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Grief Revisited

Michael Williams on death and detachment.

In her article, ‘Is Grief Self-Regarding?’ (Philosophy Now, Issue 17) Christiane Pohl argues that the grief process is selfregarding and that, provided it is pursued in a temperate way, this is a way of healing for the wounded soul. She concludes, “Self-love, which we have described as a form of egoism, is a necessary precondition for a person to carry through the difficult labour of grief and finally also to overcome their loss.” Under normal circumstances I would agree with her. But when the losses we are forced to face are monumental I do not think that her philosophical analysis is adequate. What I want to develop here is an understanding of grief which can sustain us at such times of extreme tragedy. Such an understanding of grief is not a temperate one, it is, rather, something fierce which demands our coming to terms with a total voluntary loss of self. To set the argument out I have imagined a conversation between Thomas Hobbes the English philosopher (1588-1679), Socrates (as he is portrayed in Plato’s Phaedo, 4th Century BC), the anonymous Christian theologian usually called St Denys (Dionysius) the Areopagite (from texts written probably in the 5th Century AD), and the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Hobbes: Socrates, I’ve always admired the courage you showed in the face of death and I’m glad that we have your final words recorded for us by Plato in the Phaedo. Those words are amongst the most moving that I’ve ever read. But now that we have you here in person I wondered if we could tempt you to say just what you meant when you said that the true philosopher is one who steadfastly desires death.

Socrates: You use the word tempt. Could it be that you want to hear my argument simply to tear it to pieces? Nevertheless, I’ll risk it, provided that you give me the right to reply when you’ve done with me.

Hobbes: Granted

Socrates: Very well then. It is true that my very words that day were, “those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead.” This is why, when the time came for my execution, I could face it with courage and equanimity. You see, I’d been practising for it all my life. Philosophy is the search for wisdom, for truth, for justice, for beauty and for goodness. Such things are not truly accessible to us while our human lives are bound up with the daily routine of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. We can only be true philosophers if we try to disentangle ourselves from such mundane matters. All pleasures, in the end, trap us and prevent us from grasping the true nature of justice; and all the pains of life distract us from the contemplation of beauty and goodness. The philosopher, if he or she is true to the calling, must die daily to such pleasures and pains in order to pursue the truth. This is why, by the time of my execution, I say I had been practising death for a long time and was fully ready to pass altogether out of the land of pleasures and pains into the realm of absolute and eternal truth.

The philosopher must possess a special kind of courage. Many human beings face death heroically. But when we look into such heroic courage a little more closely we find that it is based on fear or cowardice. The hero goes willingly to his death because he fears the stigma that would attach to him if he walked away from it. The mother sacrifices herself for her child simply because she knows that she couldn’t live with herself afterwards if she let her offspring perish. But the courage of the philosopher is altogether different. It is born not out of fear or cowardice but out of the daily practice of death which is a setting of one’s sights above all the normal pains, pleasures, hopes and fears of the here and now. It is this kind of courage, and nothing short of it, which was my bequest to my disciples and children alike.

Hobbes: I have to confess my disappointment. I was, of course, familiar with these arguments from the Phaedo, but I had hoped you would put up a stronger case in person. Can’t you see that your argument falls under its own weight? I would say that all martyrs suffer from the very fear or cowardice of which you accuse the heroes. This philosophical courage you speak of is a mere willo- the-wisp. Let me show you what I mean. I begin by agreeing with you. All people who face death heroically are really doing it from entirely selfish and egotistical reasons. Take the early Christian martyrs. On the surface they seem to be truly noble. They would rather die than deny their faith. But look at it a little more closely. In fact, they are dying for pleasure because they know that if they deny their faith they will go to hell and if they hold to it they will go to heaven. They leave behind the pleasures of this life for the greater pleasure of heaven. Now I know that you agree with me this far. But surely, the philosopher is doing this very thing. His or her courage is no different. It is simply the exchange of human pleasures for the bliss of life after death. It is a kind of calculation. This world’s pleasures cannot fulfil my desire for wisdom, so I will look for it elsewhere. Such a calculation is entirely self-centred and the selfrestraint the philosopher practices with regard to ordinary human pleasures is no more than a cover-up for the most selfish pursuit of all. Indeed, I will go further, and say that to desire some abstract wisdom above everything else is very dangerous. Ideals can kill just as effectively as one human being seeking their pleasure at the expense of another.

