Happiness Can’t Make You Happy!

Seneca, Moral Epistle 98.1-2

“You don’t ever need to believe that anyone who relies on happiness is really happy. Whoever delights in things outside of their control leans on brittle supports: external happiness will go away. But the feeling that rises from oneself is legit and strong–it grows and stays with us to our final moment. Everything else that has common esteem is good for like a day.

So, in response, “Huh? What’s this? Can’t things serve for both function and pleasure?” Who denies that? But only if they need us, not if we need them. All things governed by fortune can be profitable and pleasing if the person who has them also controls themselves and is not under the power of the things they own.

People screw up, Lucilius, when they judge anything fortune gives them as something good or evil. Luck grants us the foundations for good or evil and the sources of good and evil affairs among us. The spirit is stronger than all fortune and directs its own affairs on either path–it is the reason we have a happy life or a miserable one.”

Numquam credidcris felicem quemquam ex felicitate suspensum. Fragilibus innititur, qui adventicio laetus est; exibit gaudium, quod intravit. At illud ex se ortum fidele firmumque est et crescit et ad extremum usque prosequitur; cetera, quorum admiratio est vulgo, in diem bona sunt. “Quid ergo? Non usui ac voluptati esse possunt?” Quis negat? Sed ita, si illa ex nobis pendent, non ex illis nos.

Omnia, quae fortuna intuetur, ita fructifera ac iucunda fiunt, si qui habet illa, se quoque habet nec in rerum suarum potestate est. Errant enim, Lucili, qui aut boni aliquid nobis aut malum iudicant tribuere fortunam; materiam dat bonorum ac malorum et initia rerum apud nos in malum bonumve exiturarum. Valentior enim omni fortuna animus est et in utramque partem ipse res suas ducit beataeque ac miserae vitae sibi causa est.

happy sad meme format with grogu (baby yoda) smiling at vita beata (latin for happy life) and sad about vita misera (latin for sad life)

Let Nothing External Spark Joy, the Stoic Way

Seneca, Moral Epistles 23.1-2

“Do you think that I am going to write about how mild our winter has been, since it is over and was brief, or how terrible the spring is with its prolonged cold and all those foolish things people write when they’re grasping for words?

Nope. I will write you something out which is a huge advantages for me and for you. What, then, will this be unless it is me encouraging you to a stable mind. What is the foundation of what you are seeking? That you not take joy in minor things.

I said this is the foundation, but it is the peak. Someone crests the summit when they know what really brings them joy, when they do not invest their own happiness in an external power.”

Putas me tibi scripturum, quam humane nobiscum hiemps egerit, quae et remissa fuit et brevis, quam malignum ver sit, quam praeposterum frigus, et alias ineptias verba quaerentium? Ego vero aliquid, quod et mihi et tibi prodesse possit, scribam. Quid autem id erit, nisi ut te exhorter ad bonam mentem? Huius fundamentum quod sit quaeris? Ne gaudeas vanis. Fundamentum hoc esse dixi; culmen est. Ad summa pervenit, qui scit, quo gaudeat, qui felicitatem suam in aliena potestate non posuit

no joy in small things? no thank you stoicism

couple in bed meme with latin quotations drawn from the passage saying, in english, what is the foundation you are seeking? That you do not take joy in minor things

The Road to Happiness

Bacchylides, frr. 11, 12, 13 [Stob. 4. 44. 16 + 46 +Stob. 4. 34. 24]

“There’s one border, one road for mortals to happiness:
If someone can make it to the end of life
With a spirit unburdened by grief.

But someone who tends to countless worries in their mind,
Plucking at their heart day and night,
Always over future things,
Has toil without fruit.

What’s the point in disturbing your thoughts any more
with tears that come to nothing?”

[fr. 13]
Well, god assigned labors to all mortals
Different ones, for different people.”

