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Psychology Grief & Loss

On Consolation

Finding Solace in Dark Times

by (author) Michael Ignatieff

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Nov 2021
Grief & Loss, Motivational & Inspirational, Ethics & Moral Philosophy
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2021
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2021
    List Price

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Timely and profound philosophical meditations on how great figures in history, literature, music, and art searched for solace while facing tragedies and crises, from the internationally renowned historian of ideas and Booker Prize-finalist Michael Ignatieff.

When someone we love dies, when we suffer loss or defeat, when catastrophe strikes--war, famine, pandemic--we go in search of consolation. Once the province of priests and philosophers, the language of consolation has largely vanished from our modern vocabulary, and the places where it was offered, houses of religion, are often empty. Rejecting the solace of ancient religious texts, humanity since the sixteenth century has increasingly placed its faith in science, ideology, and the therapeutic.

How do we console each other and ourselves in an age of unbelief? In a series of lapidary meditations on writers, artists, musicians, and their works--from the books of Job and Psalms to Albert Camus, Anna Akhmatova, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Primo Levi--esteemed writer and historian Michael Ignatieff shows how men and women in extremity have looked to each other across time to recover hope and resilience. Recreating the moments when great figures found the courage to confront their fate and the determination to continue unafraid, On Consolation takes those stories into the present, movingly contending that we can revive these traditions of consolation to meet the anguish and uncertainties of our precarious twenty-first century.

About the author

Michael Ignatieff is a Canadian writer and historian. His books include Scar Tissue (which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Russian Album, Blood And Belonging, The Warrior's Honour, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, and The Rights Revolution. His work has been translated into many languages and awarded numerous prizes and awards. Before being elected as a Liberal Member of Parliament in 2006, he was Professor of Human Rights and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. Until May 2011 Ignatieff was leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He lives in Toronto, where he teaches at the University of Toronto.

Michael Ignatieff's profile page

Excerpt: On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times (by (author) Michael Ignatieff)


After Paradise

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?

Today the word has lost the meanings once rooted in religious traditions. In these times, the consolation prize is the one you don’t want to win. A culture that chases success does not devote much attention to failure, loss, or death. Consolation is for losers.

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 religious 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.

This is the wider frame in which the great languages of consolation offered hope. 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. More influential today is the tradition that takes shape in the work of Montaigne and Hume, who questioned whether we could ever discern any grand meaning for our suffering.

These thinkers also 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.

Both ancients and moderns did share a sense of the tragic. Both accepted that there are some losses that are irremediable; some experiences from which we cannot fully recover; some scars that heal but do not fade. The challenge of consolation in our times is to endure tragedy, even when we cannot find a meaning for it, and to continue living in hope.

To live in hope, these days, 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 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 this book we will encounter men and women who lived through plague, the collapse of republican freedom, campaigns of mass extermination, enemy occupation, and catastrophic military defeat. Their stories set our times in context and enable us to draw inspiration from their lucidity. To see ourselves in the light of history is to restore our connection to the consolations of our ancestors and to discover our kinship with their experience.

We will be astonished when we do. 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 religious 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. This is why, even at this hour, someone, somewhere, is picking up the Gideon Bible in a hotel room and reading the Psalms, and why, as I discovered in the choral festival in Utrecht where this project began, when music and words come together, they hold out a promise of hope that makes our unbelief somehow irrelevant.

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, with modern figures like Camus, 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.

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 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—from Boethius to Dante, from Dante to Primo Levi—human beings in extremity drawing inspiration from each other across a millennium. This solidarity in time is the essence of the consolation that this book hopes to make accessible, once again.

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.

To be resigned to life is to give up, to forgo any hope that it could be different. To be reconciled to life, on the other hand, allows us to hold out hope for what the future might bring. To be reconciled we must first make peace with our losses, defeats, and failures. To be consoled is to accept these losses, to accept what they have done to us and to believe, despite everything, that they need not haunt our future or blight our remaining possibilities.

The essential element of consolation 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, failing perhaps, but as Beckett said, failing better. It is this hope that allows us, even in the face of tragedy, to remain unbowed.

When we seek consolation, we are seeking 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.

