Ancient & Modern: Don’t Be Sorry You Said ‘Sorry’

neque imitare malos medicos qui in alienis morbis profitentur tenere se medicinae scientiam, ipsi se curare on possunt.

“Don’t be like those bad doctors who claim they have the knowledge to hear when it’s other people who are sick but can’t take care of themselves when they’re the ones who are ill.”

Servius Sulpicius Rufus  Ciceronis Epistulae ad Familiares 4.5.5

When Tullia, daughter of the great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, died in childbirth in early 45 BCE, his friend and fellow lawyer, Rufus, wrote him a letter of formal consolatio, or condolence, on the occasion of this personal tragedy.

Both consolatio and the personal letter are of great antiquity, examples of each being found already in the earliest literature of the West, Homeric poetry.  Indeed, consolatio was as common in poetic form as it was in prose, and it served equally in fictional modes and as consolatory buffer against the harsh impingements of a relentless reality.  Despite the high formalism that attached to the writing of such traditional genre pieces – e.g., it’s not the first time this has happened, time heals all, I know you have the strength to bear it, a similar thing happened to me, your friends are thinking of you, etc. etc. – the design of the nonfictional consolatio was sufficiently supple to accommodate a strategy of personalized particulars.

When you buy cards in a drugstore or grocery that contain both a preprinted message of sympathy and enough blank space for you to add your owns words to fit the specific situation of grief, you are buying into a most venerable bit of Western literary tradition.

Rufus cleverly and, to our way of thinking, insensitively adapts some of the formal consolatory motifs of the calamitous circumstance of the times, the violent disintegration of the Roman Republic.  He notes, for example, that Tullia now will not have to live through the catastrophes waiting to happen (as indeed they did!), and (to our astonishment) in unius mulierculae animula … iactura (“the loss in the case of the trivial life of a single trivial woman”) is after all a small matter when measured against the loss of the Republic.  What’s more, he continues, tamen ei moriedum fuit quoniam  homo nata fuerat (“she had to die sometime anyway, given that she’d been born  human”).

I obviously caution against such an egregious approach when you write your next letter of condolence.

It strikes our modern sensibilities in such matters as unbelievably callous for Rufus to write as he does to Cicero.  Although I doubt Cicero was entirely thrilled with this letter, I don’t believe he and ancient sensibilities were quite as offended as we would be.  Rufus’ point is that Cicero has made a great theoretical display in his writing of the need to bear life’s setbacks with philosophical fortitude, and now he has the perfect opportunity to illustrate theory with practice.  And what in fact seems cruel to us did not always seem cruel to the ancient Romans – one need think only of their often capricious and rebarbative treatment of slaves, and the enormous popularity of the brutal gladiatorial games.  For all their similarities to us and for all the valuable points of contact the we can readily make with them, we should never lose sight of the fact that in some important ways they, like the ancient Greeks, lived their lives with cultural assumptions about human beings and society that were so different from ours as to seem positively alien.

As for the details of the hortative analogy Rufus here formulates, it is grounded in the same experience of ancient Roman physicans that the poet Ovid, a couple generations later, apparently drew on.  In his Metamorphoses, he has the great physician-god, Apollo, sick in lust, say that although inventum medicina meum est, nec prosunt domino quae prosunt omnibus artes (“the art of healing is my discovery, but the skills that benefit everybody else don’t benefit the one who controls them”).  Roughly speaking, “physician” – or, in Cicero’s case, philosopher – “heal thyself.”

We may perhaps console ourselves that these observations have broader applicability to all of us, be we philosopher or physician or poet or whatever.

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