εἷς ὅρος, μία βροτοῖσίν ἐστιν εὐτυχίας ὁδός,
θυμὸν εἴ τις ἔχων ἀπενθῆ δύναται
διατελεῖν βίον· ὃς δὲ μυρία
μὲν ἀμφιπολεῖ φρενί,
τὸ δὲ παρ᾿ ἆμάρ τε <καὶ> νύκτα μελλόντων
χάριν αἰὲν ἰάπτεται
κέαρ, ἄκαρπον ἔχει πόνον.

τί γὰρ ἐλαφρὸν ἔτ᾿ ἐστὶν ἄπρακτ᾿
ὀδυρόμενον δονεῖν

Fr. 13
πάντεσσι <γὰρ> θνατοῖσι δαιμων
ἐπέταξε πόνους ἄλλοισιν ἄλλους.

Color photograph of oil painting. Woman in boat with other figures, including a baby and a winged cupid
Constance Mayer, “the Dream of Happiness” 1819 from Wikimedia Commons

The Lifespan of Happiness

Pindar, Isthmian 3

“If some person has been lucky
Either with glorifying contests or
By dint of wealth and still subdues wretched excess in their thoughts,
Then they are worthy to receive their fellow citizens’ praise.

Zeus, great kinds of excellence come to mortals from you!
And happiness lives longer when people revere the gods.
But it does not bloom for nearly as long
When it is mixed with crooked thoughts.

It’s my job to sing of a noble person
In exchange for well-famed deeds–
But it is also my task to praise them with kind verses,
While they revel through the street.

Melissos has the good luck of twin prizes
To turn his heart to sweet joy–
He received crowns in the Isthmian groves
And in the deep valley of the barrel-chested lion
He had Thebes announced as eminent,
By mastering the chariot race.

He brings no shame to his ancestors,
Surely, you must have heart of the ancient fame
If Kleonymos for his chariots,
And his cousins on his mothers side among the Labdakids,
They applied their wealth to the work of the four-horsed races.

Life turns one way and another as the days roll by–
But the gods’ children stay unharmed.”

Εἴ τις ἀνδρῶν εὐτυχήσαις
ἢ σὺν εὐδόξοις ἀέθλοις
ἢ σθένει πλούτου κατέχει φρασὶν αἰανῆ κόρον,
ἄξιος εὐλογίαις ἀστῶν μεμίχθαι.
Ζεῦ, μεγάλαι δ᾿ ἀρεταὶ θνατοῖς ἕπονται
ἐκ σέθεν· ζώει δὲ μάσσων
ὄλβος ὀπιζομένων, πλαγίαις δὲ φρένεσσιν
οὐχ ὁμῶς πάντα χρόνον θάλλων ὁμιλεῖ.
εὐκλέων δ᾿ ἔργων ἄποινα
χρὴ μὲν ὑμνῆσαι τὸν ἐσλόν,
χρὴ δὲ κωμάζοντ᾿ ἀγαναῖς χαρίτεσσιν βαστάσαι.
ἔστι δὲ καὶ διδύμων ἀέθλων Μελίσσῳ
μοῖρα πρὸς εὐφροσύναν τρέψαι γλυκεῖαν
ἦτορ, ἐν βάσσαισιν Ἰσθμοῦ
δεξαμένῳ στεφάνους, τὰ δὲ κοίλᾳ λέοντος
ἐν βαθυστέρνου νάπᾳ κάρυξε Θήβαν

ἱπποδρομίᾳ κρατέων· ἀνδρῶν δ᾿ ἀρετάν
σύμφυτον οὐ κατελέγχει.
ἴστε μὰν Κλεωνύμου
δόξαν παλαιὰν ἅρμασιν·
καὶ ματρόθε Λαβδακίδαισιν σύννομοι
πλούτου διέστειχον τετραοριᾶν πόνοις.
αἰὼν δὲ κυλινδομέναις ἁμέραις ἄλλ᾿ ἄλλοτ᾿ ἐξ
ἄλλαξεν. ἄτρωτοί γε μὰν παῖδες θεῶν.

Reconstruction from clay fragments of a toy or model charioteer with a horse. Rough figures.
Chariot and Charioteer. Reconstructed from fragments. Offerings from funeral pyre. 725 BC.

