“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion observed in her classic meditation on loss. Abraham Lincoln, in his moving letter of consolation to a grief-stricken young woman, wrote of how time transmutes grief into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.” But what, exactly, is the mechanism of that transmutation and how do we master it before it masters us when grief descends in one of its unforeseeable guises?
Long before Didion, before Lincoln, another titan of thought — the great Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca — addressed this in what might be the crowning achievement in the canon of consolation letters, folding into his missive an elegant summation of Stoicism’s core tenets of resilience.
In the year 41, Seneca was sentenced to exile on the Mediterranean island of Corsica for an alleged affair with the emperor’s sister. Sometime in the next eighteen months, he penned one of his most extraordinary works — a letter of consolation to his mother, Helvia.
Helvia was a woman whose life had been marked by unimaginable loss — her own mother had died while giving birth to her, and she outlived her husband, her beloved uncle, and three of her grandchildren. Twenty days after one the grandchildren — Seneca’s own son — died in her arms, Helvia received news that Seneca had been taken away to Corsica, doomed to life in exile. This final misfortune, Seneca suggests, sent the lifelong tower of losses toppling over and crushing the old woman with grief, prompting him in turn to write Consolation to Helvia, included in his Dialogues and Letters (public library).
Although the piece belongs in the ancient genre of consolatio dating back to the fifth century B.C. — a literary tradition of essay-like letters written to comfort bereaved loved ones — what makes Seneca’s missive unusual is the very paradox that lends it its power: The person whose misfortune is being grieved is also the consoler of the griever.
I have often had the urge to console you and often restrained it. Many things have encouraged me to venture to do so. First, I thought I would be laying aside all my troubles when I had at least wiped away your tears, even if I could not stop them coming. Then, I did not doubt that I would have more power to raise you up if I had first risen myself… Staunching my own cut with my hand I was doing my best to crawl forward to bind up your wounds.
But what kept Seneca from intervening in his mother’s grief was, above all, the awareness that grief should be grieved rather than immediately treated as a problem to be solved and done away with. He writes:
I realized that your grief should not be intruded upon while it was fresh and agonizing, in case the consolations themselves should rouse and inflame it: for an illness too nothing is more harmful than premature treatment. So I was waiting until your grief of itself should lose its force and, being softened by time to endure remedies, it would allow itself to be touched and handled.
[Now] I shall offer to the mind all its sorrows, all its mourning garments: this will not be a gentle prescription for healing, but cautery and the knife.
Art by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, a remarkable Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss
In consonance with his strategy for inoculating oneself against misfortune, Seneca considers the benefits of such a raw confrontation of sorrow:
Let those people go on weeping and wailing whose self-indulgent minds have been weakened by long prosperity, let them collapse at the threat of the most trivial injuries; but let those who have spent all their years suffering disasters endure the worst afflictions with a brave and resolute staunchness.
Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.
In a sentiment of uncompromising Stoicism, he adds:
All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.
Observing the particular difficulty of his situation — being both his mother’s consoler and the subject of her grief — Seneca finds amplified the general difficulty of finding adequate words in the face of loss:
A man lifting his head from the very funeral pyre must need some novel vocabulary not drawn from ordinary everyday condolence to comfort his own dear ones. But every great and overpowering grief must take away the capacity to choose words, since it often stifles the voice itself.
Instead of mere words, Seneca proceeds to produce a rhetorical masterpiece, bringing the essence of Stoic philosophy to life with equal parts logic and literary flair. He writes:
I decided to conquer your grief not to cheat it. But I shall do this, I think, first of all if I show that I am suffering nothing for which I could be called wretched, let alone make my relations wretched; then if I turn to you and show that your fortune, which is wholly dependent on mine, is also not painful.
First I shall deal with the fact, which your love is longing to hear, that I am suffering no affliction. I shall make it clear, if I can, that those very circumstances which you think are crushing me can be borne; but if you cannot believe that, at least I shall be more pleased with myself for being happy in conditions which normally make men wretched. There is no need to believe others about me: I am telling you firmly that I am not wretched, so that you won’t be agitated by uncertainty. To reassure you further, I shall add that I cannot even be made wretched.
We are born under circumstances that would be favourable if we did not abandon them. It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself.
Art by Maurice Sendak from We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy
Echoing his animating ethos of deliberate preparation for the worst of times, he adds:
Fortune … falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her. For an enemy’s arrival too scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict, being properly drawn up and equipped, easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent. Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.
Seneca makes a sobering case for the most powerful self-protective mechanism in life — the discipline of not taking anything for granted:
No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change. His fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.
For this reason, Seneca points out, he has always regarded with skepticism the common goals after which people lust in life — money, fame, public favor — goals he has found to be “empty and daubed with showy and deceptive colours, with nothing inside to match their appearance.” But the converse, he argues, is equally true — the things people most commonly dread are as unworthy of dread to the wise person as the things they most desire are of wise desire. The very concept of exile, he assures his mother, seems so terrifying only because it has been filtered through the dread-lens of popular opinion.
