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In book X of the Republic, Socrates vehemently denounces grief and mourning. He sets up an analogy between private and public grief that is meant to reveal ideas about reason and appetite, while also exposing grief as detrimental to the curing of suffering. The grief and mourning present in the Iliad stand against Socrates’ ideas on the subject. Homer argues in benefit of public grief as the truly appropriate way to honor the dead, even inciting divine approval for mourning.
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Further, grief becomes the very way in which the characters move on from their sorrow. On the surface, Socrates condemns Homer and the poets because he fears that the influence they hold over peoples’ hearts will inspire them to detrimentally imitate the grief of their tragic heroes. On a deeper level, the true source of the contention between Socrates and Homer stems from the different world ideologies the two held: between a mindset of objective, universal truths and one of subjectivity and personality.
In his very first mention of grief, Socrates outlines the division between public and private mourning while talking to Glaucon. He admits that it is “impossible” for a “good and reasonable” man to not feel pain after the loss of something dear to them, yet he also assures Glaucon that there are proper ways to process that pain. In order to not invite shame from those around him, the good man will resist his pain more in public, but in private he will let his guard down and allow himself to experience his suffering. Socrates portrays mourning and grief as a particular example of the universal, inner conflict between reason and appetite present within every man. In public, a man resists open grief because there is something greater than himself at play; he is governed by reason and law. In private, however, there is no law, reason, or social consequences to keep him in check.
Public law asserts that “it is best to keep quiet as far as possible in times of calamity and not to chafe and repine” (Republic, 604b-c). Rather than give into grief and suffering, Socrates advocates for deliberation, as it is only through deliberation that one is able to cure themselves of their hurt. It is here that the analogy between law and grief and reason and appetite becomes clear. Laws are the real-life, societal embodiment of reason, seeking to keep a society united. By grieving publicly, a man breaks those laws which keep society intact. Thus, just as by grieving men oppose the societal unity granted by law, they fracture the perfect unity of the soul through grief. Grief is very clearly labeled as an impulsive appetite. The very thing that draws a man to grieve “is the bare feeling itself” (Republic, 604b).
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Socrates adopts a condescending attitude towards grief, likening it to “stumbling like children, clapping one’s hands to the stricken spot” (Republic, 604c-d). In addition, he even belittles the suffering a person feels after another’s death, admonishing that “nothing in mortal life is worthy of great concern” (Republic, 604c). Grief, then, is alluded to as a childlike feeling compelled only by base desire with no rational basis. Finally, after explaining this analogy in full, Socrates provides the basic truth behind it. The part of the soul that “impels us to lamentation… is the irrational and idle part of it” (Republic, 604d). Grief is an appetite, so by grieving a person allows the inferior part of their soul to outweigh the rational part founded on reason. This disjoints the perfect harmony of the soul in the same way that grieving publicly disjoints the harmony of a lawful society.
Aside from simply managing the harmony of the soul, in stipulating deliberation above mourning, law and reason act to the best advantage of the people. As discussed, reason is inherently superior to the appetites, so reason is the best way “to face misfortune and deal with it” (Republic, 604d). On the other hand, grief is the lesser of the two possible responses to loss.
Once again, Socrates concedes that humans naturally dwell on the memory of suffering, which is why it is an impulsive appetite. It is far easier for man to give in to this appetite for grief, but, in the end: to grieve is to remain “idle” in the face of adversity. Breaking free from the cycle of lamentation caused by memory requires action, not idleness; it necessitates placing reason above natural desires. For this reason, Socrates equates grief with cowardice. Healing requires courage, and having the courage to lean on reason instead of lamentation is worthy of pride. As we will see when we discuss Socrates’ critique of Homer, it is the ease at which humans give into the desire to grieve that subsequently makes cowardice in the face of loss a societal problem.
Therefore, Socrates establishes that there are three things wrong with grief in general and, particularly, private grief. First, by analogizing public and private grief with the proper governing of reason and appetite in the soul, he proves that grief is a sign of an imbalanced soul and thus an immoral man. This is a philosophical problem with grief. Second, the desire to grieve is entirely unbeneficial to a man who has faced loss, and those who grieve should feel ashamed by their cowardice. Grief actually becomes completely disadvantageous to dealing with suffering and loss (Republic, 604b). This is a particular problem. As such, bereavement, even in private, signals an unharmonious soul and is actually detrimental to recovery. Finally, because grief is a natural impulse, grieving in public can very easily lead to imitation of that grief by others in society. Ultimately, this can lead to complete lawlessness and lack of reason, which proves overall to be unbeneficial to society just as it is to the individual.
