Good Grief?

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.

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5 Responses to Good Grief?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    For me this somewhat begs the question *why* we enjoy fictional grief. Is it really the grief we are enjoying, or is that rather a price we pay for other aspects of the experience? For example, we might have a good cry in the movie and come out feeling refreshed, cleansed and enriched. Arguably it is the experience as a whole that we later describe as "enjoyable", rather than the grief itself. Also, this "enjoyment" is enabled by its utterly short-term nature: even in the throes of grief some part of you knows you will be returning to the real world soon, and enjoying the endorphin rush. It's the chronic nature of real grief that makes it so relentlessly umpleasant and debilitating.

    So I don't think the fictional/real distinction provides a compelling argument against taking the pill against grief. In fact, in the sense that any kind of grief counselling or self-help is designed, at some level and over some timescale, to make you feel better, it's difficult to see how this really differs from the memory-preserving pill you describe.

    Whether it makes sense to ask whether this makes taking the pill the "rational" depends on whether you embrace some kind of moral realism, and you know my position on that. You might just not like the idea of taking drugs, and while this is not "rational" it's not clear to me that it's particularly "irrational" either. Also, I think it's important to consider questions of identity and continuity. I think what scares a lot of people about the idea of such a grief-erasing drug, even assuming it's effects were permanent rather than (like actual drugs) short-lived and addictive, is the difficulty one has really identifying with this post-grief existence. The question one is asking is, "What's the point in being happy if I'm no longer me?"

    RSC: On your first point, Peter, it seems to me the question is whether we’d still enjoy the experience *without* the grief, even if it is not the grief in itself that we enjoy.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    It should not go un-noticed that Helen’s recipe lasts only for a day : the equivalent of getting drunk or otherwise stoned (though perhaps more effective and with less side-effects the next morning).
    It is not memory modification, but a way of trying to adapt to grief, to manage to survive regardless of its debilitating effect, to prove that we can survive at least 24 hours despite the grief.
    But maintaining our capacity for grief seems to be something different from this. This capacity could be argued to be a necessary condition for empathy : without it, we would have no real notion of others’ suffering (clearly this needs to be argued in detail – for the present I know that I am simply stating an intuition).
    It is precisely this that makes me believe that its eradication would be amoral : ie reduce our capacity as moral agents.
    This is not to claim that grief is « good », merely that it would be straightforward to mount a case for not wanting to elimate it.

    Besides, what would it mean to eliminate grief ?
    Imagining that the death of a loved one has not happened ? – clearly not imaginable without denying a clearly observable fact.
    Imagining that one had not really loved the person ? – an equal denial of reality.
    Imagining that one is not really sad or overwhelmed by the death ? – a dangerous step in denying one’s emotions.

    That there is clear therapeutic value in helping people cope with grief is unarguable, whether through pharmacology, counselling or old-fashioned talking with significant others – although I have a certain distaste for the current vogue of sending crisis therapists every time that something dramatic happens in the world.
    But this is very far from wishing to eliminate grief altogether.

    To conclude, the fact that I have to take at least 4 Kleenex if I hear Pucinni doesn’t really change things : I think all of us are capable of distinguishing « manufactured » grief from the real thing….

    RSC: Not sure about grief and empathy, Anthony, though of course you may be right. I’m assuming one could still feel other kinds of pain even if not the pain of grief, and that might enable one to empathize even with another person’s grief (presumably one would remember what grief is like).

  • Sebastian Hallward says:

    "Memory depends on pain, which was Nietzche's fiercely Homeric analysis of all significant memory . . .pain creates memory, pain is the meaning, and meaning is therefore painful" — it is the price we pay for other experiences, clearly.

    RSC: Nietzsche provides a good analysis of many mistaken beliefs we have. But this is one of his own!

