speech we say that we derive great joy if someone close to us becomes a consul or gets married or if his wife has a child. But these are not really joyous, but often the start of future sorrow.

It is in this sense that Stoics “believe pleasure is a problem”, as Seneca puts it. If we think of happiness this way, we can’t be happy for long. If we chase emotionally pleasurable states we are in a bind, because this sort of positive emotion is like an ice-cube in the sun: it always melts.

We can get off the roller-coaster if we stop understanding happiness as a pleasurable emotion kindled by external events, and aim instead for a sort of calm maintained from within. When Seneca says, later in the same letter, that the wise person is “full of joy, happy, and calm, untroubled” he is not imagining an odd emotional cocktail which combines joy (in the sense of pleasurable excitement) with calm. Instead, he is proposing that viable happiness is calm, not just an emotional high that depends on particular events, achievements, or emotions.

Perhaps that is true happiness? Seneca seems to think so, since he contrasts it with the “false joy”. But I’m not sure that true and false are the right words here. The important point is that calm happiness is maintainable, whereas – thanks to the “facts of life” – the see-sawing emotional highs that depend on external events needs must be intermittent and temporary. The only sort of happiness that we can reasonably rely on is the sort that comes from learning to approach the various things that are bound to happen to us in such a way that we can be inconcussus (the word I have translated as “untroubled” above, but which could also be translated as “not shaken” or “not knocked sideways”).

Of course, how we cultivate the attitudes and reactions that will enable us to achieve this (truly) happy state is another question. But it’s important to know where we should be headed.

Paul Stanley is an English lawyer who has been increasingly drawn to stoicism over the past two years, largely through this blog. He first read Seneca when studying Latin at school, but has only gradually come to see that he is more than a sanctimonious Roman aristocrat, and that our humanity can build bridges to distant antiquity which can still support the weight of our experience.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

3 thoughts on “Some Senecan Realism About Happiness by Paul Stanley”

  1. I don’t think Seneca cared for ” happiness” ,but for serenity .

    He would certainly have agreed to this statement by Viktor Frankl : ” Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. ”

    For the simple reason, that happiness ceases to exist , when you happen think about it.

  2. Thank you for this. I work with oncology patients and it is a struggle at times to articulate a new framework that goes beyond the oversimplification of “happiness” and “misery.” It is possible, in my view, to find contentment no matter what life throws at you.

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