It is easier for most of us to recognize, as if by default, Marcia’s prolonged grieving over her son Metilius than it is to understand someone who does not grieve or miss anyone who has passed into and out of his life. We recognize a mother’s strong attachments to her too soon gone son, and we wonder with her about whether a cosmos can be just if it takes away a son before his mother. The scene, such as it is, looks manifestly human and Seneca’s letter of consolation is intended to relieve her of her grieving by revealing the cosmos to be providentially well-ordered.
This, as I say, is the recognizable case, yet what of the less recognizable and seemingly less usual one? I am referring to the person who has rarely or never had strong attachments to others–be they lovers, friends, or family members–and hence does not feel possessive, does not miss or reminisce, and does not grieve someone who has gone out of his life or passed out out of existence. What if too such a man were to say that, on the whole, he is contented with life and believes firmly in being self-reliant and self-sufficient? Is this man inhuman (by which I don’t mean: monstrous) or is he god-like? For the gods are often described as self-sufficient, independent, and happy with themselves.
This man’s life becomes even more perplexing when we think of it in terms of impermanence. Buddhists and Daoists both believe that it is a truth of perceptible reality that nothing persists, everything coming into and out of existence. The proper attitude to take to perceptible reality, therefore, is non-attachment. It looks as if this man has already learned, through experience, not to overvalue the sorts of things (persons, objects, projects, and so on) that are, of their very nature, transient. Isn’t he onto something?
Our conclusions seem to come too quickly, and this man’s life, so far, has been lived too easily. True, he is god-like insofar as he is self-sufficient and content with himself and with what is at hand. True also, he does live in accordance with the impermanence of things. Yet what has gone missing is the fact that human beings have to go through hardship, having begun with the idea that it is good to form indissoluble bonds with other human beings, with the further idea that our loved ones will never die or shouldn’t die before we do, having started out with the claim that his possessions shouldn’t perish–all this in order to feel the pain of loss, the sorrow that comes with misunderstanding.
But why must he? What does it matter that he came to the conclusion without having passed through hardship, error, and misunderstanding?
For one thing, the recognition of error fosters self-reflection, an activity he will otherwise continue to be exempt from undertaking in virtue of his easy, frictionless life. Self-reflection would cause him to consider as deeply as possible his connection to himself and with the cosmos and to truly wonder. For another, confronting hardship requires courage in the practitioner, thus enabling him to overcome a predilection for giving up on things that matter as opposed to persevering with them. For a third, developing and losing strong attachments would give depth to his character, not least by forcing him to avoid self-deception, pleasant glosses, chipper comments, always looking on the bright side. Cheerfulness, we must recall from Socrates, is born–not by fleeing from or by avoiding or by skimming past–but rather out of the ongoing philosophical confrontation with the reality of death.
Self-sufficiency, self-possession, non-attachment in the face of impermanence: O let these come later and only after their truth be actually, existentially found.