In book 4 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s son Telemachos arrives in Sparta to quiz Menelaos on whether Odysseus is still alive and if so where he might be. Menelaos reduces everyone (including himself) to tears by telling everyone how sad he is that Odysseus hasn’t made it home. He then says it’s time for them to pull themselves together and have dinner. His wife Helen, however, also wants to talk about Odysseus, and has a bright idea:
Into the wine of which they were drinking she cast a medicine
of heartsease, free of gall, to make one forget all sorrows,
and whoever had drunk it down once it had been mixed in the wine bowl,
for the day that he drank it would have no tear roll down his face,
not if his mother died and his father died, not if men
murdered a brother or beloved son in his presence
with the bronze, and he with his own eyes saw it. Such were
the subtle medicines Zeus’ daughter had in her possessions,
good things … (4.220-28, trans. Lattimore)
What would it be to ‘forget all sorrows’? And would it be rational voluntarily to take such a drug if it became available? Thinking about these questions raises further issues about the nature of well-being and the value of the emotions, and is particularly appropriate at a time when it is being widely claimed that there may be therapeutic benefits in memory modification or other interventions.
Some people claim that suffering pain is good in itself. It usually turns out, however, that they mean that suffering is good in so far as it enables one to acquire some other good, such as understanding what others are going or have gone through, or certain profound truths about human life. It’s also common for people to suggest that suffering, though it may be bad in itself, is required as a background against which certain good things in life – in particular, of course, pleasure – can stand out. These and other such claims, however, seem especially dubious in the case of someone who has already experienced quite a lot of suffering and can remember it – as will be true of nearly all adult human beings.
Other kinds of suffering, however, are more tricky. Telemachos fears his father may be dead, and one of Helen’s aims is to avoid arousing grief in him. Grief is usually unpleasant, sometimes extremely so. What if some medication could permanently remove any tendency to grief, with no damaging side-effects? It might be thought that if Telemachos were to remain unmoved by the notion of his beloved father’s death, this would somehow undermine the depth of their relationship. But perhaps Helen’s aim is not to remove the cognitive and more positive conative aspects of the experience of grief, but merely the unpleasant feeling. So Telemachus can still think fondly of his father’s patient heart, kindness, bravery, nobility and so on, and of how bad it would be were he to have been killed on his way home from Troy. And perhaps he can still be said to love his father, still being strongly motivated to search for him, spend time with him, and so on.
But even if this is right, it’s not clear that it would be rational to eradicate the capacity for grief in oneself entirely. For indulging in the feeling of grief as a response to fictional events – including many of those depicted in Homer, of course — can be a positively enjoyable experience. Helen might be able to provide a medicine that distinguishes between ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ grief; but it’s hard to imagine that, even in the medium-term future, human beings are going be able to do that.