Serious People Don’t Get Drunk

Diogenes Laertius, Zeno 7.1. 118-119

“Serious people are truly dedicated and on guard to make themselves better by preparing both to keep corrupting things away from them and trying to ensure that good things are near at hand. But they are also unaffected: they have peeled away adornments from their voice and their face.

They also have no concern for business since they abstain from doing anything which transgresses their duty. They do drink, but they do not get drunk. Indeed, they will also not go mad—even though the sometimes the same fantasies will still occur to them because of depression or delirium, but because of the logic of what they have selected but against nature.

And a wise person will never grieve because they understand that grief is an illogical closure of the soul, as Apollodorus says in his Ethics. These people are also godlike because they have some divine aspect in them; the scoundrel is godless.”

Ἀκιβδήλους τοὺς σπουδαίους φυλακτικούς τ᾿ εἶναι τοῦ ἐπὶ τὸ βέλτιον αὑτοὺς παριστάναι, διὰ παρασκευῆς τῆς τὰ φαῦλα μὲν ἀποκρυπτούσης, τὰ δ᾿ ὑπάρχοντα ἀγαθὰ φαίνεσθαι ποιούσης. ἀπλάστους τε· περιῃρηκέναι γὰρ ἐν τῇ φωνῇ τὸ πλάσμα καὶ τῷ εἴδει. ἀπράγμονάς τ᾿ εἶναι· ἐκκλίνειν γὰρ τὸ πράττειν τι παρὰ τὸ καθῆκον. καὶ οἰνωθήσεσθαι μέν, οὐ μεθυσθήσεσθαι δέ. ἔτι δ᾿ οὐδὲ μανήσεσθαι· προσπεσεῖσθαι μέντοι ποτὲ αὐτῷ φαντασίας ἀλλοκότους διὰ μελαγχολίαν ἢ λήρησιν, οὐ κατὰ τὸν τῶν αἱρετῶν λόγον, ἀλλὰ παρὰ φύσιν. οὐδὲ μὴν λυπηθήσεσθαι τὸν σοφόν, διὰ τὸ τὴν λύπην ἄλογον εἶναι συστολὴν τῆς ψυχῆς, ὡς Ἀπολλόδωρός φησιν ἐν τῇ Ἠθικῇ.

Θείους τ᾿ εἶναι· ἔχειν γὰρ ἐν ἑαυτοῖς οἱονεὶ θεόν. τὸν δ᾿ φαῦλον ἄθεον.



“It is not possible to think when you’re drunk. For drunkenness is extremely prone to error and people are really talkative over wine…”

Οὐχ οἷον δὲ μεθυσθήσεσθαι τὸν νοῦν ἔχοντα· τὴν γὰρ μέθην ἁμαρτητικὸν περιέχειν, λήρησιν εἶναι <γὰρ> παρὰ τὸν οἶνον,

Attic Lamb’s head Rhyton, MET

Our Debts to Self and Time

Plutarch, On Borrowing 831d

“And so each person in debt doesn’t sell their own land or home, but one that belongs to their lender, whom they made master of their things under the law.”

καὶ τῶν χρεωστῶν οὐ πωλεῖ ἕκαστος τὸ ἑαυτοῦ χωρίον οὐδὲ τὴν ἰδίαν οἰκίαν, ἀλλὰ τὴν τοῦ δανείσαντος ὃν τῷ νόμῳ κύριον αὐτῶν πεποίηκε.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 9 1165a

“So, what I was just saying, in general, debts should be paid back. But if a gift tips the balance with nobility or necessity, then we should be inclined towards giving.”

ὅπερ οὖν εἴρηται, καθόλου μὲν τὸ ὀφείλημα ἀποδοτέον, ἐὰν δ᾿ ὑπερτείνῃ ἡ δόσις τῷ καλῷ ἢ τῷ ἀναγκαίῳ, πρὸς ταῦτ᾿ ἀποκλιτέον

Aristotle, Problems 29.2

“Where there’s debt, there are no friends. For you don’t lend to a friend, you give.”

