Towards an Epicurean Grief Therapy
This is the text of the article as it appears in the journal
Philosophical Practice, July 2018, 13.2: 2120-2128
Abstract: In a paper for this journal, Aleksandar Fatic (2013) outlined the tenets of ancient Epicureanism as a potential basis for philosophical counseling. Building on Fatic’s initial proposal, this paper argues that the Epicurean attitude to death offers a fresh perspective on grief and bereavement that has much to recommend it to modern practitioners. The growing field of Positive Psychology, as it slowly begins to recognise the need to address such apparently ‘negative’ emotions as grief, also has much to learn from the wisdom doctrines of the Ancient Greeks, and Epicureanism specifically. The Epicurean perspective is predicated on fostering a healthy attitude towards the reality of death as well as promoting the importance of rationally positive emotions in the grieving process. In order to describe how such an Epicurean approach could be of value to a philosophical practice informed by ‘Second Wave’ or ‘PP 2.0’ models of Positive Psychology, the Epicurean account of emotions as well as its materialistic cosmology is examined before proposed Epicurean strategies for coping with death and grief are set out.
Keywords: Epicureanism, Positive Psychology, Second Wave, PP 2.0, emotions, beliefs, cosmology, philosophical practice, grief therapy
Introduction: Why Epicureanism?
In the March 2013 issue of Philosophical Practice, Aleksandar Fatic outlined the tenets of ancient Epicureanism as a potential model for philosophical counseling. Building on Fatic’s initial proposal, this paper makes explicit links between Epicurean thought on the specific issue of death and bereavement and the growing field of Positive Psychology (PP), which in the past has tended to sideline the role of ‘negative’ emotions in favour of the ‘positive’ (e.g. Fredrickson, 1998, 2013). But a new ‘Second Wave’ of PP is now belatedly recognising that the so-called ‘dark side’ of human experience plays a vital role ‘in the positive aspects of our functioning and transformations as human beings’(Ivtzan et al. 2016, p. 1). Grief is, of course, a universal human experience; far from being simply a ‘negative’ emotion, there is now a growing awareness among psychologists ‘that losses can also provide the possibility of life-enhancing “post-traumatic growth” as one integrates the lessons of loss and resilience. Personal growth following even seismic experiences of loss is common’ (Hall, 2011).
In proposing a new model for Positive Psychology, ‘PP 2.0’, Paul Wong (2011, p. 73) argued that, ‘moral psychology, at the intersection of psychology and philosophy, promises to be an area of substantial growth’, and this is precisely the area in which a study of ancient thought in general, and Epicureanism in particular, ought to be able to fortify, enrich – as well as sometimes challenge – modern theories with the hard-won wisdom of ages past. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the virtue ethics of the Ancient Greeks already underpin many key modern concepts – eudaimonia, for example, is borrowed from Aristotle, who was one of the first to set out clearly and precisely what is meant by this apparently modern idea of ‘flourishing’ (Ethics, Bk I); while cognitive therapies such as CBT acknowledge Stoicism as a common ancestor (see Hadot, 1995, for a general overview of Greek therapeutic philosophy; for Stoicism and CBT see Robertson, 2013, p. xix.). However, so far less attention has been paid to the thinking of Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BCE), who articulated a philosophical system that has much to say about what it means to live the good life.
Before exploring the Epicurean attitude to death and bereavement specifically it will first be necessary to provide a short though necessarily superficial account of Epicurean thought concerning the emotions (grief being an overwhelmingly important emotion). The second part of this paper explains why the materialistic world view of Epicurus (explicated at length by the Roman poet Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, ‘On the Nature of the Universe’) is vitally important when it comes to understanding Epicurean arguments on the subject of death. The fear of death itself and how to abolish it (according to Epicurus) forms the third part, before at last we can begin to set out, albeit tentatively, what a proposed Epicurean approach to grief and bereavement would look like. (For a more general attempt to set Epicureanism within the context of PP, see Walker, 2016; parts of what follows in sections #1-3 below are taken from that original exploratory paper).
