If Ian Hislop in his new TV series is right, the English up to the 19th century were a bunch of softies. It was from studying the Romans, among others, that they learnt about the stiff upper lip. True enough, but the reality behind such behaviour is provided by the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero, on the death of his beloved daughter Tullia in February 45 BC.
The funeral over, Cicero fled for two weeks’ refuge to his oldest friend Atticus, reading the ‘consolation literature’ in Atticus’ extensive library. On 6 March he retreated to his own secluded house in Astura on the coast, nearly 40 miles from Rome. Daily private letters to Atticus reveal his state of mind: ‘I write all day long, not that it does any real good, but for a time it distracts me. I do all I can to compose my face, if not my heart’… ‘Here I do not talk to a soul. First thing, I hide myself in the woods, not emerging till evening. Alone, I converse with books, interrupted by fits of weeping which I fight as best I can. It is an unequal struggle’… ‘You say that others do not think I hide my grief sufficiently. But how can I do it better than by throwing myself into my writing?’… ‘Atticus, it’s the end for me, and has been for a long time’… ‘I have tried everything and found no comfort…’ and so on. Not once can he bring himself to name Tullia.
Cicero’s grief was as unbearable as any man’s would be at the death of one of his own children. But though no Stoic, Cicero still believed such emotions, especially such painful ones, must not be allowed to overwhelm him; and that the way for a philosopher to deal with them was through philosophy — reading, writing and thinking.
The modern world might well consider such intellectualisation a pretty cold comfort. But it was not as if Cicero did not allow his grief to be felt. He certainly did. The difference is that his grief was not for public display, let alone public consumption. It was an entirely private matter. So when Princess Diana died and the pl*bs howled at the Queen ‘Show us you care’, Romans like Cicero would have urged, ‘Please don’t.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012