Seneca on Overcoming Grief, Facing Death, and The True Nature of Life

This is a guest post by Mustapha Itani, who writes at Situation Nine, a website bringing you interesting pieces focusing on philosophy, politics, economics, and social issues. Follow him on Twitter, and you are welcome to support him on Patreon

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The Consolatio is a broad literary genre encompassing various forms of consolatory speeches, essays, poems, and personal letters which was very popular in antiquity and its origins date back to the fifth century BC. One could say the most famous and popular consolation letters were written by Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, statesman, and tutor and advisor to Roman emperor Nero. Seneca’s Consolations encompass three letters written to his friend Marcia (De Consolatione ad Marciam), his friend Polybius (De Consolatione ad Polybium), and his mother Helvia (De Consolatione ad Helviam) while he was in exile. In this piece we’re going to touch on the letter written to Marcia specifically examining Seneca’s thoughts and philosophy expressed through this consolation.

Marcia was the daughter of the prominent historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus, and Seneca is wrote to her after her grief for the loss of her son Metilius seemed to have become chronic, not leaving her side three years after the tragedy.

Seneca starts off by recalling another tragedy that have been bestowed upon Marcia, the death of her father, whom she loved very dearly. Seneca clearly states that he will not use soft measures to cure this chronic sorrow that is bounding Marcia, he warns her that he is willing to battle this grief. He reminds her that all forms of normal remedies against her 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 only with this philosophy she will be able to rid herself of this, he states:

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. I will effect this cure, if possible, with your goodwill: if you disapprove of my efforts, or dislike them, then you must continue to hug and fondle the grief which you have adopted as the survivor of your son. What, I pray you, is to be the end of it? All means have been tried in vain : the consolations of your friends, who are weary of offering them, and the influence of great men who are related to you: literature, a taste which your father enjoyed and which you have inherited from him, now finds your ears closed, and affords you but a futile consolation, which scarcely engages your thoughts for a moment. Even time itself, nature’s greatest remedy, which quiets the most bitter grief, loses its power with you alone. 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. I should have liked, therefore, to have attempted to effect this cure in the earliest stages of the disorder, before its force was fully developed; it might have been checked by milder remedies, but now that it has been confirmed by time it cannot be beaten without a hard struggle. In like manner, wounds heal easily when the blood is fresh upon them: they can then be cleared out and brought to the surface, and admit of being probed by the finger: when disease has turned them into malignant ulcers, their cure is more difficult. I cannot now influence so strong a grief by polite and mild measures: it must be broken down by force.

Seneca continues by giving two examples of Roman women who have also loved their loved ones, and their two contrasting ways of dealing with grief, Octavia and Livia, the former being the first Roman Emperor Augustus’ sister and the latter his wife. Both of these women have, similar to Marcia lost a son, but their reactions to this awful loss were totally different. Octavia’s response to the death of her son was very similar to Marcia’s, never emerging from her grief, neglecting her family and social duties, and even resenting Livia’s surviving son. Livia on the other hand had a different response, leaving her grief with her son’s tomb.

His mother (Octavia) never ceased to weep and sob during her whole life, never endured to listen to wholesome advice, never even allowed her thoughts to be diverted from her sorrow. She remained during her whole life just as she was during the funeral, with all the strength of her mind intently fixed upon one subject. I do not say that she lacked the courage to shake off her grief, but she refused to be comforted, thought that it would be a second bereavement to lose her tears, and would not have any portrait of her darling son, nor allow any allusion to be made to him. She hated all mothers, and raged against Livia with especial fury, because it seemed as though the brilliant prospect once in store for her own child was now transferred to Livia’s son. Passing all her days in darkened rooms and alone, not conversing even with her brother, she refused to accept the poems which were composed in memory of Marcellus, and all the other honors paid him by literature, and closed her ears against all consolation. She lived buried and hidden from view, neglecting her accustomed duties, and actually angry with the excessive splendor of her brother’s prosperity, in which she shared. Though surrounded by her children and grandchildren, she would not lay aside her mourning garb, though by retaining it she seemed to put a slight upon all her relations, in thinking herself bereaved in spite of their being alive.

Livia lost her son Drusus, who would have been a great emperor, and was already a great general: he had marched far into Germany, and had planted the Roman standards in places where the very existence of the Romans was hardly known. He died on the march, his very foes treating him with respect, observing a reciprocal truce, and not having the heart to wish for what would do them most service. In addition to his dying thus in his country’s service, great sorrow for him was expressed by the citizens, the provinces, and the whole of Italy, through which his corpse was attended by the people of the free towns and colonies, who poured out to perform the last sad offices to him, till it reached Rome in a procession which resembled a triumph. His mother was not permitted to receive his last kiss and gather the last fond words from his dying lips: she followed the relics of her Drusus on their long journey, though every one of the funeral pyres with which all Italy was glowing seemed to renew her grief, as though she had lost him so many times. When, however, she at last laid him 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. She did not cease to make frequent mention of the name of her Drusus, to set up his portrait in all places, both public and private, and to speak of him and listen while others spoke of him with the greatest pleasure: she lived with his memory ; which none can embrace and consort with who has made it painful to himself.

