The Art of Consolation
How to find solace in dark times.
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I am visiting a friend who lost his wife six months ago. He is frail but unsparingly alert. The chair where she used to sit is still in its place across from his. The room remains as she arranged it. I have brought him a cake from a café that they used to visit together when they were courting. He eats a slice greedily. When I ask him how things are going, he looks out the window and says quietly, “If only I could believe that I would see her again.”
There is nothing I can say, so we sit in silence. I came to console or at least comfort, but I can’t do either. To understand consolation, it is necessary to begin with the moments when it is impossible.
Console. It’s from the Latin consolor, to find solace together. Consolation is what we do, or try to do, when we share each other’s suffering or seek to bear our own. What we are searching for is how to go on, how to keep going, how to recover the belief that life is worth living.
But here, in this moment with my old friend, I am reminded how difficult this is. He is truly inconsolable. He refuses to believe that he can live without her. Trying to console him takes us both to the limits of language, and so words trail off into silence. His grief is a deep solitude that cannot be shared. In its depths, there is no place for hope.
This moment also lays bare what it is like to live in this time after paradise. For millennia, people believed that they would see their loved ones again in the afterlife. They imagined it vividly, and the great artists depicted it: clouds, angels, celestial harps, unending plenty, freedom from toil and illness, but above all the reunion, this time forever, with the beloved.
Paradise was the form that hope has taken for thousands of years, but what Shakespeare said of death is also true of paradise: it is the country from which no traveler returns. By the sixteenth century, Europeans began to suspect that no such country ever existed. In the twenty-first century, unbelief now commands the hearts and minds of many, though not all, of the people I know. What unleashed unbelief, among many other forces, was an ideal of truth. If my old friend succumbed to his own longing to believe, he would feel he had betrayed himself.
This is where we are today, heirs both to traditions of consolation and to the centuries of revolt against them. What consolations can we still believe in?
A Hand from the Past
Consolation used to be a subject for philosophy, because philosophy was understood to be the discipline that taught us how to live and die. Consolatio was a genre unto itself in the Stoic traditions of the ancient world. Cicero was a master of the art. Seneca wrote three famous letters to console grieving widows. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, wrote his Meditations essentially to console himself. A Roman senator, Boethius, wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting a death sentence at the hands of a barbarian king in AD 524. These texts still linger on in humanities courses for undergraduates, but professional philosophy has left them behind.
Consolation has also lost its institutional setting. The churches, synagogues, and mosques, where we once consoled each other in collective rituals of grief and mourning, have been emptying out. If we seek help in times of misery, we seek it alone, from each other, and from therapeutic professionals. They treat our suffering as an illness from which we need to recover.
Yet when suffering becomes understood as an illness with a cure, something is lost. The old traditions of consolation were able to situate individual suffering within a wider frame and to offer a grieving person an account of where an individual life fit into a divine or cosmic plan. Such frames remain available to us even now: the Jewish God who demands obedience but whose covenant with his people promises that he will protect us; the Christian God who so loved the world that he sacrificed his own son and offered us the hope of eternal life; classical Roman Stoics who promised that life would hurt less if we could learn how to renounce the vanity of human wishes.
We might suppose that religious texts—Job, the Psalms, Paul’s Epistles, Dante’s “Paradiso”—are closed to us if we don’t happen to share the faith that inspired them. But why should we be required to pass a test of belief before we can derive consolation from religious texts? The promise of salvation and redemption might be closed to us, but not the consolation that comes from the understanding that religious texts can offer for our moments of despair. The Psalms are among the most eloquent documents in any language of what it is to feel bereft, alone and lost. They contain unforgettable descriptions of despair as well as exalted visions of hope. We can still respond to their promise of hope because the Psalms recognize what we need hope for.
More influential today is the tradition that takes shape in the work of Montaigne and Hume, who questioned whether we can ever discern any grand meaning for our suffering. These thinkers gave voice to a passionate belief that religious faith had missed the most crucial source of consolation of all. The meaning of life was not to be found in the promise of paradise, nor in the mastery of the appetites, but in living to the full every day. To be consoled, simply, was to hold on to one’s love of life as it is, here and now.
