The False Mask of Happiness

Seneca, Moral Epistle 80.6-8

“The joy of the people who are called “happy” is fake but their sadness is deep and profound and that much heavier because it is not allowed for them to openly be unhappy. Instead they need to act happy even while grief consumes their hearts.

I must often use the following example and nothing else so effectively expresses the drama of human life where we are assigned roles that we play so badly. Over there is someone who takes up a lot of space on the stage and bellows with his head to the sky: “Look, I rule Argos: Pelops left the realm to me / from the Hellespont and the Ionian sea / pressing on the Isthmus…” He is a slave and he earns five measures of grain and as many denarii.

Over there is an arrogant but powerless man swollen with belief in his strengths, saying: “If you don’t quiet down, Menelaus, you’ll die by this hand.” He earns pennies a day and sleeps on trash.

You can speak the same way about all these fools riding around above the heads of other men and the whole crowd. The happiness of all these people is just a mask. Strip them of it and hold them in contempt.”

eorum, qui felices vocantur, hilaritas ficta est at gravis et subpurata tristitia, eo quidem gravior, quia interdum non licet palam esse miseros, sed inter aerumnas cor ipsum exedentes necesse est agere felicem. Saepius hoc exemplo mihi utendum est, nec enim ullo efficacius exprimitur hic humanae vitae mimus, qui nobis partes, quas male agamus, adsignat. Ille, qui in scaena latus incedit et haec resupinus dicit

En impero Argis; regna mihi liquit Pelops,
Qua ponto ab Helles atque ab Ionio mari
Urgetur Isthmos,

servus est, quinque modios accipit et quinque denarios;

ille qui superbus atque inpotens et fiducia virium tumidus ait:
Quod nisi quieris, Menelae, hac dextra occides,

diurnum accipit, in centunculo dormit. Idem de istis licet omnibus dicas, quos supra capita hominum supraque turbam delicatos lectica suspendit; omnium istorum personata felicitas est. Contemnes illos, si despoliaveris.

Wall Painting from Herculaneum. Actor with mask and Muses. Napoli, Museo Archeologico Nazionale 9019

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