Seneca: The 3 Roles of Reason in the Conception of Happiness

Nero and Seneca by Eduardo Barron (1904)
Born4 BC
Died65 AD
Famous Quote“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
Know ForFamous stoic, tutoring the emperor Nero, writing foundational texts on concept of happiness
Region of WorldItaly/Rome, 1st century AD

Seneca the Younger provides 3 roles of reason in forming a person’s conception of happiness in everyday life. Each of these roles of reason according to Seneca would clearly set a person on a path to becoming a much happier individual.

Through the consolation letters of Seneca we can see his 3 roles of reason in the conception of happiness. First, Seneca states that emotion is not the source of happiness, rather it is reason. Second, Seneca’s reason for the conception of happiness is based around finding a person’s reason for existing. Third, the main role of reason in the conception of happiness is to recognize the shortness of life.

Today we remember Seneca for his unique view on how a person can actually achieve true happiness in their life. Seneca himself would live a very hard life, which in turn forged his stoic views.

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Without further ado, here are Seneca’s 3 roles of reason in the conception of happiness.

Seneca States That Emotion Is Not The Source Of Happiness Rather It Is Reason

One of the main roles of reason in the conception of happiness according to Seneca was not emotion but rather reason itself.

Seneca would have an affair with the Roman Emperor Caligula’s sister Julia Livilla. As a result of being discovered Seneca would be exiled from Rome to the island of Corsica.

While in exile in Corsica Seneca would receive letters from his scared family, particularly his mom. Seneca’s mother was terrified that at any moment Seneca could be killed as he was labeled an enemy of Rome.

It was within Seneca’s response to his mother that we can see his first role of reason in the conception of happiness. Writing his de Consolatione ad Helviam Matrem (consolation to Mother Hilvia) Seneca states that he was not angry nor upset at being exiled.

Further, Seneca states that he was actually perfectly fine and happy with the outcome. This was because Seneca told his mother that he could not control the outcome of Caligula’s decision to exile him. Rather, Seneca told his mother that since he was ok in his current state he was happy with the exile.

Seneca further states that since nobody could control the decision to exile him it should not impact their reason for happiness.

Within this letter to his mother Seneca demonstrates a very interesting concept of his role of reason in the conception of happiness. According to Seneca happiness should not be an emotion but rather a reasoning of the powers that a person had to control the events of life. Since a person could not control life’s events, why be upset?

This was the foundational block of Seneca’s philosophy. That it was not emotion that lead to the conception of happiness but rather it was reason.

According to Seneca Happiness Is Found in One’s Purpose for Existing

Another one of the main roles of reason in the conception of happiness was to find one’s role and purpose for existing.

While Seneca was exiled in Corsica he would write a second series of consultation letters to Polybius, the emperor’s personal secretary. Polybius had recently lost his brother and had entered into a period of grieving.

These letters are titled de Consolatione ad Polybium (On the Consolation of Polybius). Within these letters Seneca highlights another one of the main roles of reason in the conception of happiness.

For Seneca Polybius should be happy and not sad regarding his brother’s death. Yes, Polybius should grieve the passing of his family but instead of being sad he should remember his brother’s life and his own.

Writing that Polybius should rather focus on his own life and remember how his brother spent his, we can see one of the main roles of reason in the conception of happiness. That we all will die and that we should be remembered for what we accomplished in life, not grieved for its passing. (link to Sen. Cons. Polyb. 11.1.1 if your interested in reading the Latin)

It is through this series of letters to Polybius that we can see Seneca’s second role of reason in the conception of happiness. That one should not only remember the short lifespan of humans but also strive to find the purpose for one’s own existence. It is within this logical reasoning that one will find what Seneca believes is true happiness.

As such, the second role of reason in the conception of happiness is to search for one’s purpose for existence and remember others.

The Main Role of Reason in the Conception of Happiness Is To Remember The Shortness of Life

1871 painting by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez

The third role of reason in the conception of happiness is to remember the shortness of life.

It is within his third consultation letter de Consolatione ad Marciam (Consolation to Marcia) that Seneca demonstrates the cornerstone of his philosophy; that life is inherently short.

The consultation letter is addressed to Marcia, a daughter of an important historian of the Empire, Aulus Cremutius Corudus. Marcia had lost her son 3 years prior to the letter and had been unable to move past his passing. Her son had died in his 20’s at a very young age.

Normally when someone consoles a grieving person they attempt to guide the person through the steps of the grieving process. However, Seneca took a different approach to counseling Marcia.

Seneca takes the viewpoint that Marcia should not be surprised by the passing of her son. Other mothers had lost their sons in their prime, why should Marcia be any different? It was this expectation of her son living a long life that was hurting Marcia, not his young death.

Instead Marcia should remember that her son in his life strove to accomplish great things. That this ambition to seek his own life’s goal will live on while he may not. That her happiness should be found in this memory, not the memory of what could have been.

The effectiveness of this strategy is unknown. However, what is clearly demonstrated is Seneca’s third role of reason in the conception of happiness. That we should always remember the shortness of life. If we can remember this daily and move towards our life’s purpose we will find true happiness.

This remembrance of the shortness of life is important as it drives logical reasoning in how we should spend our day. This role of reason is how according to Seneca our we should conceive our happiness.

Conclusion

Seneca provides 3 roles of reason in the conception of happiness. To fully understand his writings we must first understand his philosophical stance on emotion and happiness.

Seneca would live a very hard life. Later he would be called back to Rome to teach the young emperor Nero. Later on in his life Nero would force Seneca to take his own life. Seneca’s last words to his wife were the following “What need is there to weep over parts of life, the whole of it calls for tears.” A line that perfectly encapsulates Seneca’s philosophy.

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Sincerely,

Nick