Stoic practical advice, III: grief

Roman funeral

Roman funeral

More summary and discussion of part III of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, focusing on Stoic advise on a number of practical issues. Chapter 12 deals with the topic of grief, which I found personally relevant as my mother passed away recently, and my brothers and I are still coping with the aftermath of the event.

To clear common misconceptions, Irvine reminds us that Stoics do grieve, as the emotion is at the least to some extent reflexive, and therefore cannot be avoided. According to Seneca (in his letter to Polybius): “Nature requires from us some sorrow, while more than this is the result of vanity. But never will I demand of you that you should not grieve at all. … Let your tears flow, but let them also cease, let deepest sighs be drawn from your breast, but let them also find an end.”

Irvine tells us that the Stoics primarily dealt with grief by negative visualization: contemplating the death of those who are dear to us reduces the sting when the event inevitably takes place. The other side of this coin is that reflecting on the impermanence of our relations also augments our appreciation for them while we still have them.

Seneca (again to Polybius) maintains that reason is our weapon: “unless reason puts an end to our tears, fortune will not do so.”

One of Seneca’s arguments is “that the brother whose death Polybius is grieving either would or wouldn’t want Polybius to be tortured with tears. If he would want Polybius to suffer, then he isn’t worthy of tears, so Polybius should stop crying; if he wouldn’t want Polybius to suffer, then it is incumbent on Polybius, if he loves and respects his brother, to stop crying.”

Irvine notes that the Stoics weren’t as naive as to think that just talking to someone could extinguish extreme grief. But even in those cases, he maintains, we can at the least point out that someone’s emotions have taken over their intellect, and try to convince them that in the long run this is not a good thing, so they should gradually work at giving reason the upper hand again.

The most peculiar advise, as often, comes from Epictetus, who actually says that it is permissible to fake grief in sympathy with others, but that we should be careful not to “catch” the thing ourselves. This will certainly strike modern ears as bizarre, if not downright objectionable, but “Epictetus might respond to this criticism by pointing out that the advice that we respond to the grief of friends by grieving ourselves is as foolish as the advice that we help someone who has been poisoned by taking poison ourselves.” Remember: for the Stoics negative emotions are not to be given assent.