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St. Thomas Aquinas’ (real) remedies for sorrow


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Daniel Esparza - published on 01/26/22

Have you seen that meme? Sleep and baths are indeed recommended, but wine is not featured on his list.

Chances are that while surfing the internet, you have bumped into a rather comforting phrase claiming that “sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine,” attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas. That is indeed a lovely combo. A glass of wine after or before a good bath can help most of us sleep better —ask any of your Mediterranean friends if in doubt. However (and sorry to burst your bubbles, pun intended) that is not what Aquinas said.  

Aquinas discusses cures for sorrow in the First Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologica, Question 38. The question’s name, The Remedies of Sorrow or Pain, makes it clear this is where you need to look for those. And whereas sleep and baths are indeed recommended, wine is not featured on the list.

In typical scholastic fashion, Aquinas proceeds by asking questions and raising objections to some possible answers. Most of the time, these objections come from either Aristotelian or Augustinian texts. In order to facilitate the reading (and hence, the thinking process), the question is subdivided into five concise yet comprehensive articles covering the most relevant aspects of the problem at hand. Aquinas divides Quaestio 38 as follows:

1.- Is pain or sorrow assuaged by every pleasure?

2.- Is it assuaged by weeping?

3.- Is it assuaged by the sympathy of friends?

4.- Is it assuaged by contemplating the truth?

5.- Is it assuaged by sleep and baths?

Whereas Aquinas wrote clearly, concisely, and straight to the point, scholastic philosophy is not necessarily always quotable. These are minute, oftentimes painstaking syllogistic thought-processes that require patience, knowledge, and attention. You can read the whole Question here, but if you don’t feel like philosophizing, here is a (rather incomplete) summary.  

1.- Every pleasure brings a certain kind of relief from hard times. Not every pleasure will necessarily be the best remedy, but it does alleviate sorrow. Even “the pleasures of wicked men are not a cause of sorrow while they are enjoyed.”

2.- Weeping is a remedy for sorrow, for two reasons. First, because “a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it.” Second, because “an action that befits a man according to his actual disposition, is always pleasant to him.” Tears and groans are actions befitting anyone who is in sorrow or pain.

3.- Friends are a remedy. Here, Aquinas refers to Aristotle, who explains that 1) “when a man sees others saddened by his own sorrow, it seems as though others were bearing the burden with him, striving, as it were, to lessen its weight; wherefore the load of sorrow becomes lighter for him.” And 2) “when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure.” And, as stated in Article 1, “every pleasure brings relief.”

4.- Contemplation of the truth is the best remedy for sorrow, for a very straightforward reason. Again, pleasure brings relief, and “the greatest of all pleasures consists in the contemplation of truth.”

5.- Yes, sleep and baths are a remedy. Aquinas says that, “by reason of its specific nature, sorrow is repugnant to the vital movement of the body” (that is, it weakens it, drags our energy and strength). Consequently, “whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it.” Baths and sleep “bring nature back to its normal state.”

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