Homer portrays grief in an entirely different light, in both public and private. His descriptions include no analogies or illusions to any universal topics, but, instead, they display grief from a completely human and emotional perspective. The poet never restrains the grief of his characters in public. The deaths of two characters in particular, those of Hektor and Patroklos, inspire intense mourning from their respective partisans. From his mother, Hektor’s death is met with her tearing out her hair, throwing her shiny veil, and raising a great wail upon looking at her son. His father groans pitifully and gives a loud and sorrowful speech. Most dramatically, his wife even dies and comes back to life again out of sorrow and shock. The mourning process after the death of Patroklos exhibits similar exaggeration by Achilleus and the Achaians. Achilleus directs his loyal followers to drive their horses three times around the corpse of his friend. The son of Peleus refuses to wash the bloodstains from himself until Patroklos’ body is burned, upon which he will cut his hair out of respect for his dear friend. After all this, he also holds a collection of games in Patroklos’ honor.
Homer very clearly supports such public displays of grief and mourning, and he calls on the influence of the Greek gods to display this support. When the funeral pyre of Patroklos refuses to light, Achilleus appeals to the two winds Boreas and Zephyros for help. The two gods oblige and send a wind to ignite the flames. Through this brief interaction between gods and man, Homer not only portrays his approval of the physical representation of grief for Achilleus, but also shows his approval for public grief in general. However, his use of godly approval does not confine itself to Achilles, as at times it even goes against his wishes. When Achilleus seeks to leave Hektor’s body to be eaten by dogs, the gods come down to protect it. Aphrodite continuously drives off the dogs and anoints the body in oil, and Apollo brings forth a mist to protect the body from withering in the sun. Additionally, Achilleus is actually rebuked by the gods for not allowing Hektor to be grieved for. Here, Homer cites divine approval for the public grief of Achilleus towards Patroklos, while at the same time citing divine approval for the protection of Hektor’s corpse. In doing so, Homer’s true opinions on public grief and mourning come to light. Public grief is humanity’s way of honoring the dead. Just as the corpse of Patroklos deserves to be honored through proper mourning, so does the corpse of Hektor. As such, Homer believed that public grief serves both to honor the dead.
Ultimately, the representation of grief present in the Iliad, both in public and later in private, would never have room within the framework on grief that Socrates develops. Humans are simply too inclined to grieve their dead. Usually, as discussed, men are able to restrain their grief because public law implores them to. However, the grief within epic poetry presents a danger to this restraint. By portraying heroes publicly mourning, the poets incite the members of their audience to do the same. Socrates clearly denounces poets who have a character deliver “long tirades in his lamentation or chanting and beating his breast” (Republic, 605d), and Homer does exactly this in the Iliad. Priam and Achilleus both pair their grief with powerful speeches, and Hektor’s mom pulls out her hair. For one, episodes such as this satisfy every person’s innate “[hunger] for tears and a good cry” within the assumed safety of fictitious poetry, but the fictitious nature of the poems is not as harmless as it seems. The audience begins to understand grieving such as this as normal. Witnessing the satisfaction of their impulsive appetite to grieve within the play gives them such “vicarious pleasure” that the line between fiction and reality blurs. By indulging in the nature of grief within the poem, they become more susceptible to and less able to restrain grief within themselves. The contagious nature of grief is seen even in the Iliad itself, as Achilleus is able to incite all Achaians into “the passion of mourning” through the display of his own grief. In totality, poems harm the harmony of reason and appetite within the soul, so they must be banned.
Further, as seen, Socrates’ philosophy firmly attests to the detrimental effects of grief. If one follows reason, then they would realize that the death of a mortal being necessitates no sentimental response, nor does it even provide any benefit to a person. Indulging in grief only serves to delay the healing process, yet Homer clearly believes that grief is the only way to truly move on and can be beneficial. For one, Priam receives divine intervention to retrieve Hektor’s body and relieve his suffering only after rolling in dung. Most prominently, the intimate moment between Priam and Achilleus stands against Socrates’ belief in the unbeneficial effects of grief. The two men are seen at their most emotionally vulnerable and mournful, “the sound of mourning” moving through the house. In the end, however, their intense outpouring of grief is what eventually leads to a solution. Achilleus is only able to realize the futility of his grief for Patroklos and to rectify the situation over Hektor’s corpse one he had “taken full satisfaction in his sorrow” (Iliad, 24: 513). Rather than through reason and deliberation, they solve their problems through the impulsive, uncontrollable urge to grieve. Once again, we witness a complete disconnect between Socrates and Homer.
While it is understandable that Socrates would wish to banish the poets for portraying an influential ideology of grief outside his strict philosophy, he fails to truly comprehend the poets’ intentions as non-malicious. They serve not universal, immutable doctrines, but the subjective aspects present within every human. Yes, their stories undoubtedly increased the emotions of their audience, but this does not mean that the poets did not wish to also teach people how to live. The intense grief and sorrow displayed by the heroes surely incite awareness of the world around the audience. Each person acts within a world of other actors, and the grief of epic characters, initiated by the actions of other characters, helps the viewer gain recognition of the emotional consequences of their own actions in a shared human experience. Human personalities are subjective, not universal, and attention to the subjective is why Achilleus can feel sorrow over his own father as he watches a father grieving for his son.
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