- Epicurean Emotions
Epicurus is frequently caricatured as an unbridled hedonist (hence our modern notion of the gluttonous Epicure), but that’s not what he meant when he said ‘pleasure is the first good and natural to us’ (Letter to Menoeceus – all quotations are from Epicurus, trans. O’Connor, 1993). For Epicurus, ‘pleasure is the goal of life’ (Woolf, 2009, p. 158), although not all pleasures are worthwhile. ‘When we say that pleasure is the goal, we are not talking about the pleasure of profligates or that which lies in sensuality …. Every pleasure is good, but not every pleasure is to be chosen’ (Letter to Menoeceus). Indeed, Epicurus states that we frequently eschew immediate pleasures and choose the more painful path in the knowledge that in the end it will lead us to greater rewards. The most pleasant life consists not in gluttony and excess but in ‘sober reasoning … which drives away those opinions resulting in the greatest disturbance of the soul’ (Letter to Menoeceus).
The basic assumption that pleasure ‘is the first good’ is derived in part from Epicurus’ so-called ‘cradle argument’, namely that ‘all creatures from birth go after pleasure and avoid pain’ (Woolf, 2009, p. 175); the seeking after pleasure and avoidance of pain are deemed to be instinctive, ‘pertaining as much to animals as to human beings’ (Konstan, 2008, p. 15). From these premises it is ‘a self-evident lesson’ that everyone naturally seeks ‘the pleasure given by the absence of pain or distress’ (Woolf, 2009, p. 175). Importantly for Epicurus ‘the limit of the extent of pleasure is the removal of all pain’ (Principal Doctrines #3).
Such pleasure in the absence of pain (be it mental or physical) is not, however, a neutral state but ‘is experienced as having a positive qualitative character … a felt character that is not unfairly captured in terms of pleasure – a relaxed freshness, let us say, that feels wonderful’ (Woolf, 2009, pp. 173-4). For the Epicurean, this absence of pain is (potentially at least) a durable ‘static’ state experienced as a kind of ongoing ‘tranquillity’ (Greek ataraxia); contrast with other ‘kinetic’ emotions, which, though pleasurable, are more fleeting. For example, ‘the return of the body to its healthy state’ after a period of illness is experienced as a ‘kinetic’ pleasure (in other words, it doesn’t last); while the pleasure associated with the ongoing ‘experience of well-being’ is ‘static’ and potentially long-lasting (Konstan, 2008, p. 131). Epicurus argued that, ‘if the recovery from a dangerous illness be a cause for joy, manifestly the possession of health ought to be a joy at other times’ (DeWitt, 1954, p. 233).
In David Konstan’s account of Epicurean emotional theory (Konstan, 2008), there is also a distinction between hedone (the Greek word for ‘pleasure’, hence English ‘hedonistic’), which is a pathos, ‘a non-rational affect’ (p. 11) on the one hand and the concomitant emotion on the other, which has a cognitive element added: ‘The rational emotion, which responds to an impression of something deemed to be pleasant’ is joy (p. 17). The cognitive element is vital, for it is this component that is targeted by Epicurean therapy: joy can be mistaken if dependent on ‘empty belief’ (kenodoxia). For example, the feeling of joy resulting from the ‘empty belief’ that ‘acquiring a large fortune’ will give one ‘security against death’ is ‘a false kind of joy’ that will ‘prompt desires that are insatiable in nature, leading to a reciprocally reinforcing cycle of empty fears and desires’ (Konstan, 2008, p. 17). Or, as Epicurus himself has it, ‘Natural wealth is limited and easily obtained; the riches of idle fancies go on forever’ (Principal Doctrine #15). Joy in such circumstances is not a positive emotion at all, indeed is potentially harmful. Where Positive Psychologists such as Fredrickson (1998) seem concerned only with the outcome of emotions, Epicurus asks us to consider the source of our emotions before we label them as either positive or negative.
Already, perhaps, and despite the brevity of the above account, the applicability of this emotional theory to the specific case of grief might be becoming apparent. For the Epicurean, the possibility of experiencing ‘proper and rational joy … resides in the absence of pain and the freedom from mental perturbation’ (Konstan, 2008, p. 17). Any putative Epicurean bereavement therapy is going to focus considerable attention on those ‘empty beliefs’ and other sources of ‘mental perturbation’.
