Modern Wisdom: On Consolation, Part 3
Max Detweiler

The Consolations of History: On Consolation Part 4


The next three chapters of Michael Ignatieff's On Consolation explore the theme at the nexus of the personal and political realms by focusing on Condorcet, Marx, and Lincoln.  Each faced personal despair as part of larger historical, political forces that also required consolation for the public.  Condorcet was a believer in the more rational, early part of the French Revolution, and thus despised by the Jacobins.  He continued, from hiding, to argue that rational self-government and human progress were possible.  Marx also sought consolation in his understanding of history and vision for the future, in a revolutionary politics that would create a more just world.  Both men were critical of religion for holding people back from taking the steps into a better human society.  Marx in particular found the consolations of religion distracted people from the work that needed to be done.  

Ignatieff has a very telling description of Marx's vision:

It was a utopia that was only possible to believe in if you had faith that human beings as they actually were--harassed, lonely, oppressed, selfish, and envious--could be transformed by revolutionary change.  Why bother with revolution if, on the other side, you were left with men as miserably individualistic, as egotistical and divided as before.

Lincoln, of course, did find solace in religious traditions.  He is also less optimistic and utopian than Condorcet and Marx.  He has a humility about even his own side in the war.  

Ignatieff focuses on the majestic Second Inaugural Address.  Every time I'm in the Lincoln Memorial I, of course, re-read the words engraved on the wall.  And every time I cry.

Lincoln believed humility created space for mercy and reconciliation, at the same time believing that a righteous God had judged everyone for their complicity in the sins of the nation.

Ignatieff concludes by holding up Lincoln as an example for our times.  He writes, "He struggled with exactly what we struggle with: the tidal force of political malice that recurrently rises and threatens the hard-won civility on which a democracy depends.  What helped him, as it might help us, was the tenacity with which he forced the best traditions he had inherited--in this case the Gospels and the Psalms--to deliver insight and perspective."  And so Ignatieff draws from Lincoln this lesson for us:  "That we are not condemned to live imprisoned in the rhetoric, foolishness, and mendacity of the present."

May it be so.


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