The pathetic syllogism and how to console people in grief

Massimo Pigliucci
Dec 23, 2019 · 5 min read

Imagine that a close friend of yours has experienced the loss of a loved one. Understandably, she is in grief. But this has been going on for a while now, and she risks not being able to get back to a normal, functional existence. How do you console her?

Turns out, the answer depends on whether she is a practitioner of Stoic philosophy or not. And a strategy for each case was laid out more than two millennia ago by the second and third leaders of the Stoa: respectively, Cleanthes and Chrysippus.

In his Tusculan Disputations (III.76), Cicero summarizes the two methods. We learn that Cleanthes’ approach relies on reminding the person who is grieving that death is a natural thing, and not really an evil, since the only true evils are our own bad judgments (and the only true goods are our own good judgments). As Cicero puts it, the intention is “to teach the sufferer that what happened is not an evil at all.”

Obviously, this is going to have track with someone who has adopted Stoicism as their philosophy of life, but not with someone who hasn’t. Indeed, I would highly recommend not to use Cleanthes’ method with a non-Stoic. You would come across as callous and insensitive, and your friend may begin to distance herself from you.

But Cicero also tells us about Chrysippus’ method: “to get rid of the person’s belief that mourning is something he ought to do, something just and appropriate.” For instance, Seneca, in his letter of consolation to Marcia, says that her grief over the death of one of her sons is understandable, but it has gone on for quite some time, and now she has began to neglect her other offspring, her husband, her friends, and her social duties. It is, then, time to set the grief aside and rejoin the world, for the sake of others, if not for her own.

As it happens, the two methods are based on the two ways to challenge what Margaret Graver, author of Stoicism and Emotion, calls “the pathetic syllogism.” I love the term, but let’s make clear what we are talking about.

A syllogism, of course, is a type of deductive reasoning of the form:

P1: X is Y

P2: Y is Z

C: Therefore, X is Z

Where P1 is the first premise, P2 the second premise, and C the conclusion.

For instance:

P1: Spiderman is a man

P2: Men are mortal

C: Therefore Spiderman is mortal

As for the word “pathetic,” in this context it doesn’t have the modern English meaning of “miserably inadequate; of very low standard,” but is instead rooted in the Greek word apatheia, meaning lack of passions. The passions (pathē) are the negative emotions, such as fear, anger, and hatred. As distinct from the positive emotions (eupatheiai), like joy, love, or a sense of justice.

So the pathetic syllogism is a particular piece of deductive reasoning having to do with the negative emotions. It goes like this:

P1: Thing T is evil

P2: If an evil is present it is appropriate for me to feel distress

P3: I am now confronting an instance of thing T

C: It is appropriate for me to feel distress

For instance, in the case of our hypothetical grieving friend:

P1: The death of a loved one is an evil

P2: If an evil is present it is appropriate for me to feel distress, e.g., grief

P3: A loved one has died

C: It is appropriate for me to feel grief

We can now see that Cleanthes’ strategy to deal with grief attacks Premise 1 of the pathetic syllogism, denying that the death of a loved one is an evil (though it is certainly “dispreferred,” in Stoic terminology).

By contrast, Chrysippus’ strategy attacks Premise 2 of the pathetic syllogism, denying that it is appropriate (in this particular moment, at least) to feel grief at the death of a loved one.

(Premise 3 is just a fact: a loved one has died, so it cannot be challenged, unless it turns out that the person in question did not, in fact, die!)

It’s also obvious why Cleanthes’ approach should be deployed only with people who practice Stoicism, while Chrysippus’ line of attack can be followed in any case, with both Stoics and non-Stoics, but especially the latter ones. As Graver puts it, in Chapter 9 of her book: “The Chrysippan method of consolation enables a Stoic philosopher to assist people who are not ready to accept his position on the value of externals. … For Chrysippus it is the duty of the philosophical therapist to alleviate the emotional ills of all people, including those who adhere to the Peripatetic view that there are three classes of goods (goods of the body and of estate as well as of the soul), or to the Epicurean view that pleasure is the good. … It is therefore very helpful, says Chrysippus, if one can proceed in a way that avoids confrontation with their evaluative beliefs.”

And here is the Master himself, from one of the few fragments we have of his now lost writings:

“For even if it should be that there are three classes of goods, even so one should work to cure the emotions. But during the critical period of the inflammation one should not waste one’s efforts over the belief that preoccupies the person stirred by emotion, lest we ruin the cure which is opportune by lingering at the wrong moment over the refutation of the beliefs which preoccupy the mind. And even if pleasure is the good and this is the view of the person who is overcome by the emotion, one should nonetheless assist him and demonstrate that every emotion is inconsistent, even for those who assume that pleasure is the good and is the goal.” (Origen, Against Celsus 8.51, from Chrysippus, On Emotions, book 4)

I love this passage because not only it refers to a method of consolation that has the potential to work independently of the individual’s philosophical commitments. It also reminds us that the Stoics care more about alleviating suffering than about purity of doctrine.

Massimo Pigliucci

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Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

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