Cicero believed that there were four “disorders” of the soul: delight, lust, distress, and fear (Tusc. Disp. IV.12-15). He believed that all of these disorders were the products of either some judgment, or some belief. In other words, we ourselves create the conditions for these disorders, by our own flawed judgments or erroneous beliefs. And if we can correct these deficiencies, we can cure ourselves of the disorder. It is a pretty theory. But I am not convinced of its rectitude.
Are these emotional “disorders” truly the products of personal judgment or belief? Or are some of them involuntary reflexes to our ingrained personality traits? It is not easy to say, but Cicero is correct in urging us to take charge of our own emotional states. If we cannot control ourselves, then no one can. So it is better to follow Cicero and his Stoic path, even if it be not quite right, since they empower us with more control over our own destinies.
Sense-perception is the starting point of all emotional states. We should be neither insensible, nor oversensitive. To be the former is to be an unreasoning brute; the latter, a delicate flower wounded by the wind. Occupying some middle ground strikes the right balance between these two extremes. For when the distress of grief hits us, it is the middle ground that proves itself to be the most stable, and the most able to withstand the emotional tremors rocking us like a ship in the waves.
One of the reasons for excessive displays of grief is guilt. We believe that, if we torment ourselves in overwrought expressions of grief, we can somehow repay a secret debt. Displaying the intensity of our grief will placate the gods. The flagellant who punishes himself seeks to drive out some inner demon; and the wailing mourner with hands to the sky believes that her shrieks will find heavenly satisfaction in direct proportion to their intensity.
And how may grief be assuaged? In what manner may one give relief from the misery of anguish, whether it be in ourselves or in others? Dolor can be dealt with in these ways:
1. Removing it completely
2. Softening it
3. Stopping it from extending
4. Diverting it with replacement emotions
Of these four options, the first seems the most unrealistic. Emotions are not completely voluntary; they cannot normally be turned on and shut off like a valve in a pipe. The second option, that of softening, is a better option; and this consists of speaking comforting words to the grief-stricken, whether it be ourselves or another.
Words of softening provide solace to the bereaved, and should always be forward-looking and positive. For those afflicted by grief, an excursion into the past affords no relief. The past is the repository of sorrows, the store-house of pain. This is because grief and memory reinforce each other, and agitate each others’ glowing coals into new intensities. Also to be avoided are attempts to make rational arguments to the bereaved. It is a mistake to try to argue with the grief-stricken, and to try to show by one proof or another that it is folly to be overwhelmed by lamentation. The heart is not a mechanical contrivance, to be wound up or unplugged on command.
The third option, that of preventing the extension of grief, follows from the softening of grief. Grief’s waves, properly endured with time, will diminish in frequency and amplitude.
The fourth option, that of diversion, seems to be the best and most practical. For it is not enough to tell ourselves or someone else “do not grieve.” The more we try not to think about something, the more we think of it. The mind is like a dog with a bone in its jaws: try to pull the bone out of its mouth, and he clamps down that much harder.
Alleviation from grief comes with productive diversion. The fixation on sadness must be replaced by another activity. In this way the mind finds itself another “bone” to clamp down on. The old bone of grief is released, and replaced with the new, positive, forward-looking activity. And this is why the focus of a new hobby, a new job, or a new activity is so beneficial for those who are waylaid by dejection.
One interesting observation Cicero makes is that grief is a form of envy. That is, we resent the sudden void left by the departure of something precious, and envy those who have what we now suddenly lack. Perhaps this is true. But I have also heard grief described elsewhere as rage turned inward. We feel rage at our loss and deflect this rage back upon ourselves. Either way, grief is linked to envy or rage; perhaps both of these emotions play a part. Envy and rage are burning fires, which will consume the bearer unless properly quenched.
No matter how the cure is effected, grief must be controlled and contained. There is nothing so loathsome as one who refuses to release himself from the grip of sorrow. The sympathy of others quickly can evolve into contempt. As Cicero says,
Quid autem est non miserius solum, sed foedius etiam et deformius quam aegritudine quis adflictus, debilitatus, iacens? [Tusc. Disp. IV.35]
Which means, “What is not only more miserable, but also more terrible and grotesque, than he who is debilitated and afflicted with distress?”
The quote above I have taken from his book Tusculan Disputations, a dialogue which discusses various Stoic philosophical problems. You can find the book by clicking here.
Read More: Cicero’s Four Cardinal Virtues