4/28/2020 1 Comment
With grief, acceptance (ἡσυχία)
A couple years ago, I wrote a follow-up to my essay on grief that meditated on the perplexing subject of “acceptance.” During a multi-day silent retreat in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina, I had an eye-opening realization about “acceptance,” which, up to that point, had appeared to me like a cruel and unrealizable fantasm, a point on a horizon I would always be able to see (through a perpetual squint) but never reach. The realization brought me closer to acceptance by, surprisingly, revealing the extent to which it was already upon me. In other words, I had at the retreat a leap in place facilitated by many hours of silent meditation and reflection.
Recently, I decided to go back to this essay on acceptance and get it ready for publication. As a warm up for myself, I revisited the term “acceptance” in Ancient Greek to see what it could teach me. What follows is the lesson.
Part 1: An Act of Translation
The “acceptance” I’m grappling with is more than the simple reception of some idea or thing or state of mind. The “acceptance” in front of my eyes is the mythical at-peace-ness that is, ostensibly, the aim of the grieving process. To accept one’s grief is to be ok with it all, to understand one’s losses not as lacks or pure absences but, rather, as additions to the manifold self. The roadblocks to this realization are many, not least of which is the anger and sadness that produces wave after wave in the wake of loved ones’ deaths. More than that, the roadblocks are all somehow supposed to be metabolized by this mythical acceptance in an almost-magical transubstantiation of hardship into insight. Is there a word for this, a word that names something real and tangible?
It turns out that this kind of “acceptance” does not have a direct equivalent in Ancient Greek. The verb λαμβάνω, meaning to take hold of or seize, for example, is too literal. Even its connotation of “understanding” is not quite right because of its mostly cognitive meaning, as in “I understand what Plato means when he says _____.”
The most poetic word is λῆψις. Spoken or written in this way, to accept is to take one’s medicine. Acceptance is the cure for what ails us. The word also has a musical connotation: it is the setting of the key. In what register am I being asked to sing? Can I reach this pitch without straining, or do I need to train my voice? What kind of vocal regimen will allow me to reach the extraordinarily high pitch of Acceptance without hurting my voice over time? How can I sustain the pitch of Acceptance? Each of these questions opens into an ongoing musical practice that has as its end not an aesthetic beauty but a sustained cosmological consonance. Finally, this word also connotes the choice of poetic matter. In the context of my thoughts here, I might ask, what is the best way to tell the story of Acceptance? What story will adequately portray the humongous magnanimity of Acceptance’s act of giving?
There is one more word that approaches the wide semantic range of “acceptance” I am exploring: δεχεσθαι or δέχομαι. Dio Chrysostom, in his 30th Discourse, relays the dying words of Charidemus, which shows why the word appeals to me:
What has happened to me has happened in accordance with God’s will; and we should not consider anything that he brings to pass as harsh, nor bear it with repining: so wise men advise us, and Homer not least when he says that the gifts of the gods to man should not be spurned by man—rightly calling the acts of the gods ‘gifts,’ as being all good and done for a good purpose. As for me, this is my feeling, and I accept the decree of fate calmly, saying this, not at any ordinary time, but when that fate itself is present, and I see my end so near at hand.
(Τὰ μὲν καθ᾿ ἡμᾶς οὕτω γέγονεν ὡς ἔδοξε τῷ θεῷ, χρὴ δὲ μηδὲν τῶν ὑπ᾿ ἐκείνου γιγνομένων χαλεπὸν ἡγεῖσθαι μηδὲ δυσχερῶς φέρειν, ὡς παραινοῦσιν ἄλλοι τε σοφοὶ καὶ οὐχ ἥκιστα Ὅμηρος, λέγων μηδαμῇ ἀπόβλητα εἶναι ἀνθρώποις τὰ θεῶν δῶρα, καλῶς ὀνομάζων δῶρα τὰ ἔργα τῶν θεῶν, ὡς ἅπαντα ἀγαθὰ ὄντα καὶ ἐπ᾿ ἀγαθῷ 9γιγνόμενα. ἐγὼ μὲν οὖν οὕτω φρονῶ καὶ δέχομαι πρᾴως τὴν πεπρωμένην, οὐκ ἐν ἑτέρῳ καιρῷ ταῦτα λέγων, ἀλλὰ παρούσης τε αὐτῆς καὶ τὴν τελευτὴν ὁρῶν οὕτως ἐγγύθεν.)
This particular kind of acceptance is, first, a mode of mental reception, but it is, moreover, a full “taking upon oneself” of one’s own fate. The “gift” of the gods is the perfect primer for the acceptance yoked to grief because it is a gift you cannot, are simply unable to, refuse. Even if you don’t want it, the gift only exists as something already given, and no mental or physical acrobatics can make it ungiven. In fact, we humans accept this gift in the same gesture as it is given, or else we suffer through a tragic farce of attempting to shake off something already part of ourselves. This is especially the case with our own death, which is given unto us as soon as we are conceived.
Ultimately, however, even δέχομαι stops short of the acceptance I seek. I decided instead to follow a path marked in the dictionary by the word “acquiesce.” My act of translation senses harmony in the “quiet” of this verb. But “acquiesce,” with its French sensibility of “to yield or agree to; to be at rest,” leads back ultimately to Latin and, therefore, doesn’t have a Greek cognate. As such, the path forces me to leap toward something less common, a word near to “accept” but more capacious and mysterious.
Part 2: To be at peace
My act of translation leads me, eventually, to the enigmatic word ἡσυχία. The word’s mysterious quality comes from the shadow cast upon it by Christianity. That is, looking back from the present toward the classical emergence of this word requires us to pass through its employment in Biblical verse, and specifically its usage in Orthodox Eastern Christianity where it refers to an inner quiet that leads to a oneness with God.
