In the forty-first year of the common era the vile Emperor Caligula sentenced Seneca the Younger to exile on the island of Corsica. In so doing Caligula may have deprived Seneca of his enjoyment of the capital but he also provided him with the opportunity to produce the definitive stoic statement on the proper response to human suffering. For it is in De Consolatione ad Helviam, written in an effort to console his mother over the loss of his companionship, that Seneca articulates how best to approach life’s sorrows. Given that the Rostov family, Natasha in particular, is in for an extended period of hardship, they’d do well to refer to Seneca’s consolation if they can get their hands on a copy.
As it happens, the behavior of both Natasha and her father in this chapter — that, respectively, of indulgence of the emotion of sorrow on the one hand and its repression on the other — are both treated in Seneca’s consolation. It may come as a surprise to those only vaguely familiar with stoicism that Seneca does not counsel simple repression or Vulcan disavowal of the emotion. Rather, his position is actually closer to Natasha’s response to hardship than to her father’s.
Natasha spends the entirety of the chapter in a dejected lump. She shifts between anger, despair, and frustration as she dwells upon the fact that she has now lost both Andrei and Anatole. She sobs. She sobs a lot. When she’s not sobbing she’s staring stony-eyed and thought-crazed into space. In other words, she has fully abandoned herself to an indulgence of her hardship.
Her father, however, sensing that something has gone horribly wrong, decides to ignore the problem altogether and convince himself that nothing has happened.
If you were to judge stoicism simply from the comments found on the stoicism Facebook group or on their subreddit you’d assume that Seneca and the stoics would argue in favor of the suppression tactic of old count Rostov. Not true, it turns out. Seneca and the stoics actually allow for the expression of emotion. In fact, they encourage it to a certain extent as it is often a natural and automatic reaction to suffering or hardship. “No emotion is submissive,” Seneca writes, “least of all that which is born from sorrow; for it is wild and stubbornly resists every remedy. Sometimes we will to crush it and to swallow down our cries, yet tears pour down our faces even when we have framed the countenance to deceive. Sometimes we occupy the mind with public games or the bouts of gladiators, but amid the very spectacles that divert the mind it is crushed by some slight reminder of its loss. Therefore it is better to subdue our sorrow than to cheat it; for when it has withdrawn and has been beguiled by pleasures or engrossments, it rises up again, and from its very rest gathers new strength for its fury. But the grief that has submitted to reason is allayed for ever.”
So the next time you get hurt take a little Natasha time for yourself. But remember while you do the meditations of A Year of War and Peace. You’ll need them to make sure you win the battle against your sorrows.
The best course is the mean between affection and reason — both to have a sense of loss and to crush it.
Seneca, De Consolatione ad Helviam