- Epicurean Cosmology
Cosmology in a paper about grief? A surprising but necessary digression, for, as we shall soon see, the Epicurean attitude to death is predicated on an understanding of the nature of the universe. Epicurus grounded his therapeutic and ethical theories on a materialistic atomic physics: everything that has existed or ever will exist can be accounted for by the collisions of an infinity of eternally existing atoms at motion in the infinite void (Letter to Herodotus; Lucretius De Rerum Natura). There are an infinite number of other worlds out there, ‘both like and unlike this one’; nor should we suppose that the things we observe in nature are ‘the result of some being who arranges or has ordained them’ (Letter to Herodotus). The Epicurean cosmos is not only entirely material, it is devoid of purpose. No guiding hand is required to make the world.
Not that Epicurus denies the existence of gods, just that he denies the gods in their perfection and blessedness ever take any interest in the messy mundane world we lesser beings inhabit: ‘The impious man is not he who confutes the gods of the majority, but he who applies to the gods the majority’s opinions’ (Letter to Menoeceus). Epicurean gods possess neither the capacity nor the inclination to interfere in the affairs of men: ‘The blessed and immortal life is itself free from trouble nor does it cause trouble for anyone else’ (Principal Doctrine #1). The gods convey neither fear nor favour. A lightning bolt is a purely physical phenomenon, it does not signal the wrath of Zeus. As Lucretius observes, this common misunderstanding is a primary source of psychological disturbance:
‘The reason why all mortals are so gripped by fear is that they see all sorts of things happening on the earth and in the sky with no discernible cause, and these they attribute to the will of a god’ (De Rerum Natura, I.151-4).
Likewise prayers are unavailing, for if the gods listened to everyone’s prayers, ‘all humankind would quickly perish since they constantly pray for many evils to befall one another’ (Fragments #58). To expect either good or bad fortune from the gods therefore is an ‘irrational impulse’ (Letter to Herodotus).
Paul Wong is critical that so far PP has taken ‘an ambiguous stance with respect to moral values because of its emphasis on science’ (2011, p. 73). But an Epicurean is likely to argue instead that science and moral values are in fact inseparable. Epicurean moral psychology – their prescription for what counts as ‘the good life’ and how to live it – takes the fact of this atomic, wholly physical universe as its starting point: the cosmos is purposeless, the gods will not help you, and, crucially, there is nothing after death. For the Epicurean, ignorance about these facts has detrimental psychological consequences: these are some of the ‘empty beliefs’ mentioned earlier that become sources of ‘mental perturbation’. As Lucretius observes:
‘As children in blank darkness tremble and start at everything, so we in broad daylight are oppressed at times by fears as baseless as those horrors which children imagine coming upon them in the dark. This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature’ (De Rerum Natura, III.87-93).
Only a correct understanding of the natural world can dispel the clouds of ignorance and fear from our minds. In the Epicurean atomic cosmos there is no room for the supernatural – even the gods are made from atoms – and physical death, the dissolution of the body, is emphatically the end. This has important implications for ethics as well as therapy: not only do the gods (or God, depending on your inclination) have no role to play in who lives or dies; there is no supernatural afterlife for the deceased either.
Fatic (2013, p. 1139) considers that this Epicurean physics is ‘unacceptable to most modern counselees, whose physical and metaphysical ideas are shaped by the long history of very different philosophical and religious views’. However, despite this he goes on to argue that, ‘Epicurean ethics, regardless of its less than plausible physical foundation, is entirely reconcilable with a variety of metaphysical worldviews, including most of the large global religions.’ I’m not so sure – both about the supposed implausibility of Epicurean physics (Nail, 2018, argues for the striking parallels between Lucretius and modern physics) or the reconcilability of differing metaphysical worldviews: after all few, if any, of the major world religions are able to reconcile their views with anyone else, let alone the materialist cosmos of Epicurus. The question then becomes, are you (that is, Fatic’s putative ‘counselee’) prepared to accept the Epicurean premises or not? If not, not; if yes, then perhaps Epicurus has something useful to tell you. Far from his materialist, purposeless cosmos being a counsel of despair, Epicurus found meaning and purpose therein. Exactly how he achieved this is our next topic.
