Of the Remedy of Affliction for the Loss of our Friends
LOSS OF OUR FRIENDS.
IT would be a strange consideration (saith Cicero) that while so many excellent remedies have been discovered for the several diseases of the human body, the mind should be left, without any assistance to alleviate and repel the disorders which befal it. The contrary of this he asserts to be true, and prescribes philosophy to us, as a certain and infallible method to assuage and remove all those perturbations which are liable to affect this nobler part of man.
Of the same opinion were all those wise and illustrious ancients, whose writings and sayings on this subject have been transmitted to us. And when Seneca tells us, that virtue is sufficient to subdue all our passions, he means no other (as he explains it in many parts of his works) than that exalted divine philosophy, which consisted not in vain pomp, or useless curiosity, nor even in the search of more profitable knowledge, but in acquiring solid lasting habits of virtue, and ingrafting them into our character. It was not the bare knowing the right way, but the constant and steady walking in it, which those glorious writers recommended and dignified by the august names of philosophy and virtue; which two words, if they did not always use in a synonymous sense, yet they all agreed in this, that virtue was the consummation of true philosophy.
Now that this supreme philosophy, this habit of virtue, which strengthened the mind of a Socrates, or a Brutus, is really superior to every evil which can attack us, I make no doubt; but in truth, this is to have a sound, not a sickly constitution. With all proper deference, therefore to such great authorities, they seem to me to assert no more than that health is a remedy against disease: for a soul once possessed of that degree of virtue which can without emotion look on poverty, pain, disgrace, and death, as things indifferent; a soul, as Horace expresses it,
- Totus teres atque rotundus;
or, according to Seneca, which derives all its comfort from WITHIN, not from WITHOUT; which can look down on all the ruffling billows of fortune, as from a rock on shore, we survey a tempestuous sea with unconcern; such a soul is surely in a state of health which no vigour of bodily constitution can resemble.
And as this health of the mind exceeds that of the body in degree, so doth it in constancy or duration. In the latter, the transition from perfect health to sickness is easy, and often sudden; whereas the former, being once firmly established in the robust state above described, is never afterwards liable to be shocked by any accident or impulse of fortune.
It must be confessed indeed, that those great masters have pointed out the way to this philosophy, and have endeavoured to allure and persuade others into it; but as it is certain that few of their disciples have been able to arrive at its perfection; nay, as several of the masters themselves have done little honour to their precepts, by their examples, there seems still great occasion for a mental physician, who should consider the human mind (as is often the case of the body) in too weak and depraved a situation to be restored to firm vigour and sanity, and should propose rather to palliate and lessen its disorders, than absolutely to cure them.
To consider the whole catalogue of diseases, to which our minds are liable, and to prescribe proper remedies for them all, would require a much longer treatise than what I now intend; I shall confine myself therefore to one only, and to a particular species of that one, viz. to affliction for the death of our friends.
This is a malady to which the best and worthiest of men are chiefly liable. It is, like a fever, the distemper of a rich and generous constitution. Indeed, we may say of those base tempers which are totally incapable of being affected with it, what a witty physician of the last age said of a shattered and rotten carcass, that they are not worth preserving.
For this reason the calm demeanour of Stilpo the philosopher, who, when he had lost his children at the taking Megara by Demetrius, concluded, he had lost nothing, for that he carried all which was his own about him, hath no charms for me. I am more apt to impute such sudden tranquillity, at so great a loss, to ostentation or obduracy, than to consummate virtue. It is rather wanting the affection than conquering it. To overcome the affliction arising from the loss of our friends, is great and praiseworthy; but it requires some reason and time. This sudden unruffled composure is owing to mere insensibility; to a depravity of the heart, not goodness of the understanding.
But in a mind of a different cast, in one susceptible of a tender affection, fortune can make no other ravage equal to such a loss. It is tearing the heart, the soul from the body; not by a momentary operation, like that by which the most cruel tormentors of the body soon destroy the subject of their cruelty; but by a continued, tedious, though violent agitation; the soul having this double unfortunate superiority to the body, that its agonies, as they are more exquisite, so they are more lasting.
