Contemplating love, loss, and mortality
Contemplating love, loss, and mortality
If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a human being [a mortal] whom you are kissing, for thus when they die, you will not be disturbed. — Epictetus
This is of the most notorious passages in the ancient Stoic literature. It comes from the famous Encheiridion or Handbook (§ 3). Epictetus intended his advice to be taken literally, as basic psychological training for the students of Stoicism he was addressing.
He means that we should silently remind ourselves of the fact, when kissing our loved ones, that they are mortal. Nothing about them is immune to change, and eventually they’re going to die.
Based on his comments elsewhere, incidentally, it seems unlikely that he meant we should expect not to be disturbed at all by the loss of a loved one. Rather he’s advising his students on how to increase their emotional resilience to loss by reducing their sense of attachment, within certain bounds.
We should love in accord with reason, by being brutally honest with ourselves.
In the same passage, he explains that this strategy should be applied in a very general way to anything we love or find pleasurable. We should pause to consider its true nature, avoid adding strong value judgements or emotive language, and just stick to the facts. We should love in accord with reason, by being brutally honest with ourselves. The facts are that the character of our loved ones may change over time, and one day they will be no more.
Kissing as Contemplation
The Stoics believed that most of our problems in life are caused by placing too much value on things that are not entirely up to us, and neglecting to pay attention to our own character and actions. Love that involves self-deception isn’t real love at all. Yet we deceive ourselves when we ignore the uncertainty involved in relationships. We don’t control other people and we can never be certain what the future holds.
Remembering that fact should allow us to experience more healthy gratitude for the present moment, while being prepared in advance for loss. In a sense it’s the key to loving freely, honestly, and without attachment. We can learn to love more wisely by following this Stoic advice and literally telling ourselves that we’re kissing someone who will one day be no more.
…if what we call “love” is a good thing then it shouldn’t be doing us any harm.
Epictetus discusses this in more detail in The Discourses (3.24). He says that the majority of us simply give ourselves more reasons to become upset, “more causes for lamentation”, the more friends we acquire, and the more places with which we fall in love. “Why then,” he asks, “do you live to surround yourself with other sorrows upon sorrows through which you are unhappy?”
Then, I ask you, do you call this love? What love, man!
He says that if authentic love is a good thing then it shouldn’t be doing us any harm. However, if what we call “love” is actually harmful then it’s clearly a bad thing and we should avoid it like the plague. Nature, he claims, intended us to do ourselves good, not evil.
The word for love that he uses here, philostorgia, is often translated as “natural affection” or “familial affection”. It’s the kind of love a parent has for their children. In Stoic theology, it’s the love Zeus has for mankind. Stoicism takes that as paradigmatic of rational love in general — in a sense, it’s the purest form of love. The Stoics aimed to love wisely and virtuously by both wishing that the loved one should become wise and good, while simultaneously accepting that we are all unwise, and fallible. Of course, that’s a paradox. It would require training to learn such an attitude, and maintain it over the course of our lives.
“What is the discipline for this purpose?”, Epictetus asks. How, in other words, can we learn to love wisely? First and foremost, as we’ve seen, he thinks we should learn to love things, and other people, while accepting that they may change, or be lost. He now describes this as the philosophical principle “which stands as it were at the entrance” of rational love. There are in fact many things in life which we appreciate without much attachment, he notes, such as clay pots or drinking glasses.
Epictetus goes on to tell his students here, as in the Encheiridion, that when they kiss their own child, brother or friend, they should remind themselves that one day the loved one will be gone. (In ancient Greece and Rome it was considered normal for friends to kiss on the lips.) The pleasure of experiencing their presence should be enjoyed along with awareness of their potential absence, and never as though we were taking them for granted.
Epictetus compares this to “those who stand behind men in their triumphs and remind them that they are mortal.” He’s referring to the ancient tradition whereby generals, or emperors, who had been victorious in battle, would ride through the streets of Rome in a triumphal chariot. Captured enemies and treasure would be paraded before them, to the delight of cheering crowds of onlookers. Their faces would be painted red in emulation of the god Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Slaves would stand behind them holding laurel crowns over their heads, while whispering words such as memento mori, or “remember you must die”, in their ears.
