Michael Ignatieff defines consolation as "what we do, or try to do, when we share each other's suffering or seek to bear our own." He describes it as an act of solidarity in both space and time, drawing attention to the fact that we can find consolation by connecting with a person from the past in their writings, music, art, etc. In fact, that's what this book will be about, an attempt to see how some great figures in our history have found consolation in their trying times, in order for us to find help for ours. And the study of the past also helps us because when we do we don't "feel that we are . . . marooned in the present."
This sentence resonated with a way I've felt for some years now. A decade ago I began re-reading or reading for the first time key texts in the philosophical canon in chronological order (I recently reread Kant with the plan to move on to Bentham soon). So when American politics became particularly toxic and shitty before and after the 2016 election, I was reading early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, and Montaigne. I felt lifted out of the fierce urgency of the now and into the great political issues of the past, which gave some perspective and lowered the temperature on the current moment. Reading old plague literature was equally helpful in this way in 2020.
For Ignatieff, consolation is more than comfort, which he describes as fleeting. Consolation he believes is enduring, and is found when we reconcile ourselves to life, when we can once again hope for the future.
Now, for many people, consolation is provided by religious faith and practice. Ignatieff is himself not a religious believer, but he still mines religious texts and traditions for the themes that can be consoling even in a more secular present. Thus he begins with Job, Psalms, and the letters of Paul.
From Job he learns that we cannot resign ourselves to despair, even in the midst of irrational suffering. Instead, we must "have the courage to demand recognition . . . for the reality of our suffering." This long quote beautifully encapsulates the lessons of Job:
Job's story tells us we are fated to endure sorrow and suffering that have no apparent meaning, moments when existence is a torment, when we know what it is to be truly inconsolable. But like Job, we must learn to endure, we must hold on to the truth of what we have lived and refuse false consolations, like believing that we deserve to suffer. We should refuse the burden of guilt and struggle as best we can to understand the meaning of our lives. We are not condemned to eternal silence, to meaninglessness. There is an answer to be found in the whirlwind, in human beings' unendingly troubled encounter with our fate, but to find the answer that is true for us we will have to be as courageous as the man in rags who dared raise his fist to the sky.
"Reading the Psalms is like walking among ruins," he writes. Here is artistry that expresses the range of human emotion and experience, giving honest expression to how we feel. And making it beautiful.
Ignatieff understands Paul as someone who experienced mental anguish and a complete breakdown whose mental world collapsed and then had to be reconstructed. Paul's great insight is that "a human being was not chained forever by habits, compulsion, addictions, and needs. A person could be reborn anew, redeemed and granted a better life."
The next three chapters of the book discuss Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Boethius. To those I will turn in the next blogpost about this book.