If however this calamity be not in a more humane disposition to be presently or totally removed, an attempt to lessen it is, however, worth our attention. He who could reduce the torments of the gout to one-half or a third of the pain, would, I apprehend, be a physician in much vogue and request; and surely, some palliative remedies are as much worth our seeking in the mental disorder; especially if this latter should (as appears to me who have felt both) exceed the former in its anguish a hundred fold.
I will proceed, therefore, without further apology, to present my reader with the best prescriptions I am capable of furnishing; many of which have this uncommon recommendation, that I have tried them upon myself with some success. And if Montaigne be right in his choice of a physician, who had himself had the disease which he undertook to cure, I shall at least have that pretension to some confidence and regard.
And first, by way of preparative; while we yet enjoy our friends, and no immediate danger threatens us of losing them, nothing can be wholesomer than frequent reflections on the certainty of this loss, however distant it may then appear to us; for if it be worth our while to prepare the body for diseases which may possibly (or at most probably) attack us, how much more necessary must it seem to furnish the mind with every alliance to encounter a calamity, which our own death only, or the previous determination of our friendship, can prevent from happening to us.
It hath been mentioned as one of the first ingredients of a wise man, that nothing befalls him entirely unforeseen, and unexpected. And this is surely the principal means of taking his happiness or misery out of the hands of fortune. Pleasure or pain, which seizes us unprepared, and by surprise, have a double force, and are both more capable of subduing the mind, than when they come upon us looking for them, and prepared to receive them. That pleasure is heightened by long expectation, appears to me a great though vulgar error. The mind, by constant premeditation on either, lessens the sweetness of the one, and bitterness of the other. It hath been well said of lovers, who for a long time procrastinate and delay their happiness, that they have loved themselves out before they come to the actual enjoyment; this is as true in the more ungrateful article of affliction. The objects of our passions, as well as of our appetites, may be in a great measure devoured by imagination; and grief, like hunger, may be so palled and abated by expectation, that it may retain no sharpness when its food is set before it.
The thoughts which are to engage our consideration on this head, are too various, and many of them too obvious, to be enumerated; the principal are surely, First, the certainty of the dissolution of this alliance, however sweet it be to us, or however closely the knot be tied. Secondly, the extreme shortness of this duration, even at the best. And, Thirdly, the many accidents by which it is daily and hourly liable of being brought to an end.
Had not the wise man frequently meditated on these subjects, he would not have coolly answered the person who acquainted him with the death of his son — I KNEW I had begot a Mortal. Whereas, by the behaviour of some on these occasions, we might be almost induced to suspect they were disappointed in their hopes of their friend's immortality; that something uncommon, and beyond the general fate of men, had happened to them. In a word, that they had flattered their fondness for their children and friends as enthusiastically as the poets have their works, which
- — nec Jovis ira nec ignis,
- Nec poterit ferrum, nec edax abolere vetustas.
Nor is there any dissuasive from such contemplation: it is no breach of friendship, nor violence of paternal fondness: for the event we dread and detest, is not by these means forwarded, as simple persons think their own death would be by making a will. On the contrary, the sweetest and most rapturous enjoyments are thus promoted and encouraged: for what can be a more delightful thought than to assure ourselves, after such reflections, that the evil we apprehend, and which might so probably have happened, hath been yet fortunately escaped. If it be true, that the loss of a blessing teaches us its true value, will not these ruminations on the certainty of losing our friends, and the uncertainty of our enjoyment of them, add a relish to the present possession? Shall we not, in a word, return to their conversation, after such reflections, with the same eagerness and ecstacy, with which we receive those we love into our arms, when we first wake from a dream which hath terrified us with their deaths?
Thus then we have a double incentive to these meditations; as they serve as well to heighten our present enjoyment, as to lessen our future loss, and to fortify us against it. I shall now proceed to give my reader some instructions for his conduct, when this dreadful catastrophe has actually befallen him.
And here I address myself to common men, and who partake of the more amiable weaknesses of human nature; not to those elevated souls whom the consummation of virtue and philosophy hath raised to a divine pitch of excellence, and placed beyond the reach of human calamity; for which reason I do not expect this loss shall be received with the composure of Stilpo. Nay, I shall not regard tears, lamentations, or any other indulgence to the first agonies of our grief on so dreadful an occasion, as marks of effeminacy; but shall rather esteem them as the symptoms of a laudable tenderness, than of a contemptible imbecility of heart.
