Ain’t Yo Momma’s Handbook, Part 3 (Final)

Posted by EMILY

As promised, we’ll pick up where Part II left off:  Stoicism and Grief.  Perhaps the most famous words from Epictetus were his instructions on grief.  He said, when you see someone grieving, here’s what you do: “Do not hesitate… to sympathize with him verbally, and even moan with him if the occasion arises; but be careful not to moan inwardly” (16).  So, basically, comfort your friend.  Cry with him if you must.  Whatever you do, don’t actually feel it. It will harm you if you do.

Some of his advice could be helpful in grief.  Continuing in the same vein, I found the following passage particularly to be profound:

‘Never say about anything, “I have lost it,” but instead, “I have given it back.”  Did your child die? It was given back.  Did your wife die?  She was given back.  “My land was taken.”  So this too was given back.  “But the person who took it was bad!”  How does the way the giver asked for it back concern you?  As long as he gives it, take care of it as something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn.” (14)

This fits with certain theories of Jewish theory on grief (which is a topic for another time, but still), the idea being that our souls go back to G-d.  Now, Epictetus doesn’t mention souls, just the actual beings in themselves, but he does mention a giver of sorts.  He says not to question the motives or causes as to why loss occurs.  It doesn’t matter how or why loss happens- it just happens!  He completely nullifies the question, why do bad things happen to good people?  They just do, these are the consequences, so deal with it.  Furthermore, the idea of that return could allow us to process grief better-  if it’s never ‘yours’ to begin with, thus, when it is gone, you won’t be upset.

Aaaaaaaand this is where it starts to border on disturbing, in my opinion.  If you notice the trend here, Epictetus is starting to devalue human life.  In the previous passage, he likens humans to land.  While I do find the passage to be comforting, that equaling raises an alarm.  This alarm is only further justified in the following passage: “In the case of everything attractive or useful or that you are fond of, remember to say just what sort of thing it is, beginning with the least little things.  If you are fond of a jug, say “I am fond of a jug!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset” (12).  So far, so good right?  Sounds reasonable.  WRONG.  Next sentence:  “If you kiss your wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be upset” (12).  This is a serious WTF moment.


No matter how useful I find the idea of ownership of one’s emotions, a human being is not a jug. A human being is not land or a traveler’s inn.  In my opinion, anyone who claims otherwise is one of two things: a liar or a sociopath.   Like most philosophical theories, you can’t take it in its purest form, but diluted, it can be an excellent medicine. I could be wrong- maybe sociopaths have an inner peace of which the rest of us can only dream.  However, I can’t help but suspect that inner peace may not necessarily be the ideal state.  How many people have been truly happy just in a place of serenity? Personally, my life has always been better in peaks and valleys rather than a straight line.  Inner peace, as seems to be implied by Epictetus, is not equivalent to constant peaks, but rather, indifference to peaks or valleys.  Is it really just a slippery slope to a lifestyle of complete and utter apathy?In my opinion, yes, it could go there, and as someone who advocates voting, apathy is my enemy.   And even if inner peace were ‘constant peaks’, though I do not agree that this is what Epictetus implies, without the valleys, could we possibly expect the positive products of such downturns?  Do we lose all the art, sex, and rock and roll that come out of intense emotion?     Without pain, do we lose the ability to feel pleasure?  And that leads us to our next topic… the Epicurus and the Hedonists!  More on that later…

Hope you enjoyed my philosophical ramblings- please feel free to let me know what you think!

Published in: on May 18, 2009 at 2:02 PM  Leave a Comment  

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