- Fear of Death
Wong and Tomer (2011, p. 100) cite ‘death denial’ as a significant problem when considering psychological resilience: ‘no matter how hard we try to suppress and repress death awareness, anxiety about our demise can still manifest itself in a variety of symptoms, such as worries, depression, stresses, and conflicts’. As a result, they argue it is, ‘high time for psychologists to focus on the process of death acceptance’ (p. 101): ‘Death exposes the fragility of life and the futility of everyday busyness and strivings. Death focuses and clarifies’ (p. 103). Epicurus sought to remove the fear of death, not to deny the significance of death, but rather to enjoin a rational and fear-free acceptance of its reality and so cast the focus on life instead.
Recall for a moment the Epicurean axiom that all beings naturally pursue pleasure and avoid pain. The upshot of this is that all our judgements concerning what is good or evil depend on our experience of either pleasure (good) or pain (bad). But death is the end of all sensation, the extinction of any capacity to experience either pleasure or pain, so, the Epicurean argues, death can be neither good nor evil, it is quite simply ‘nothing to us’ (Principal Doctrine #2). Death is just the dissolution of our material body into its constituent atoms. There is no survival of any part of us, there is nothing immaterial that endures after the destruction of our material self (the Epicurean soul consists of super-fine atoms, but atoms nonetheless, Letter to Herodotus). Where we exist, death does not; where there is death, we do not exist:
‘Death is the deprivation of sensation. Therefore, correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes a mortal life enjoyable, not by adding an endless span of time but by taking away the longing for immortality’ (Letter to Menoeceus).
The idea here is that if we can accept the fact that death will not trouble us, we can stop worrying so much about it and start focusing on life instead. Death isn’t an unpleasant (or pleasant) state of being, it is emphatically non-Being. And non-Being must be by definition ‘nothing to us’. Recall the materialism of the Epicurean cosmos, now its implications begin to become apparent: there is no afterlife, no supernatural survival after death, no punishment in Hell, no reward in Heaven. All of which is meant to be liberating, for it follows that there is nothing in death (or after death) even worth bothering about. The Epicurean insistence that death is just a blank nothingness of non-existence is intended to help us turn our attention back towards what’s actually important and worthwhile, namely what we are doing with our lives right now.
One rejoinder to Epicurus is to argue that people should still fear death, because when they die ‘they do not experience the goods of life which they would have experienced had they died at a time later than they did’ (Warren, 2009, p. 245 – his italics). In other words, if we could only live a bit longer we would enjoy more things and that’s preferable to dying. Epicureans respond to this counterfactual argument by pointing out that, since the deceased no longer exists, there is no person who can be considered to be somehow ‘missing out’ on any potential life experiences. If we assume that our time of death is open to change and we might therefore be missing out on later experiences, are we actually arguing (nonsensically) for immortality? It is also odd that we don’t say the same about our birth and complain that we missed earlier experiences because we were born too late (Warren, 2009, pp. 245-6). Furthermore, the idea that a longer life is always preferable to a shorter life is countered in Epicurean thought by the insistence that the good life (the tranquil life mentioned earlier, the state of unperturbed ataraxia) is not made better simply by duration: ‘Just as [the wise man] assuredly chooses not the greatest quantity of food but the most tasty, so does he enjoy the fruits not of the lengthiest period of time but of the most pleasant’ (Letter to Menoeceus).
For Epicurus, our focus ought to be on the life we are living right here and now, not worrying fruitlessly about death:
‘We are born once and cannot be born twice, but we must be no more for all time. Not being master of tomorrow, you nonetheless delay your happiness. Life is consumed by procrastination, and each of us dies without providing leisure for himself’ (Vatican Sayings #14).
