Is philosophy helpful when tragedy strikes?

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Recently, a friend of a close friend of mine committed suicide. His partner is, understandably, distraught. My friend called me up asking if I had written anything philosophical that could be of consolation. I replied that yes, I had, but it would only help if the person in question had adopted a philosophical outlook on life. She had not.

This episode disturbed me, at two levels. At an immediate one, I would have liked to be helpful to my friend’s friend, a fellow human being in distress. At a broader level, I like to think that philosophy is useful in life, both when good things happen, and when tragedy strikes. In this case, it clearly wasn’t.

But I should not have been surprised. Imagine you are suddenly attacked in the street. Knowledge of martial arts may help, but the moment of the attack is not the time to begin studying Judo. In fact, Marcus Aurelius said that life is more like wrestling than dancing (Meditation VII.61), because we always need to be on guard, as if we had a constant sparring partner who can attack and test us at any moment. If we are not prepared for our opponent to strike, he will easily get the better of us. Seneca is even more explicit:

“Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practiced how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.” (Letters to Lucilius, CVII.3)

Perhaps the most famous example is Boetius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. Boetius was a successful statesman at the court of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. Until things went south, he was accused of conspiracy to overthrow the king, and condemned to death. He wrote The Consolation while in jail, as a meditation on fortune and death. Boetius was a Neoplatonist, though several passages in The Consolation bear a clear Stoic influence. The book became the most influential work of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.

Speaking of the Stoics, Seneca wrote three letters of consolation, one to his friend Marcia, who had lost an adult son; one to his own mother, Helvia, on the occasion of Seneca’s exile to Corsica; and one to Polybius, who had lost a brother.

In the letter to Marcia, Seneca uses the second of two strategies I have recently discussed in order to deploy philosophy to help people in grief. The first strategy is to remind the person in distress that her current reaction is not in line with the precepts of her chosen philosophy. But Marcia was not a Stoic practitioner, so that would not only not work, but likely backfire. The alternative is to argue with the grieving person that her current attitude or reaction is inappropriate to the circumstances.

Consider, for instance, what Seneca says two Marcia at sections II and III of his letter. The problem he is trying to address is that Marcia’s grief seems to be festering, to have become a type of self indulgence, more than two years after her son died. So Seneca reminds her of two examples of grieving mothers from (then) recent Roman history: Octavia, the sister of the first emperor, Augustus, and Livia, Augustus’ wife.

Octavia grieved inconsolably for the rest of her life, hated other mothers, and neglected her duties to her loved ones. She lived buried in the memory of her son, ignoring her children and grandchildren. Livia, by contrast, was determined to bury her sorrow with her son, grieving for a period appropriate to the circumstances, but then refocusing her considerable energy and determination on the rest of her life. Which example, asks Seneca rhetorically, would Marcia rather follow?

Consoling by way of philosophy is not a callous enterprise, but rather an attempt to use our most precious faculty, reason, to bear upon our greatest problems. Seneca wrote another letter on the subject, this time part of his long correspondence with his friend Lucilius. In Letter XCIX — where he is now addressing a fellow Stoic — he makes a number of interesting comments:

“Life is neither a Good nor an Evil; it is simply the place where good and evil exist.” (XCIX.12)

“Am I advising you to be hard-hearted, desiring you to keep your countenance unmoved at the very funeral ceremony, and not allowing your soul even to feel the pinch of pain? By no means. That would mean lack of feeling rather than virtue.” (XCIX.15)

“No sensation of evil can reach one who is dead; for if it can reach him, he is not dead. And I say that nothing can hurt him who is as naught; for if a man can be hurt, he is alive.” (XCIX.29–30)

Let me close with a very personal example. Back in 2004 I lost my father, who died of cancer at the age of 69. A few years ago I lost my mother, also of cancer, at age 72. They were both big time smokers. The two experiences were remarkably different for me, and that difference was at least in part engendered by the fact that I had started practicing Stoicism between the two events.

When my father died, I was woefully unprepared. As a biologist, I knew exactly what was going on, and what the outcome would be. But as a son I simply refused to take it seriously. The result was that I kept postponing my last visit, and didn’t even make it to the airport in New York before I got the call from my brother that dad had died. I was devastated, and it took me a long time to recover, in part from my guilt at not having been present.

When the same thing happened to my mother, I was prepared. Not just from my first experience, but from the kind of mindfulness that Stoicism cultivates. I looked at the unfolding events with objectivity, while at the same time I made a point to visit on multiple occasions and to spend time with my mom, the kind of time I had always taken for granted and that very obviously was now running so painfully short. I was at peace when she died, and I feel no regret. Seneca, I hope, would nod approvingly.

The moral of the above is that philosophy is, indeed, very useful to cope with the inevitable setbacks in life (as well as the good things, which can be just as challenging, in a different way!). But one needs to embrace the notion of the art of living consciously, before the emergency presents itself. That is why I couldn’t help my friend’s friend. I hope she will be able to cope and recover anyway. Perhaps at a later time, when it is more opportune, my friend can talk to her about philosophy as a way of, and consolation for, life.

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