On Consolation

By Michael Ignatieff

Even the happiest life is filled with disappointments, heartaches, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And in such dark times we turn to others, both the living and the dead, for consolation, comfort, hope, and understanding.

Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation presents a series of thoughtful essays on some of the great works of consolation in the Western tradition, from essays and speeches to painting (El Greco) and music (Mahler), taking us chronologically from the Book of Job to Cicely Saunders, a British doctor who was a pioneer in palliative care.

The fact that there is such a tradition is essential to Ignatieff’s argument about how consolation connects us. The authors of the Psalms are our contemporaries, even if we don’t share their faith. A “chain of meaning” going back over two millennia carries the message that “we are never alone when we face pain and loss. There is always someone who has been there before, who can share the experience.”

If consolation is social in this sense, it is also intensely personal. Ignatieff deals with both private and public forms of consolation but clearly thinks the former more important, taking his cue from Samuel Johnson’s boast that “Public affairs vex no man.”

This might seem an odd position to take given Ignatieff’s own involvement in politics, but Cicero’s public spiritedness is here characterized as a kind of toxic masculinity, Condorcet is shown being destroyed by the Revolution that betrayed him, and Marx’s vision of a transformed society is written off as a delusion neither attainable nor to be desired. Political leaders can offer words of comfort at moments of crisis, but more often what we need is consolation from politics, an affirmation of the value of the individual in the face of oppression.

As you should expect in any book looking at 2,500 years of big questions relating to the meaning and purpose of life, there are some blips along the way. The idea that Stoic philosophy made no universal claims and was exclusively written by and for a Roman elite might have surprised Epictetus, for one.

Then there is the problem of fuzzy language. Words of consolation are notoriously easy to say, and unless they move us through force of rhetoric or the speaker’s character they only register as platitudes. Anyone writing about consolation will have trouble avoiding this, and Ignatieff can slip into banality, like quoting the words of a “wise friend” that “doubt is to certainty as shadow is to light.” That’s not a bit of wisdom for the ages.

Does consolation work? The passage of time probably does more to assuage the pain of grief and loss. Ignatieff also admits that today we are more likely to speak of self-help and therapy, as “consolation has largely passed out of the modern vocabulary.” What this erudite and heartfelt survey reminds us of though is that the need for consolation is timeless, as are the inspiring words and examples of those who walked this path before us.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, November 12 2021.

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