At various points in his writing, Seneca uses fictional debates as a way to illustrate and then counteract objections to his views. In one particularly intriguing dialogue in “De Vita Beata” ("Of a Happy Life"), he and his virtual alter ego argue back and forth wether pleasure or virtue form the basis of a fulfilled, happy existence. Of course, the issue at stake here could hardly be of any greater significance: How does one live a good life? What’s the meaning of it all? What’s the point?
Is it to amass as many pleasurable experiences as possible and to put one’s other endeavors, such as an aspiration for the power and influence of public office, in the service thereof? Or, on the contrary, by striving for traits such as strength of character, wisdom, and good judgement? And to then employ these humbly in the service of others?
To make the contrast between these to positions vividly clear, Seneca refutes any possible alignment between a pursuit of virtue with a pleasure-oriented value system from the get-go: “You yourself only practice virtue because you hope to obtain some pleasure from it,” runs the arguments’ accusatory opening to which Seneca passionately objects: “Do you ask what I seek from virtue? I answer, Herself: for she has nothing better; she is her own reward.”
Let that sink in for a moment: Enthroned on top of Seneca’s hierarchy of values is not the enjoyment of doing anything in the here and now, nor the attainment of peace in some otherworldly realm, but virtuous behavior in and of itself. Later on he does acknowledge that, yes, sometimes acting virtuous also happens to feel good. Giving presents, doing volunteer work, comforting someone in need, all that gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. But that’s not the point, says Seneca. It’s only a byproduct neither worthy of much attention nor one we should actively seek out.
Here, a critical reader could object that maybe Seneca isn’t trying to help his audience obtain a good life for themselves after all. Isn’t he, by elevating pro-social behavior above individual pleasure, trying to sneak in group morality through the backdoor? Frankly, I don’t think so. If his objective was primarily to nudge people to be more decent to one another, the educative path via pleasure would be much easier: “Be nice, it’ll make you feel good!” is quite a catchy slogan after all. (Or, one could even select the blunter tool wielded by many organized religions: “Be nice, or you’ll suffer in hell for all eternity.") Instead, applying Seneca’s reasoning, we could even turn the moral arrow 180 degrees around: “If you’re only being nice because it makes you feel good, you’re not such a decent person after all”. (Again, the same could be said of the overtly pious: “If you’re only being nice for fear of the wrath of god, then maybe you’re also not such a nice person at your core.")
Hence, I assume we can safely do away with the superstition that Seneca’s goal here is to educate the masses on morally acceptable behavior. Instead, I think that his point truly is to help the individual navigate the complexities of the human condition, but there’s a significant catch to that: Ultimately, the judgement wether or not ones’ life is a “good” one or not is primarily a subjective one, and yet we’re trying to make objective claims about how to turn the dial one way or the other. But isn’t that dial only visible to you? Isn’t it true that you can only ever attest from the inside if you’re moving towards, or away from, your personal notion of the “good” life? So, how could anyone, even Seneca, tell how strongly virtue, or any other value that you might pursue, is correlated with it?
To resolve that conundrum, we have to dig a bit deeper into the annals of philosophy. Ultimately, the definition of “good” that many ancient thinkers adhered to comes down to being “in accordance with one’s nature.” That might seem like a self-referential play of words, but it does have its practical uses in deciding what’s “good” and what isn’t: The nature of a jug, for example, is to hold water. Therefore, a good jug is one that’s not leaking. Simple as that. But then, what’s the nature of human existence? The are many answers to that, but the Greeks vividly acknowledged that we humans are social creatures at heart. To survive and thrive we require the physical and mental support of others, to achieve great results we rely on an exchange of ideas, on collaboration, and on fruitful debate. Therefore, so the argument goes, a significant aspect of being “in accordance with one’s nature” for a human is to lead a life that’s embedded in a functioning society and spiked with meaningful contributions to it.
Another, more subtle, aspect to it is the recognition that individual nature differs from person to person. If, for example, one is particularly gifted with an ability for public speaking, with tremendous physical strength, or with a formidable aptitude at strategic thinking, it would go against one’s nature not to make use of these particular abilities and to cultivate them further. The jug, to come back to our earlier example, which is perfectly shaped to hold water would not live up to it’s potential if it were never filled.
It is this reduction to “being in accordance with one’s nature” that allows Seneca to push a primarily self-serving pursuit of pleasure off of the top of worthwhile ways to live a human life, and a lot of the glumness that we associate with lowercase stoicism today has its roots in arguments like the this. “Shut up and do you duty,” we hear Seneca shout out to us through the millennia, just like some mean-spirited drill sergeant. “Put your head down and get on with it!” But the uppercase Stoics were by no means grim-faced, pessimistic, robot-like creatures who only did what they thought they had to just “for the sake of it”. They were realists in the sense that they had a deeper understanding of the human psyche, and of the dangers inherent in self-indulgence, vanity, and narcissism, than many would give them credit for.
In an almost comical choreography, two European high-profile politicians recently walked way from the reins of power almost at the same time. One of them had been in office for sixteen years during which she had to avert one crisis after the other. Ungrudgingly, she bore the responsibility for decisions which were at times unpopular, but necessary. She never pushed into the spotlight for her own sake, but used her influence quietly and often on the backstage of world politics to negotiate deals when nobody else could. Her legacy will not be one of great personal achievement but of societal stability, prosperity, and disasters averted or contained.
The other one was an empty performer who quickly rose to power on an opportunistic platform and alternatively played the roles of statesman, agitator, tribune, saviour, accuser, and victim. Which face he put on display was decided not by intrinsic values, but by a cold, mechanic rationality with the only objective of attaining and then stabilizing political influence for him and a close circle of confidants. The currency in which his choices had to replay themselves was popularity and approval ratings—even if they were faked—to foster his inflated self-image and to ensure a prolonged stay in power.
One of them will be retiring now, calmly reflecting on a lifetime of achievements in the dutiful service of society, with a “lightness of heart” as she herself put it in her last formal address. The other one will, one can only assume, occasionally still feel bitterness towards an electorate which never fully appreciate his grandness, as well as resentment against a juridical system by which he felt unjustly persecuted. The severe blows his ego had to suffer during his demise will continue to sting, long after the warm, pleasurable glow of the public spotlight has faded.
Comparing these two politicians through the lense of Stoicism, it becomes quite obvious which of them would be closer aligned with Seneca’s idea of a pursuit of virtue for its own sake, and which is more an example of a quest for power and influence in the service of hedonistic—almost narcissistic—pleasure-seeking. Ultimately of course, each of us will have to decide for ourselves whether we consider our individual life a “good” one. Therefore, even if we would agree that one of those two examples was more virtuous than the other, it wouldn’t be our place to judge the “goodness” of their respective lives. However, each of us are also free to speculate about how we might feel in either of their circumstances. By doing so, we might learn one thing or the other about ourselves, our values, and our own idea of what a “good” life could look like.