Thinking historiographically, it seems likely that Christians first encountered ἡσυχία through pluralistic scholars like the Hellenstic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. In Philo’s On Flight and Finding, for example, we see the following:
To these inquiries the other gives the only right answer, “God will see for Himself” [...] For it is by His taking thought for them that the mind apprehends, and sight sees, and every sense perceives. As for the words [i.e., idiomatic expression] “A ram is found held fast,” this is reason keeping quiet and in suspense. For the best offering is quietness and suspense of judgement, in matters that absolutely lack proofs. The only word we may say is this, “God will see.”
(ταῦτα πυνθανομένῳ δεόντως ἀποκρίνεται· “ὁ θεὸς ὄψεται ἑαυτῷ”· θεοῦ γὰρ ἔργον ἴδιον τὸ τρίτον. ἐπιφροσύνῃ γὰρ αὐτοῦ ὁ μὲν νοῦς καταλαμβάνει, ἡ δ᾿ ὅρασις ὁρᾷ καὶ πᾶσα αἴσθησις αἰσθάνεται.“κριὸς δ᾿ εὑρίσκεται κατεχόμενος,” τουτέστι λόγος ἡσυχάζων καὶ ἐπέχων. ἄριστον γὰρ ἱερεῖον ἡσυχία καὶ ἐποχὴ περὶ ὧν πάντως οὔκ εἰσι πίστεις. ῥητὸν γὰρ μόνον τοῦτο “ὁ θεὸς ὄψεται [...]”)
If we seek to understand how so many Ancient Greek philosophical ideas wound up in early Christian thinking, we could investigate points of contact between figures like Philo and, say, Paul the Apostle.
The historiographical challenge requires seeing through Philo back into spaces where ἡσυχία acted in its Ancient Greek clothing, so to speak. To do that, we have to keep digging into texts by the likes of Plato and Pindar whose thinking predates the Christian episteme. For example, in Book IX of Plato's Republic we find Socrates asking questions about pain and pleasure. He wonders whether, for people in pain, the relief (ἡσυχία) of pain is more desirable than the feeling of wellness. In usual fashion, Socrates’ interlocutor is quick to agree with the great philosopher when he says,
“And you notice, I think, when people get into many other similar situations in which, when they’re in pain, they praise not the feeling of joy but not being in pain and the relief from that sort of thing as the most pleasant sensation.”
“Yes, this is perhaps what then becomes pleasant and desirable: the relief.”
For my inquiry, this notion of relief is central to acceptance since, after all, the accepting of one’s grief ought to bring not the erasure of the conditions that brought the pain to be but relief of that pain’s sting. “Relief” is absent from the translations of acceptance I mentioned above.
Another resonant morsel sings out through Pindar who, in his 8th Pythian Ode, reminds us that the noun ἡσυχία is derived from Ἡσυχία (same pronunciation), the daughter of Dike, goddess of Justice. Her name is synonymous with Peace, specifically peace within the polis (city). Justice presides over the political practice and philosophy of a place and Peace presides over the place itself as a kind of adjunct to Justice. When Justice is present, so too will be Peace.
My train of thought leads from acceptance to ἡσυχία and moves through a series of stations. First, acceptance is most certainly a state of mind, a kind of mental reception that allows one to understand the events that have befallen them. But this cognitive understanding is only the first blush of acceptance. (Think, for instance, of times when you say that you know something to be true but you don’t yet feel it. Here, the mind grasps some truth but the body has not yet fully metabolized it.) Mental acceptance must be accompanied with a full-bodied acceptance of the gift of one’s fate. It seems to be the case, however, at least in my experience, that acceptance of this gift is a perpetually repeating action. Each moment asks of acceptance insofar as each moment of life is a gift given. The consequence of this is something like an acceptance seizure that shudders through the body and can only be calmed by a kind of inner peace. Attainment of this peace begins with an inner quieting (acquiescence), and the quiet allows the self to sense the great expanse of the self (something usually muted or occluded by the ego and/or traumatic memories). Here we reach the stations of Pindar and Plato since inner quiet is truly a relief and Peace, and this Peace is offspring of Justice insofar as the sense of self that results from ἡσυχία is tantamount to finding balance.
Here we find another way of thinking about the “stage” of acceptance. The so-called stages of grief are not thresholds through which we pass but are, rather, environments in which we fully immerse ourselves. The environment of acceptance is everywhere a space of peace and calm. Plato’s Timaeus contains a discussion of the “inner fire” going away when sleep befalls us. A quiet ensues within the mind and body right before deep sleep. Thus, in the moment of falling asleep we sense the environment of Peace that marks the domain of acceptance. In his “Twentieth Discourse: Retirement,” Dio Chysostom speaks of the silence and quiet needed by the sick to fully recover from illness, and this peaceful environment is also the space of acceptance where those who ail become receptive to their state. All of this is to say, the acceptance yoked to grief is an environment, but—and here’s the mind-blowing thing—we’re always already in this environment. Delusion and temporary blindness distract us from the fact that we are always already dwelling within this Peace. If we seek acceptance, then we already walk in the wrong direction since no seeking is required. To seek is to assume not to dwell.
No seeking. Only being. A being-with oneself and one’s grief. This revelation stops any attempt at moving through grief’s stages and convinces us to fall quiet.
This blog entry is a portion of a multi-part sequence of posts dedicated to the Ancient Greek language. You can read the rest by following these links:
4/29/2020 12:18:55 am
Beautiful elaboration of ησυχία
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Will Daddario is a historiographer, philosopher, and teacher. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina.