Last week, David Cameron’s enthusiasm for finding out how happy we all are—as if it were any business of his—led us to consider some Greek views of the matter. Romans discussed it with equal enthusiasm.
balnea, vina, Venus corrumpunt corpora nostra;
sed vitam faciunt balnea, vina, Venus
proclaims a neat elegiac epitaph from Rome, expressing a common popular viewpoint—baths, wine and sex may wreck us physically, but they sure make life worth living.
Roman thinkers, however, were as keen as Greeks to discover the happiness that withstood all onslaught. Stoicism, a Greek invention, was one answer. The basic tenet was that divinity was rational and omnipresent, suffused through nature, ‘like honey through a honeycomb’. Nature and reason were thus closely linked. Since reason was god’s greatest gift to man, we were able to understand nature and live in holistic harmony with it. One did that by living and acting virtuously, selecting what was good, making it one’s own and ignoring everything else. Such was the only route to happiness. Wealth, status and so on did not feature in such a scheme.
Seneca (AD 1-65), who wrote an essay ‘On the Happy Life’, is a rich source of practical epigrams on the matter: ‘the happy man uses reason to be free from both fear and desire’; ‘that man is poor, not who has too little, but who longs for more’; ‘that man most enjoys wealth who least needs it’; ‘chance takes away what chance has given’(i.e. trusting to luck is pointless); ‘no wind is fair to a man who does not know for which port he is making’; ‘the wise man cannot suffer injury or loss...because his only possession is virtus, and he can never be separated from that.’ And so on.
Ancients insisted on man’s ability to rationalise his way to happiness. So if Mr Cameron wants to help us to be happy, he should forget about the economy and make sure we are all thinking straight.
To him, then, and the whole Coalition, a rational, virtuous, bath-, drink- and sex-free Christmas.