Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Our Loved Ones Will Die

With regards to everything that attracts you, that is useful to you, or that you love, remember to say to yourself, beginning with the very least of those things, exactly what the nature of that thing is. If you are fond of a jug, say to yourself, "I am fond of a jug." For when it shatters, you will not be disturbed. Whenever you kiss your child or your wife, remind yourself that you are kissing a human being. For when they die, you will not be disturbed.

                                                                         Handbook 3

     Stoicism has been frequently described, quite accurately, as a philosophy of consolation. As such, it is just one among many others, our world religions included. Unlike most other systems, however, it does not console its adherents through encouraging detachment and escapism or by making fantastical, supernatural promises. Far from distorting reality in order to not have to deal with it, the Stoic not only strives to recognize and accept reality, but also continuously rehearses to himself the truths of that reality as part of his daily moral exercise.
   One such exercise is to remind ourselves of the fragility of the things we hold dear. Epictetus recommends beginning with something paltry, like a jug (which, in his day was made of material that could actually shatter, not plastic!). You know that it is breakable, that probably thousands of jugs like it, for various reasons, break everyday. It should be no surprise to you, then, if yours should fall and break into pieces. It is simply doing what jugs do when they fall. One can then proceed to something a bit more dear to him, like a fancy vase or fine china. Like the jug, any number of things can shatter them. The owner then, should remind himself, "I am the owner of a breakable thing."
     From these more insignificant things, we may proceed, with the same principles, to our loved ones. They are all mortal. Mortals die, many thousands of them each day. And death is never far off. So fragile are we, that death may occur at any moment. We are not promised tomorrow, and those we love have not been guaranteed to us for any specified period of time. Freak accidents, sudden illness, war, evil men, natural disasters, and countless other factors can and do end lives, even the lives of young, wealthy and otherwise healthy people. Jugs and fine china break. Mortal beings die. The wise man will not be unprepared for his loved one's death, because he expects it


     As mentioned above, Stoicism does not teach detachment, despite the disturbing trend of many online individuals (people who have only a cursory knowledge of ancient Stoic sources) who liken Stoicism to certain Eastern philosophies. 
     Neither Epictetus, nor any other Stoic in antiquity, would encourage his students to, for example, be ready for their children's death by repressing or extinguishing their affection for them, by not loving them.
     There are many ancient Greek verbs for "loving" something, and all have their own nuances. The one used here, "stergein", besides having the more generic meaning of "to be fond of something", can also describe the kind of natural affection between parent and child, husband and wife, ruler and subject, etc. As this is a natural love, it is according to Nature, and thus, for the Stoic, a natural duty
     (By contrast, the kind of "love" - if we can call it that! - that a man has for his mistress or an infatuated teen feels for his sweetheart is an unnatural love, against Nature, and therefore a Vice, a Passion, or a sickness of the soul. The Stoic indeed not only represses this kind of feeling, but roots it out completely.) 
     The Stoic loves his wife, children, parents, and friends very much. He would not be virtuous if he did not. But he is prepared to lose them.