The week, the month, and the day have been filled with horrors. Here is some potable coping advice from the ancients. N.B. Quotation is not endorsement. Drink safely and with friends.
Aulus Gellius 15.2
“But Plato in the first and second book of Laws did not—as was opined by a fool—praise that most shameful drunkenness which weakens and diminishes people’s minds; but he did not dismiss that kinder and a bit friendlier embrace of wine which may come under the influence of good judges and masters of banquets. For he believed that minds were renewed by proper and moderate refreshments for the purpose of carrying out the duties of sobriety and, further, that people were bit by bit made happier and rendered better prepared for pursuing their plans again.
At the same time, if there are any deep mistakes of desire or affection with in them which a proper sense of shame usually concealed, than these could all be revealed without serious danger and in this be made readier for alteration and treatment.”
Sed enim Plato in primo et secundo De Legibus non, ut ille nebulo opinabatur, ebrietatem istam turpissimam quae labefacere et inminuere hominum mentes solet laudavit, sed hanc largiorem paulo iucundioremque vini invitationem, quae fieret sub quibusdam quasi arbitris et magistris conviviorum sobriis, non inprobavit. Nam et modicis honestisque inter bibendum remissionibus refici integrarique animos ad instauranda sobrietatis officia existumavit reddique eos sensim laetiores atque ad intentiones rursum capiendas fieri habiliores, et simul, si qui penitus in his adfectionum cupiditatumque errores inessent, quos aliquis pudor reverens concelaret, ea omnia sine gravi periculo, libertate per vinum data detegi et ad corrigendum medendumque fieri oportuniora.
MacrobiusRecords the same bit as Gellius above and then adds:
Plato also said this in the same passage, that we ought not to avoid practices of this sort for struggling against the violence of wine and that there is no one who has ever seemed so constant and controlled that his life would not be tested in these very dangers of mistakes and in the illicit traps of pleasure.”
atque hoc etiam Plato ibidem dicit, non defugiendas esse huiusce modi exercitationes adversum propulsandam vini violentiam, neque ullum umquam continentem prorsum aut temperantem satis fideliter visum esse cui vita non inter ipsa errorum pericula et in mediis voluptatum inlecebris explorata sit.
We can get a bit more explicit:
From Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists (1.41.16-36)
“Mnestheus of Athens also insists that the Pythia commanded the Athenians to honor Dionysus as a doctor. So Alcaeus the Mitylenaean poet says:
Wet your lungs with wine, for the dog-star is rising. The season is rough: everything thirsts in this heat.
And elsewhere he says: “Let’s drink, for the dog star is rising.” Eupolis says that Callias is compelled to drink by Pythagoras so that “he may cleanse his lung before the dog star’s rise.” And it is not only the lung that gets dry, but the heart runs the same risk. That’s why Antiphanes says:
Tell me, why do we live? I say that it is to drink.* See how many trees alongside rushing streams Drink constantly throughout the day and night And how big and beautiful they grow. Those that abstain Wilt from the root up.
*A twitter correspondent has suggested that this really means “what is living, it is drinking”. This is definitely closer to the Greek idea; but I kept mine because I think it is punchier in English. Get it, punchier?
Baton, the Comic Poet (fr. 3.1-11, preserved in Athenaeus Deipn. 4.163b)
“I am calling the prudent philosophers here,
Those who never allow themselves anything good,
Those who seek a thoughtful man in every walk
And in their discussions as if he were a fugitive slave.
Wretched person, why are you sober if you have money?
Why do you dishonor the gods this much?
Why do you think money is worth more than you are?
Does it have some intrinsic worth?
If you drink water, you’re useless to the city.
You hurt the farmer and the trader at the same time.
But I make them wealthier by getting drunk.”
Prior to the spread of Christianity, Romans and Greeks had somewhat different attitudes on suicide from our own, but they were by no means consistent and harmonious. Some–like Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics–viewed suicide as cowardly. Roman authors like Cicero and Seneca go far to the other direction, seeming to glorify it at times while granting the act far greater complexity on other occasions.
For those of us who have suffered from depression or have lost loved ones to substance abuse or suicide, ancient comments on suicide and mental health can provide little comfort. Greek and Roman attitudes on the subject are important to reckon with, however, for the very reason that they can seem so different from our own.
