Cicero had been a paradigm of Roman Republican virtue. Michael Ignatieff describes this as "to be public-spirited, to sacrifice one's life, if need be, for the defense of the republic, and to be stoic in the endurance of pain." Yet, when his own daughter died Cicero became inconsolable. His former friends and associates found this disgraceful and dishonorable. Yet, what Ignatieff concludes is that during this episode of suffering, Cicero did not permanently change his mind about consolation. Instead, he eventually returned to public life and the republican and stoic virtues. And so his chapter on Cicero ends by this statement, "Of all the legacies that this particular father bequeathed to the story of consolation, the one that remains most enduring is in the way men learned to repress their emotions."
Stoicism is in a resurgence of popularity, and the philosophy does have some important lessons when it comes to handling our emotions. An overly emotive society can learn from it. Finding the proper balance between good, open, and authentic emotional discussion and overly emoting and creating unnecessary and unhealthy drama is not as easy as it initially appears. This spring I taught a class on the emotions at church, and we discussed how most of us middle aged and older had never been taught to talk well about our emotions, but mostly to repress them. Good to know I can blame Cicero for some of that.
But there is a lesson Ignatieff finds buried in the period of Cicero's life when he is inconsolable, a clear reminder that this is a typical and important human experience. We can find solidarity in our experiences across space and time.
Ignatieff next turns to Marcus Aurelius who he describes as "striving to master fear and loneliness in the solitude of darkness, found consolation in confession." Marcus's Meditations (which I highly recommend reading) were initially for himself, and Ignatieff writes that these are the best parts. In later parts of the book it becomes clear that Marcus is now aware that others will read him, and so he begins to write more for an audience. But in those moments of private confession, Marcus is "reckoning with himself," a key practice for any of needing consolation in dark times.
Of course Boethius wrote the book on consolation, which I also recommend as a good read. Boethius was a prominent official in the late Roman empire, on the outs with his emperor, he is exiled awaiting execution. In that season he imagines a visit from Philosophia, come to console him of his doubts and his suffering, but he engages her in conversation. Part of Boethius's value, which Ignatieff draws attention to, is that in him flow together the Roman-Stoic and the Christian traditions and their very different approaches to suffering. Ignatieff writes that for Boethius the consolation came in the act of writing, which allowed him to explore and gain "some sovereignty over his inner world." But he does not imagine Boethius was completely consoled, the work contains too much doubt and comedy at the misfortunes of life. What Boethius represents for us is someone struggling to make sense of his world, when it no longer make sense to him.
In El Greco's painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Ignatieff finds a treatment of the relationship between time and suffering. The painting layering of images invites a sense that "the faithful can inhabit a moment where past, present, and future are experienced as simultaneous." According to our author, this then helps us to understand "that the recurring subject of consolation is time itself." He continues:
the fact that it goes one way and cannot be stopped, cannot be slowed down, cannot be reversed; that our losses cannot be made good; that the future is unknowable, the past is irrecoverable, and time for us ends in death, while it goes on for others as if we never existed. The painter's deeper intention was to depict consolation as the dream of an escape together from the downward funnel of time. The painting's ecstatic feeling is just the other side of despair, in its recognition that this escape from time can be imagined only through art but cannot be lived or experienced.