Epictetus says that we should, likewise, remind ourselves that those we love, and kiss, are mortal, and do not, ultimately, belong to us. They are ours for the present, he says, but not for all time. Like figs or grapes, which are given to humanity by Nature for part of the year only, when in season, the beloved cannot be ours forever. They are merely on loan to us from Nature.
This imagery sounds very much like an allusion to the mysteries of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, famously celebrated at Eleusis, beside Athens. Whether or not Epictetus had the Eleusinian mysteries in mind, his students would have found it difficult not to make that connection for themselves. The goddess Demeter had a beloved daughter called Persephone. One day she was abducted by the god Hades, who took her to his dark underground kingdom, as his queen. Demeter was distraught at the mysterious disappearance of her daughter, and travelled the earth searching for her in vain.
Eventually, Zeus took pity on her, and arranged for Persephone to return to the world of the living. However, Hades had tricked her into eating six pomegranate seeds, for each of which she was fated to spend one month every year living with him in the Underworld. The fruits and grains of the harvest, sacred to Demeter, are provided by her, by Nature, only in due season, for part of the year. Persephone was likewise only with her mother for part of each year, symbolizing the cycles of nature, and the transience of all worldly things, even our loved ones. It’s a myth about coming to terms with loss, and impermanence.
Epictetus, continuing his metaphor, says that anyone who wishes for fresh figs or grapes in winter, is being foolish, by demanding something, which would be contrary to nature and impossible.
So if you wish for your son or friend when it is not allowed to you, you must know that you are wishing for a fig in winter.
Demeter was likewise forced to accept that her beloved daughter, Persephone, would always be absent for half the year. Grieving excessively over this would be as absurd as being upset that figs or grapes do not grow in winter.
When we delight in something or someone, therefore, we should place before our minds, alongside the impression of their presence, the contrary one, of their absence. That’s what it means to perceive things as transient — to experience, in a sense, their presence and absence at the same time. While enjoying the presence of his beloved, the wise man or woman does not forget about, but knowingly anticipates, their absence.
“Tomorrow you will go away or I shall, and never shall we see one another again.”
Epictetus asks what harm there is, while kissing our own child, to whisper to ourselves, in our minds, “Tomorrow you will die”. While kissing their friends, his students likewise are to tell themselves, “Tomorrow you will go away or I shall, and never shall we see one another again.”
He goes on to say that it is a great thing to be able to tell oneself “I begot a son who is mortal.” This is actually a well-known Greek saying, attributed to several wise man. One of them was Xenophon, an Athenian general and one of Socrates’ closest friends, whose dialogues were greatly admired by the Stoics, and elsewhere quoted by Epictetus. The story goes that someone came to Xenophon one say with the shocking news that his son had been killed while on a military campaign. Xenophon merely replied that he knew that his son was mortal. In other words, he’d long been prepared for the possibility that he might receive news of his death.
Epictetus tells his students that they should have thoughts like this always ready to hand, night and day. They must train themselves in them, by writing them down, reading them back, and discussing them with themselves and with others. In the same way, they should learn to say that they knew they were mortal themselves, and that they might lose their home, or be thrown into prison, and so on.
Say to yourself, when you are kissing your wife or child, that they are mortal, and prepare yourself for the fact that they shall die, he says. Tell yourself that you too are mortal, like the slaves whispering memento mori to triumphing emperors and generals. It sounds like shocking advice to many people today. However, even today, many people won’t be shocked by this. They’ll appreciate it as a means of avoiding unhealthy forms of attachment, and viewing relationships more realistically, in way that’s both rational and loving. The Stoics believed that it’s only through such an extraordinary effort to be honest with ourselves that we can achieve the strength to loves others wisely, and in accord with nature.