The Ancient touches upon ours but does not necessarily need to define it. The boundaries of life and death cannot be crossed again. If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Cicero, De Officiis 1.112-113
“This diversity of charactertistics has so much power that it may be required for one person to bring about his own death but forbidden for another. For wasn’t Marcus Cato in one kind of need and others were in different situations when he gave himself up to Caesar in Africa? Perhaps there would have been condemnation of the others if they had killed themselves because their style of life and their habits had been easier while life granted Cato an unbelievable seriousness which he himself strengthened through unending dedication as he remained always persistent in his plans and his decisions. He had to die before gazing upon the face of a tyrant.
Think of how much Odysseus endured on his prolonged journey when he even served women—if Cicero and Calypso must be called women—and he labored to be likable and pleasant to everyone in every speech! Indeed, once at home he even put up with the insults of slaves and slave-girls so that he might finally come to the end he desired. But Ajax—thanks to the spirit he is given—would have preferred a thousand deaths to such indignity.”
Atque haec differentia naturarum tantam habet vim, ut non numquam mortem sibi ipse consciscere alius debeat, alius [in eadem causa] non debeat. Num enim alia in causa M. Cato fuit, alia ceteri, qui se in Africa Caesari tradiderunt? Atqui ceteris forsitan vitio datum esset, si se interemissent, propterea quod lenior eorum vita et mores fuerant faciliores, Catoni cum incredibilem tribuisset natura gravitatem eamque ipse perpetua constantia roboravisset semperque in proposito susceptoque consilio permansisset, moriendum potius quam tyranni vultus aspiciendus fuit.
Quam multa passus est Ulixes in illo errore diuturno, cum et mulieribus, si Circe et Calypso mulieres appellandae sunt, inserviret et in omni sermone omnibus affabilem [et iucundum]3esse se vellet! domi vero etiam contumelias servorum ancillarumque pertulit, ut ad id aliquando, quod cupiebat, veniret. At Aiax, quo animo traditur, milies oppetere mortem quam illa perpeti maluisset.
Seneca, De Beata Vita 19
“They deny that Diodorus the Epicuruean philosopher who in recent days took his own life with his own hand was not obedient to Epicurus when he cut his own throat. Some would wish that this deed be seen as insanity, others as fear—but he, at the same time, announced that he was happy and full with good conscience as he left life. He praised the time of life spent peaceful in port at anchor and spoke words which you have heard unwillingly as if you must do the same: “I have lived and I have completed the course fortune gave me.”
Diodorum, Epicureum philosophum, qui intra paucos dies finem vitae suae manu sua imposuit, negant ex decreto Epicuri fecisse, quod sibi gulam praesecuit. Alii dementiam videri volunt factum hoc eius, alii temeritatem; ille interim beatus ac plenus bona conscientia reddidit sibi testimonium vita excedens laudavitque aetatis in portu et ad ancoram actae quietem et dixit, quod vos inviti audistis, quasi vobis quoque faciendum sit:
“Achilles, respect the gods and take pity,
Once you think of your own father. I am even more pitiable,
Since I endure what no other mortal person ever has,
To reach my hands to the lips of the man who slaughtered my child.”
“Do I grieve for myself or the one who died? If I grieve for me, this torment of emotion is useless and sorrow—excused only because it is honorable—begins to depart from duty when it aims for advantage. Nothing fits a good person less than to make grief for a brother an issue of calculation.
If I grieve on his account, then one of the following two judgments must be true. For, if the dead have no feeling at all, then my brother has escaped the misfortunes of life and has returned to that place where he was before he was born where he is free of every evil, he fears nothing, desires nothing, endures nothing. What madness this is to never stop grieving for someone who will never grieve again?”
“Utrumne meo nomine doleo an eius qui decessit? Si meo, perit indulgentiae iactatio et incipit dolor hoc uno excusatus, quod honestus est, cum ad utilitatem respicit, a pietate desciscere; nihil autem minus bono viro convenit quam in fratris luctu calculos ponere. Si illius nomine doleo, necesse est alterutrum ex his duobus esse iudicem. Nam si nullus defunctis sensus superest, evasit omnia frater meus vitae incommoda et in eum restitutus est locum, in quo fuerat antequam nasceretur, et expers omnis mali nihil timet, nihil cupit, nihil patitur. Quis iste furor est pro eo me numquam dolere desinere, qui numquam doliturus est?
Talking Heads, “This Must be The Place (Naive Melody)
“…There was a time before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I’ll be…”