οὗ δὲ τὸ χρέος, οὐ φίλος· οὐ γὰρ δανείζει, ἐὰν ᾖ φίλος, ἀλλὰ δίδωσιν

Palladas, Greek Anthology, 11.62

“All mortals owe a debt to death
And no one knows if they will live in the morning
Learn this well, and take a joyous breath—
You have wine to help you forget,
and brief life still leaves time to enjoy sex—
Let Chance take care of all the rest.”

Πᾶσι θανεῖν μερόπεσσιν ὀφείλεται, οὐδέ τις ἐστὶν
αὔριον εἰ ζήσει θνητὸς ἐπιστάμενος.
τοῦτο σαφῶς, ἄνθρωπε, μαθὼν εὔφραινε σεαυτόν,
λήθην τοῦ θανάτου τὸν Βρόμιον κατέχων.
τέρπεο καὶ Παφίῃ, τὸν ἐφημέριον βίον ἕλκων·
τἄλλα δὲ πάντα Τύχῃ πράγματα δὸς διέπειν.

Jan Steen, “The Debtor” 1679

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

The Fruitless Toil of Worry: Two Passages on Happiness

Horace, Odes 2.16 25-32

“The spirit which is happy for a single day
Has learned not to worry about what remains
And tempers bitter tastes with a gentle smile—
Nothing is blessed through and through.

A swift death stole famed Achilles away;
Drawn-out old age wore Tithonos down.
Perhaps some hour will hand to me
Whatever it has refused to you.”

laetus in praesens animus quod ultra est
oderit curare et amara lento
temperet risu; nihil est ab omni
parte beatum.

abstulit clarum cita mors Achillem,
longa Tithonum minuit senectus,
et mihi forsan, tibi quod negarit,
porriget hora.

Bacchylides, Processionals fr. 11-12

“There is one border, a single path to happiness for mortals—
When a person is able to keep a heart free of grief
Until the end of life. Whoever keeps ten thousand
Affairs in their thoughts
Whoever tortures their heart
Night and day over what may come,
Has toil which brings no profit.”

εἷς ὅρος, μία βροτοῖσίν ἐστιν εὐτυχίας ὁδός,
θυμὸν εἴ τις ἔχων ἀπενθῆ δύναται
διατελεῖν βίον· ὃς δὲ μυρία
μὲν ἀμφιπολεῖ φρενί,
τὸ δὲ παρ᾿ ἆμάρ τε <καὶ> νύκτα μελλόντων
χάριν αἰὲν ἰάπτεται
κέαρ, ἄκαρπον ἔχει πόνον.

Image result for medieval manuscript happiness
BLMedieval Sloane MS 278, 1280-1300

Politics Getting You Down? Here’s a Pep-talk from Cicero

Cicero, Paradoxa Stoicorum: paradox 2: That having virtue is enough for being happy

“No one can be really happy if they rely wholly on themselves and value everything with themselves alone. But those whose reasoning and hope depend entirely on fortune cannot have anything certain—nothing possessed can be expected to last for more than a solitary day.

Threaten that kind of person, should you find one, with these threats of death and exile. In truth, whatever will happen in so thankless a state will happen whether I am protesting or resisting or not. What have I labored over or what have I done or what of my worries and thoughts passing throughout the night, If I have actually accomplished or pursued nothing to put me in a state that rashness of fate or injuries to my friends cannot weaken? Do you threaten death so that I will completely withdraw from humankind or exile so I may abandon the wicked? Death is terrible to those who lose everything along with life but not for those whose praise can never die. Exile is dreadful to those whose home is a mere boundary line but not to those who think that the whole world is one city.”