Socrates: I’m glad I claimed the right of reply. I can see that from your point of view my reasoning must look circular. The philosopher does appear to exchange the lower pleasures of food, drink, sex, and so on in favour of the higher ‘pleasures’, as you call them, of wisdom, justice, and beauty. But it only appears so. I must say, I get slightly irritated when everything I say gets twisted. Don’t just rely on Plato’s report, listen to my arguments in their own right. If you make justice, wisdom, beauty, and so on, into objects, of course, you are right. We would be merely exchanging one form of desire for another. The way Plato puts it makes it sound like this, but my defence is that you have not understood the subtlety of what I mean by the practice of death.

All our losses, whether they be large or small, whether they are voluntary or involuntary, represent something of a death within us. When I lose a close friend through death, something dies in me. When I lose a valued book which I’ve treasured for a long while, something dies in me. The loss of the book won’t be as big as the loss of my friend, but it is a loss all the same. All these deaths are a kind of stripping down. If they are sufficiently severe my whole personality appears to crumble. But if I grieve properly over them, if I arrive at the point when I can let go of them of my own free will, then I am not made a lesser but a greater person. Grief is a kind of purification provided we embrace it aright. It is not about substituting one object for another. It is not saying to myself, “Well, I’ve lost my wife, I won’t get married again in case I suffer another loss, instead I will devote myself to the search for wisdom because that is permanent and will give me something to hang on to.” Philosophy is not about replacing a loss, it is about accepting loss as such as a permanent feature of our lives. It is a willingness to lose everything, even our ideas of wisdom, beauty, and goodness, for the sake of purification. Grieving properly over our losses is a deliverance from all pleasures and lusts and griefs and fears. So please do not get carried away with the rather crude constructions of the afterlife which Plato puts before you. Embrace death daily and you will find that you are on the way to freedom. Death then becomes the greatest freedom of all and this is why, when my execution drew near, I was not afraid.

Denys: I’m so grateful for this clarification Socrates. You’ll be pleased to know that in my form of Christian theology I take these very ideas and develop them. I agree that the life of the true philosopher is marked by a detachment from all things, not just from the so-called pleasures of this life but also from any other objects which human beings might conceive. To exchange a lower pleasure for a higher pleasure may look good, but it is no gain. It is a detachment from everything that must be practised. It is this total detachment alone which can lead on to a genuine discovery of God and Truth. This is why we say that the only authentic way to journey towards God is to let go of everything and, in particular, to let go of self. All thoughts of self-preservation must go before the journey can begin. It is a kind of self-emptying that is required. And, Socrates, you are right to call it the practice of death, because the detachment of which we speak is a letting go of self altogether. Such a practice does indeed take the greatest courage. You have to risk everything. You have to be prepared to lose everything and find nothing. Our faith is, however, that you lose self and find God.

Hobbes: But Denys, your scheme still falls under my criticism of Socrates. Isn’t your detachment simply a laying aside of earthly pleasures for the sake of finding your pleasure in that which you call God? Aren’t you just as guilty of exchanging an earthly object (human pleasure) for a heavenly object (the pleasure of being with God). So all this talk of detachment is a mere fiction. You are egoists after all, and it doesn’t matter that the kind of pleasure you seek is, as I would say, purely imaginary. Surely it is foolish to exchange human pleasures for mere fantasies?

Denys: What a pity, Hobbes, that you can’t see further than your nose! I agree that your criticism would demolish our faith if it were not for the fact that we define God, Truth and Beauty not as objects but as opportunities. We say that God is neither an object in a so-called spiritual realm, nor simply an object of human imagination. God lies beyond both the objective and the subjective. God is more than an object and more than a fantasy, God is the mystery that calls us beyond ourselves. This is why we only ever define God negatively; we say God is immortal, infinite, unlimited, and so on, because for God to be God he/she/it must lie beyond all human conceptualisation. God is not some new object which the self seeks to hang onto when everything else has been lost. God is rather a possibility that calls us into an infinite exploration, an exploration in which we do indeed find ourselves, but only by losing ourselves.