  • Marco Antônio Oliveira de Azevedo says:

    Hi Roger. Very nice points. I agree with Anthony that elimination of grief (I mean, complete elimination) has (or at least can have) bad implications for the kind of life we have and praise. Eliminating grief or sorrow (or all of the other uneasy emotions that Hume called “strong passions”) would mean not only an elimination of an important part of our normal physiology (with practical consequences for our life– something Nietzsche and others have pointed out), but it would also mean having disturbing consequences for our own sense of reality. Besides that, contrariwise Peter, being a realist in ethics – and even perhaps an anti-hedonist too – I think that the value of our emotions is not in the pleasure or pain they can afford us; their value is practical, that is, instrumental: emotions have practical value for the success of our learning how to accomplish a good life. Hence, grief and joy are important mainly because they are reactions to reality; they are nothing more than enjoyable mental occurrences – even funny ones – when they are only reactions to fictions. (Roger, if you please, this is an oblique comment to your hedonistic reply to Nozick’s criticism on hedonism at pages 117ss of your Reasons and the Good.) We should, anyway, distinguish the use of “forgetting pills” for some “therapeutic” purposes (for example, to relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression and the like) – or its use on helping people to cope with grief, sorrow and other uneasy feelings – and the use of those same pills (daily, perhaps) for eliminating (completely) the memories of some uneasy happenings. Anyway, both have dangerous consequences, but the last has the worst ones. For memories are related to reality, and to voluntarily eliminating memories implies evading himself from reality; this has obvious serious consequences for the ethical life – that’s Nozick’s point on the experience machine. It would means to abandon not only real experiences, but the persons we love and even ourselves. Only people that do not love anything (or anyone) would accept it. I don’t think that that was Helen’s intentions. She wanted to protect others from sadness and uneasiness. But the answer to her is, I agree with Sebastian, a Nietzschean answer. We cannot evade ourselves from those “sufferings” without paying the high price.

    RSC: Thanks, Marco. I know what you mean by saying that grief is a response to reality. But what aspect of reality will I miss if I can no longer grieve? The only aspect I can think of is ‘the appropriateness of grieving’, and I’m not convinced there is such a property.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    In answer to Anthony's question, "What would it mean to eliminate grief?", I think the answer that I read into Roger's original post is basically: knowing and understanding that the death of the loved one has occurred; knowing and understanding that one did love, and still loves the memory of, that person; but not feeling sad about it. This is to be distinguished from *imagining* that one is not sad, which I agree would (assuming one actually *is* sad) be a denial of reality. By the way, sometimes this denial works the other way round: people think they *ought* to be sad, and then feeling guilty about that they aren't. The truth is that grief, like other emotional states, comes and goes, and I believe it is possible to think of a lost loved one and, under certain circumstances, not feel particularly sad about it.

    The idea that pain creates memory seems to me to be unnecessarily masochistic. It's certainly the case that intense emotions lead to the most vivid memories, but a moment's introspection is enough to tell us that they don't all need to be painful. And if we insist on the necessity of pain in order to "appreciate" pleasure, then why will we not conclude that it is OK to cause suffering, because we will allow that person to appreciate more pleasure later. Clearly this zero-sum logic must be failing somewhere.

    A related point – now in reply to Marco Antônio – is that if we are indeed to regard emotions as having value "not in the pleasure or pain they can afford us" but rather the role they play in helping us to learn "how to accomplish a good life", then we need – if we want to be as rational about this as possible – to have some alternative criteria for deciding what "a good life" actually is.

    In this context I refer to a comment Matt Sharp made in defence of moral realism in the thread "Spend a day with Charlie Teo". He wrote: "For moral realism, start with: If all other things are equal, suffering is bad, and pleasure is good. Then: If all other things are equal, actions which increase suffering are bad, and actions which increase pleasure are good." Although I still don't quite buy it, it's about as close as anyone has come to convincing me that moral realism is actually defensible. By contrast, if we don't accept this basic (utilitarian) pleasure=good pain=bad equivalence, then surely morality becomes even more a matter of choice and preference: something meaningful and worth discussing, but hardly something "real" that can be discovered and tested.

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