Seneca to Lucilius: 63, on grief for lost friends

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Have you ever lost a friend? If so, you are lucky, because it means you had a friend in the first place. And friendship, according to the Stoics (but also Aristotle and the Epicureans, not to mention Confucians), are a major source of joy and meaning in life. That said, you may be taken aback when you read the beginning of Seneca’s 63rd letter to his friend Lucilius, where he says:

Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow. We may weep, but we must not wail. (LXIII.1)

How typically heartless of the Stoics, right? Suppressing emotions, and all that stuff. But that isn’t what Seneca is getting at. The point, rather, is that of course grief is an all too human emotion, and if we do not feel it for a lost friend (or partner, or other loved ones) then there is something problematic about our own humanity.

Conversely, though, if we indulge in despair we are acting unreasonably, as if we never expected death to come to those near us. As if death were not both inevitable and natural, even necessary, in order for our lives to have meaning in the first place. We live with urgency precisely because our lives are finite. What makes every moment, and every person we love, precious is that the moment will soon be gone, and eventually so will the other person (unless we happen to die first, of course). What, then, would a better attitude toward death and grief be? Seneca continues:

Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us. (LXIII.4)

We should cherish the memory of those who are gone, not regret their passing. That’s because loss is inevitable, and to long for people who are no longer here, to use Epictetus’ lovely phrase, is to wish for figs in winter time. But the converse of that is the idea that we should do our best to enjoy the figs while they are in season. 

Too often — and I speak from personal experience here — we take other people for granted, as if they were always going to be there for us. I did that with my grandfather and grandmother, with whom I grew up. As well as with my father, and then my mother. They are all gone now, and whenever I think of that I try my best to follow Seneca’s advice: don’t let regret take over your mind, focus instead on recollecting why these people were so important for you, and use their memory to spur you to be more present with those among your friends and family who are still here. This is what Seneca is getting at when he writes:

Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours. (LXIII.7-8)

Fortune is notoriously blind. It gives and takes at random, without rhyme or reason. Whenever she gives to us she is bestowing a temporary privilege, and it is up to us to take advantage of it to its fullest. By the same token, though, we know what the bargain is from the get go: whatever Fortune gives she can and will eventually take away. Nothing is truly ours, everything is on loan from the universe.

If we have other friends, we surely deserve ill at their hands and think ill of them, if they are of so little account that they fail to console us for the loss of one. If, on the other hand, we have no other friends, we have injured ourselves more than Fortune has injured us; since Fortune has robbed us of one friend, but we have robbed ourselves of every friend whom we have failed to make. (LXIII.10)

When we suffer a loss it is natural, and perfectly justified, to turn to other people for comfort. We have family as well as other friends to console us, to give us reason to continue in our effort to be the best human being we can be. If we don’t have other people loving and supporting us, then we need to ask ourselves why. Barring catastrophic situations, like losing most people close to us because of a war, why don’t we make an effort to cultivate human relations so that we can always count on the consolation provided by other people’s love?

I was unprepared when Fortune dealt me the sudden blow. Now is the time for you to reflect, not only that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality is subject to no fixed law. Whatever can happen at any time can happen today. (LXIII.15)

I learned this lesson the hard way. My grandparents, as well as my father, died before I discovered and embraced Stoic philosophy. It did not go well. I was completely unprepared for their departure, even though I had known for a while that it was coming. I simply refused to take the situation seriously enough. Surely, I kept telling myself, they will still be there the next time I visit. Until they weren’t.

It was a very different experience with my mother, who passed away more recently, after I had started practicing Stoicism. I immediately remembered Seneca’s words, which led me to take the situation seriously from the beginning, as it deserved. My mother died earlier than one might have thought, in this day and age. And yet, as Seneca reminds us elsewhere, there is no such thing as a premature death. People die whenever the cosmic web of cause-effect determines that they do. Not a moment too soon, nor one too late.

Whatever can happen at any time can indeed happen today. That’s why we need to live life in the here and now, fully focused on what we have, in serene understanding that one day it will be gone. And that that’s okay.

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