With the logic of Stoicism, he goes on to comfort his mother by lifting this veil of common delusion. Urging her to “[put] aside this judgement of the majority who are carried away by the surface appearance of things,” he dismantles the alleged misfortune of all the elements of exile — displacement, poverty, public disgrace — to reveal that a person with interior stability of spirit and discipline of mind can remain happy under even the direst of circumstances. (Nearly two millennia later, Bruce Lee would incorporate this concept into his famous water metaphor for resilience and Viktor Frankl would echo it in his timeless assertion that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”)
Seneca then comes full-circle to his opening argument that grief is better confronted than resisted:
It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.
Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death
Seneca points unwaveringly to philosophy and the liberal arts as the most powerful tools of consolation in facing the universal human experience of loss — tools just as mighty today as they were in his day. Commending his mother for having already reaped the rewards of liberal studies despite the meager educational opportunities for women at the time, he writes:
I am leading you to that resource which must be the refuge of all who are flying from Fortune, liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will withdraw all your melancholy. Even if you had never been familiar with them you would have need of them now. But, so far as the old-fashioned strictness of my father allowed, you have had some acquaintance with the liberal arts, even if you have not mastered them. If only my father, best of men, had been less devoted to ancestral tradition and had been willing that you be steeped in the teaching of philosophy and not just gain a smattering of it: you would not now have to acquire your defence against Fortune but just bring it forth. He was less inclined to let you pursue your studies because of those women who use books not to acquire wisdom but as the furniture of luxury. Yet thanks to your vigorously inquiring mind you absorbed a lot considering the time you had available: the foundations of all formal studies have been laid. Return now to these studies and they will keep you safe. They will comfort you, they will delight you; and if they genuinely penetrate your mind, never again will grief enter there, or anxiety, or the distress caused by futile and pointless suffering. Your heart will have room for none of these, for to all other failings it has long been closed. Those studies are your most dependable protection, and they alone can snatch you from Fortune’s grip.
He concludes by addressing the inevitability of his mother’s sorrowful thoughts returning to his own exile, deliberately reframeing his misfortune for her:
This is how you must think of me — happy and cheerful as if in the best of circumstances. For they are best, since my mind, without any preoccupation, is free for its own tasks, now delighting in more trivial studies, now in its eagerness for the truth rising up to ponder its own nature and that of the universe. It seeks to know first about lands and their location, then the nature of the encompassing sea and its tidal ebb and flow. Then it studies all the awesome expanse which lies between heaven and earth — this nearer space turbulent with thunder, lightning, gales of wind, and falling rain, snow and hail. Finally, having scoured the lower areas it bursts through to the heights and enjoys the noblest sight of divine things and, mindful of its own immortality, it ranges over all that has been and will be throughout all ages.
The full letter was later included as an appendix to the Penguin edition of On the Shortness of Life (public library) — Seneca’s timeless 2,000-year-old treatise on busyness and the art of living wide rather than long. Complement it with these unusual children’s books about navigating grief, a Zen teacher on how to live through loss, and more masterworks of consolation from such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, and Albert Einstein, then revisit the great Stoics philosophers’ wisdom on character, fortitude, and self-control.
If it is true — and true it is — that creativity blooms when seemingly unrelated ideas are cross-pollinated into something novel, then its most fecund ground is an environment where minds of comparable caliber but divergent obsession come together and swirl their ideas into a common wellspring of genius. There is hardly more concrete a testament to this principle than the Vienna Circle — the collective of scientists, philosophers, and novelists, who met in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century and shaped modern culture by bringing art and science into intimate, fertile contact. But in the 1930s, as they demolished the boundaries between these disciplines, the Vienna Circle also exposed the limits of logic as a sensemaking mechanism for the nature of reality, limitation being perhaps as necessary to creativity as freedom of thought. (“The more a person limits himself,” Kierkegaard had asserted a century earlier, “the more resourceful he becomes.”)
The paradigm-shifting ideas that emerged from that unusual petri dish are what cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin explores throughout A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library) — her lyrical and darkly enthralling novel, partway between magical realism and poetry, yet guided by science and rigorously grounded in the real lives of two of the twentieth century’s most tragic geniuses: computing pioneer Alan Turing and trailblazing mathematician Kurt Gödel.
Inside Café Josephinum, the convening place of the Vienna Circle
Levin casts the making of this small, enormous revolution:
A group of scientists from the university begin to meet and throw their ideas into the mix with those of artists and novelists and visionaries who rebounded with mania from the depression that follows a nation’s defeat. The few grow in number through invitation only. Slowly their members accumulate and concepts clump from the soup of ideas and take shape until the soup deserves a name, so they are called around Europe, and even as far as the United States, the Vienna Circle.