- Epicurean Grief Therapy
At last we are in a position to outline an Epicurean attitude to grief and bereavement. Note that the terms are not synonymous: ‘Grief is the psychological-emotional experience following a loss of any kind (relationship, status, job, house, game, income, etc), whereas bereavement is a specific type of grief related to someone dying’ (Meek, 2012). Psychologists continue to debate the various stages of grief and whether such categories are even useful at all (Hall, 2011). For the Epicurean, however, categories or stages of grief are far less important than the imperative to restore our sought-after state of ataraxia (‘tranquillity’). Hence, when experiencing grief as a result of bereavement (or when advising someone who is experiencing it), an Epicurean is likely to consider the following as relevant:
- That one should actively recall pleasant memories of the deceased
- That friends are vital, both to provide emotional support and to help with 1.
- That some pains (such as grief) can provide long-term benefits
- That a realistic worldview grounded on a sound understanding of natural science will help mitigate fears about death and focus meaningful attention instead on the value of life
- ‘Let us show feeling for our friends [who have died] not by lamenting but by reflection’ (Vatican Saying #66). Grieving that engages with our memories of the deceased in a positive way can lead us to a greater appreciation of how they enriched our life and the lives of others. Such positively focused reflection, albeit inevitably tinged with sadness, should help us remember them with pleasure; it may even help us discover in ourselves a more mature attitude towards the inevitability of death. This is surely a positive not a negative experience.
Where the Epicurean approach differs markedly from PP ideas such as the ‘Broaden and Build’ theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2013), in which only the content of the emotion is considered for it to be labelled ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, is in its insistence that tranquillity can only be restored by removing the ‘empty beliefs’ that are the source of ‘mental perturbation’ in the first place. Grief in the Epicurean analysis is a negative ‘mental perturbation’ if and only if it arises from one or more of those ‘empty beliefs’. In other words, unlike Fredrickson, the Epicurean looks for the source of the emotional response before labelling the resulting grief as a ‘negative’ emotion. Feelings of loss and sadness are a natural and justified response to bereavement, but they can and do engender positive outcomes if we allow them – dwelling on pleasant memories of the deceased will lead us to a greater appreciation of and thankfulness for the role that person played in our lives .
- Friendship helps a lot with this process: ‘Of all things that wisdom provides for living one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship’ (Principal Doctrines #27). Bereavement, like so much else, is made more bearable with a little help from your friends. As modern psychology also recognises – for example, the ‘R’ (= ‘Relationships’) of Seligman’s PERMA model (Seligman, 2011) – our resilience is significantly improved by cultivating friendship. Masten (2014, pp. 150-3) also specifies ‘Attachment and Close Relationships’ as one of her ‘short list’ of factors associated with resilience; if ever we need our friends and our resilience it is when dealing with bereavement. Friends who knew the deceased can also share their memories (some that might be new to the bereaved) and so contribute to that deeper appreciation mentioned above.
- Epicurus also recognised the utility of enduring pains in the short term (and grief can certainly be felt as both mental and physical pain) when they will lead us to greater pleasures in the long run: ‘We regard many pains as better than pleasures, since a greater pleasure will attend us after we have endured pain for a long time’ (Letter to Menoeceus). This is what modern psychology means by ‘life-enhancing “post-traumatic growth” as one integrates the lessons of loss and resilience’ (Hall, 2011). If we allow it, the painful process of grief can be for our long-term benefit, fostering both gratitude for the life of the deceased (which we may have taken for granted while they lived) and a realistic attitude to the fact that death is both natural and inevitable.
- Grief only becomes a problem for the Epicurean when it threatens to overwhelm our ataraxia. This happens when our emotional response is predicated on those pesky ‘empty beliefs’. If, for example (and I sincerely hope that no one ever thinks this) we imagine our deceased loved one being punished in Hell for their transgressions in life. Conversely, if we imagine them looking down on us from Heaven we might then be tormented by the thought that they are scrutinising our every action, judging us. Even if that thought produces positive feelings, it is (pace Fredrickson) not necessarily a ‘positive’ according to the Epicurean analysis, since it is most definitely predicated on an ‘empty belief’ about the afterlife. Just because they make us feel good in the short term, such beliefs still need to be challenged by the Epicurean since, in the longer term, they only serve to reinforce groundless fears about death (‘What if I’m not worthy to go to Heaven? What if I remarry, will my spouse in Heaven be angry or sad? Will I have to spend eternity with my mother-in-law? What if I get there and find I don’t like it? …’). Speculations about the exact nature, location or functioning of any supposed afterlife or other form of post-mortem survival (‘What if my loved one is now a ghost and is haunting me? What if the Hindus are right and they have been reincarnated as a spider?’) inevitably cause disquiet; and since they can never be answered, they are necessarily ‘empty’ of content for the Epicurean. One should focus instead on the meaningful content of life.
