The pathetic syllogism and how to console people in grief

Philosophy as a Way of Life
5 min readDec 23, 2019

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

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/