On Happiness – Epicurus, Seneca, and Augustine

5 minute read

This is part of a stop and start series summarizing the writings in Happiness – Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy. You can read other parts of the series starting here.

Today’s third installment is a summary of what the Stoics represented by Seneca and Augustine felt about happiness. The Stoics have in recent years returned to popularity, largely through the writings of Ryan Holiday. Stoicism was in direct competition for mind share and pupils with Epicureans during the ancient world. The writing of Seneca in this book is in response to the core Epicurean belief that pleasure is the highest good. Seneca believes Virtue is the higher good. Seneca’s main argument with Epicurean philosophy is not that it is necessarily bad but that it is far too easy to fall into a vicious cycle when pursuing happiness via pleasure.

According to Seneca, Virtue is the highest good and has the added benefit of providing some pleasure. The analogy he uses is like the field plowed for corn that then allows some flowers to bloom around its borders, Virtue allows for pleasure to bloom in small ways as well. The benefit of Virtue is that it allows man to stand up to the tribulations of life whereas pleasure does not. As someone who struggles with things like carbs and Twitter, I can attest to pleasure largely being weak and fleeting.

Interestingly, Epicurus, while having a totally materialistic metaphysical basis for his philosophy, did not advocate for the gluttony that we typically associate with his philosophy. Much of what Epicurus said was directed at developing a freedom of fear, both of the gods and of man, and directing one’s life to learning via our senses. This then allowed man to acquire pleasure though still in some moderation. As so often with philosophical leaders, it was later adherents to the philosophy who bastardized the concepts.

Seneca advocated for Virtue being the standard bearer for our direction in life and that by doing so, man would be able to both acquire pleasure (via higher goods like learning and philosophical development) and to withstand all the things that buffet and attack our happiness and equilibrium in life. Virtue allows us to be free from suffering because we know that our actions have truth. Virtue is independent of Fortune. One can lead a virtuous life filled with truth and wisdom while remaining poverty stricken but a rich man whose happiness is based on his pleasures can be stripped of them by Fortune. Virtue places man beyond the grasp of desire which means he achieves freedom via being virtuous. This is not unlike the ideas of Iris Murdoch who talks about freedom not as an independent thing in a laissez-faire will but a result of the consequences of a framework for action. In other words, by striving towards Virtue (or Perfection for Murdoch), we gain freedom from the whims and baseness of pleasure.

Seneca says “We have been born under a monarchy; to obey God is freedom.” This is a much deeper definition of freedom (and a seemingly paradoxical one to the modern mind) than one we operate in today where we are bombarded by people yelling about freedoms to not wear a mask or the freedom to develop a cryptocurrency or other “freedoms” based on an independent will that is largely nihilistic in nature. This freedom is hard to comprehend when one has been immersed in the cultural idea of individual freedom as the highest good. Our cultural idea of freedom is totally independent choice. However, Seneca believed that this led to base desires ruling man’s life and that true freedom came from a structural metaphysic based on virtue. Only in this path would we gain true freedom from those base desires like gluttony and greed. As Jerzy Gregorek has said, “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.” Today’s definition of freedom (and happiness) are entirely of the first time. But Seneca (and in some ways Epicurus and more so Augustine) believed freedom came from the latter.

Interestingly, something that is not regularly talked about is that Seneca believed Virtue came from God, that we had a sacred obligation to be human, e.g. not be bothered by those things which affects us because we are not divine. This relates him to Augustine in some ways who had similar thoughts. Augustine’s core moral was Wisdom which came from God. Wisdom is the opposite of want or more accurately, frees one from want much as Seneca believe Virtue freed us from the spiral of pleasure seeking. Wisdom for Augustine was the measure of the soul, that it kept the soul in equilibrium and prevented that same spiral into pleasure seeking behavior. Wisdom requires a constant seeking (which interestingly ties back to Murdoch’s ideas in The Sovereignty of Good) and therefore, we are never deemed “wise”, only that we are constantly trying to increase our wisdom.

The way to wisdom for Augustine was through moderation, that want (of pleasures or riches) pulls us away from wisdom which is defined as seeking God. Again, as with Seneca and later, Murdoch, Happiness is derived via our pursuit of something less concrete than basic pleasures and our ability to improve or increase that pursuit over time. Happiness is not derived from the acquisition of things but from the acquisition of wisdom. Things can be a means to this (I bought a guitar during the pandemic, the purchase of which provided a tiny bit of impermanent happiness) by allowing us to develop wisdom (playing the guitar and increasing my abilities provides a constant stream of happiness). But it is key for both Seneca and Augustine that it is not the materialistic thing itself, it is what it provides on the path to wisdom. If I had to sell the guitar to make rent, I could still sing as a way to improve musical abilities.

To me, Seneca and Augustine have a very similar view of Happiness and its providence. I’ve read far more Stoic philosophy than I have that of Augustine but I’m interested in branching out further into his beliefs. Next up is Thomas Aquinas who believed happiness came from the contemplation of God.