Seneca then puts Marcia in a position between those two reactions, and tells her she has to choose one, “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.”

He held that Livia’s path was truly better than that of Octavia’s simply because as he states, “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.” Isn’t the loss of one’s beloved son punishment enough? Why would someone want more torture, instead of trying to escape the whips of misfortune, why would one plead for more lashes?

People usually accuse Stoics of suppressing their emotions, and by that one would be more affected in the long run, but Seneca here doesn’t call for the suppression of emotions, on the contrary, what Seneca is actually calling for is a matter of managing these emotions in a measured and reasonable manner. Seneca isn’t calling for an attempt to dry a mother’s eyes on the day of her son’s burial. He simply offers a question, should grief and emotions in general be deep or unceasing?

Seneca then discusses three ways Marcia should consider in order to fight her grief. He points out to Marcia that her own friends now don’t know how to behave in her presence. He imagines Areus, Augustus’ 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.”

Then, Seneca states that it is an awful choice not to consider the entirety of her son’s life, and focus only on the tragic 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.”

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

And then in astoundingly uncompromising Stoicism Seneca states:

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: let your breast be torn by your own hands, your very face attacked by them, and every kind of cruelty be practiced by your grief, if it will profit you. 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. Let us, then, steer our own course, and no longer allow ourselves to be driven to leeward by the force of our misfortune. He is a sorry pilot who lets the waves wring his rudder from his grasp, who leaves the sails to fly loose, and abandons the ship to the storm: but he who boldly grasps the helm and clings to it until the sea closes over him, deserves praise even though he be shipwrecked.

Seneca encourages Marcia to put things in perspective, and examine the true nature of life. He argues that although we come to witness all forms of misfortune striking other people in an almost daily basis, we never consider that this might as well happen to us one day, and we act like we never considered this possibility in a largely unfair and cruel world. Seneca states:

“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.”

Seneca continues on to explain that we do not own things or people, and that they are simply lent to us by the universe, and that at any instance this universe can take what was lent. We should always keep in mind that the things around us, the things we care about, people we love and enjoy their presence can be taken away from us, and that we should return these things the moment they are called upon, without any fuss and outrage.

Seneca expresses more of the same sentiment, with an unapologetic Stoic manner:

Why need we weep over parts of our life? the whole of it calls for tears: new miseries assail us before we have freed ourselves from the old ones. You, therefore, who allow them to trouble you to an unreasonable extent ought especially to restrain yourselves, and to muster all the powers of the human breast to combat your fears and your pains. Moreover, 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? Your son has died: in other words he has reached that goal towards which those whom you regard as more fortunate than your offspring are still hastening. this is the point towards which move at different rates all the crowds which are squabbling in the law courts, sitting in the theaters, praying in the temples. Those whom you love and those whom you despise will both be made equal in the same ashes.

He then reminds Marcia another time of the fact that she did actually enjoy much about the life of her son, even though she would’ve wanted it to last longer, then expresses the sentiment that it is better to be happy and enjoy something for a short time, rather than not being happy and enjoying it at all.

In a beautifully harsh reality check, Seneca becomes the mouthpiece of nature, and declares:

“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 savior 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.’”

Through this letter, Seneca also introduces an argument as to why one should not fear death, in which he argues that we should reflect that those who die suffer no evils, and that all those stories which make us dread what is to come after death are mere fables, and that death is utter freedom, from all of that. Then he argues that 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.” Seneca tells Marcia that life has meaning at all only 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.”

In a clear statement of Stoic determinism, Seneca gives an analogy to express the true nature of life, in which he states that life is just like an inn and that all of us will soon leave to make space for another guest. He states that our time here is short and all men and their works have a brief time here, and take no part of infinite time. People always say that someone “died early” and “before their time”, but in actuality, Seneca argues, every man has a time in this life that has been assigned to him, and that no one dies before his time. We always associate death with old men and old age, but death is always floating around everyone, even the youngest of children.

Seneca finishes with an essential reminder, that we should evaluate life not by length and years, but by virtue. One should not measure life by the number of years lived, rather by what has been accomplished and how it was lived, and if Marcia applies this measurement, her son has indeed lived enough.

This beautifully written consolatory piece by Seneca intended to relieve a friend of the grief holding her hostage, offers arguments and reminders with the help of Stoic philosophy and its outlook of life, in order to help the sorrowful and grieved consider other aspects of the loss in specific, and a new worldview of life as a whole. Seneca tried to transform Marcia’s crippling sorrow for her deceased son, into fond and beautiful memories of fulfillment and time spent together.

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This article was originally published at Situation Nine.