Thursday, 30 May 2013

Henry Fielding: Of the Remedy of Affliction for the Loss of our Friends

IT would be a strange consideration (saith Cicero) that while so many excellent remedies have been discovered for the several diseases of the human body, the mind should be left, without any assistance to alleviate and repel the disorders which befal it. The contrary of this he asserts to be true, and prescribes philosophy to us, as a certain and infallible method to assuage and remove all those perturbations which are liable to affect this nobler part of man.

Of the same opinion were all those wise and illustrious ancients, whose writings and sayings on this subject have been transmitted to us. And when Seneca tells us, that virtue is sufficient to subdue all our passions, he means no other (as he explains it in many parts of his works) than that exalted divine philosophy, which consisted not in vain pomp, or useless curiosity, nor even in the search of more profitable knowledge, but in acquiring solid lasting habits of virtue, and ingrafting them into our character. It was not the bare knowing the right way, but the constant and steady walking in it, which those glorious writers recommended and dignified by the august names of philosophy and virtue; which two words, if they did not always use in a synonymous sense, yet they all agreed in this, that virtue was the consummation of true philosophy.

Now that this supreme philosophy, this habit of virtue, which strengthened the mind of a Socrates, or a Brutus, is really superior to every evil which can attack us, I make no doubt; but in truth, this is to have a sound, not a sickly constitution. With all proper deference, therefore to such great authorities, they seem to me to assert no more than that health is a remedy against disease: for a soul once possessed of that degree of virtue which can without emotion look on poverty, pain, disgrace, and death, as things indifferent; a soul, as Horace expresses it,
Totus teres atque rotundus;
or, according to Seneca, which derives all its comfort from WITHIN, not from WITHOUT; which can look down on all the ruffling billows of fortune, as from a rock on shore, we survey a tempestuous sea with unconcern; such a soul is surely in a state of health which no vigour of bodily constitution can resemble.

And as this health of the mind exceeds that of the body in degree, so doth it in constancy or duration. In the latter, the transition from perfect health to sickness is easy, and often sudden; whereas the former, being once firmly established in the robust state above described, is never afterwards liable to be shocked by any accident or impulse of fortune.

It must be confessed indeed, that those great masters have pointed out the way to this philosophy, and have endeavoured to allure and persuade others into it; but as it is certain that few of their disciples have been able to arrive at its perfection; nay, as several of the masters themselves have done little honour to their precepts, by their examples, there seems still great occasion for a mental physician, who should consider the human mind (as is often the case of the body) in too weak and depraved a situation to be restored to firm vigour and sanity, and should propose rather to palliate and lessen its disorders, than absolutely to cure them.

To consider the whole catalogue of diseases, to which our minds are liable, and to prescribe proper remedies for them all, would require a much longer treatise than what I now intend; I shall confine myself therefore to one only, and to a particular species of that one, viz. to affliction for the death of our friends.

This is a malady to which the best and worthiest of men are chiefly liable. It is, like a fever, the distemper of a rich and generous constitution. Indeed, we may say of those base tempers which are totally incapable of being affected with it, what a witty physician of the last age said of a shattered and rotten carcass, that they are not worth preserving.

For this reason the calm demeanour of Stilpo the philosopher, who, when he had lost his children at the taking Megara by Demetrius, concluded, he had lost nothing, for that he carried all which was his own about him, hath no charms for me. I am more apt to impute such sudden tranquillity, at so great a loss, to ostentation or obduracy, than to consummate virtue. It is rather wanting the affection than conquering it. To overcome the affliction arising from the loss of our friends, is great and praiseworthy; but it requires some reason and time. This sudden unruffled composure is owing to mere insensibility; to a depravity of the heart, not goodness of the understanding.

But in a mind of a different cast, in one susceptible of a tender affection, fortune can make no other ravage equal to such a loss. It is tearing the heart, the soul from the body; not by a momentary operation, like that by which the most cruel tormentors of the body soon destroy the subject of their cruelty; but by a continued, tedious, though violent agitation; the soul having this double unfortunate superiority to the body, that its agonies, as they are more exquisite, so they are more lasting.

If however this calamity be not in a more humane disposition to be presently or totally removed, an attempt to lessen it is, however, worth our attention. He who could reduce the torments of the gout to one-half or a third of the pain, would, I apprehend, be a physician in much vogue and request; and surely, some palliative remedies are as much worth our seeking in the mental disorder; especially if this latter should (as appears to me who have felt both) exceed the former in its anguish a hundred fold.

I will proceed, therefore, without further apology, to present my reader with the best prescriptions I am capable of furnishing; many of which have this uncommon recommendation, that I have tried them upon myself with some success. And if Montaigne be right in his choice of a physician, who had himself had the disease which he undertook to cure, I shall at least have that pretension to some confidence and regard.

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