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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Against mourning

Brian Earp
Originally posted August 21, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

That is what is so different about their intuitions and ours. To put it simply, if you are not a Stoic philosopher – if you have not been training yourself, year in and year out, to calmly face life’s vagaries and inescapables – and you feel no hint of sadness when your child, or spouse, or family member dies, then there probably is something wrong with you. You probably have failed to love or cherish that person appropriately or sufficiently while they were alive, and that would be a mark against you.

You might have been cruel and uncaring, for instance, or emotionally distant, or otherwise aloof. For had you not been those things, you would certainly grieve. This, in turn, can explain why the Stoics were (and are) often thought to be so callous – as though they must have advocated such detachment from one’s kith and kin in order to pre-empt any associated suffering.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. As Epictetus instructs, one should not ‘be unfeeling like a statue’ but rather maintain one’s relations, ‘both natural and acquired, as a pious man, a son, a brother, a father, a citizen’. He also repeatedly emphasises that we are social animals, for whom parental and other forms of love come naturally. ‘Even Epicurus,’ he says, derisively, about a philosopher from a competing school, ‘knows that if once a child is born, it will no longer be in our power not to love it or care for it.’

But is it not part of loving one’s child to feel at least some grief when it suffers or dies (you might ask)? Surely feeling no grief would itself be contrary to Nature! For just as virtue cannot exist without wrongdoing, as some Stoics held, so too might the prospect of grief be in some way bound up in love, so that you cannot have one without the other.

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