Seneca’s consolation letters, part I: Marcia

Roman sarcophagusThe consolation letter was a popular literary genre in antiquity, essentially being a vehicle for presenting crucial aspects of one’s philosophy while giving actual advice to friends or relatives on how to deal with loss and grief. Perhaps the most famous consolation letters were written by Seneca, to his friend Marcia, to his mother Helvia (while he was in exile), and to his friend Polybius. In this series of three essays I will highlight some of the most interesting passages from the letters, so that we may form a better idea of the genre itself, of Seneca’s approach to it, and of Stoicism more broadly.

Marcia was the daughter of the prominent historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus, and Seneca is writing to her because her grief for the loss of her son Metilius seemed to have become chronic, continuing three years after the tragedy. The letter is composed of 26 parts.

Seneca warns Marcia at the outset that he will not go gentle on her: “Let others use soft measures and caresses; I have determined to do battle with your grief, and I will dry those weary and exhausted eyes, which already, to tell you the truth, are weeping more from habit than from sorrow.”

He then reminds his friend that all normal remedies against her prolonged grief have thus far failed: not the consolation of her friends, not the distraction of good books, not even time itself. He fears that at this point grief has taken permanent abode in her mind, and that only philosophy is up to the job of restoring her to a normal life, otherwise “the unhappy mind takes a sort of morbid delight in grief.”

The first approach used by Seneca (part II) is that of recalling to Marcia two contrasting examples of grief in two other famous Roman women: Octavia and Lidia, the first Octavian Augustus’ (the first emperor) sister, the second his wife. They both, as it happens, lost a son. But they reacted very differently: Octavia did like Marcia herself, never emerging from her grief, neglecting her family and social duties, and even resenting Lidia’s surviving son.

Livia, instead, “when … she at last laid [her son Drusus] in the tomb, she left her sorrow there with him, and grieved no more than was becoming to a Caesar or due to a son.” (part III)

Seneca then bluntly tells Marcia that she has two alternatives: “Choose, therefore, which of these two examples you think the more commendable: if you prefer to follow the former, you will remove yourself from the number of the living … If, on the other hand, showing a milder and better regulated spirit, you try to follow the example of the latter most exalted lady, you will not be in misery, nor will you wear your life out with suffering.”

Why is Lidia’s path better than Octavia’s? “What madness this is, to punish one’s self because one is unfortunate, and not to lessen, but to increase one’s ills! … For there is such a thing as self-restraint in grief also.”

Notice that this is a good counterexample against those who accuse Stoics of attempting to suppress emotions. It isn’t a question of suppressing, according to Seneca, but of managing in a measured and reasonable manner. Having emotions is human, being possessed by them is the path toward self-destruction.

Indeed, Seneca is explicit about this at the beginning of part IV: “neither will I attempt to dry a mother’s eyes on the very day of her son’s burial. I will appear with you before an arbitrator: the matter upon which we shall join issue is, whether grief ought to be deep or unceasing.”

Part V is most interesting, because Seneca deploys three anti-grief strategies in short succession. First, he points out to Marcia that her own friends now don’t know how to behave in her presence. He imagines Areus, Octavian’s philosophy teacher, counseling Lidia (who later became known as Julia Augusta): “I pray and beseech you not to be self-willed and beyond the management of your friends. You must be aware that none of them know how to behave, whether to mention Drusus in your presence or not.”

Second, he argues that it is a bad choice not to consider the entirety of her son’s life, and focus only on its ending: “you pay no attention to the pleasure you have had in your son’s society and your joyful meetings with him, the sweet caresses of his babyhood, the progress of his education: you fix all your attention upon that last scene of all.”

Third, he makes the more obvious Stoic argument that true courage is tested only in rough waters: “there is no great credit in behaving bravely in times of prosperity, when life glides easily with a favouring current, neither does a calm sea and fair wind display the art of the pilot. Some foul weather is wanted to prove his courage.”

Part VI is also eminently Stoic in character: “I am not soothing you or making light of your misfortune: if fate can be overcome by tears, let us bring tears to bear upon it: let every day be passed in mourning, every night be spent in sorrow instead of sleep …But if the dead cannot be brought back to life, however much we may beat our breasts, if destiny remains fixed and immoveable forever, not to be changed by any sorrow, however great, and death does not loose his hold of anything that he once has taken away, then let our futile grief be brought to an end.”

Seneca’s reasonable Stoicism, so to speak, shines through in part VII as well: “‘But,’ say you, ‘sorrow for the loss of one’s own children is natural.’ Who denies it? Provided it be reasonable? For we cannot help feeling a pang, and the stoutest-hearted of us are cast down not only at the death of those dearest to us, but even when they leave us on a journey.”

