Cicero wrote five Disputations while in his villa at Tusculum in 45 BCE. He had retired from politics after the death of his daughter, and spent the time in conversation with his students, explaining Stoic philosophy, even though he considered himself an Academic Skeptic. We have looked at the first two Disputations, on contempt of death and on bearing pain. The third one is devoted to the topic of grief.
As with the other essays, this one too begins as a letter to Brutus, Cato the Younger‘s nephew and husband of Porcia Catonis, to whom Cicero explains that “the seeds of virtues are natural to our constitutions, and, were they suffered to come to maturity, would naturally conduct us to a happy life; but now, as soon as we are born and received into the world, we are instantly familiarized with all kinds of depravity and perversity of opinions; so that we may be said almost to suck in error with our nurse’s milk.” (I) It’s interesting that Cicero (and the Stoics) here thinks that virtue comes natural to social beings capable of reasoning such as ourselves, but that it is corrupted immediately by the culture of incorrect opinions into which we are born.
The quest for fame (then as now, I suppose) is a chief culprit for this corruption, as it “is hasty and inconsiderate, and generally commends wicked and immoral actions, and throws discredit upon the appearance and beauty of honesty by assuming a resemblance of it.” But that isn’t the only corrupting influence: “What? Is no cure to be attempted to be applied to those who are carried away by the love of money, or the lust of pleasures, by which they are rendered little short of madmen, which is the case of all weak people?” (II)
After this preliminary, the conversation between Cicero (M.) and his student (A.) begins: “(A.) My opinion is, that a wise man is subject to grief. (M.) What, and to the other perturbations of mind, as fears, lusts, anger?” (IV)
Cicero then explains that to let strong negative emotions to overcome us is to give up on the use of reason, something that clearly is the intention of the wise person to avoid, because: “they who are run away with by their lust or anger have quitted the command over themselves.” (V)
When they get back to grief, Cicero says “I shall treat it in the manner of the Stoics” (VI) but that he will then reserve himself the opportunity to go beyond the Stoic position.
His first attack goes like this: “whoever is subject to grief is subject to fear; for whatever things we grieve at when present we dread when hanging over us and approaching. Thus it comes about that grief is inconsistent with courage … Whoever admits these feelings, must admit timidity and cowardice. But these cannot enter into the mind of a man of courage; neither, therefore, can grief: but the man of courage is the only wise man; therefore grief cannot befall the wise man.” (VII) The argument, as we can see, takes the explicit form of a syllogism, with premises and a conclusion from which it is derived. Moreover, the main trust is that grief is antithetical to one of the four cardinal virtues, that of courage.
A bit later Cicero builds a similar argument concerning anger: “A wise man, therefore, is never angry; for when he is angry, he lusts after something.” This is connected to the main topic by suggesting that “should a wise man be subject to grief, he may likewise be subject to anger; for as he is free from anger, he must likewise be free from grief.” (IX)
Immediately after (X) Cicero links envy to pity: “And as pity is an uneasiness which arises from the misfortunes of another, so envy is an uneasiness that proceeds from the good success of another: therefore whoever is capable of pity is capable of envy. But a wise man is incapable of envy, and consequently incapable of pity.”
The whole thing is a matter of (bad) opinion, just like any perturbation of the mind. “Fear is an opinion of some great evil impending over us, and grief is an opinion of some great evil present.” (XI)
It turns out that, according to Cicero, grief is particularly problematic: “as all perturbation is misery, grief is the rack itself. Lust is attended with heat, exulting joy with levity, fear with meanness, but grief with something greater than these; it consumes, torments, afflicts, and disgraces a man; it tears him, preys upon his mind, and utterly destroys him: if we do not so divest ourselves of it as to throw it completely off, we cannot be free from misery.” (XIII)
Cicero reminds his student that Anaxagoras, upon hearing of the death of his son, replied “I knew that my son was mortal.” This — and a number of similar passages in Epictetus — strikes the modern reader as callous and even monstrous, but it is the application of a philosophy of realism: “certainly the excellence and divine nature of wisdom consists in taking a near view of, and gaining a thorough acquaintance with, all human affairs, in not being surprised when anything happens, and in thinking, before the event, that there is nothing but what may come to pass.” (XIV) There is, however, no contradiction in loving one’s son and accepting his passing with equanimity, as something that the universe has decreed, with no possibility of appeal.
At XV Cicero warns his student not to dwell on the possibility of future evils either: “it is folly to ruminate on evils to come, or such as, perhaps, never may come: every evil is disagreeable enough when it does come; but he who is constantly considering that some evil may befall him is loading himself with a perpetual evil.”
A common approach to the alleviation of grief is to distract the afflicted, but Cicero doesn’t buy it: “And should you observe any one of your friends under affliction, would you rather prescribe him a sturgeon than a treatise of Socrates? or advise him to listen to the music of a water organ rather than to Plato?” (XVIII)
This is followed by a rather lengthy and interesting refutation of Epicurus. Cicero first says that he agrees with the rival philosopher that the best counter to grief is the contemplation of good things. But, he adds, we disagree on what such things consist of.
“He says that taste, and embraces, and sports, and music, and those forms which affect the eyes with pleasure, are the chief good. Have I invented this? Have I misrepresented him? I should be glad to be confuted; for what am I endeavoring at but to clear up truth in every question?” (XX) (Notice that apparently the Epicurean standard defense, then as today, was that their critics misrepresented them. Which, of course, sometimes was true.)
I’m going to quote the rest of XX at length:
“Here are three very great mistakes in a very few words. One is, that he contradicts himself; for, but just now, he could not imagine anything good unless the senses were in a manner tickled with some pleasure; but now he says that to be free from pain is the highest pleasure. Can any one contradict himself more? The next mistake is, that where there is naturally a threefold division — the first, to be pleased; next, to be in pain; the last, to be affected neither by pleasure nor pain — he imagines the first and the last to be the same, and makes no difference between pleasure and a cessation of pain. The last mistake he falls into in common with some others, which is this: that as virtue is the most desirable thing, and as philosophy has been investigated with a view to the attainment of it, he has separated the chief good from virtue. But he commends virtue, and that frequently [thus, again, contradicting himself].”
“Epicurus denies that any one can live pleasantly who does not lead a life of virtue; he denies that fortune has any power over a wise man; he prefers a spare diet to great plenty, and maintains that a wise man is always happy. All these things become a philosopher to say, but they are not consistent with pleasure. … I place the chief good in the mind, he in the body; I in virtue, he in pleasure. (XX-XXI)
Cicero goes on to disagree also with Chrysippus, who maintained that people are particularly affected when something bad befalls them unexpectedly, i.e., when they are not mentally prepared. He counters that it is the fact that the new event is recent, not that it is unexpected, that is difficult for people to handle. I myself think that both Chrysippus and Cicero have a point, but at any rate agree with Cicero’s conclusion that “all things are tolerable which others have borne and are bearing.” (XXIII)
At XXVII Cicero repeats that evil is in opinion, not in the nature of things (a very Stoic position, of course), and that “therefore it is in our own power to lay aside grief upon occasion.”
He then returns to the charge that the ideas he has been defending are cold and inhuman by way of an interesting twist: “most men appear to be unaware what contradictions these things are full of. They commend those who die calmly, but they blame those who can bear the loss of another with the same calmness, as if it were possible that it should be true, as is occasionally said in love speeches, that any one can love another more than himself.” (XXIX)
In practical terms, “it is from daily reflecting that there is no real evil in the circumstance for which you grieve, and not from the length of time, that you procure a remedy for your grief.” (XXX)
Another fascinating bit comes at XXXI, when Cicero presents his student with a quick comparative chart of what different Hellenistic schools of philosophy have to say about grief (notice the appearance of two Stoics in the list): “There are some who think, with Cleanthes, that the only duty of a comforter is to prove that what one is lamenting is by no means an evil. Others, as the Peripatetics, prefer urging that the evil is not great. Others, with Epicurus, seek to divert your attention from the evil to good: some think it sufficient to show that nothing has happened but what you had reason to expect; and this is the practice of the Cyrenaics. But Chrysippus thinks that the main thing in comforting is, to remove the opinion from the person who is grieving, that to grieve is his bounden duty.”
And here is Cicero’s own considered opinion: “the principal medicine to be applied in consolation is, to maintain either that it is no evil at all, or a very inconsiderable one. The next best to that is, to speak of the common condition of life, having a view, if possible, to the state of the person whom you comfort particularly. The third is, that it is folly to wear one’s self out with grief which can avail nothing.” (XXXII)
Moreover, the “cure” needs to be tailored to the grieving individual, as there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all philosophical remedy: “Certainly, then, as in pleadings we do not state all cases alike (if I may adopt the language of lawyers for a moment), but adapt what we have to say to the time, to the nature of the subject under debate, and to the person; so, too, in alleviating grief, regard should be had to what kind of cure the party to be comforted can admit of.” (XXXIII)