Nemo potest non beatissimus esse qui est totus aptus ex sese quique in se uno sua ponit omnia; cui spes omnis et ratio et cogitatio pendet ex fortuna, huic nihil potest esse certi, nihil quod exploratum habeat permansurum sibi unum diem. Eum tu hominem terreto, si quem eris nactus, istis mortis aut exilii minis; mihi vero quidquid acciderit in tam ingrata civitate ne recusanti quidem evenerit, non modo non repugnanti, Quid enim ego laboravi aut quid egi aut in quo evigilaverunt curae et cogitationes meae, si quidem nihil peperi tale nihil consecutus sum ut in eo statu essem quem neque fortunae temeritas neque inimicorum labefactaret iniuria? Mortemne mihi minitaris ut omnino ab hominibus, an exilium ut ab improbis demigrandum sit? Mors terribilis est eis quorum cum vita omnia exstinguuntur, non eis quorum laus emori non potest, exilium autem illis quibus quasi circumscriptus est habitandi locus, non eis qui omnem orbem terrarum unam urbem esse ducunt.

Cicero, copy by Bertel Thorvaldsen 1799-1800 of Roman bust

The Wakeful Mind and Happiness

Cicero, De Finibus 5. 87

“For this reason we must examine whether or not it is possible for the study of the philosophers to bring us [happiness].”

Quare hoc videndum est, possitne nobis hoc ratio philosophorum dare.


Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 2.1 (1219a25)

“Let the work of the mind be the performance of life—and what this means is using life and being awake (for sleep is some kind of a rest and cessation of life). As a result, since the work of the mind and its virtue are identical, then the work of virtue is an earnest life.

This, then, is the complete good, which is itself happiness. For it is clear from what we have argued—as we said that happiness was the best thing; the goals and the greatest of the goods are in the mind, but aspects of the mind are either a state of being or an action—it is clear that, since an action is better than a state and the best action is better than the best state, that the performance of virtue is the greatest good of the mind. Happiness, then, is the action of a good mind.”

Ἔτι ἔστω ψυχῆς ἔργον τὸ ζῆν ποιεῖν, τοῦτοχρῆσις καὶ ἐγρήγορσις (ὁ γὰρ ὕπνος ἀργία τις καὶ ἡσυχία)· ὥστ᾿ ἐπεὶ τὸ ἔργον ἀνάγκη ἓν καὶ ταὐτὸ εἶναι τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ τῆς ἀρετῆς, ἔργον ἂν εἴη τῆς ἀρετῆς ζωὴ σπουδαία.

τοῦτ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ἐστὶ τὸ τέλεον ἀγαθόν, ὅπερ ἦν ἡ εὐδαιμονία. δῆλον δὲ ἐκ τῶν ὑποκειμένων (ἦν μὲν γὰρ ἡ εὐδαιμονία τὸ ἄριστον, τὰ δὲ τέλη ἐν ψυχῇ καὶ τὰ ἄριστα τῶν ἀγαθῶν, τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ δὲ ἢ ἕξις ἢ ἐνέργεια), ἐπεὶ βέλτιον ἡ ἐνέργεια τῆς διαθέσεως καὶ τῆς βελτίστης ἕξεως ἡ βελτίστη ἐνέργεια ἡ δ᾿ ἀρετὴ βελτίστη ἕξις, τὴν τῆς ἀρετῆς ἐνέργειαν τῆς ψυχῆς ἄριστον εἶναι. ἦν δὲ καὶ ἡ εὐδαιμονία τὸ ἄριστον· ἔστιν ἄρα ἡ εὐδαιμονία ψυχῆς ἀγαθῆς ἐνέργεια.

ψυχή: can be translated into English as “spirit” or “soul” instead of “mind”. I avoided the former to sidestep the implication that Aristotle is making some kind of a mystical argument; I avoided the latter because it has such strong religious associations in English.

Seneca De Beneficiis 22

“A just reason for happiness is seeing that a friend is happy—even better, is to make a friend happy.”

iusta enim causa laetitiae est laetum amicum videre, iustior fecisse

Image result for medieval manuscript philosophy happiness
Ms 3045 fol.22v Boethius with the Wheel of Fortune, from ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae’, translated by Jean de Meung