Yet another take is on display in part IX, where Seneca encourages Marcia to see things in perspective: “How many funerals pass our houses? Yet we do not think of death. How many untimely deaths? We think only of our son’s coming of age, of his service in the army, or of his succession to his father’s estate. How many rich men suddenly sink into poverty before our very eyes, without its ever occurring to our minds that our own wealth is exposed to exactly the same risks? When, therefore, misfortune befalls us, we cannot help collapsing all the more completely, because we are struck as it were unawares: a blow which has long been foreseen falls much less heavily upon us.”

In X Seneca anticipates Epictetus’ famous argument that we don’t actually own things or people, they are simply lent to us by the universe, and that “it is our duty always to be able to lay our hands upon what has been lent us with no fixed date for its return, and to restore it when called upon without a murmur: the most detestable kind of debtor is he who rails at his creditor.”

XI sees another version of the view from above: “what forgetfulness of your own position and that of mankind is this? You were born a mortal, and you have given birth to mortals: yourself a weak and fragile body, liable to all diseases, can you have hoped to produce anything strong and lasting from such unstable materials?”

At XII Seneca reminds Marcia again of the fact that she did enjoy much about the life of her son: “‘But,’ say you, ‘it might have lasted longer.’ True, but you have been better dealt with than if you had never had a son, for, supposing you were given your choice, which is the better lot, to be happy for a short time or not at all?”

The view from above comes back again in XV: “Bid any number of individuals tell you the story of their lives: you will find that all have paid some penalty for being born.”

XVI is particularly interesting because Seneca — who is usually quite obviously sexist — rather stunningly overcomes his disdain for womankind: “I know what you will say, ‘You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.’ Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honourable and generous action.”

At XVII Seneca speaks with the voice of Nature herself: “To everyone Nature says: ‘I do not deceive any person. If you choose to have children, they may be handsome, or they may be deformed; perhaps they will be born dumb. One of them may perhaps prove the saviour of his country, or perhaps its betrayer. … If you still choose to rear children, after I have explained these conditions to you, you render yourself incapable of blaming the gods, for they never guaranteed anything to you.'”

And Seneca’s resources are far from being exhausted. At XIX he proposes yet another way of looking at it: “It is regret for the absence of his loved one which causes a mourner to grieve: yet it is clear that this in itself is bearable enough; for we do not weep at their being absent or intending to be absent during their lifetime, although when they leave our sight we have no more pleasure in them. What tortures us, therefore, is an idea … therefore, the remedy [is] in our own hands.” Or as Epictetus might have put it: you are but an impression, and not really the thing you claim to be.

This is followed by a remarkably modern two-part argument for why we shouldn’t fear death. First: “reflect that the dead suffer no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots. All that is a phantasy of the poets, who have terrified us without a cause.”

And then: “Death is neither a good nor a bad thing, for that alone which is something can be a good or a bad thing: but that which is nothing, and reduces all things to nothing, does not hand us over to either fortune, because good and bad require some material to work upon.”

Indeed, life itself has meaning at all, Seneca tells Marcia, precisely because we die: “Life, it is thanks to Death that I hold thee so dear. Think how great a blessing is a timely death, how many have been injured by living longer than they ought.” (XX) The latter is an interesting point, upon which Seneca elaborates by presenting examples of statesmen — like Gnaeus Pompeius — who lived past their peak and ended their life in disgrace or by betrayal. We always assume that when life has been cut short it has deprived us of a number of good things, but this is by no means assured. Sometimes death is actually a blessing.

XXI begins with images that we later find in Epictetus (life as a stay in an inn in which we are guests) and Marcus (think of the many centuries that have gone and the mighty cities that have perished): “Born for a very brief space of time, we regard this life as an inn which we are soon to quit that it may be made ready for the coming guest. Do I speak of our lives, which we know roll away incredibly fast? Reckon up the centuries of cities: you will find that even those which boast of their antiquity have not existed for long. All human works are brief and fleeting; they take up no part whatever of infinite time.”

The same section displays both a clear statement of Stoic determinism and a concept that is still, remarkably, counterintuitive to many moderns, when they thoughtlessly speak of someone being gone “before their time”: “To each man a varying length of days has been assigned: no one dies before his time, because he was not destined to live any longer than he did … We all fall into this mistake of supposing that it is only old men, already in the decline of life, who are drawing near to death, whereas our first infancy, our youth, indeed every time of life leads thither.”

Finally, at XXIV, Seneca argues that mere elapsed time is not a good measure of a life’s worth: “Begin to reckon his age, not by years, but by virtues: he lived long enough.”

All in all, this is a stunning letter. It is sometimes said that Seneca is being rather cold toward Marcia, but I find him to be nothing like that. He acknowledges the humanity of grief, and he never dismisses Marcia’s loss as negligible. But he deploys an impressive array of arguments — all more or less directly connected to his understanding of Stoic philosophy — to convince her that enough time has passed, that she ought to rejoin the human family as an active member of society, while transforming her grief into sweet memories of her son. It is hard to imagine a more humane, in the best sense of the word, approach to grief.

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