We are still able to hear these voices from the past thanks to chains of meaning maintained over thousands of years. Eight hundred years after Boethius consoled himself by imagining a wise Lady Philosophia who visited him in prison, Dante, in exile from his native Florence, read Boethius’s Consolation, and it inspired him to imagine a journey, also in company with a wise lady, from the inferno through purgatory to paradise. A further six hundred years later, in the summer of 1944, a young Italian chemist trudged through Auschwitz with a fellow prisoner. As they walked, the Italian suddenly remembered these lines of Dante: “We are not born to be brutes. We are men, created for knowledge and virtue.”
This is how the language of consolation endures—human beings in extremity drawing inspiration from each other across a millennium. Consolation is an act of solidarity in space—keeping company with the bereaved, helping a friend through a difficult moment; but it is also an act of solidarity in time—reaching back to the dead and drawing meaning from the words they left behind. To feel kinship with the psalmists, with Job, with Saint Paul, with Boethius, Dante, and Montaigne, to feel our emotions expressed in the music of Mahler, is to feel that we are not marooned in the present. These works help us find words for what is wordless, for experiences of isolation that imprison us in silence.
There are many other words we use, beside consolation, when we confront loss and pain.
We can be comforted without being consoled, just as we can be consoled without being comforted. Comfort is transitory; consolation is enduring. Comfort is physical; consolation is propositional. Consolation is an argument about why life is the way it is and why we must keep going.
Consolation is the opposite of resignation. We can be resigned to death without being consoled, and we can accept the tragic in life without being resigned to it. We can derive consolation, in fact, from our struggle with fate and how that struggle inspires others.
The essential element of consolation, therefore, is hope: the belief that we can recover from loss, defeat, and disappointment, and that the time that remains to us, however short, offers us possibilities to start again. It is this hope that allows us, even in the face of tragedy, to remain unbowed.
These days, to live in hope may require a saving skepticism toward the drumbeat of doom-laden narratives that reach us from every media portal. In 1783, when Britain had just lost its American colonies and public affairs were in turmoil, James Boswell asked Samuel Johnson whether the “turbulences” of public life had not “vexed yourself a little, sir.” Johnson reacted in his grandest and most dismissive mode. “That’s cant, Sir. Publick affairs vex no man, Sir. I have never slept an hour less nor eat an ounce less meat.”
We can take this today as an injunction to retain some skeptical self-command in the face of the narratives that invade our consciousness and frame the times in which we live. If it was cant in 1783 for Johnson to lose sleep over the loss of America, it would be cant, in our times, to let our own resilience buckle before the tide of public commentary that predicts environmental Armageddon, democratic collapse, or a future blighted by new plagues. None of these challenges, as daunting as they are, are made easier to overcome by believing they are unprecedented.
In the end, consolation is more than just a way to feel better. Serious losses cause us to question the larger design of our existence: the fact that time flows inexorably in one direction, and that while we can still hope for the future, we cannot unlive the past. Serious reversals cause us to reckon with the fact that the world is not fair and that, in the larger domain of politics and the smaller world of our private lives, justice can remain cruelly out of reach. To be consoled is to make peace with the order of the world without renouncing our hopes for justice.
Most difficult of all, loss and defeat force us to confront our own limitations. This is where consolation can be hardest to achieve. In the face of our failures, we are tempted to take refuge in illusion.
But there is no true consolation in illusion. We must try, as Václav Havel said, “to live in truth.” This is why traditions of consolation forged over thousands of years in the European tradition remain capable of inspiring us today. What do we learn that we can use in these times of darkness? Something very simple, and very truthful: We are not alone, and we never have been.
Michael Ignatieff is Rector Emeritus of Central European University in Vienna. His most recent book is On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.
Excerpted from ON CONSOLATION: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company in the US, and Picador in the UK. Copyright © 2021 by Michael Ignatieff. All rights reserved.
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In the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which was written before the birth of eschatology, the lesson is that knowledge and mortality are intertwined. You cannot have knowledge and immortality. I take solace and comfort in that.
Ignatieff, born into his position in life, catastrophically wrong about the Iraq war, can take consolation in the fact that he paid no personal or professional price for it whatsoever. And is indeed still invited to opine about the world.