However, though I admit the first emotions of our grief to be so far irresistible, that they are not to be instantly and absolutely overcome, yet we are not, on the other side, totally to abandon ourselves to them. Wisdom is our shield against all calamity, and this we are not cowardly to throw away, though some of the sharper darts of fortune may have pierced us through it. The mind of a wise man may be ruffled and disordered, but cannon be subdued; in the former, it differs from the perfection of the Deity; in the latter, from the abject condition of a fool.
With whatever violence our passions at first attack us, they will in time subside. It is then that reason is to be called to our assistance, and we should use every suggestion which it can lend to our relief; our utmost force being to be exerted to repel and subdue an enemy when he begins to retreat: this indeed, one would imagine, should want little or no persuasion to recommend it; inasmuch as we all naturally pursue happiness and avoid misery.
There are, however, two causes of our unwillingness to hearken to the voice of reason on this occasion. The first, a foolish opinion, that friendship requires an exorbitant affliction of us; that we are thus discharging our duty to the dead, and offering (according to the superstition of the ancients) an agreeable sacrifice to their manes; the other, and perhaps the commoner motive is, the immediate satisfaction we ourselves feel in this indulgence; which, though attended with very dreadful consequences, gives the same present relief to a tender disposition, that air or water brings to one in a high fever.
Now, what can possibly, on the least examination, appear more absurd than the former of these ? When the grave, beyond which we can enter into no engagement with one another, hath dissolved all bonds of friendship between us, and removed the object of our affection far from the reach of any of our offices; can any thing be more vain and ridiculous, than to nourish an affliction to our own misery, by which we can convey neither profit nor pleasure to our friend? But I shall not dwell on an absurdity so monstrous in itself, that the bare first mention throws it in a light which no illustration nor argument can heighten.
And as to the second, it is, as I have said, like those indulgences which, however pleasant they may be to the distemper, serve only to increase it, and for which we are sure to pay the bitterest agonies in the end. Nothing can indeed betray a weaker or more childish temper of mind than this conduct; by which, like infants, we reject a remedy, if it be the least distasteful; and are ready to receive any grateful food, without regarding the nourishment which at the same time we contribute to the disease.
Without staying, therefore, longer to argue with such, I shall first recommend to my disciple or patient, of another complexion, carefully to avoid all circumstances which may revive the memory of the deceased, whom it is now his business to forget as fast, and as much as possible; whereas, such is the perverseness of our natures, we are constantly endeavouring, at every opportunity, to recall to our remembrance the words, looks, gestures, and other particularities of a friend. One carries about with him the picture; a second the hair; and others, some little gift or token of the dead, as a memorial of their loss. What is all this less than being self-tormentors, and playing with affliction? Indeed, time is the truest and best physician on these occasions; and our wisest part is to lend him the utmost assistance we can; whereas, by pursuing the methods I have here objected to, we withstand with all our might the aid and comfort which that great reliever of human misery so kindly offers us.
Diversions of the lightest kind have been recommended as a remedy for affliction; but for my part, I rather conceive they will increase than diminish it; especially where music is to make up any part of the entertainment; for the nature of this is to sooth or inflame, not to alter our passions. Indeed, I should rather propose such diversions by way of trial than of cure; for when they can be pursued with any good effect, our affliction is, I apprehend, very little grievous or dangerous.
To say the truth, the physic for this, as well as every other mental disorder, is to be dispensed to us by philosophy and religion. The former of these words (however unhappily it hath contracted the contempt of the pretty gentlemen and fine ladies) doth surely convey, to those who understand it, no very ridiculous idea. Philosophy, in its purer and stricter sense, means no more than the love of wisdom; but in its common and vulgar acceptation it signifies, the search after wisdom; or often, wisdom itself; for to distinguish between wisdom and philosophy (says a great writer), is rather matter of vain curiosity than of real utility.
Now from this fountain (call it by which of the names we please) may be drawn the following considerations:
First, the injustice of our complaint, who have been only obliged to fulfil the condition on which we first received the good, whose loss we deplore, viz. that of parting with it again. We are tenants at will to fortune, and as we have advanced no consideration on our side, can have no right to accuse her caprice in determining our estate. However short-lived our possession hath been, it was still more than she promised, or we could demand. We are already obliged to her for more than we can pay; but, like ungrateful persons, with whom one denial effaces the remembrance of an hundred benefits, we forget what we have already received; and rail at her, because she is not pleased to continue those favours, which of her own free-will she hath so long bestowed on us.
