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Thomas Aquinas, lifestyle coach sound advice from a 13th century saint

by
26 March 2021

Thomas Aquinas’s cures for sadness stand the test of time, reports Andrew Davison

ALAMY

Tears naturally assuage sorry, wrote Thomas Aquinas (apologies to Sandro Botticelli)

Tears naturally assuage sorry, wrote Thomas Aquinas (apologies to Sandro Botticelli)

WHAT would a 13th-century master of theology and philosophy have to say about cures for sadness? Something aloof and abstract? Not when that master is St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

His suggestions of “remedies for pain and sorrow” are remarkably concrete. They are woven through with a practical wisdom that stands up even after 750 years.

There is a great deal of sadness around at the moment: the desolation of grief, the anxiety of financial insecurity, and the less acute but widespread shadow of isolation. Spring may be here, and vaccines give new grounds for hope, but many people feel ground down.

This is, therefore, a good time to turn to Aquinas’s discussion of responses to sorrow in his monumental survey of theology, Summa Theologiae.

When you are faced with sadness, Aquinas’s first suggestion is obvious enough: seek out things that make you happy. What sort of things? Work out what is causing the sadness, and deal with that at its root, just as we quench thirst with water, or respond to cold by seeking warmth.

But matters are often not so easy as that, as Aquinas knew. Sadness can stem from something difficult to address, even impossible to reverse. In grieving a loss, the corresponding joy is simply no longer available: that is the source of the grief.

Or consider isolation. It is less totally devastating, but almost ubiquitous today, and is something that we cannot simply magic away during lockdown. For all sorts of sadness, not least at the moment, we cannot restore the corresponding joy just by trying harder.

In encouraging us to seek out things that make us happy, Aquinas takes this aspect on. Although we might, by preference, want to respond to a particular sadness by turning to the corresponding joy, that might be impossible.

In that case, he writes, potentially any pleasure can help assuage sorrow. We should turn to what we can do: gardening, listening to favourite music, or sharing a meal with a friend over video (even if we would prefer to share it in person).

 

AS A first suggestion, then, coming to us from 1271, any happiness can serve as a remedy for unhappiness; at least, at a pinch, any joy can help in sorrow. Having said that, Aquinas moves on to tell us, with remarkable directness, that when we are sad it can be helpful to cry, since “tears and groans naturally assuage sorrow.”

Not fighting back tears is useful twice over. First, a hurtful thing hurts us yet more if we keep it shut up, not least because our thoughts then tend to circle around it again and again. So, don’t keep it hidden inside.

Second, we feel better if we allow an honest agreement between how we feel and the way we act outwardly; between our mood and our mode of presentation in the world. Being frank about how we feel can bring relief; keeping up appearances only adds further strain. Let your expression be an honest one: “Tears and sighs are appropriate for someone in pain or sorrow.”

Aquinas’s third suggestion in the face of sadness or pain is to seek out the company and sympathy of friends. That proposal will not surprise anyone familiar with his characteristically warm writing on friendship. Indeed, later in the Summa he will even hold out friendship as our best image for the love between God and human beings.

In our passage, Aquinas pursues two avenues in terms of friendship. Sorrow, he says first of all, is like a weight, and, like a weight, it can be lightened if it is shared.

To call sadness a burden is somehow more than just a metaphor: when we turn to friends we encounter “something like our experience in the carrying of bodily burdens”. When we confide in others, and receive their support, “it seems as though others were bearing the burden with us, striving, as it were, to lessen its weight.”

As a second angle, Aquinas writes something particularly touching (the better of his two points about friendship, he thinks). When our friends console us, we see that we are loved by them, and that is a source of joy, even in miserable circumstances.

 

SO FAR, then, we have seen the value of thinking expansively, not narrowly, about what might work as a counteracting happiness in sorrow, the suggestion not to bottle up our feelings, and an encouragement to seek out the company and sympathy of friends.

Having said all of that, only at his fourth point does Aquinas become more abstractly religious or philosophical. When facing sadness, he writes, it is helpful to contemplate true and wise insights. Even in sorrow, we can find solace in truth, and, by extension, in goodness, justice, beauty, and the thought of God.

Finally, again showing his profound Christian humanism, Aquinas recalls us to the value of a hot bath and a good night’s sleep. There is no abstraction or dry intellectualism to his discussion. As with the best modern science, he sees sadness, pain, or depression as bodily matters.

In addressing them, we do well to pay attention to the body and its processes: “Whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement is opposed to sorrow and assuages it.”

All of these suggestions address symptoms. That can be a worthwhile exercise, especially when we face a sorrow that we cannot address at its root. Aquinas, however, would not want us to avoid dealing with the root when we can. He was no quietist.

Indeed, he celebrated human agency, and praised virtues such as justice and courage. The stress of financial hardship, for example, requires more than simply telling people to cheer themselves up, or to seek the company of friends (although both may have their place). Such hardships will require financial support in the short term, and efforts to create jobs after that: attention to the root, not only the symptoms.

 

MANY a theologian, even with almost two million words in play (the length of the Summa), would not think to address responses to dejection. For Aquinas, it makes complete sense.

For him, theology involves thinking about God and all things in relation to God. It therefore pays to understand anything and everything (“all things”) as well as we can. That is an important part of thinking about those things in relation to God as well as we can.

Practical, mundane, bodily concerns mattered to Aquinas as an early Dominican friar. His order had been founded a generation earlier to refute and convert the Cathars, a Gnostic sect — then widespread, especially around the Pyrenees — who exalted the spirit at the cost of denigrating the body.

In opposing that, a certain earthiness follows in much early Dominican theology (and still marks much of the best Dominican theology today).

This outlook found unsurpassed expression in the writing of Aquinas, a thinker as great in heart as he was in mind (and, indeed, in midriff, by all accounts). And there is no better example of this than his cures for sadness.



Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Senior Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College.

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