But finding meaning in life after experiencing the death of a loved one can be great obstacle to acceptance: ‘The experience of loss, particularly if it is sudden and unexpected, can interfere with a bereaved person’s ability to rebuild his or her assumptive world, particularly when the death assaults the survivor’s notion that life is predictable or that the universe is benign’ (Hall, 2011). Reflections on cosmology – Epicurean, Einsteinian, or otherwise – are relevant here. For one’s worldview can be and often is challenged by adversity, never more powerfully so than in the experience of bereavement. It can and does shake people to the core of their beliefs (‘Why did God allow this to happen?’, ‘Everything happens for a reason … doesn’t it?’).
The Epicurean solution is to ensure one’s core beliefs are solid and can take the strain. In practice this means being clear ideally in advance about the nature of the universe and our place within it. The Epicurean cosmos – materialistic, devoid of Fate or divine interventions of any kind – accepts death and dissolution as a purely natural and inevitable process common to all things. Even mountains wear down eventually; stars are born and die; planets are formed and destroyed; and so our bodies return from whence they came (in this instance the Epicurean would agree with the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’).
Just in case this all seems a bit nihilistic, a bit lacking in transcendent spirit (let alone spirituality), it is worth citing the late great Carl Sagan here, whose wise words on this subject have something of an Epicurean tinge:
‘Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual … The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both’ (Sagan, 1996, p. 32).
Epicureans experiencing feelings of grief should still be able to achieve what Wong describes as ‘Chaironic happiness’ (2011, p. 70) – ‘feeling blessed and fortunate because of a sense of awe, gratitude, and oneness with nature or God’ – just so long as they remain careful not to hold ‘empty beliefs’ that give rise to ‘mental perturbation’.
The Epicurean response to grief both complements and challenges contemporary psychological theories. The value of generating positive emotions towards the deceased, of the role friendship plays in fostering resilience, of the importance of finding meaning, all resonate with trends in PP. But the Epicurean also holds that one hard lesson of bereavement is that it forces us to ask deeper questions about the nature and sources of our beliefs; when faced with grief, it is not enough for psychologists simply to describe the emotion and label it ‘negative’. The Epicurean challenge is to ask: what are the sources of such emotions as grief, are they grounded in a realistic model of the universe or are they instead founded on ‘empty beliefs’? The distinction is thrown into sharp focus by the experience of bereavement: does grief allow for personal growth and acceptance of death’s inevitability, or does it cause one’s world-view to crumble in a series of unanswerable questions (‘Why them? Why me?’).
Fatic (2013, p. 1133) is surely right to stress the general importance of ‘philosophical counseling’, whether or not the counselee chooses to accept the plausibility of the Epicurean worldview specifically. Similar arguments for such a philosophical approach could be framed for Stoicism, or Daoism, or Buddhism for that matter. A serious model of ‘PP 2.0’ which takes to heart Wong’s idea of ‘moral psychology’ will need to start taking a long hard look at all of these wisdom traditions. After all, why reinvent the wheel when Epicurus, Socrates, Aristotle, Lao Tzu and Siddhartha (to name just a few) have shown us the way already? A final thought from Epicurus:
‘Happiness and blessedness do not belong to abundance of riches or exalted position or offices or power, but to freedom from pain and gentleness of feeling and a state of mind that sets limits that are in accordance with nature’ (Letter to Idomeneus).
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About the author:
Mark Walker has a BA Hons in Philosophy from Durham University, an MA Classics from the University of Wales, Lampeter, and a PG Cert in Applied Positive Psychology from Buckinghamshire New University.