Grieving properly is the process of letting go of all the things that we want to hold on to. It means coming to the point where we can say a genuine ‘Goodbye’ to that which has been taken from us. It means coming to a willingness not to hold on to all those things we so desperately cling to. It means a letting go, not just of objects and things in the real world, but of objects and things in our imagination and in our fantasy life. It also means letting go of all our ideas of God. The socalled spiritual or heavenly realm is precisely the thing that people cling to when all other hope is gone. But detachment means letting go of all clinging, including clinging to these gods. All this, at one and the same time, is both terrifying and exhilarating, daunting and exciting.

Derrida: Before you get carried away in your excitement, Denys, can I add one further dimension without which I find your programme too daunting, too terrifying and, if you don’t mind me saying so, too morbid. I want to talk about the dimension of gift. Let me pursue the idea that authentic grief is a giving of the gift of death to oneself and a receiving of the gift of death from another. Death is a gift I need to give myself because, in receiving it, I become the unique person I am called to be. All our ordinary pleasures, hopes and fears, whilst they feel very real to us, are often very much not of our own making. Whether it is sex, drugs, drink, beautiful paintings, stately homes, all these things come prepackaged by the societies within which we live. I hardly have time to know what I want before someone tells me. How am I to be unique when all my so-called freedom simply leads me to some new social conformity? What Christianity means by the personal lies deeper than any of these social and human expectations. We need to see every grief, every disappointment, as a gift we must give ourselves. If we can see our griefs as gifts then they become opportunities for us to discover a whole new land. But, if we do not give ourselves such gifts then we remain forever locked within ourselves. And there is something more. We must also see our griefs as gifts from the Other. God stands over against us as a mystery. God is not someone we can control. God stands over against us as the Wholly Other. Nor is God that safe god we can hang onto when all else fails. God comes to us and makes us tremble. The gift that is offered to us by God is terrifying because it is the gift of death; but it is also the gift of life, did we but know it. It is seeing death as gift which opens me up to the new possibilities which are waiting for me. Once I accept death as gift then something changes within me. I am rescued from the egoism of the calculation of pleasure of which Hobbes speaks, and I enter the land of an unselfconscious goodness which alone deserves the name of responsibility. Instead of repressing all my deepest fears and insecurities I can throw them to the wind. I can now plunge myself into life, into new relationships, into caring for others with genuine delight and energy. I can embrace the other, whether that Other be God or any Other, because I have exchanged my fear of losing myself for that awe and wonder that brings life.


Following the advice of Derrida in the receiving and giving of death can be dangerous for someone who is trying to come to terms with a massive loss. In such circumstances people are often overwhelmed and numbed by the enormity of what has happened to them. In the story of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures the friends who come to comfort him in his extreme loss are reduced to sitting with him in absolute silence for a whole week. This week of silence speaks volumes about the severity of Job’s plight and the inadequacy of his counsellors in the face of it. But once the silence is broken and Job drives on in his anger and grief to find some understanding, he does not rest until he has plumbed the very depths. He does not stop until he comes to the point at which he simply abandons himself to God. He has, metaphorically speaking, granted himself death. Such a process cannot be hurried. It takes most of us a lifetime or more. We are so fearful that we are tempted to hang on to ourselves. We do not realise that in letting go we can find away forward. It is something we must do for ourselves. Others may gently guide us in this direction but anything more is an intrusion. How one builds a practical strategy for helping people in this predicament I do not know, but I fear that a philosophical analysis which stops short of this giving and receiving of death will not suffice.

The Socrates of the Phaedo can easily be characterised as exchanging the mundane life of pleasure for the eternal bliss of contemplating Beauty. But his use of the key concepts of purification and deliverance speak of something deeper which, in the later philosophical and theological tradition, is called detachment. Contrary to expectations, it is detachment alone which is the gateway through which we must pass if we are truly to engage with life. This is the aporia of death

© Revd Canon M. Williams 1997

Michael Williams is Principal of the Northern Ordination Course, based in Manchester

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