Finally, and 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. There is no true consolation in illusion, so we must try, as Václav Havel said, “to live in truth.”

This book is a collection of portraits, arranged in historical order, each devoted to a single person in extremity who used the traditions they inherited to seek consolation. As we shall see, they did not always succeed, but we can learn from their struggles and find hope in their examples. It begins with the book of Job and concludes with Anna Akhmatova, Primo Levi, Albert Camus, Václav Havel, and Cicely Saunders. I hope my choices will not appear arbitrary. Another book could have been written about what Europeans learned from Asian, African, or Muslim sources of consolation. I have tried to show how 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. We are not alone, and we never have been.

Editorial Reviews

“In an age when we are so much in need of solace, Michael Ignatieff went looking for it in texts and times whose assumptions are profoundly different from our own. The result is a secular reinterpretation of a landscape that has often seemed visible only through a religious lens: it is elegant, humane and intensely rewarding.” —Kwame Anthony Appiah, philosopher and novelist

"On Consolation is an ambitious restoration project, a survey course of Eurocentric anguish from Job to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz . . . Ignatieff believes that holy texts of all denominations can be mined for comfort and insight even by the faithless, [in] their depiction, over frequent revisions, of common human experience. Maybe, against Sartre, heaven is other people." —The New York Times Book Review

"This erudite and heartfelt survey reminds us that the need for consolation is timeless, as are the inspiring words and examples of those who walked this path before us." —Toronto Star
"On Consolation could not be more urgent. . . . Ignatieff wants to re-acquaint us moderns with the old ways we’ve left behind, and to remind us that some problems are, by their nature, beyond the powers of technology and good government." —Ash Carter, Air Mail

“A wonderful balance of literary survey and personal reflection, this book is wide-ranging, moving, and stylishly written. It makes the perfect introduction to a genre that never goes out of fashion.” —Sarah Bakewell, author of At the Existentialist Café
“Michael Ignatieff’s moving book explores how consolation has been configured in different eras and suggests what we might learn from individual examples of ‘the human experience.” —The New York Review of Books
“An artful storyteller, Ignatieff takes us on a whistle-stop tour through the lives of a nice selection of western philosophers and public intellectuals . . . [T]houghtful reflections on the limits of philosophy in the rough and tumble of life.” —
“An inspiration for those in need of words to carry on with life.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A passionate, thought-provoking, unpredictable book.” —Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg
“This is an extraordinarily moving book. The idea of solidarity in time is itself consoling, amidst so much loss: in Ignatieff’s words, ‘we are not alone, and we never have been.’” —Emma Rothschild, Harvard University

“An extraordinary meditation on loss and mortality, drawing on all of Michael Ignatieff’s powers as a philosopher, a historian, a politician and a man. His portraits of figures such as Hume and Montaigne are sharp and dignified, troubling and consoling, thoughtful and deeply humane.” —Rory Stewart, author, explorer, diplomat, former politician and academic

“Illuminating and moving, these wide-ranging portraits of men and women seeking answers in dark times—from the Book of Job to Montaigne, from Cicero to Akhmatova, and on to today's palliative care—appeals to us all, as a universal quest and an intimate personal testament." —Jenny Uglow, historian and biographer

“It is at once illuminating, moving and consoling, to follow Michael Ignatieff as he searches for moments of consolation across the centuries. With resolute honesty, Ignatieff follows the search into his own inner life, grappling, as we all must do, with failure, loss, and death.” —Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
On Consolation offers a ­powerful message for a world that can seem bereft of meaning . . . Whether we look for a path back to where we were before the pandemic, or directions to someplace new, we can do so the way Ignatieff’s subjects did: through work, through pleasure, through music and literature. That is our universality. There is consolation to be found everywhere, because, with the wind of history at our backs, we are never truly alone.” —Literary Review of Canada
"Compelling." —Maclean's

“With On Consolation, Michael Ignatieff, Canada’s great intellectual powerhouse, gifts us with deeply perceptive insights on eternal truths, seen through a contemporary lens, which lead us toward a desperately needed restoration of communal hope.” —Lieutenant-General (ret) The Honourable Roméo Dallaire

Other titles by Michael Ignatieff