Stoicism and Mourning by Matthew Sharpe

The oldest and arguably most potentially damaging criticisms of Stoicism is that it unrealistically sets its back against all emotions.  Readers of this blog will know that this is a contentious, arguably inaccurate understanding. 

Stoic philosophers like Chrysippus and Seneca, for one thing, wrote texts of philosophical consolation for men and women experiencing grief.  These texts do not deny grief’s reality, and Seneca emphasizes that grief in response to the death of loved ones, for a period, is wholly natural.  In the Consolation to Marcia, he returns to the theme several times:

I am not soothing you or making light of your misfortune…

VI.6

‘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 …

VII.7

Nevertheless, the criticism here, as we find it in such modern authors as Robert Solomon and Martha Nussbaum, is that nevertheless Stoicism depicts the emotions, including the emotions involved in grief and mourning, too negatively, even inhumanely.  They are pathê, which is to say, potentially pathological.  As such, they should be recognized only to be minimized.  Apatheia is after a stated goal of Stoicism.  But, for some critics, this looks more like a personality disorder (e.g. narcissism, sociopathy, or autism) than a philosophy.

Other authors on this blog and elsewhere have addressed this issue concerning the passions en large, including the place of the eupatheiai or “good passions” like joy in Stoic philosophy. Let me focus here just on grief, and the late Robert Solomon’s really excellent work on this subject, which I think poses a really powerful challenge to Stoic philosophy on grief and mourning, but also allows us to show how Stoicism fares much better than its harshest critics suggest.

Solomon on Grief, Which Ought, as an Obligation, to Include Mourning

Solomon sets up his account of grief and mourning up in opposition to Stoic thought.  Grief, Solomon argues, is a complex phenomenon, susceptible of psychological, sociological, as well as moral or even political analyses.  It involves physical symptoms, but is not solely physiological.

As the Stoics saw, it is occasioned by certain beliefs: that there has been a loss; and that I therefore have an obligation to grieve. The Stoics might say “it is therefore appropriate to grieve” or “it befalls me to grieve”.

Grief is something we feel as individuals.  But it is occasioned by the loss of others, and something which most cultures recognize is not best done alone.  At the same time, grieving requires forms of social withdrawal, time to process, and work through everything that has happened, and its significance in our lives. 

Grief is painful.  Yet, it is wrong to say that it is “an illness”.  It is something we don’t always do, at the same time as it (or its occasioning cause, loss) is altogether a universal human experience. 

Grief is also a process, as well as being an emotion.  Longstanding psychological research attests that, across cultures, grieving runs through characteristic phases, involving shock, denial, agitation, and later, depression, as well as specific emotions or feelings like anger and guilt.

Above all, Solomon hones in on the point that grieving a lost loved one is not something we can call “morally bad”.  We would be ourselves extraordinarily callous if we subjected those who are feeling it to our censure.  Instead, we tend to think of people who don’t grieve a loved one are morally or psychologically deficient.  So, we standardly use words like “heartless” or “cold”, even “sociopathic”, for people like Albert Camus’s Meursault in The Outsider, who does not cry at his mother’s funeral, then goes on a beach date with his girlfriend the day afterward.

From Grief to Mourning

With this much said, we arrive at an important distinction in Solomon’s analysis. I’ve so far sometimes talked about “grief and mourning”, and sometimes we take them to be almost synonyms.  For Solomon, grief is the emotion, and mourning the appropriate way in which it is worked through.  Another way to put this would be to say: to grieve involves the desire to bring back the other person—an impossible desire, which for the Stoics, at some level, will become pathogenic.  But it also involves a second desire.  This is the wish to commemorate the person, and to do honor to their memory.  And “mourning” is what we do in service of this wish. 

So mourning is not the same as grieving, for Solomon, but its best expression.  Unlike grief, it is necessarily social.  We usually do it at events like funerals, variants of which seem to go right back as far as we find evidence of human societies anywhere.  (Many early archaeological finds come from burial sites, wherein a person and their life were ceremoniously commemorated).  Mourning allows for the public expression of grief, and its release in the presence of others who express similar distress, in ways other social settings do not allow. 

Decisively, mourning also involves an obligation, Solomon claims.  This is the obligation, as Hamlet’s father said, to “remember me”.  As social beings, Solomon’s position is, we are duty-bound to commemorate, to speak well of and share our memories of the newly-dead.  This obligation, and its honoring, reflects the depth and quality of our relationships with lost others.  Such memorialization is like a continuation of friendship and love by other means.  Not to set up a funeral pyre, make and hear speeches commemorating the dead, conduct a solemn burial, etc., is to dishonor one’s friendship or love, if not to reveal that these relationships were not deeply, identity-shaping attachments.

Stoic Considerations Against the Obligation to Grieve

It is in this light that Solomon presents his position as anti-Stoic, at the same time as he acknowledges their insight in emphasizing the beliefs which shape the emotions.  The philosophical eclectic Marcus Tullius Cicero, in his deeply Stoic-influenced account of grieving in Tusculan Disputations, identifies the obligation to grieve which Solomon finds central to any fully humane account of grief and mourning.  Yet, Cicero claims that this is the reason which makes grieving potentially pathological:

… besides this opinion of great evil [that someone dear has been lost] there is this other added also, that we ought to lament what has happened, that it is right so to do, and part of our duty … And it is to this opinion that we owe all those various and horrid kinds of lamentation, that neglect of our persons, that womanish tearing of our cheeks, that striking on our thighs, breasts, and heads.

TD III, 26

Such an obligation to the dead, Cicero goes on, is after all futile.  Seneca will make the same point in his Consolation to Marcia.  Honoring the dead won’t bring the other back. As the great Australian poet, Kenneth Slessor, lamented in “Five Bells” of his friend, Joe Lynch, who fell drunken overboard on Sydney harbor, his body never to be retrieved:

Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There’s not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait.  Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten.

Even feeling such a sense of duty to grieve is avoidable, Cicero furthermore suggests. We can see this in soldiers who do not grieve for their slain friends until they are away from immediate peril.  We can see it differently in older people who have suffered so many losses in their lives that they seem to grieve each new bereavement only briefly, or not at all.

Seneca in his Consolations asks us to reflect on the question of who this obligation is felt towards.  If it is the other, they are gone, and cannot appreciate it.  If it is then truly an obligation to ourselves, doesn’t it look egoistic, when grieving should surely be about coming to terms with the loss of another?

So, isn’t Solomon therefore clearly right, in an “open and shut” kind of way, about Stoicism’s failure to really address the existential density and complexity of grief, and especially this moral component we feel to publicly mourn for those who have died, or are lost to us?  Don’t we see here, writ large, that famous Stoic “stiff upper lip”, and praise of impassibility?

Seneca on the Importance of Mourning

I don’t think so.  To see why, let me focus on the Consolation to Marcia a bit more.  Unlike the consolation to Seneca’s mother (about his own exile), it concerns the death of a son; unlike the Consolation to Polybiuis, it is completely extant.  It is also the longest of the Consolations, and for this author, the most complete example of a Stoic consolation in action.

Readers will recall that Marcia has been grieving the death of her son, Drusus, for some three years, before Seneca takes up the pen.  So, as above, there is no question of Seneca trying to callously deny her a right to grieve at all.  He is clear about this from early on:

I will not invite you to practice the sterner kind of maxims, nor bid you bear the lot of humanity with more than human philosophy; 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.

IV.4

It is the way that the grief, natural, legitimate and necessary in its season, has not ceased, or ceased to oppress Marcia, coloring her whole experience of life:

Three years have already passed, and still your grief has lost none of its first poignancy, but renews and strengthens itself day by day, and has now dwelt so long with you that it has acquired a domicile in your mind, and actually thinks that it would be base to leave it. All vices sink into our whole being, if we do not crush them before they gain a footing; and in like manner these sad, pitiable, and discordant feelings end by feeding upon their own bitterness, until the unhappy mind takes a sort of morbid delight in grief …

Surely, Seneca is saying, it is time to move on.  If Drusus loved his mother, he would not wish her to be continually unhappy after his passing.  If Drusus was the kind of man who did wish his mother to be endlessly unhappy on his account, he was surely not worthy of such longstanding sufferings.

But here is where we get to the significant thing, when we keep Solomon’s important distinction between grief and mourning in mind.  Seneca at one points presents another alternative, meant to show that continual grieving for the dead is irrational, as well as ultimately harmful most of all to the bereaved. 

Supposing that your sorrow has any method at all, is it your own sufferings or those of him who is gone that it has in view? Why do you grieve over your lost son? Is it because you have received no pleasure from him, or because you would have received more had he lived longer?

If Drusus was a bad son, whose life was lived poorly, then his death was a release for him.  Now, this is not the case, with Marcia, as Seneca knows.  But the second alternative is this.  If Drusus was a good son who made her mother proud, he comments, Marcia should (exactly) be celebrating his memory, not continually grieving.

Matthew Sharpe is the coauthor of Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions, with Michael Ure (Bloomsbury, 2021), a lecturer, and the father of two young children.

3 thoughts on Stoicism and Mourning by Matthew Sharpe

  1. Judith Stove says:

    Important article by Dr Sharpe as always. I’d only add that always in the background of ancient considerations of this theme, was Homer’s depiction of Achilles’ ‘excessive’ grieving for Patroclus – mourning which exceeded cultural bounds. In that case, it was Achilles’ mother Thetis who urged him to return, from permanent mourning, to normal life – so where Seneca (and others) are addressing a grieving parent with a ‘consolatio,’ it’s like a ‘giving back’ from one generation to the other.

  2. Pat Kennedy says:

    Most followers of ideologies are, at best, lukewarm to use a Christian sense. there is no reward to being a pure stoic, just be the best you and if that includes some good common sense ideas of any ideology, so be it, why please a group of men, some women which that in itself seems anti-stoic, more like peer pressure which is an emotion of being left out. But left out of what?

  3. dave says:

    Well written and timely article for me personally with the loss of a younger brother and professionally as a physician

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