Barely a generation after Bertrand Russell shook the verdure of mysticism from the tree of knowledge to reveal the robust barren branches of logic, the Vienna Circle made it their mission to weld reality with the axe of Logical Empiricism. Levin transports us to the singular atmosphere of their gatherings:
At the center of the Circle is a circle: a clean, round, white marble tabletop. They select the Café Josephinum precisely for this table. A pen is passed counterclockwise. The first mark is made, an equation applied directly to the tabletop, a slash of black ink across the marble, a mathematical sentence amid the splatters. They all read the equation, homing in on the meaning amid the disordered drops. Mathematics is visual not auditory. They argue with their voices but more pointedly with their pens. They stain the marble with rays of symbolic logic in juicy black pigment that very nearly washes away.
They collect here every Thursday evening to distill their ideas — to distinguish science from superstition. At stake is Everything. Reality. Meaning. Their lives. They have lost any tolerance for ineffectual and embroidered attitudes, for mysticism or metaphysics.
Vienna in the 1930s. The sign, belonging to a gambling parlor, reads: “Don’t let luck pass you by.” A horseshoe and chimney sweep, superstitious symbols of good fortune, appear above it. (Photograph: Roman Vishniac)
The members of the Vienna Circle were endowed with minds exceeding the average not by degree but by kind — the kind of genius that risked bleeding into madness, nowhere more so than in Gödel. Levin paints his conflicting multitudes — the internal tensions that powered his, and perhaps power all, genius:
In 1931 he is a young man of twenty-five, his sharpest edges still hidden beneath the soft pulp of youth. He has just discovered his theorems. With pride and anxiety he brings with him this discovery. His almost, not-quite paradox, his twisted loop of reason, will be his assurance of immortality. An immortality of his soul or just his name? This question will be the subject of his madness.
Levin, who has written beautifully about the complex relationship between genius and madness, adds:
Here he is, a man in defense of his soul, in defense of truth, ready to alter the view of reality his friends have formulated on this marble table. He joins the Circle to tell the members that they are wrong, and he can prove it.
He is still all potential. The potential to be great, the potential to be mad. He will achieve both magnificently.
In his incompleteness theorems, which he began publishing that year, Gödel set out to prove that there are limits to how much of reality mathematical logic can grasp — something many intuited but none had substantiated. (Nearly a century earlier, the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell articulated that intuition, if not its empirical proof, in her diary: “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”) With poetic precision, Levin conveys Gödel’s ideas and their broader significance:
Gödel will prove that some truths live outside of logic and that we can’t get there from here. Some people — people who probably distrust mathematics — are quick to claim that they knew all along that some truths are beyond mathematics. But they just didn’t. They didn’t know it. They didn’t prove it.
Gödel didn’t believe that truth would elude us. He proved that it would. He didn’t invent a myth to conform to his prejudice of the world — at least not when it came to mathematics. He discovered his theorem as surely as if it was a rock he had dug up from the ground. He could pass it around the table and it would be as real as that rock. If anyone cared to, they could dig it up where he buried it and find it just the same. Look for it and you’ll find it where he said it is, just off center from where you’re staring. There are faint stars in the night sky that you can see, but only if you look to the side of where they shine. They burn too weakly or are too far away to be seen directly, even if you stare. But you can see them out of the corner of your eye because the cells on the periphery of your retina are more sensitive to light. Maybe truth is just like that. You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.
But the truth is not something everyone wants to see — it can be inconvenient, even obstructionist. In the spring of 1936, as the ideas of the Vienna Circle were becoming increasingly threatening to the Nazi party rising to power, Moritz Schlick, chair of the Vienna Circle, was shot by a former student of his on the steps of the University of Vienna, where he taught. Meanwhile, Gödel’s swirling genius was spiraling further and further into madness. Having already necessitated psychiatric care two years earlier, he was destroyed anew upon hearing of Moritz’s murder and endured an even sharper nervous breakdown that landed him in a psychiatric institution. Levin writes:
In his quiet room in the sanatorium with the narrow window over the big groomed lawn, Gödel rested alone, slumped and motionless, and wondered, where did he go? Where is Moritz?
What does it mean to say that Moritz lived in the past? Nothing. The past does not exist. The notion of a past refers to a paltry and brittle memory, incomplete and flawed. Moritz is dead. He is lost but for fragments in the minds of those who have moved around the globe since his death. The Vienna Circle died with him as the headlines condemned Moritz Schlick as a Jew sympathizer who got what he deserved at the top of the stairs in the University of Vienna at the hands of a pan-Germanic hero who rightly killed this Jew philosopher. Moritz was a Protestant. Facts of the world are sealed in minds. People wear a facade. All of reality goes on behind their eyes, and there lie secret plans and hidden agendas. A tar of false motives and intentions. Truth mauled. Because the past does not exist except as a threadbare fragment in the weaker minds of the many.
Complement the enormously invigorating A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on how Gödel and Einstein changed our understanding of time, then revisit Levin on free will, the vitalizing power of obsessiveness, the century-long quest to hear the sound of spacetime, and her remarkable Moth story about the unlikely paths that lead us back to ourselves.