Again, as we might have been called on to fulfil the condition of our tenure long before, so, sooner or later, of necessity we must have done it. The longest term we could hope for is extremely short, and compared by Solomon himself to the length of a span. Of what duration is this life of man computed? A scrivener, who sells his annuity at fourteen years and a half, rejoices in his cunning, and thinks he hath outwitted you, at least half a year in the bargain.
But who will ensure these fourteen years? No man. On the contrary, how great is the premium for insuring you one? and great as it is, he who accepts it, is often a loser.
I shall not go into the hackneyed common-place of the numberless avenues to death; a road almost as much beaten by writers, as those avenues to death are by mankind: Tibullus sums them up in half a verse,
- — Leti mille repente viae.
Surely no accident can befal our friend which should so little surprise us; for there is no other which he may not escape. In poverty, pain, or other instances, his lot may be harder than his neighbour's. In this the happiest and most miserable, the greatest and lowest, richest and poorest of mankind share all alike.
It is not then, it cannot be, death itself (which is a part of life) that we lament should happen to our friend, but it is the time of his dying. We desire not a pardon, we desire a reprieve only. A reprieve, for how long? Sine die. But if he could escape this fever, this small-pox, this inflammation of the bowels, he may live twenty years. He may so; but it is more probable he will not live ten; it is very possible, not one. But suppose he should have twenty, nay thirty years to come. In prospect, it is true, the term seems to have some duration; but cast your eyes backwards, and how contemptible the span appears: for it happens in life (however pleasant the journey may be) as to a weary traveller, the plain he is yet to pass extends itself much larger to his eye than that which he hath already conquered.
And suppose fortune should be so generous to indulge us in the possession of our wish, and give us this twenty years longer possession of our friend, should we be then contented to resign? Or shall we not, in imitation of a child who desires its mamma to stay five minutes, and it will take the potion, be still as unwilling as ever? I am afraid the latter will be the case; seeing that neither our calamity, nor the child's physic, becomes less nauseous by the delay.
But, admitting this condition to be never so hard, will not philosophy shew us the folly of immoderate affliction ? Can all our sorrow mend our case? Can we wash back our friend with our tears, or waft him back with our sighs and lamentations? It is a foolish mean-spiritedness in a criminal, to blubber to his judge when he knows he shall not prevail by it; and it is natural to admire those more who meet their fate with a decent constancy and resignation. Were the sentences of fate capable of remission; could our sorrows or sufferings restore our friends to us, I would commend him who outdid the fabled Niobe in weeping: but since no such event is to be expected; since from that Bourne no Traveller returns; surely it is the part of a wise man, to bring himself to be content in a situation which no wit or wisdom, labour or art, trouble or pain, can alter.
And let us seriously examine our hearts, whether it is for the sake of our friends or ourselves, that we grieve. I am ready to agree with a celebrated French writer, That the lamentation expressed for the loss of our dearest friends is often, in reality, for ourselves; that we are concerned at being less happy, less easy, and of less consequence than we were before; and thus the dead enjoy the honour of those tears which are truly shed on account of the living: concluding, — that in these afflictions men impose on themselves. Now, if, on the inquiry, this should be found to be our case, I shall leave the patient to seek his remedy elsewhere, having first recommended to him an assembly, a ball, an opera, a play, an amour, or, if he please, all of them; which will very speedily produce his cure. But, on the contrary, if, after the strictest examination, it should appear (as I make no doubt is sometimes the case) that our sorrow arises from that pure and disinterested affection which many minds are so far from being capable of entertaining, that they can have no idea of it; in a word, if it be manifest that our fears are justly to be imputed to our friend's account, it may be then worth our while to consider the nature and degree of this misfortune which hath happened to him; and if, on duly considering it, we should be able to demonstrate to ourselves, that this supposed dreadful calamity should exist only in opinion, and all its horrors vanish, on being closely and nearly examined; then, I apprehend, the very foundation of our grief will be removed, and it must, of necessary consequence, immediately cease.
