Epictetus on Love and Loss: The Stoic Strategy for Surviving Heartbreak
“Who is good if he knows not who he is? and who knows what he is, if he forgets that things which have been made are perishable, and that it is not possible for one human being to be with another always?”
By Maria Popova
“Future love does not exist,” Tolstoy wrote in contemplating the paradoxical demands of love. “Love is a present activity only. The man who does not manifest love in the present has not love.” It is a difficult concept to accept — we have been socialized to believe in and grasp after the happily-ever-after future of every meaningful relationship. But what happens when love, whatever its category and classification, dissolves under the interminable forces of time and change, be it by death or by some other, more deliberate demise? In the midst of what feels like an unsurvivable loss, how do we moor ourselves to the fact that even the most beautiful, most singularly gratifying things in life are merely on loan from the universe, granted us for the time being?
Two millennia ago, the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55–135 AD) argued that the antidote to this gutting grief is found not in hedging ourselves against prospective loss through artificial self-protections but, when loss does come, in orienting ourselves to it and to what preceded it differently — in training ourselves not only to accept but to embrace the temporality of all things, even those we most cherish and most wish would stretch into eternity, so that when love does vanish, we are left with the irrevocable gladness that it had entered our lives at all and animated them for the time that it did.
In The Discourses of Epictetus (public library), under the heading That we ought not to be moved by a desire of those things which are not in our power, the Stoic sage writes:
Who is good if he knows not who he is? and who knows what he is, if he forgets that things which have been made are perishable, and that it is not possible for one human being to be with another always?
Epictetus — a proponent of the wonderful practice of self-scrutiny applied with kindness — proceeds to offer a meditation on loosening the grip of grief in parting permanently from someone we have loved:
When you are delighted with anything, be delighted as with a thing which is not one of those which cannot be taken away, but as something of such a kind, as an earthen pot is, or a glass cup, that, when it has been broken, you may remember what it was and may not be troubled… What you love is nothing of your own: it has been given to you for the present, not that it should not be taken from you, nor has it been given to you for all time, but as a fig is given to you or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year. But if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool. 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.
In a sentiment addressing the corporeal mortality of our loved ones, but equally applicable to the loss of love in a non-physical sense, Epictetus adds:
At the times when you are delighted with a thing, place before yourself the contrary appearances. What harm is it while you are kissing your child to say with a lisping voice, “To-morrow you will die”; and to a friend also, “To-morrow you will go away or I shall, and never shall we see one another again”?
When we are able to regard what we love in such a way, Epictetus argues, its inevitable loss would leave in us not paralyzing devastation but what Abraham Lincoln would later term “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.” To retain the memory of love’s sweetness without letting the pain of parting and loss embitter it is perhaps the greatest challenge for the bereaved heart, and its greatest achievement.
Complement this particular fragment of Epictetus’s abidingly insightful Discourses with computing pioneer Alan Turing on love and loss and other great artists, scientists, and writers on how to live with loss, then revisit more of the Stoics’ timeless succor for the traumas of living: Seneca on resilience in the face of loss, the antidote to anxiety, and what it means to be a generous human being, Marcus Aurelius on living through difficult times and how to motivate yourself to rise each morning and do your work.
Published August 26, 2018