I shall not attempt to make an estimate of human life, which to do in the most concise manner, would fill more pages than I can here allow it; nor will it be necessary for me, since admitting there was more real happiness in life than the wisest men have allowed; as the weakest and simplest will be ready to confess that there is much evil in it likewise; and as I conceive every partial man will, on casting up the whole, acknowledge that the latter is more than a balance for the former, I apprehend it will appear, sufficiently for my purpose, that death is not that king of terrors as he is represented to be.
Death is nothing more than the negation of life. If therefore life be no general good, death is no general evil. Now, if this be a point in judgment, who shall decide it? Shall we prefer the judgment of women and children, or of wise men? If of the latter, shall I not have all their suffrages with me? Thales, the chief of the sages, held life and death as things indifferent. Socrates, the greatest of all the philosophers, speaks of death as of a deliverance. Solomon, who had tasted all the sweets of life, condemns the whole as vanity and vexation: and Cicero (to name no more) whose life had been a very fortunate one, assures us in his old age, that if any of the gods would frankly offer him to renew his infancy, and live his life over again, he would strenuously refuse it.
But if we will be hardy enough to fly in the face of these and numberless other such authorities; if we will still maintain that the pleasures of life have in them something truly solid, and worthy our regard and desire, we shall not, however, be bold enough to say, that these pleasures are lasting, certain, or the portion of many among us. We shall not, I apprehend, insure the possession of them to our friend, nor secure him from all those evils which, as I have before said, none have ever denied the real existence of; nor shall we surely contend, that he may not more likely have escaped the latter, than have been deprived of the former.
I remember the most excellent of women, and tenderest of mothers, when, after a painful and dangerous delivery, she was told she had a daughter,  answering; Good God! have I produced a creature who is to undergo what I have suffered! Some years afterwards, I heard the same woman, on the death of that very child, then one of the loveliest creatures ever seen, comforting herself with reflecting, that her child could never know what it was to feel such a loss as she then lamented.
In reality, she was right in both instances; and however instinct, youth, a flow of spirits, violent attachments, and above all, folly may blind us, the day of death is (to most people at least) a day of more happiness than that of our birth, as it puts an end to all those evils which the other gave a beginning to. So just is that sentiment of Solon, which Croesus afterwards experienced the truth of, and which is couched in these lines:
- — ultima semper
- Expectanda dies homini, dicique beatus
- Ante obitum nemo, postremaque funera debet.
If therefore death be no evil, there is certainly no reason why we should lament its having happened to our friend; but if there be any whom neither his own observation, nor what Plato hath advanced in his apology for Socrates, in his Crito, and his Phaedon; or Cicero, in the first and third books of his Tusculan questions; or Montaigne (if he hath a contempt for the ancients), can convince, that death is not an evil worthy our lamentation, let such a man comfort himself, that the evil which his friend hath suffered, he shall himself shortly have his share in. As nothing can be a greater consolation to a delicate friendship than this, so there is nothing we may so surely depend on. A few days may, and a few years most infallibly will bring this about, and we shall then reap one benefit from the cause of our present affliction, that we are not then to be torn from the person we love.
These are, I think, the chief comforts which the voice of human philosophy can administer to us on this occasion. Religion goes much farther, and gives us a most delightful assurance, that our friend is not barely no loser, but a gainer by his dissolution; that those virtues and good qualities which were the objects of our affection on earth, are now become the foundation of his happiness and reward in a better world.
Lastly: it gives a hope, the sweetest, most endearing, and ravishing, which can enter into a mind capable of, and inflamed with friendship — the hope of again meeting the beloved person, of renewing and cementing the dear union in bliss everlasting. This is a rapture which leaves the warmest imagination at a distance. Who can conceive (says Sherlock, in his Discourse on Death) the melting caresses of two souls in Paradise? What are all the trash and trifles, the bubbles, bawbles and gewgaws of this life, to such a meeting? This is a hope which no reasoning shall ever argue me out of, nor millions of such worlds as this should purchase; nor can any man shew me its absolute impossibility, till he can demonstrate that it is not in the power of the Almighty to bestow it on me.
- Fielding's own daughter, Charlotte, who died in 1742 aged five. She was buried in St Martin in the Fields. (Rogers, Pat: Henry Fielding: A Biography. London, Elek. 1979. p.126.)